BELLEVUE — Saghar Amini was arrested multiple times when she was a teenager living in Iran for violating the strict religious dress code. She said she would tuck her hijab behind her ear to prevent it from falling off.
“I was arrested several times just for having my ear out,” she said.
She also was arrested when she was 17 for being around men without wearing her hijab. Amini said she was in a house — not in a public place — but was still arrested, and authorities sentenced her to 60 lashes.
“It’s not just when you’re walking on the street; it’s what happens in your home, too,” Amini said.
Her case was later postponed, and she left Iran when she was 18 years old. Now she’s leading and organizing protests to support the rights of Iranian women.
Hundreds of people gathered in Bellevue on Sunday afternoon in multiple demonstrations to protest the death of 22-year-old Iranian Mahsa Amini who was detained on Sept. 13 by her government. She died three days later in police custody. Mahsa Amini was held by the morality police for allegedly wearing her hijab too loosely and tight pants, a violation of laws dictating women in public wear the Islamic headscarves and loose clothing.
“Almost all the women who have come here from Iran and who have lived and grew up in Iran have gone through similar situations,” said Saghar Amini, who is not related to Mahsa Amini. “Maybe they haven’t been killed, but they have been arrested. They have walked in the streets of Iran with the anxiety of getting arrested or being thrown in jail.”
Authorities said Mahsa Amini wasn’t harmed and died of a heart attack. That was disputed by her family, which led to a public outcry. Activists have said she was beaten in the head with a baton and suffered other serious injuries that put her in a coma.
“Seeing her murder, I couldn’t sleep or eat for days, and it was just the trauma that was coming back,” Saghar Amini said. “It was a lot more than anger and frustration at that point because it has been going on for so long, and women have been the most oppressed under the Iranian regime.”
And it’s not only Iranians who must follow such laws. Nilofar Ehrari, who participated in Sunday’s demonstrations, is from Afghanistan and visited Iran when she was 13 years old. During the visit, she said she was approached multiple times by the morality police for not wearing her hijab properly. She said she was scared of being taken by authorities.
“Whatever is happening to women in Iran is exactly what’s happening to women in Afghanistan,” Ehrari said. “I felt the need to come out and raise … women’s voices to bring equality in the world.”
Hundreds of people in Iran have been protesting in dozens of Iranian cities. At least nine protesters have been killed, and Iranian authorities have responded with guns, beatings and telecommunication shutdowns in unsuccessful efforts to end the protests.
Saghar Amini said this protest feels different. “This time we are too loud for the world not to do anything, and we will continue to be loud until they do something.”
The people who gathered Sunday afternoon were there in solidarity with Mahsa Amini and the protesters in Iran. Groups gathered near the Bellevue Downtown Park and on the corner of Northeast Eighth Street and 112th Avenue. Protesters chanted in English and in Farsi saying, “Women like freedom!” “No to the Islamic Republic!” and “Be the voice of Iran!”
Camelia Espahbod, who is from Iran and was among protesters, said women in Iran are treated as second-class citizens, and it’s been going on for a long time. “I think we’re having a George Floyd moment — enough is enough. Unfortunately, we’re not there to help Iranians, but this is the least we could do for them. I admire them for their bravery.”
Iran is also facing global criticism because the protests began there, but Iranian authorities have brushed it off as politically motivated. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has called on the Iranian government to allow peaceful protests and put an end to the persecution of women.
The U.S. government imposed sanctions on Iran’s morality police and leaders of other government agencies last week.
People take for granted their freedoms in the United States, Espahbod said. In Iran, she said, she would stress over what to wear outside the house to avoid being harassed. She said she appreciates the freedoms she now has as a woman in the United States, and she wants that for everyone.
“I have experienced the brutality firsthand,” Espahbod said. “I know what they are going through.”