A demonstrator in The Hague, Netherlands, holds up a photo of Jina Mahsa Amini.

A demonstrator in The Hague, Netherlands, holds up a photo of Jina Mahsa Amini.

Foto:

Peter Dejong / AP

An Iranian Icon Who Was Jina Mahsa Amini?

Her death has triggered the largest wave of protests against Iran's Islamist regime in decades. DER SPIEGEL set out to learn more about Jina Mahsa Amini, how she lived and what dreams she held dear.

It’s a Tuesday in late October, 39 days after her death, when Diako Aili, her cousin, in a town not far from the Norwegian city of Bergen, sits down on a sofa and opens up the photo album. It is bound in black, the photos protected by transparent film. He points to one of the photos: "Here," he says. "That’s her. Jina." A young girl in floral pants, her thick and shiny black hair cascading down her neck. He pulls a second photo from the album, showing her squatting barefoot on the living room carpet of her parent’s home in Saqqez, her eyelashes delicate and long, her T-shirt emblazoned with the word "Flower" in glittery beads. She is looking over her shoulder into the camera.

"Mahsa," says Diako Aili. "Nobody ever called her that." And she didn’t use it either. They had to give her a Persian name for her passport, with Kurdish names frequently not being accepted in Iran. But she lived in Saqqez, a Kurdish city not far from the Iraqi border in western Iran with a population of 140,000. She spoke Kurdish with her family, and everyone called her by her real name.

Jina. She loved singing, dancing and traveling.

Jina. Arrested on September 13 by the morality police and taken to a police station where she collapsed a short time later. She lay in a coma for two-and-a-half days with injuries to her head, breathing through a tube.

Cousin Aili holding a childhood photo of Jina Amini: "Nobody ever called her Mahsa."

Cousin Aili holding a childhood photo of Jina Amini: "Nobody ever called her Mahsa."

Foto: Robin Hinsch / DER SPIEGEL

Her death on September 16 triggered an earthquake, the vibrations from which continue to ricochet across Iran. Jina Amini became the involuntary icon of a protest movement of a magnitude the country hasn’t seen since the revolution in 1978-79. Courageous Iranian women are burning their headscarves, university students are ignoring rules regarding the separation of the sexes, schoolchildren are heading to the barricades. And even now, 12 weeks later, thousands are risking their lives every day to protest against the regime.

The demonstrations have spread through social media and to cities far outside of Iran, including Berlin, London, New York and even Qatar, where the Iranian national team refused to sing along to the national anthem during their first World Cup game against England. A huge number of Iranian women in exile have publicly cut their hair in solidarity, joined by stars like Juliette Binoche. It is an outcry, primarily of women.

And demonstrators can frequently be heard chanting the three Kurdish words that have become the international slogan of the protests: "Jin. Jiyan. Azadî.” – Woman. Life. Freedom.

They also hold up pictures of Amani, the one of her looking into the distance with a scarf covering her hair. A lot has been written about her death. The videos of her at the police station have made the rounds, and even an alleged CT scan of her head was made public. But there is very little known thus far about her. Who was Jina Mahsa Amini? What was her life like? What dreams did she hold for her future?

DER SPIEGEL was able to meet with members of Amini’s family in Norway. Working together with colleagues from the Farsi unit of German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle, we were also able to reach out to her brother, her grandfather, with whom she was close, and her uncle in Tehran, whom she had been visiting when she was taken into custody.

It isn’t easy for her family members in Iran to speak with journalists. Telephones in the country are frequently monitored, and they reportedly received initial threats immediately after Amini’s death. Their extreme caution is palpable in conversation.

Still, the recollections of her family members, information provided by Iranians in the country, the tracks she left behind on social media, the photos and videos of her that have remained: All that together allows a glimpse into the life of the woman who has become the face of the resistance.

DER SPIEGEL 49/2022

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 49/2022 (December 3rd, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL International

It’s the middle of November, and a large padlock is hanging from the boutique in Saqqez. Even as life goes on in all the other shops, with vendors selling handbags, jewelry and mobile phones, the lights in Jina Amini’s shop have been extinguished.

But you can still take a tour of the boutique with her. She would upload videos to Instagram to show off her clothing collections, leading the way through the shop with her mobile phone camera, a brightly lit space of perhaps 20 square meters (215 square feet). The mannequins in the window wear three-quarter jeans and T-shirts with glittery unicorns. The mannequin in the center is covered by a light-blue veil.

Her wish had been for her father, Amjad Amini, a retired insurance officer, to open the boutique for her, as he explains over the phone. She was waiting to be accepted to university and was looking for something to fill her time. Just a few months before her death, in summer of this year, he fulfilled her dream. She called her shop Best Boutique.

Either her father or brother would bring her to the shop in the morning and pick her up again in the evening, say her relatives in Norway. Jina Amini, 22, still lived at home with her parents, in a nice, two-story house in Shahrak Daneshgah, a middle-class district of Saqqez. The university isn’t far away, and the river flows nearby as well, with Kowsar Park running along its banks, a place where families barbecue and take leisurely strolls in good weather. She had obtained her driver’s license quite some time before and enjoyed driving, but as a young, unmarried woman, driving to work on her own apparently wasn’t an option for her.

Best Boutique is located in the Adami shopping center in the middle of Saqqez, on a busy, multi-lane traffic circle with the Iranian flag flying in its center.

Amini's aunt Aliya Aili (2nd from left), grandmother, Amini: If Jina’s mother had come with them back then, would Jina still be alive?

Amini's aunt Aliya Aili (2nd from left), grandmother, Amini: If Jina’s mother had come with them back then, would Jina still be alive?

Foto:

Privat

A birthday photo of Amini: "They are extremely strict."

A birthday photo of Amini: "They are extremely strict."

“She was a quiet, almost shy girl who always had a smile on her lips."

Aliya Aili, Jina Amini's aunt

Her family says that she would head to the shop almost every day, this young woman with high cheekbones and a cautious smile. You can almost imagine her walking through the automatic door at the entrance into the ground floor before unlocking the glass door of her shop.

Diako Aili, her cousin in Norway, has now invited his mother, Aliya, Jina’s aunt, to join the conversation. He has brought her into the living room via Facetime, since she is currently in Stavanger, a five-hour drive south of their home.

Shortly before Amini’s death, Aliya Aili traveled to Saqqez to visit her family. "I haven't fully grasped it," she says, adding that she only recently gave Jina a hug, spoke with her, shared a meal and a laugh with her.

There is a photo of their July reunion – of Aili and her niece in the home of her grandparents. Jina Amini is standing in socks on the bottom step of a marble staircase and bending down to hug her aunt. Tears of joy can be seen in her eyes. They hadn’t seen each other for so long.

"She was a quiet, almost shy girl who always had a smile on her lips,” says her aunt, always helping out in the house when they had guests. On phone calls, she would never forget to ask politely how the family was doing, how her cousins in Norway were doing.

During her five-week stay during the summer, she visited Jina at her boutique in the shopping center, Aliya Aili says. When she arrived, she says, Jina immediately set off to buy cold drinks for them.

Her aunt says that Jina enjoyed working in her boutique. Even though Amini’s customers would never be able to openly show the revealing T-shirts she sold in public. They always had to be covered by overcoats or jackets. Or they had to be worn at home.

Jina Amini frequently wore the clothes that she had for sale in her shop. The jeans with decorative seams, the light-yellow blouse with the puffy arms.

Instagram advertising for Amini's shop, Best Boutique: "New styles inexceptional quality."

Instagram advertising for Amini's shop, Best Boutique: "New styles inexceptional quality."

In the videos she made in the store, you can sometimes see Amini’s hands carefully hanging up the new articles of clothing or gently smoothing wrinkles from the blouses. They are almost loving gestures. "New styles in exceptional quality," she would write. "Cotton shirt, Turkish craftsmanship." The last entry is from August 8.

During the first weeks after the death of her niece, she was hardly able to sleep, says Aliya Aili in Norway. Every day when she wakes up, she says, her first thoughts are with Jina and her family, and she immediately checks her phone. On this morning, news agencies reported that several demonstrators were facing the death penalty. "Put the telephone away. Stop doing that to yourself," her husband tells her.

"Is there something wrong with this outfit? #Justice.”

Amini's cousin on Instagram

Aili is in her late 40s. She left Iran in the 1990s at the age of 18. Aili’s children were born in Norway. If her sister, Jina’s mother, had come with them back then, would Jina still be alive? Sometimes, Diako Aili and his mother say, they feel guilty for all the freedoms that have become such a given for them. "My little sister is exactly the same age as Jina," says Diako Aili. The two of were born within just a few weeks of each other, one of them into a Western democracy and the other into an Islamist dictatorship. "My sister can say what she wants, wear what she wants and be who she wants."

Jina Amini had to live under a different set of rules. Her hair and neck had to be covered by a headscarf, female body contours had to be covered by a coat and no skin could be seen from her wrists to her ankles.

She knew exactly what it meant to be a woman in Iran. She sold headscarves in a wide variety of colors – purple, turquoise, blue – precisely the article of clothing that women are now burning in protest. Her father, Amjad Amini, repeatedly insists that Jina always wore appropriate clothing and honored the Koran, and that there was never any reason to find fault with anything.

During her summer trip to Iran, says Aliya Aili, Jina had more than once instructed her on how to properly cover herself and where the veils and headscarves must sit. "They are very strict," Jina told her, according to her aunt. You could tell, she says, that Jina felt a certain amount of dread when it came to the authorities and the morality police.


Jina was born on September 21, 1999, a Tuesday, and since then, there hasn’t been a single day on which they didn’t see each other, or at least speak with one another, says her grandfather Rahman Aili, speaking on the phone from Saqqez.

When Jina was still an infant, he gave her a nickname, he says: "Shne." It is a word for a gentle wind, and he continued to call her that even after she grew up, he says. She was a quiet, serene girl, he recalls. Whenever she visited him, he would ask: "Shne, how are you doing?" You could hardly hear her answer, he says, since she spoke so softly.

When she was of elementary school age, doctors discovered a benign brain tumor, which was then successfully removed. After that, says her grandfather, she never again had any health problems. He perhaps emphasizes her health because Iranian coroners would later claim that this operation, and not police violence, was to blame for her death. Her family insists that she was healthy.

Amini as a child (left) with her Norwegian cousin. Her grandfather nicknamed her "Shne," a gentle wind.

Amini as a child (left) with her Norwegian cousin. Her grandfather nicknamed her "Shne," a gentle wind.

Foto: Robin Hinsch / DER SPIEGEL
"For me, she was like a friend. I miss her. I miss her a lot."

Father Amjad Amini

Her grandfather says she was cheerful, a bookworm who was hungry for knowledge and well-liked at school. Once, when they were visiting friends, he says, there was a dog sleeping at the gate to their yard. Jina’s uncle threw a couple of rocks at the dog to scare it off. But Jina tried to stop him: "Uncle, don’t do anything to it!" she yelled. The grandfather also says that Jina always came to him with her questions about Islam and that he would recite parables to her. And she would always cover her hair when he entered the room, even though it wasn’t necessary.

It sounds almost as though he is trying to demonstrate what a devout girl his granddaughter was. As if he is trying to preempt any doubts the regime might seek to sow.

Jina and her mother were inseparable, says the grandfather. And ever since Jina’s death, her mother has been struggling, he says, and no longer even has the strength to cry. "I sometimes find her talking to herself,” he says. When he asks who she is talking to, she responds: "With Jina."

A few weeks ago, Jina’s mother posted a video of her daughter on Instagram. In the clip, Jina is looking into the camera, bangs covering her forehead and a grin on her face. She is singing along to a song playing in the background: "When you are here, the skies are clear," she sings. "The sadness hides behind the mountains."

It is a song by the Iranian singer Googoosh, who learned firsthand what it means to be punished by the regime. After the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979, her music was banned. She wasn’t allowed to sing or perform. It was only after she left the country 21 years later that her voice could be heard again.

The video is one of many showing Jina Amini singing or dancing. Her aunt also has one on her iPad, from the wedding of a relative they attended together in summer. In the clip, she looks cheerful and free.

"Kurdish Girl," is how she described herself in her most recent Instagram bio, with a purple heart standing next to it. Jina Amini’s personal account only has five posts, including selfies in which she is carefully made up with eyeliner and red lipstick, her bangs falling across her forehead. One picture shows her with one of her best friends. "Ciao," she wrote on it.

Screenshot of Amini's Instagram profile: "Kurdish Girl"

Screenshot of Amini's Instagram profile: "Kurdish Girl"

Foto:

Instagram / jinaamini78

"For me, she was like a friend," says her father Amjad Amini. "We were always together." He says he doesn’t know how to explain it. "I miss her. I miss her a lot."

Jina Amini dreamed of studying biology at university, say those who knew her, and had been waiting for a slot for quite some time. Her father says that she studied intensively for her acceptance exams and that she bought a lot of books, amassing an entire library at home.

And he says: "She never went anywhere by herself," and always traveled with the family. It is something he emphasizes over and over again, as though having to underline just how honorable his daughter was. After work, her relatives in Norway also say, she usually stayed home, met with her cousins or visited her grandfather.

On one photo that her aunt brought back from her visit to Saqqez, you get a good idea of what family life was like for her. It shows everybody sitting together in her grandfather's living room for a meal around a long white cloth on the floor. Grandmother is there, as are the aunts, uncles and cousins. In the middle of it all is Jina Amini sitting cross-legged, a bowl of soup in her hand and a cautious smile on her lips.


Her last trip was first and foremost about Jina’s future. The family traveled together to Urmia, a city in northwestern Iran, to register her for university. She had applied there to study biology and, after she had studied so hard for the entrance examinations and waited so long for a spot, she was finally accepted. Her first semester was to have started on September 23, says Jina’s father. Everything had been planned: One of her cousins who lived in Urmia had recently headed overseas and Jina was to take her room and live with the family. Her mother was intending to accompany her.

The city is in the province of West Azerbaijan, just west of Lake Urmia, a fertile region where apples and tobacco are grown. Urmia is home to more than five times as many residents as Saqqez, and Kurds are in the minority.

It would have been a huge step for Jina – into a more self-determined life in new surroundings, 220 kilometers from Saqqez. Her father and brother intended to keep Best Boutique up and running for her.

After a few days in Urmia, says Jina’s grandfather, they traveled onward to Chalus, a beautiful town in northern Iran on the Caspian Sea. That was the beginning of their vacation. Chalus is a popular holiday spot, with plenty of hotels and a campsite, perfect for a weekend getaway from Tehran. To the west of the city is a recreation area where you can take the gondola into the mountains. This is likely where the photo of Jina was taken that later became so famous. She and her brother Ashkan Amini took pictures of each other standing in the hills and looking down into a valley across red roofs, a cloudy mountainous landscape in the background. Jina Amini is wearing a black headscarf, a loose, black shirt dress, her hair braided into two pigtails peaking out from the scarf. One photo shows her from behind, her arms spread wide as though trying to embrace the world.

A photo from Amini's last trip on Instagram: "You want to show her the city, and then you bring her dead body back."

A photo from Amini's last trip on Instagram: "You want to show her the city, and then you bring her dead body back."

Amini right before she was arrested for "un-Islamic clothing"

Amini right before she was arrested for "un-Islamic clothing"

Foto:

Instagram / nima_mj2

The family traveled onward, ultimately ending up in Tehran. The capital is home to more aunts and uncles they wanted to visit, Nasser Aili among them. On the afternoon of the day on which Jina Amini was arrested, on September 13, the younger members of the family were in the city together, her Uncle Aili says over the phone. Ashkan Amini, her brother, and two cousins. They wanted to see the Tabiat Bridge, a famous, 270-meter-long pedestrian bridge connecting two parks.

Shortly before her arrest, before they got out of the subway, one of the last photos of Jina Amini was taken. She is sitting in the metro holding a water bottle in her hand and smiling. She is wearing a long, black-and-white gown and a black headscarf. Only a few strands of hair can be seen.

One of her cousins posted the image, writing: "This is a photo of Jina Amini, my beautiful cousin. It was taken in the subway just before her transfer to the police station. Is there something wrong with this outfit? #Justice."

They got out of the subway at the Haghani station, not far from Tabiat Bridge, between 6 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. There, Jina and her two cousins were taken into custody by the Gasht-e-Ershad, the morality police, allegedly because of "un-Islamic clothing." They only took Jina Amini with them.

One of the two cousins later told their aunt in Norway what happened: Jina had tried to refuse being arrested, they say, but the people from the morality police forced her into their vehicle. The cousin said that she followed her to the station. And that about two hours after Jina’s arrest, a few young women came running out of the station yelling: "They killed her." Afterward, the ambulance arrived and brought Jina to Kasra Hospital.

There are photos of Amini’s parents standing in the hall of the hospital, holding each other in their pain.

"We all hoped that she would wake up," says Diako Aili, her cousin. Jina spent two-and-a-half days in a coma. She died on September 16.

Cousin Diako Aili

Cousin Diako Aili

Foto: Robin Hinsch / DER SPIEGEL

What exactly happened following Amini’s arrest by the morality police still isn’t completely clear. A surveillance video shows Jina Amini getting out of a white police van together with other women and being led up the stairs to the station. There is also video of her entering the station and sitting down on a chair to wait – and then stands up and addresses a female police officer. The two women, it seems, become engaged in a conversation about Amini’s clothing. Amini points to her long coat and the policewoman lifts the material of her clothing. A short time later, Amini puts her hands on her head, briefly props herself up on the back of a chair, and then, at 7:56 p.m., she collapses.

The Iranian regime claims that Amini died of multiple organ failure, triggered by a lack of oxygen to the brain. The collapse in the station, they say, was due to a preexisting medical condition – a reference to the tumor operation that she underwent as a child. Her family has repeatedly insisted that Jina was completely healthy.

Icon of Resistance

Even shortly after the death of Jina Mahsa Amini, it became clear that this young woman would become an icon of the wave of protests that gripped the country. But who was she? How did she live? Over the course of several weeks of reporting, DER SPIEGEL set out to find answers to these questions. The search went through Norway, where some members of Amini’s family live, and through social networks, where traces from her life can still be found. Working together with the Farsi language department of German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle , it was also possible to speak with Amini’s father, grandfather and uncle.

And there are, in fact, a number of indications that her death was the result of an act of violence. One eyewitness who was with her in the station later told Iranian journalists that Jina told her that officers had hit her on the head in the police van. Another photo shows her in the hospital bed. It looks as though there is blood on her right ear. Just a few days after her death, CT scans from Kasra Hospital were publicized allegedly showing Amini’s torso and head. Doctors who examined the scan said it shows a fracture on the right side of her skull and spoke of possible bleeding in the brain.

Her grandfather says: "I am convinced that she was the victim of violence."

Her father says: "I would like to see those responsible receive their just punishment."

Her uncle says: "Today, it was Mahsa. Tomorrow, it will be someone else."

Foto: Robin Hinsch / DER SPIEGEL
"I am convinced that she was the victim of violence.”

Rahman Aili, Amini's grandfather

More than 450 people have now lost their lives in the protests that erupted following Amini’s death, many of them young women. Sixteen-year-old Nika Shakarami is one of them. She was found dead in a courtyard in Tehran, her cheekbones and nose broken, according to her family. Another is Sarina Esmailzadeh, also 16. During a protest in Karadsh, she was apparently killed by blows to the head. The official line is that both committed suicide.

Amini’s aunt in Norway says that Jina told her a number of times that she wanted to leave Iran after finishing her university studies. Her sister, Amini’s mother, also told her that Jina would almost certainly not get married in Iran and that she would move abroad one day.

It is a dream harbored by many young Iranians – the dream of a life in freedom. Thus far, they have had to go abroad to find that freedom. But for the last 12 weeks, they have been fighting for it in their own country.

A protest in Amini's hometown of Saqqez: There have been more than 18,000 arrests since the wave of demonstrations began.

A protest in Amini's hometown of Saqqez: There have been more than 18,000 arrests since the wave of demonstrations began.

Foto:

UGC IMAGE / AFP

More than 18,000 people have been arrested. The regime has displayed particular brutality in the Kurdish areas of the country. In the city of Mahabad, police and security forces are said to have come into the city in armored vehicles and began randomly firing at demonstrators. There have also been reports from other Kurdish cities of government troops shooting civilians to death. And yet: In contrast to all the waves of protest that have come before, many continue to believe that this one might lead to the regime’s collapse.

In Jina Amini’s fashion boutique, on the ground floor of the shopping center in the heart of her hometown of Saqqez, clothes that she picked out are still on display: the flowered top, the glittered T-shirts – it’s all still there as if she could reappear at any moment. Shortly before her last trip, she affixed a sign to the window: "Special summer sale. -25%," it reads. Now, there is a second large sign hanging next to it, black, with her face on it. "We express our condolences to the family and friends of Mahsa (Jina) Amini." It is signed with: "The shopkeepers of the Adami Passage.”

An ambulance brought her body from the airport in Täbris back to Saqqez.

On the 40th day after her death, the end of the traditional period of mourning, countrywide protests erupted yet again. In Saqqez, thousands marched to her grave.

Her gravestone reads: "Dear Jina, you aren’t dead. Your name will be a code."

With additional reporting by Omid Barin, Niloofar Gholami, Ana Mahmudi, Youhanna Najdi and Yalda Zarbakhch

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