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“It’s like being a little fly, standing against an elephant”

British-Iranian Elika Ashoori considers what’s at stake for defiant women and girls in the country where her father was unjustly imprisoned

Image: The New European/Getty Images

Elika Ashoori, whose father Anoosheh was held as a diplomatic hostage for nearly five years in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, knows better than most how dangerous the Iranian regime can be. That’s why she is so full of admiration for the schoolgirls, teenagers, women and men risking their lives every day to challenge the hardline rulers of the Islamic Republic.

Ashoori, 36, was born in Iran but the family moved to the UK when she was 16. Now an actress and a pastry chef, her memories of growing up in Tehran allow her to fully appreciate the bravery being shown by girls defiantly giving the middle finger to presidential portraits on classroom walls, or by women tearing off their hijabs and burning them on the streets in towns and cities from Tehran to the northwestern Kurdistan province. 

The wave of protests started after a 22-year-old Iranian Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini, died on September 16, three days after she was arrested in the capital by morality police, who claimed they detained her because of “inappropriate attire”. The police said she suffered a heart attack while in custody. Her family said she had bruises on her body when she died. 

Protests start during Amini’s funeral in Saqez, her hometown in Kurdistan. Soon the demonstrations spread and videos were posted on social media showing women burning their hijabs, or Islamic headscarves, and shouting “women, life, freedom”. Since then, and despite security forces firing tear gas and live ammunition into crowds, the protests have grown and a month later show no signs of subsiding.

More than 200 people have been killed, including 23 minors. Hundreds have been injured and thousands arrested. The female journalist who highlighted Amini’s case by taking a photo of her parents hugging in the hospital where she was lying in a coma has been arrested. According to Reuters, a lawyer for Niloofar Hamedi said she was being held in solitary confinement in Evin jail. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has dismissed what he calls “scattered riots” planned by Iran’s enemies.

Elika, who has been following the situation closely through social media posts from friends in Iran and information from well-connected activists, says those demanding change have no option but to keep going. Their very survival now depends on it. 

She spoke to Clár Ní Chonghaile about her memories of life in Iran. Her upbringing was not typical – her mother Sherry had grown up in the UK and her father had studied here so the family spoke English and watched British shows – but she still remembers the strictures imposed on her outside her home. 

On her life in Iran

Outside life in Iran is very different to life behind closed doors, not just for us but for everyone. People have parties, people have black market alcohol, you can have anything … but then you go to school and it is completely different because you have to wear your headscarf, you have to abide by the laws of the Islamic Republic and it’s very, very limiting for women. This is especially the case when you are a teenager because you want to go out, hang out with boys, hang out with friends…

We would go to parties with our friends, and our parents would worry that the morality police would raid the party and detain us. Or if I went to have coffee with my brother, we had to bring birth certificates to prove we were brother and sister… Constantly having people around, lurking, and coming to tell you off for something, like nail polish or hair, it’s like being in a really strict school but it’s the whole country. 

We had a dog when I was in Iran and when we walked her we would talk to other dog owners and they would say, ‘be careful, the morality police are around so don’t walk too far’. They murder dogs because dogs are impure. Imagine, you are walking with your dog outside, and someone takes your pet and shoots them in front of you. It’s unbelievable. There was always that risk, or they would take your dog and put them in a kennel and you would have to pay for them to be returned to you. 

It would never have occurred to us to rise up against (the authorities) because they are terrifying and you don’t want to be detained by them. It’s like being a little fly, standing against an elephant. I’m in such awe of these girls for doing what they are doing because I can tell you it is not easy.

My Dad (who was finally released in March alongside Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe after the UK paid an outstanding historical debt) says he was imprisoned within a prison. There are around 84 million people imprisoned within Iran and then all the people imprisoned outside who can’t go back.

On being Iranian today

My British passport, which says I was born in Iran, still causes me issues. I can’t get loans easily, my credit score doesn’t improve. They (the regime) have turned Iran into such a pariah in the world that the curse of being from there follows you no matter what (other) nationality you are, no matter where you are. And imagine the people inside. Freedom of movement is zero. If you want to go on holiday, to come to Europe or go to the US, it’s a mission. 

And if you visit Iran, it’s difficult to travel afterwards, for anyone. And this shouldn’t be because Iran is such a beautiful country and it has so much potential – the people are warm, the food is nice, the scenery, the landscape.

(The Islamic authorities) are destroying this country, socially, economically and culturally. They don’t care about historical monuments. Animals are going extinct. The Asiatic cheetahs are near extinction and what did they do? They jailed all the environmentalists for studying this. 

On the terrifying consequences for protesters

The Islamic Republic detains people for no reason, like my dad. They detained him for absolutely no reason whatsoever, just plucked him out of thin air and threw him in jail for five years. So if you give them an excuse, a solid excuse that they can use against you, imagine what they’ll do to you then. In a way, I’m glad they’ve been exposed through their barbaric actions of the past month. When I was campaigning for my dad, there was still that unspoken doubt, you know, people thinking he must have done something, or how is it possible for a country to detain someone for no reason? For people from the West, who have grown up with the idea of freedom of speech and human rights, it’s very hard to comprehend how it is in Iran; how they don’t need a reason to take you or assault you. That kind of basic understanding of respect is not there. As women, especially, we are brought up in an environment where you are nothing.

It takes extreme bravery for people to come out and say what has happened because, according to the Islamic Republic, these girls have committed suicide or died of underlying health conditions. It’s so tragic to think you are coping with the loss of your child or your mother and on top of that you are being threatened that this will happen to you as well if you speak the truth. That’s an enormous burden on everyone.

On why protests are happening now

Mahsa Amini was of Kurdish origin, so not only did her death spark a sort of resentment that was bubbling through the years because of her femininity, but also because a lot of Kurdish people have been treated extremely poorly by the Islamic Republic. There is systematic racism against the different tribes in Iran; the Turks, the Arabs, the Kurds, the Baluchis. This has connected people nationwide because this has gone beyond the fact of whether they are women or not. It’s different people finally uniting over the fact that this government has used ‘divide-and-conquer’ to separate all the different sub-cultures of Iran, who have coexisted perfectly for thousands of years together…

When we were kids there was so much propaganda against Kurds, against Afghans… they brainwash the people to think these are the lesser people or criminals. So now there is a common ground, sparked by Amini’s death, and now they are all rising together because they know the common tyrant in all of this is the Islamic Republic. The authorities are not doing themselves any favours by murdering young girls, by committing genocide ..they are killing masses of people… and they are just making it worse for themselves and it is uniting the people even more. That’s why I think this is different. I don’t think ive ever seen the entire Iranian community inside and outside Iran as united as this time around because it’s about so many things. It’s not just one thing that has triggered this. 

On where she gets her information

There’s a lot of information coming from people in Iran on Instagram. I have a lot of Iranian friends on social media. News starts to circulate pretty fast and you see it on people’s stories and in their DMs but it’s very difficult to convince people to give first-hand accounts because first of all their safety is at risk. No matter how much you try to hide someone’s identity there are IP addresses, there are digital traces that can get them in trouble.

There’s also a very deep distrust of  Western media inside Iran…That’s why we have taken it on as people to try to report what’s coming out as truth but sometimes even that can be quite tricky. I have been very vigilant recently because even I made a few mistakes and had to delete a few things because it’s so hard to tell what’s true and what isn’t. The Western media needs to get the narrative straight, it needs to pinpoint why these protests are happening and how people can be helped. 

On what Western governments can do

There is global acknowledgement of what is happening. It’s more transparent than before. The people of Iran have given Western countries this opportunity to intervene and hold the Islamic Republic to account… the Islamic Repubic is a terrorist organisation, and I’m sure there are international laws and protocols for dealing with terrorist organisations and the same should be applied to this government. A democratically elected government in Iran would benefit everyone… 

Oil is finite and it’s going to run out, and soon. The reason that the west is reluctant (to intervene) now is all because of something that is not going to last forever. That’s the root of all the problems. If it wasn’t for oil the international community would have intervened. And the money from the oil deals doesn’t even go to the people of Iran. That’s why inflation is crazy and the economy is just non-existent. You go to buy milk and it could be five times as much as the day before. People can’t live like this anymore. (Iran’s economy has been hit by Western sanctions tightened over the nuclear programme as well as by bad management.)

I cut my hair on TV and some people may not have agreed with it, might have thought it’s just a show, but the bottom line is people talk about it. When actresses do it, people talk about it. That’s the only thing we want at the moment is for the public to be aware. It’s crucial that the world takes the matter seriously so people should see those they admire or idolize taking it seriously as well…

It’s not about the act of cutting your hair; it’s symbolic. It makes people think and talk. Any act of symbolism that makes people think even two seconds more than they normally would (about what’s happening in Iran) is worth it.

On what Iran was like before the 1979 revolution that brought the theocracy to power

My dad grew up in pre-Revolution times and he could travel with his parents. The currency was strong. It was just like any other country in the West. If you think of Turkey now, people go on holiday there and it’s very normal. That would have been Iran now if it wasn’t for who took over. We have only been able to imagine what it was like based on stories and pictures but for my parents and grandparents it’s very real because these are not just distant memories. They lived a big chunk of their lives in those times. My grandparents grew up in an Iran that was free almost all their lives. 

I was a strong advocate of visiting Iran before my father was arrested. Who wouldn’t want to take people to their home country and show them around? But what the Islamic Republic has done is to take away that sense of pride. When you say you are from Iran, there are negative thoughts that come to people’s minds. It’s almost like you are embarrassed for having this identity. I don’t consider myself very patriotic but this is beyond patriotism. This is about human rights, and what the identity of a nation is, and we have a chance to fix it and take it back to what it was and restore some of the reputation that we’ve lost over 40 years.

On what will happen next

It’s a dictatorship so people are not facing the natural laws of society. They go out, they could die and that’s the risk. But imagine how desperate you have to be in life to think that that’s a better thing to do than to just carry on with your normal life. 

Teenagers do have an advantage because you don’t have fear at that age. That makes them the perfect army, in some ways. Because they don’t fear death. They are full of life, they know what they want and they are going for it. That’s why (the authorities) are so threatened by them. These are people who have nothing to lose; they don’t fear the consequences. They’re hot-blooded and they are going for what they want.

When the protests first started, I had an interview booked for the Thursday after and I said to my partner, ‘I don’t know if it’s going to be still going on next week so what’s the point of agreeing to an interview so far in the future?’ That was four weeks ago. It’s still going on. It’s not dying down. Something’s got to give for this to die down and it’s not going to be the people.

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