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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Deepa Parent

‘We want the clerics to get lost’: Iran’s schoolgirls emerge as powerful voices of dissent

Schoolgirls chasing an official
Schoolgirls in Iran drive an official away from a school, chanting ‘Bisharaf!’ – a grave insult in Farsi that means ‘shameless’ or ‘dishonourable’. Photograph: Handout

On Monday night, 16-year-old Elnaz sat at home in the Iranian city of Karaj and wept with shock and rage as she scrolled through social media posts about the death of Nika Shakarami. The 17-year-old schoolgirl was allegedly tortured and killed by Iran’s security forces as they try to suppress the protests that erupted after the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, allegedly beaten by police for infringing the hijab regulations.

The next morning, Elnaz arrived at school to find a small group of friends gathered in the playground, pulling off their hijabs and shouting: “Death to the dictator.”

“I was in tears when I saw the other girls standing together in protest and felt like I betrayed the memory of Nika by not doing more to express my anger. So I pushed back my headscarf, and joined them,” she says.

She says the death of Shakarami has proved a tipping point for her and hundreds of other schoolgirls across Iran.

All week, allegations surrounding the circumstances of Nika Shakarami’s death have been circulating on social media. She was reported missing on 20 September after joining a protest in Tehran, amid claims that she had been beaten, raped and her body stolen and buried by the regime in a village away from her family.

Although the authorities claimed that Shakarami killed herself, her mother has accused the security services of murdering her, claiming that they tried to force her to say her daughter had taken her own life.

“We want the clerics to get lost. Our mothers didn’t have the internet to tell the world what was done to them, but we do. I am here for Nika and for all other Iranian sisters who lost their lives but haven’t made the news,” Elnaz says.

On Tuesday, videos showing teenage pupils at Elnaz’s school and others across the country waving their headscarves in the air and shouting defiant protest slogans went viral. Many Iranians have been shocked to see schoolgirls emerging as a powerful force of protest.

Five girls without hijabs raise their middle finger
Schoolgirls express their defiance at the portrait of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, which is in every classroom. Photograph: Handout

Videos posted on social networks have shown girls tearing down portraits of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in classrooms and throwing them in the waste bin, a treasonous act in Iran. Others show girls berating male officials and shouting “Woman, Life, Freedom”, echoing the slogan being shouted on the streets as protests over the death of Amini entered their third week.

Elnaz says that although the school administration has discouraged them from protesting out of concern for their safety, they have done little to stop the demonstrations.

“Our teachers initially opposed [the protests] only for our safety as they feared the regime’s forces will break down the gates. Yet nothing happened, and we continue to gather to protest at the school,” she says.

“My mother always told me how she wants me to fight for freedom. She said the world thinks Iranians are just fighting now because freedom was curbed recently, but we were never free. We will take our country back from the mullahs.”

Throughout the week, Elnaz and her friends have been talking with other girls in schools across Iran on private messaging groups that have emerged during the protests.

In the nearby city of Rasht, Naznin, another 16-year-old schoolgirl, says she and her friends were also galvanised to protest by the killings of Nika and Sarina Esmailzadeh, another teenage girl allegedly beaten to death while protesting on the streets of Tehran on 23 September.

“A lot of our blood has been spilled. We only found out about Sarina’s death this evening after seeing it on Twitter,” Naznin says of the popular YouTuber.

“Within minutes, her videos were being shared among all the girls in our private message groups. She was exactly like Nika – she was fearless, determined and a young Iranian who wanted us to join the fight for Mahsa.

“I can’t get over her smile. I am so angry,” she says.

Naznin says all of her friends and the other schoolgirls she is in contact with who are protesting across Iran are aware of how dangerous their actions are.

“Yet I am not afraid because I have nothing to lose,” she says. “If I don’t join the protests, we will die anyway of hunger and high prices, or the government will kill us just like Mahsa. But I will try to survive these protests for my family.”

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