A 16-Year-Old Killed by the Iranian Regime Had Dreams of a ‘Normal Life’

Published by the Wall Street Journal

On Sept. 16, 2022, 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in police custody in Tehran after being arrested for allegedly wearing an improper veil. Her death sparked a wave of protests across Iran, the latest in a series of uprisings that have challenged the country’s Islamist regime over the past 15 years.

In the following weeks, dozens of protesters were killed by the regime, many of them young adults and teenagers. In most cases, their deaths were reported in the media with few details. Foad Qadimi, a father of two in Divandareh, was shot in the stomach on Sept. 21 and died two days later; news articles said that he owned a laundry, and people from his town remembered him as witty. Nika Shahkarami, a 17-year-old girl, disappeared on Sept. 22 and her body showed up in a morgue a week later. She loved painting, studied in an art high school and worked in a cafe.

But what lies behind the few sentences in a news report? Who were Iran’s protesters really?

The question can be tough to answer, but there is at least one young woman who left us a clue. Sarina Esmayilzadeh was 16 when she was beaten to death by the Islamic Republic’s security forces, as she marched alongside hundreds of other protesters in Karaj on Sept. 23. Like many Gen Z Iranians, Sarina was an avid user of social media, where she documented the vicissitudes of adolescence, her hopes and anxieties for the future, and her daily routine. These posts were her public diary. Although they were created months before the protests kicked off, and are often not political in nature, Sarina’s reflections elucidate why so many Iranians of her generation are willing to risk their lives for change.

Sarina had no intention of being the voice of a generation, but anyone who knows Iranian teenagers will instantly recognize some shared traits. Her way of talking and her interests reminded me of two of my young cousins in Tehran: She spoke the same English-influenced Persian and listened to the same music, Persian rap and Western alternative rock. She was consciously cool, especially compared to the Iranian teens of my generation, growing up in the 2000s. Her dreams, and the obstacles to them, resonated with me.

Her posts also show that her life wasn’t one long tragic tale of repression. “I always thought my life is so routine and boring, but since I started this vlog, I am thinking, noooo, it’s not so bad either. My life is cool in its own ways,” she wrote in June 2022. In her Vlogs, we see her taking joy in drinking a cold drink, playing volleyball with her friends, singing along to Hozier’s “Take Me To Church.” She speaks excitedly about the places she wants to go, films to watch, books to read. She wants to make the most of life.

But she can’t, at least not under the Iranian regime. In her videos, Sarina can be seen breaking an endless list of rules imposed by the regime: appearing without hijab, singing out loud, listening to forbidden domestic and foreign music, hanging out with people of the opposite sex and expressing her opinions openly. As a woman she couldn’t go to a football stadium, smoke a hookah or ride a bicycle publicly. In one video, she is outraged when she sees graffiti reading “Best job for women is to be a housewife and raise kids.” Even if she had been content to live under all these restrictions, Iran’s utter economic collapse meant that her generation could hardly hope for a comfortable life, let alone a free one.

Sarina understood the stakes. In one of her most potent videos, a 12-minute monologue published in May 2022, she says: “We all know what shape Iran is in today. What can people expect from their own country? Prosperity! Well, our economic conditions are terrible, our cultural conditions are terrible, and our authenticity is being ruined. A bunch of limitations are especially severe on women, like the compulsory hijab. Or all that is banned for women but not for men.”

“I have always thought to myself: why?” she continues, repeating a line familiar to many young Iranians. “Why should my life be so different from [teenagers in Berlin or New York]? Just because I was born in Iran? My concerns now have to be so different from theirs. We are stuck on the first level of the pyramid: Food, clothing and housing.”

When the movement broke out in September 2022, the tone of Sarina’s channels changed quickly. On Sept. 21, she took to a Telegram channel to post an iconic picture of a hijab-less girl looking on as her comrade threw stones at a line of cops. Before long, she was on those streets herself. Two days later, she was killed.

When Iranians staged a revolution in 1979, they were on a utopian quest to turn the world upside down. In 2022, the most striking slogan was “For a Normal Life,” a radical reversal of that revolution. People like Sarina didn’t want to remake Iran in their own image; they wanted a government made in the image of the Iranian people, in their everyday joys and long-term aspirations. Sarina likely never heard the old Irish socialist song, penned by the revolutionary James Connolly, which declares proudly “Our demands most moderate are, we only want the earth.” But its spirit beat in her.

This essay is adapted from Arash Azizi’s new book, “What Iranians Want: Women, Life and Freedom,” published this month by Oneworld.

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