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A protestor holds a portrait of Jina Mahsa Amini
Jina Mahsa Amini, whose portrait is held up here, has become the face of Iran's protestsImage: Peter Dejong/AP Photo/picture alliance
PoliticsIran

Jina Mahsa Amini: The face of Iran's protests

Youhanna Najdi | Niloofar Gholami | Omid Deedar | Dialika Neufeld
December 6, 2022

Jina Mahsa Amini's death in Iran sparked the country's biggest wave of protests in decades. Her family talks to DW and Der Spiegel about her life, her dreams and her death.

https://p.dw.com/p/4KZHq

"We never imagined the day would come when our mother would fall asleep crying on your bed, while our father sat in the corner of the room hiding his tears from us, and that I wouldn't be able to bring myself to open the glove box of my car in case I caught sight of your hijab. ... My only wish is to embrace you one more time ..." That's what Ashkan Amini, Jina Mahsa Amini's brother, wrote on Instagram on October 11, 2022.

On a Tuesday at the end of October, 39 days after the death of Jina Mahsa Amini, her cousin Diako Aili takes out a photo album bound in black. He sits on the couch in his home in a Norwegian village and starts flipping through the photographs, which are stuck in transparent sleeves.

He points to one of the pictures. "Here," he says, "that's her. Jina."

The photo is of a small girl wearing floral pants with thick, shiny black hair that falls around her neck.

He pulls a second photograph out of the protective sleeve. It shows the same girl hopping around barefoot on the carpet in the living room of her parents' house in the Iranian city of Saqqez. Her long eyelashes make her look so delicate. The word "flower" glitters in rhinestones on her white T-shirt. She looks over her shoulder directly into the camera.

Jina's Kurdish identity

Her Persian name of Mahsa, says Diako Aili, "nobody called her that." Not her family nor her friends, nor Jina herself. It was a name reserved for her passport. Kurdish names often aren't accepted on official documents.

But Jina Amini lived in Saqqez, a Kurdish city in western Iran not far from the border with Iraq. She spoke Kurdish with her family. She had no need for the name, Mahsa. Everyone called her by her real name: Jina.

She was a young woman who loved to sing, dance and travel. Then Jina Amini was arrested on September 13 by Iran's morality police and carted off to a police station. She collapsed there a short time later. She died after spending two and a half days in a coma with wounds on her head and breathing through a tube.

Her relatives are reserved when they speak to journalists. Phone calls are monitored, and the family reportedly began receiving death threats soon after Amini's death. That may explain their caution in conversations with DW and Der Spiegel, a German weekly.

Plans and dreams

Jina Amini's boutique in Saqqez was shuttered with a silver padlock when journalists visited in the middle of November. While other shops continued their lively trade in handbags, jewelry and cell phones, the light in Jina Amini's was out.

In a telephone interview, her father, a retired insurance officer, recounted his daughter's dream of running a shop. She had applied to university and was looking for work while she waited to hear if she had a spot. In the summer of 2022, a few months before her death, her wish came true. Her father opened a business for her that she called "Best Boutique."

A group of people are silhouetted against red flames and smoke during a protest at night
The protests in Iran have been ongoing for nearly four monthsImage: SalamPix/abaca/picture alliance

According to Jina Amini's relatives in Norway, her father or her brother would bring her to the shop in the morning and picked her up in the evening.

The 22-year-old still lived with her parents in a lovely two-story house in a middle class district of Saqqez. She had had her driver's license for a while and loved driving. But as a young unmarried woman, driving to work on her own was likely out of the question.

Hesitancy and fear

Jina's aunt, Aliya Aili, traveled from Norway to Saqqez in the summer of 2022. She recalls how Jina repeatedly told her to cover herself and showed her how to wear her headscarf. "They're very strict," she remembers her niece telling her. There was an ever-present fear of the police and the Guidance Patrols, widely known as "morality police," her aunt says.

Aliya Aili, who is now in her late 40s, left Iran when she was just 18. Her children were born in Norway. If her sister, Jina's mother, had come with her, would Jina still be alive?

Diako Aili and his mother say they sometimes feel guilty because of all of the freedoms they take for granted.

A woman without a headscarf stands on a car with her arms raised. She is looking at a large group of protesters who are blocking the highway
Like this women, many protesters in Iran have been removing their headscarvesImage: UGC

"My little sister is exactly the same age as Jina," says Diako Aili. "The two were born within a few weeks of each other, one in a western democracy and the other in an Islamic dictatorship," he continues," My sister can say what she wants, wear whatever she wants, and be whoever she wants to be."

But in Iran, Jina Amini was subject to a different set of rules. Under Iran's Islamic Penal Code, she had to cover her hair and neck with a hijab, conceal her figure with loose fitting clothes and ensure no skin was visible from her wrist to her ankle.

A healthy, quiet girl

Jina Amini was born on September 21, 1999. Speaking on the phone from Saqqez, her grandfather Rahman Aili says not a day went by that they didn't see or at least talk to each other.

When Jina was a baby, he gave her the nickname, Schne. Translated it means "a gentle breeze." He continued calling her Schne even after Jina Amini grew up, he says, adding that she was a quiet, serene girl.

When Jina was in elementary school, doctors discovered and treated a benign brain tumor. According to her grandfather, she had no health problems afterward. He emphasizes this point becauseofficial coroners say his granddaughter died because of this previous operation and not because of police brutality. But Jina's relatives insist that she was healthy.

The day of her death

Jina's last trip was about her future. The family had traveled together to Urmia, a city in northwestern Iran, to enroll her at university, where she was to study biology.

On the afternoon of September 13, the day of Jina Amini's arrest, the younger family members were exploring the city together, her uncle Aili says. Jina was with her brother Ashkan and her two cousins. Some time between 6 and 6.30 p.m. they got off at Haghani train station. There, Jina and two of her cousins were arrested by the "morality police," allegedly for wearing unislamic dress. But it was only Jina who was detained by the officers.

Jina's aunt says she heard what happened from one of the two cousins who avoided detention. Jina resisted being arrested, but she was still forced into the vehicle, Aliya Aili says. The cousin followed the "morality police" to the police station, she says, and around two hours after Jina's arrest, some young women ran out of the station screaming "They killed her!"

Then an ambulance came and took Jina to the Kasra Hospital. "I am convinced that she was a victim of violence," Jina's grandfather says.

As for Jina's father, he says he wants those responsible to be held accountable.

Jina's aunt Aliya in Norway says that Jina confided in her more than once that she intended to leave Iran after she completed her studies.

Many young Iranians dream of leaving Iran. But Jina's dream was buried along with her. On her tombstone is written "Dear Jina, you won't die. Your name will become a symbol."

Is Iran's morality police about to be disbanded?

This article was a collaboration between Der Spiegel and DW. It was originally written in German.

Dialika Neufeld Der Spiegel
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