“I’m a night person,” says Solmaz smiling, as she watches, the Cais das Colunas, the sun setting beyond the 25 de Abril Bridge. She likes this place. Whenever she has time off work, this 29-year-old Iranian working in a transport company in Oeiras goes out with her friends “to the most touristy places in Lisbon”. Terreiro do Paço or Baixa.

Solmaz’s first address in Lisbon was at Avenida da Liberdade. When she researched the name, she trembled with emotion, it seemed like a sign that everything was going to be alright. She came looking for freedom and found it right there. It couldn’t be just a coincidence.

And it wasn’t. Today, she does everything she couldn’t do in Iran. “I like to listen to music or go to a café,” says Solmaz. It’s a “rematch” of the 25 years she spent in a place where “everything fun – dancing, partying, hanging out with friends or drinking” is forbidden. Under the weight of Islamic Law.                             

In Iran, there are no nightclubs. Socializing between men and women is forbidden. So is the sale of alcohol. 

Solmaz explains that Iranians have found ways to get around the rules: they have learned to throw illegal parties and hide wines in holes in the house – and flush them down the toilet at the visit of the police, as shown in the 2007 classic Persepolis.

YouTube video

She, however, never attended these parties. “Even though I wanted to. I’d rather stay at home, calm and peaceful than be afraid the police would show up,” she recalls. “That’s stressful, they’re always saying ‘they’re coming, they’re coming’.”

For those leaving Iran, life in other countries seems like a movie. “On a trip to Turkey, I remember seeing the prices of alcohol and being shocked. They were so cheap! In Iran, drinks are only available on the black market and are very expensive,” she says. “I know that when I share this it makes me laugh. It sounds ridiculous, other-worldly. But for us, it has a lot of pain.” 

And it was those pains that made her leave, in 2018.

She ran away. “I had the problems that all Iranian women have that led to Mahsa Amini’s death. Iranian women are afraid, every day.”

It wasn’t from yesterday. It was from all the time. Solmaz recounts that she felt, from a young age, the revolt germinating. “I saw that my two brothers, older ones, had more freedom. I scolded them. I questioned why they could do things I couldn’t, like come home later after a day of school,” she recalls.

Little Solmaz in Iran.

“It’s not that my father wanted it that way, it’s the rules. If they hurt me, it wasn’t the attacker’s fault, it was mine and my family’s fault. Because daughters are supposed to be closed, they say.”

But it was when Solmaz entered law school in Iran that the sense of injustice took on another dimension. “I had to be governed by a law that disrespects women. For the first time, I felt tired.”

Four years later, it still pains her to talk about the day she made that journey, toward freedom. On the other side of the world, in Lisbon.

“I remember it well. I stepped off the platform, at the airport, about ten times, to hug my mother and brother one last time. I didn’t know when I would see them again.”

Even today, Solmaz doesn’t know when she can return to the Tehran airport to hug his mother again: “Everyone active against the Islamic Republic, outside the country, can’t go back. We were going to be arrested.”

The young Iranian girl did not have the “courage” to warn her father about the parting. “He didn’t want this to happen. Because my father loves me very much,” she says emotionally.

Solmaz: “Lisbon gave me what my land never gave me: freedom.” Photo: Inês Leote

A “power water” and a free city called Lisbon  

In his suitcase, Solmaz kept a bottle of water that his mother bought her at the airport and on which she wrote, in pen, “Be Strong. Solmaz was and continues to be. She always tries to be. But she admits it is “hard.”

Solmaz just wanted to “escape” from the prison that she says is the country where she was born. Portugal was the first European country that granted her a residence permit. “I didn’t know anything about Portugal, nor did I have any expectations. I came alone. I remember being surprised that the Portuguese were so friendly. They help with everything, I had a different image,” she says.

Today, Solmaz makes Lisbon home. “When I return from a trip, as soon as I see the city lights, the 25 de Abril Bridge lit up, I get that feeling of ‘I’ve arrived, finally’.”

To that end, the friends Solmaz has met here help – they are Portuguese, Moldovan, and Iranian. “They are my family. I spend Christmas with my best friend, who is Moldovan, and everything,” she comments. She met them while studying Portuguese at the New University of Lisbon and at the protests that the Iranian community organizes in Lisbon.

She will stay here, if the Iranian political regime does not change, with the dream of working in Human Rights and going back to law school. 

Although easier in Lisbon, where she found peace. “Lisbon gave me what my land never gave me: freedom.” She is studying Portuguese, although she dreams of continuing his studies in law and working in Human Rights.

Lisbon and its calm curiously feed her an “inner revolt.” Tears fall, when she talks about Tehran. “It is my home. I miss it a lot. Why do things have to be like this in Iran? We have been living in a prison for 43 years. In a lively city like Tehran, it is not normal for a woman to go out alone at night. Iran is an open-air prison for us women. When you are seven years old, you are immediately forced to wear the veil in school. At seven years old, you already know and feel that you are a prisoner,” says Solmaz.

Iran is in the UN’s top three countries that most disrespect human rights, along with Syria and North Korea. The smallest things are a distant dream for Iranian women. For example, traveling of their own volition or walking down the street with a man.

“In Tehran, if I walk with a man on the street, they ask me who she is. We have to lie and say she is a cousin,” Solmaz recounts. “There were times when they even forced people to get married.”

The fear scenario is present at any moment in an Iranian woman’s daily life, especially when a girl becomes a woman: “I couldn’t go out on the street with a shorter outfit, or with makeup, or with my nails painted…”

“I was always afraid. Of what happened to Mahsa Amini – and so many others whose names we don’t know – happening.” Solmaz evokes the 22-year-old Kurdish girl, who died in late September after being arrested by the morality police. At issue was the alleged improper wearing of the hijab, the Islamic veil.

If you don’t wear the hijab properly, it goes on a woman’s criminal record. “And we need to have it clean to study, to work, to have a life,” Solmaz says.

Protesters in Portugal use the modified Iranian flag. Photo: Inês Leote

Fado fan dances Azeri at the protests

In Augusta Street, a street artist plays loud Michael Jackson. In Portugal, Solmaz became a fan of Amália Rodrigues and fado in general. Here, the young woman says she has rebuilt the “feeling of home.” “Even when it’s cold, like this December night, you can feel the warmth in Lisbon. It comes from the people,” she comments while looking at the Christmas decoration that lights up the Baixa.  

It is a magical time, Christmas in Lisbon, that feeds Solmaz’s dream. “The revolution that is happening gives me hope that one day I will fulfill my dream: to live with my family.”

Here, she participates in the protests by dancing the Azeri, a dance typical of her Turkish origins. “We want to show our culture.”

The dance Solmaz does at all the demonstrations in Lisbon. 

Iranian women were considered the heroines of the Year 2022, by the American Time magazine, succeeding the scientists who discovered the vaccines against covid-19, heroes of 2021. They are the protagonists of this spontaneous, feminist, leaderless, and human rights movement that has been sweeping Iran since late September, after the death of Mahasa Amini.

“When I see young girls of 7, 10 or 15 years old leading protests in Iran, in front of the police, without fear of dying, I just think I have to leave home. I am not as brave as them,” confesses Solmaz.

Some have paid with their lives for their courage. Time reports that more than 400 people died in the protests as a result of police repression. At least 60 were children. The average age of those arrested is incredibly low – 15 years old.

This is the case of Hasti Narouei, just 7 years old, whose story is told by the BBC. She died in the protests when she had just started going to school a week ago.

Unlike Portugal, Iran is one of the youngest countries in the world. 40% of the population is under the age of 24. It is an educated generation, with access to the internet and who knows the castration to which they are subjected.

For Time, these young women do not identify with Islamic culture, but feel they belong more to a “Generation-Z transnational community”: some are vegans, and most do not want to marry or have children.

Solmaz: “I still find it extraordinary how I can walk around here alone, without fear.” Photo: Inês Leote

Solmaz or Tina, the Iranian women who chose Lisbon as a place of refuge, never wore the hijab again. Although they say that this revolution is for everyone, even for those who want to wear the Islamic veil. That’s not the point. “It’s in the name of freedom,” says Solmaz.

So Solmaz takes advantage of this Saturday night to walk around the city and see the Christmas decorations. “I still find it extraordinary how I can walk around here by myself, without fear,” she comments as she walks away from D. Pedro IV Square. That’s the power of Lisbon. It gives wings to those who seek them.

You can read this article in Portuguese.

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