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In the parish of Lapa, Tina Sabounati meets Susie, the friend she has made in Lisbon since she arrived three months ago. Together they have a hot cup of coffee to face the rain. Four-year-old Nima, Tina’s son, runs around. He plays with some dinosaurs and a fireman’s helmet.

Nima seems happy, unaware of what is going on in the country where his mother was born and where she cannot return. Also because of him. Tina says she can’t go back to Iran because she had a child with a non-Muslim man. “That gives imprisonment,” she justifies.

She has lived since she was five years old in Germany as a refugee. She never expected to live to see what is happening in her homeland. She can’t hold back her tears when she talks about Mahsa and other young Iranian girls killed at the police’s hands.

Like Asra Panahi, 16, who was beaten to death in her school for refusing to sing a pro-regime anthem. She is one of at least 27 children who have died since the protests began.

Iranians have been on the streets against the regime since late September, in reaction to the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, a young Kurdish woman who had been arrested by the morality police for allegedly wearing the hijab, the Islamic veil, incorrectly. 

“Mahsa represents three aspects that power hates: women, young people, and an ethnic minority, the Kurds,” Tina explains.

One of the faces for the freedom of Iranian women, Tina Sabounati raises awareness in Lisbon wearing the face of Mahsa Amini, the Kurd teenager killed in September. Photo: Inês Leote

The morality police is a special force with the harshest and most conservative view of the Koran. This is the line taken in Iran since the 1979 cultural revolution that established the Islamic Republic. A true theocratic state, where Sharia, Islamic law, is the law.

Tina cries because she knows she could have been one of the victims and because it was also because of all this that her mother fled to Iran in 1986, two years after the revolution and at the beginning of the war with Iraq. Tina was only five years old and her brother was nine months when they arrived in Germany. They grew up there in a refugee camp.  

A “revolution” happening with echoes in Lisbon

Tina Sabounati doesn’t remember very well the day she left Tehran 36 years ago, “My mother told me we were just going on vacation. Even so, I thought it was strange that they made a lot of effort to say goodbye to my family, especially my grandmother.”

Tina’s mother was one of the many Iranians who took to the streets in 1979 against the absolute monarchy. A part of the country wanted full democracy, a dream that guides Iranians today, her daughter ensures.

Tina’s mother studied Finance and held a prestigious position in an Iranian bank. “I remember seeing pictures of my mother in Iran, before the revolution, wearing mini skirts,” she recalls. “By the time my mother had me, at 27, she owned two apartments in the capital. My father had a good job, in an insurance company, but it was my mother who was in charge at home, who earned more,” Tina recalls.  

When the revolution triumphed, women lost everything.. Photo: All Rights Reserved

Everything changed with the Islamic Republic: “Things that in Portugal are normal and that everyone can do when they want are forbidden in Iran, like riding a bicycle. A woman can’t check into a hotel or leave the country without authorization from the head of the family, a man,” explains Tina.

In Iran, in the event of a divorce, children at the age of seven automatically become the guardians of the father. In a court, a woman’s testimony is always worth half of a man’s. “It needs two to equal the testimony.”

Tina grew up in Germany and lived a year in the United States, and a few years in London and South Africa. “It’s a portrait of someone who is always looking for a place to call home. I’ve always felt foreign all my life, and I had to grow up without my father – and I was daddy’s little girl.”

Because of a civil requisition, which was imposed during the Iran-Iraq War from 1981 to 1988, Tina’s father was unable to accompany the family to Europe. “We didn’t meet until seven years later. That’s a long time to keep a marriage when there wasn’t even an Internet,” she says. The parents each remarried.

For seven years the Iran-Iraq War separated Tina and her family from her dad. Photo: Inês Leote

Today, Tina dreams of returning to Iran, “as soon as the regime falls.”. “My dad, my younger sister and my uncles and cousins all live there. They’ve only met Nima through videocalls. I want Nima to meet his family and grow with them”.

Still, Lisbon gives him a sense of “peace.” “I wanted to give my son a home since we can’t go back to Iran,” he says. “Of all the European countries, Portugal is where I feel there is less racism, compared to Spain or Italy. But of course, there is racism everywhere.”

Tina cannot return to Iran with Nima as he’s son of a non-muslim father. Photo: Inês Leote

Tina, who has been in Lisbon for three months, has a Degree in Law, works in Marketing and spends her time between her work, life as a single mother, and activism. All over the world, Iranians are spontaneously taking on the role of activists to “make the international community aware of the revolution happening in the country.

Lisbon is no exception.

Portugal is important, Tina Sabounati recalls. “This is the country of the UN secretary-general.” So, with the Iranian community in Lisbon, Tina organizes protests in front of the Iranian embassy, writes letters to politicians, and gives conferences.

“We are all feminists”

sometimes, Tina gets a litlle help from Susie, to look after the children. “She is one of my best friends I made in here”. But Susie, who also left Denmark for Lisbon four months ago, says she goes for pleasure. “After all, we are all feminists, we have the right to choose what to wear – and that is not being respected. It’s also cute to see the kids waving the Iran flags.”

At the last protest, more or less 350 people gathered in front of the Iranian embassy in Lisbon. “The Iranian community in Lisbon is small but very active,” says Tina.

In their mind, they all have the failed “Green Movement” of 2009, the last major clash with the regime. For months, thousands of people took to the streets of Iran to protest Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s victory in the elections.

The “silence of the West” contributed to the political failure of 2009-2010. This time, Tina has no doubts: “People want another regime. They want democracy.” For this, “we are dependent on the world, international powers have to step in.”

Why Iran?

In the Lisbon protests and other cities around the world, the protesters use a different flag than the Islamic Republic. This one is only tricolor, with red, white, and green. It does not have, in the center, the four half-moons painted in red on white and surrounding a sword, an Islamic symbol.

“Iranians feel that Islam is not their original culture,” says Tina Sabounati.

The protests in Iran. Photo: Hadi Yazdi Aznaveh on Unsplash.

The lawyer evokes historical reasons to explain what is happening in the country. The territory that is now Iran was Islamicized in the 8th century.

“But our original culture is Persian. The main holidays are not Islamic, they are Persian New Year, for example.” And Iran is one of the countries in the Islamic world where Arabic is not spoken – the language is aboriginal. It is the Farsi language.

However, this “is not a war against Islam,” Tina warns, “In the streets, there are women without and with the hijab, because this is about freedom of choice. It is up to the woman to decide whether or not to respect religious precepts. It is also wrong to ban the wearing of the veil, as is being discussed in France.”

A “feminist revolution” that became “more than that”

Tina explains why women were the first to take to the streets in late September of this year. “This is the biggest feminist revolution of this century, but it’s much more than that,” she says.

Initially, as early as 1979, “women were the great opponents of the regime. Men were tired of guerrillas and thought they were going to have rights. But this power is repressive and offers no freedoms to anyone,” she says.

“In Iran, you are not allowed to sing in public or listen to music. I couldn’t be sitting in a café like I am today giving an interview to a journalist.”

What is happening in Iran cannot be explained with only History. The present is defining. Iran is one of the youngest countries in the world. Almost 40% of the population is under the age of 24, according to UNESCO. This is a young, highly educated generation that is held hostage by religion.

Today, Tina says it is a “revolution” that is underway in Iran because what is at stake is the “fall of the regime and the struggle for democracy.” “It is a revolution, because they have been joined by men, poor and rich, all the provinces, and there are strikes in many sectors, including oil,” she justifies.

And Tina admits that she wants to return once the regime falls. In Iran are her father, her half-sister, and many cousins and uncles, whom Nima, her son, does not know.

“Iran is my home. Germany never was. As a refugee, you try very hard to belong: I speak the language, I studied, I worked, I paid taxes. I did everything that was expected of me. But I am always seen as a foreigner,” she says.

“I’m very grateful to Germany, though. Germany treats its refugees well, despite everything. We only spent a little time in the refugee camp, after which we had access to an apartment. Today, I have an education and a passport thanks to the German state.”

Tina fights to ensure a better childhood for Nima so that he can grow up in a country “where nobody tells him ‘go back to your land’ “. Because that’s what he always heard. “At school, I was never invited to birthday parties, I was treated as the ‘dirty girl’ because I had darker hair and skin.”

Tina struggles but wants to be an example of a happy mother. Because she saw hers slowly destroying itself: “It was all a nightmare for her. We belonged to the upper class in Iran and suddenly my mother had to work in an ice cream shop for us to survive.”

Now Tina feels that Nima’s home is also in Lisbon. Together they are building a new home. And the friendship that Tina and Susie have created is also a mirror of the diversity and complexity of this world. One was born in one of the most advanced countries in women’s rights. The other is in one country that is far down the list.

Both came in seeking the sun.

It is a world that opens up and enters through Lisbon, which does not exist locked inside itself.

You can read this article in Portuguese.

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