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The teenage girls leading Iran’s revolution

In Iran’s capital city of Tehran, 18-year-old Raha is getting ready to leave her home.

However, unlike other teenage girls her age across the globe, who would be busy packing their bags for a busy day of school or college, Raha is leaving to fight – taking to the street with her friends to protest against Iran’s hardline theocracy.

Alongside thousands of others, she’s forming part of widespread demonstrations calling for ‘death to dictators’, alongside ‘women, life, freedom’ – a chant that has united the country against the constant marginalisation of women and their rights by a fundamentalist regime that has been in power for four decades.

Unsurprisingly, Raha admits to fearing what she may face every day, but she knows this battle for freedom is more important than feeling scared.

‘At first, we were afraid,’ she tells Metro.co.uk through a third party, who has direct contact with Iranian protestors. ‘I was scared I was going to be killed.

‘But I saw that thousands of young people have been killed for freedom. I told myself that my blood is no more colourful than the blood of other young girls, so I am choosing not to be silent through this government.’

Raha is just one of thousands of young people who are part of Iran’s Resistance Units – groups of trained and organised protestors looking to fight for a free Iran.

The protests, which are peaceful, have seen the Iranian government respond in an extremely aggressive manner – sending armed forces to quell uprising. A recent statement by 227 deputies of the regime parliament have asked for Qisas, a ‘retaliation in kind’ which is usually used to request execution for those who are leading the protests – putting a number of leaders fronting up resistance units in severe peril.

Meanwhile, the regime’s judiciary has begun to issue death sentences to those protesting, prompting international outcry.

However, to resistance units, and other organisations outside Iran, these outward displays of aggression are symptomatic of a regime acknowledging their power is waning.

Many of these units, which have been in training since 2014, have been galvanised into action following the tragic death of Mahsa Amini earlier this year. The 22-year-old was stopped by Iran’s infamous Guidance Patrol, an element of Iran’s Law Enforcement Forces known colloquially as the ‘morality police’ – and died in hospital after eyewitnesses claimed she was beaten for showing her hair.

Numerous conflicting reports have emerged since Amini’s death. Tehran Police commander Hossein Rahimi claimed the young woman had suffered sudden heart failure after she was detained – something that has been refuted by Amini’s own father, who contests his daughter had no underlying health conditions. 

Her senseless death proved a catalyst for widespread protests against the Iranian regime, which had been simmering in the country for quite some time. With high unemployment and soaring inflation in the country, many in Iran are now willing to fight to overthrow a government that they consider oppressive.

Under the strict sharia law, women have fewer rights, and the morality police abuse their powers to unfair target and harass women – so it’s little surprise that it’s women and girls at the forefront of each demonstration. 

It’s been nearly 60 days of civil unrest in Iran, with young female freedom fighters arguing this is no longer a protest against the government – it’s an all-out revolution. Despite attempts to suppress dissidents, there have been protests in all 31 provinces in Iran.

Bazaars have shut out of support for protestors, truck drivers have declared strikes while university students, high school students are spilling out onto the streets daily to protest, even though they could face being beaten or shot by government forces.

‘The inflamed state of the country affected people from all walks of life,’ Raha explains. ‘When I heard about Mahsa being killed by this government, I was bursting with anger and I cried.

‘But I knew this was a problem that would not be solved by me crying, so I joined my friends in the streets to shout for freedom and democracy from this oppressive government.’

Raha has faced the morality police herself. While she chooses to wear a headscarf, she was criticised by an officer for being ‘too revealing’. It was only down to her own stubbornness, and her family’s insistence, that she was not led away to an uncertain fate.  

‘I’ve had agents come up to me and tell me my headscarf is down, and I have told them it’s nothing to do with them,’ she explains. ‘They insulted me and grabbed my hand to take me away. My family did not allow me [to go with them].’

Naturally, protesting the government in Iran is not without its dangers. Reports from the National Council of Resistance of Iran have suggested more than 30,000 Iranian citizens have been arrested since protests began, and at least 480 have been killed – 40 of which are children and teenagers.

My blood is not more colourful than the blood of other young girls, so I am choosing not to be silent

It has been reported that 17-year-old Nika Shakarami was allegedly tortured and killed by Iran’s security forces during the protests, while 16-year-old vlogger Sarina Esmailzadeh was beaten to death at a protest in Gohardasht in Alborz province, according to Amnesty International.

Elsewhere, the BBC reported 15-year-old schoolgirl Asra Panahi was beaten by security forces that raided her school  after she refused to sing an anthem praising the supreme leader. Iranian authorities denied this, saying on state television that Asra died due to a heart problem.

Despite the young age of many of the protestors, the Iranian government is taking a hard-line against dissidents. President Ebrahim Raisi described those on the streets protesting as ‘enemies of the Islamic Republic,’ blaming conspirators for inciting unrest, and has vowed to come down hard on ‘those who oppose the country’s security and tranquility.’

 ‘The government has billed us as troublemakers,’ Raha says. ‘They do not respect the people and their rights. The whole world saw [what happened to Mahsa].’

However, Raha and others in resistance units proceed with caution to prevent further bloodshed and arrest.  

‘We prevent ourselves from being exposed, so we cover our face with clothes and we share responsibility during demonstrations,’ she explains.

‘One person monitors the surroundings so we can react to soldiers approaching and we’re not surprised. Believe me, every day when I leave the house, I leave in such a way that I must prepare that I may never come back home.

‘Fear is a major factor, but paying a price for freedom is a necessity of overthrowing the government.

‘My friends make me stronger because we are together but because my mother is afraid, she made promise I take care of myself. She said she couldn’t tolerate it if something happens to me. She said she’d have a stroke.’

Raha says she  is inspired to continue by knowing she is standing side by side with other girls and women in their battle for freedom.

‘Women are at the forefront of these protests,’ she says. ‘Seeing the number of other young girls gives me strength.

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‘My friend, who has the role of leader [of our resistance unit] says women are the force of change and the mullahs will be overthrown.

‘Women aren’t counted. But today’s oppressed are tomorrow’s conquerors. These words give us courage and we have no compromise with these mullahs.’

Seeing girls and women take to the streets to demand their liberties is particularly moving for Dr Ela Zabihi, a university lecturer and committee member of Women For A Free Iran – a support group made up of professional women living in the UK, who are looking to act as a voice for oppressed women in the regime.

‘We feel very positive at seeing women in the resistance units actively organising protests,’ she explains. ‘The Iranian government are trying to dismiss this as women wanting more freedom and not wanting to wear a headscarf. But it’s about so much more than forced veiling. This is about 40 years of the violation of women’s rights and people are fed up.

‘Young people, especially young girls, are taking to the streets because they know under this regime, there is no future. There’s no point of them studying at school. They have fighting spirit and they’re risking their lives, so it’s important their voices are heard.’

Resistance Units, like the one Raha is part of, are supervised by the National Council of Resistance of Iran.

The group, explains UK deputy representative Hossein Abedini, is effectively an Iranian parliament in exile, lobbying for the overthrow of the current government and the implementation of a more democratic system. They allow for protests to be more organised, which could then potentially create long-term unrest that could prompt real change in Iran.

‘We’re in regular touch with Resistance Units,’ he explains. ‘We help direct demonstrations step by step to make sure there is less bloodshed.’

Unlike previous uprisings in Iran, which have been quickly quelled by the government, the sustained and organised efforts of Resistance Units taking place all across the country has meant it has been substantially more difficult to quash dissenting voices.

‘The regime forces are demoralised, and they cannot carry on at the same momentum,’ Abedini says.

‘There’s 210 cities in 31 provinces of Iran, and there are thousands of Resistance Units. The people must have the right to defend themselves against such an oppressive regime. We are trying to be their voice on the outside world, speaking to governments and international platforms to ask them to be on the side of the Iranian people and not a brutal dictatorship.’

In a bid to curb further demonstrations, the people of Iran have been subjected to ongoing internet blackouts.

Access to Instagram and WhatsApp is thought to have been heavily restricted, while apps such as Telegram, YouTube and TikTok appear to be closed down.

However, this has not stopped the resistance units working alongside NCRI to get the message of brutality out there for the world to see.

‘There is a resistance satellite television broadcasting 24 hours a day and people are sending footage to satellite television,’ Abedini explains. ‘There is a lot of footage circulating on social media, and that frightens to Iranian regime. Despite shutting down the internet, there’s still tonnes out there. We’re highlighting these issues and using this footage to try and convince the international community to introduce punishing measures against Iran.’

In return, those in touch with Resistance Units inform them about how their protests are being seen and supported by the outside world – but platitudes and good faith can only get protestors so far.

‘We are aware of the reactions from people in Western countries and their spiritual support they give to our demonstrations and it gives us morale,’ Raha says. ‘But we need beyond spiritual support.’

The NCRI are demanding more sanctions against Iran, and is lobbying governments to make changes in order to show they do not support the regime there.

‘We’re calling on the UK to close down the Iranian embassy in London, because those so-called diplomats don’t represent Iranian people, but the religious dictatorship that oppresses them,’ Abedini says.

‘We are also asking the UK government to really look at its relations to Iran, and we are calling for the immediate release to those protestors and political prisoners who have been detained.’

Dr Ela Zabihi agrees more needs to be done on a wider, global scale: ‘Every day that is wasted, the Western countries who are silent and not doing anything costs someone’s life in Iran. The more we do, the faster things can change.’

And with resistance units showing no signs of abating their protests, many believe this is the beginning of the end of Iranian theocracy, set to be overthrown for a more democratic system.

‘This has all the features of a revolution,’ Abedini says. ‘Some events are mirroring the downfall of the Shah in 1979. When there’s children on the streets shouting for freedom, it’s just a slippery slope towards the government’s demise.

‘This is like a dam which is now broken and they cannot really stop it anymore. They may be able to suppress it to some degree but this is not going to stop.’

Raha, in spite of her youth, is equally determined.

‘We continue until we’ve overthrown this dirty regime,’ she says. ‘Dictators are not gods. Every protest, every step we take is a step closer to overthrowing this anti-human government. We will not stop.’

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