“We’ll show you, you hijab-removing girl”: One Witness Account of the Vozara Detention Center
September 16, 2023
One year ago, on September 16, 2023, Zhina Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old ethnic Kurd, died in custody after being arrested by the morality patrol...
“We’ll show you, you hijab-removing girl”: One Witness Account of the Vozara Detention Center
One year ago, on September 16, 2023, Zhina Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old ethnic Kurd, died in custody after being arrested by the morality patrol in Tehran for improper veiling. On September 13, Amini was sent brain dead to the hospital. Her story and the subsequent official disinformation outraged young Iranians who knew well that Amini could be any of them or their loved ones. Her death sparked protests which began with women burning their scarves and turned into a movement against theocratic rule across Iran that would seize not only Iran’s attention, but the world’s.
A year later, what do we know about what happened to Amini?
In a system where women’s dress is controlled by male lawmakers and not up for debate, morality patrols are tasked with enforcing ideological red lines. In the summer of 2019, agents of the morality patrol at Haghani Metro Station, where Amini was arrested, described their mission:
“We have orders and a code of conduct to notify people. If a woman has an improper hijab, and her improper hijab is one of the instances that can’t be fixed, we conduct her to the security police station; instances like a short or unbecoming cloak, short and tight pants, and things like this: but if they are instances that can be fixed, like the shawl or head covering being too far back, we allow the person to be on their way with a notification if they fix it on the spot .”
Amini’s family stated she had been in good health before the incident. Furthermore, Kasra Hospital, where Amini was held, published on September 22, 2022 a post stating that Amini had been brought in in a brain-dead state; this post was later taken down . Written notes recorded by agents of Police Station 105 confirm that Amini was “injured in the Vozara security police [facility].” A woman detained alongside Amini and placed in the same van testified that “Mahsa was just crying… Mahsa was unconscious, the agents’ conduct with her was very insulting and degrading, and stressful” .
Nonetheless, a publicly report issued by the Judiciary’s High Council for Human Rights  drew from the coroner’s report, the Supreme Leader’s remarks, the president’s remarks, and an explanatory statement by the Intelligence Ministry to assert that Amini’s death “was not caused by blows to the head or any vital organs and parts of the body,” but rather by complications from a brain surgery she had undergone as a child, which left her without “necessary ability to cope” after she “she suddenly lost consciousness and subsequently fell to the ground” after her arrest.
A year after the fact, no one has been charged or tried in connection with Amini’s death, and Iran’s judiciary has not acted to follow up on a complaint by Amini’s family . However, the judiciary has acted following a complaint filed by Iran’s Ministry of Information against Amini’s lawyer Saleh Nikbakht in March 2023 and has charged Nikbakht with “propaganda against the regime” for talking to the media about the case. His trial started on August 29 at Branch 28 of Tehran Revolutionary Court. Nikbakht had called for the formation of an independent fact-finding committee composed of expert physicians. He also called for the release of footage from body cameras which witnesses said were present on the morality patrol agents, as well as from cameras installed in the van she was transported in, a camera possessed by the arresting agent, and security cameras from the morality patrol’s area of activity .
Furthermore, journalists Niloofar Hamedi and Elahe Mohammadi were arrested in the initial days of the protests and tried in a closed-door judicial process which stretched into July of 2023 on charges including “collaboration with the hostile government of the United States" and "gathering and collusion to commit a crime against national security" .
Iranian security forces have also targeted Amini’s family. On September 5, they arrested Amin’s uncle. In the days preceding the first anniversary of Amini’s death, he father was summoned four times to the Ministry of Information office in Saqqez for questioning. Information agents warned him that family members should refrain from commemorative social media activity or going to Amin’s grave on the anniversary, on pain of the arrest of their other child. On the day of the anniversary, Amini’s father was summoned and briefly detained, only to be returned home, where Information agents surrounded the residence, preventing exit .
The UN Fact Finding mission on Iran took note of Iranian officials’ response in a September 14, 2023 statement: “Since Jina Mahsa’s death in custody, the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran has failed to ensure truth, justice and reparations to her family, or to families of other victims, women, girls and all protesters who have been subjected to violations of fundamental human rights” .
With attempts at transparency and independent investigation stymied by this state response, emblematic of the systematic impunity which has plagued Iran for 44 years, questions still swirl regarding Amini’s fate.
The strikingly similar story of a young woman interviewed by Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights sheds light, where the state has provided none .
Zahra (name changed to protect her identity) was born in a very religious family in a small conservative provincial town. In the winter of 2019, Zahra was arrested, just like Amini, near the Haghani Metro Station in north central Tehran by the morality patrol for compulsory non-hejab compliance and taken, just like Amini, to the Vozara Detention Center. Zahra survived the ordeal. But her account speaks to the arbitrary violence and organized misogyny that characterize Iran’s system of gender apartheid.
On this first anniversary of Amini’s death, hear Zahra’s story in her own words:
I was wearing a scarf and a winter cap,not a strand of hair was showing, my neck was completely covered by the scarf, the cap was a very big winter cap that came down to my neck; I was also wearing a big and baggy dark blue jacket. When I ascended from the Metro, there were always patrols around the Haghani Station, meaning I knew that every time I’d go there, I’d have to see those dirty creatures, and I was always having trouble with them. As soon as I came up from the Metro, seven or eight veiled (chadori) women approached me, looking at me as if I were a serial killer.
They came up to me and said, “Why are you wearing a cap, young lady? What is this Western garment you’re wearing? Don’t you know that our country is an Islamic country, wearing a head-covering is the custom in our society?” I wasn’t going to reply “Yes, yes, you’re right,” even if they went so far as to rape me, I’m not going to bow to these evil creatures. I said, “What do you have to say for yourselves? My covering is completely Islamic, even my neck is covered. Look at my jacket, my hijab is better than your hijab.” They then said, “How long has it been since you went to a protest?” I replied, “Protest? What protest? A protest for me? What are you talking about? Did you hit your head on something?” After saying all that, two of them grabbed me and threw me to the ground! This throwing people on the ground seems to be their general working routine, like a memorized mise-en-scene for them. They threw me to the ground, told me I’d been at a protest, that the way I dressed was bad, and that their car’s camera would record everything I did from then on. I said, “Are there many cameras in your car?”
I took my cap and scarf off and put it on the ground. One of them came and slapped me in my face so hard it was like I’d been electrically shocked in my head. I yelled and screamed, "Hey, why are you hitting me? Who gave you the right to hit me?” I was taken by the Morality Patrol. They brought me into a room asking me who I was in contact with. “What right do you have to remove the hijab in the patrol car? No girl has ever had the right to do so.” I said, “I do, is there a problem? I put my scarf on today and left the house and still got harassed by you. You ruined my day and that's why I did it.” [The agent] slapped me again. I started screaming “Is there no one here to hear my voice? Why are you hitting me? You are the most disgraceful people in the world!” That's when they started hitting me in the forehead and the back of my head, telling me to be quiet. [The agent] took my lips and pressed them together like a fish mouth and said “Say that you ate shit, say that you ate shit [e.g. said something you regret].”
When they came to get me the following day, a woman came into my room, hit my back hard with her knee, and said hurry up. When she hit me this way, I screamed and said “You are the most dishonorable people out there, what do you want from me?!” When I said this, they brought me to Vozara [Detention Center], sat me inside a hall there, handcuffed me, and added another handcuff to tie me to the chair, slapping me, saying “You’re cursing us? We’ll show you, you hijab-removing girl.” I sat in the same position for four five hours and I kept talking. They would come around and hit me really hard in the back of my head. It was horrifying. The two days I was there I didn't eat anything. When I would go to the bathroom, I would drink water. I would tell them to give me water, and they would say “We don't give water to a hijab-removing girl.”
“Before this time, the Morality Patrol took me in many times. Out of the five six times they took me, three of the times I was held at the detention center for three days and three nights. And because I would get into verbal fights with them, they would beat me more or less every time they took me. I protested when they took me, saying “I covered my head and you still come and hit people in the back of their head, very honorable.” It’s just shocking.
Morality patrol agents make an arrest at Haghani Metro Station in Tehran, from a social media post dated October 9, 2021
Zahra’s story is not unique. Over the last 44 years, millions of women across Iran have experienced the heavy-handed approach of state agents with a mandate to deter women from exercising their most basic freedoms, including the right to express themselves through how they dress.
“This is one symptom of gender apartheid, which the Islamic Republic’s laws have imposed on Iranian women. It is time for the international community to challenge Iranian leaders’ cultural excuses for violating the basic rights of millions of women and to end impunity for routine and sometimes violence against women like Zhina and Zahra” said ABC executive director Roya Boroumand.