Portraits of exile: Iranian journalist Maryam Mirza


Maryam Mirza. Photo by Yana Kaziulia, used with permission.

This story is part of a series that delves into the experiences of Iranian women in the diaspora as they pursue freedom and showcase their resilience. It comes as a commemoration of the first anniversary of the tragic passing of Mahsa Jina Amini, a Kurdish woman who lost her life at the age of 22 at the hands of the morality police for not fully covering her hair. This incident ignited widespread protests in Iran, which persist to this day despite escalating government oppression.

I wasn't present when the unprecedented Green Movementunfolded in Iran in June 2009. This movement emerged in response to the controversial Iranian presidential election, leading to widespread protests against electoral fraud that secured Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's second term as president. It marked the first time someone like me, born in the 1980s into a non-political family, witnessed the regime's extensive and overt suppression of its people. Or at least, it was the first time that the internet allowed us to bear witness.

Some may say, fortunately, while others, including myself, would say regrettably, I wasn't there when Tehran echoed with the footsteps of thousands who poured into the streets.

I wasn't present when the oppressors opened fire on the people of my country, and when Neda Agha Soltan, a 28-year-old woman who was in the middle of the crowd, fell victim to a bullet piercing her chest. For several years, this reality weighed heavily on my heart, defining my location in the world as simply “not being in Iran.”

Berlin, my new home

In June 2009, I was in Berlin as a journalist on a short study trip, and observing the “Green Movement” from a distance left me with mixed emotions. On one hand, there was hope for change, with many believing it might signal the start of the regime's downfall, often described as “the beginning of the end.” On the other hand, my heart ached as harrowing images circulated online, depicting the tragic events unfolding primarily in Tehran.

Berlin, as it usually is in June, was adorned with lush green trees, pollen-laden plants, and occasional rains. What remains etched in my memory are the conversations I had with anyone willing to listen, as I sought to shed light on the heavy-handed crackdowns in Iran, along with my half-awake wanderings around the city.

The song ‘Sár umád zemestoon,’ Winter is Over’.  Screenshot from YouTube. Fair use. 

During one of these wanderings, I heard a group of people singing a well-known freedom song of Iran, Sár umád zemestoon (Winter is Over). I followed the voices and discovered a gathering of Iranians demonstrating in the heart of Berlin. Most of these individuals were and still are deprived of their homeland, residing in Berlin in the hope of a free Iran. 

It wasn't long before I also decided not to return to Iran because of the high risks, subsequently joining the community of Iranian exiles in Germany. Since then, I have met Iranians who have fled the country and Iranians who have been living in Germany under various immigration statuses.

Yet in critical moments, they willingly forfeited the right to visit Iran, to protest against the regime from abroad. Otherwise, they would have been compelled to remain inactive while the regime continued its actions, or put themselves in danger of arrest as soon as they set foot in Iran.

For so many Iranians, as well as for me, exile has never been a matter of legal process; it has been a decision to forfeit my right to return to my homeland in exchange for safety, allowing me to continue working as a journalist and civil society activist. However, can we truly call it a choice without considering the broader circumstances?

Iran's ever-evolving story

Back in 2007, when I was 25 years old, I found myself spending some nights in Tehran's notorious Evin prison for simply participating in a peaceful protest alongside other women's movement activists. Despite hours of interrogations that eventually led to a court trial, I did not face any further repercussions. Still, this experience served as a stark reminder of the Islamic Republic's stance on media freedom, journalists, and civil society. Ironically, this occurred in the period just after the presidency of Mohammad Khatami, the so-called reformist president, who was perceived as more open to criticism and debate.

The regime in Tehran has never spared any effort to maintain its position at the top of the list of the internet’s adversaries and as a prison for journalists. However, not everyone chooses to leave Iran. 

Many of my colleagues remain in the country despite facing censorship and constant threats of arrest and harassment. Two such journalists are Niloofar Hamedi and Elahe Mohammadi, who bravely reported on the killing of Mahsa Jina Amini, have been in jail since September 2022 on a series of several baseless allegations.

The murder of Mahsa Jina Amini marked the inception of the nationwide “Zan, Zendegi, Azadi” uprising. Although protests may have become less frequent, the daily resistance of women in various Iranian cities persists. 

They express their dissent by not wearing the hijab, despite the potentially severe consequences. Their actions have not only shaken the already fragile foundations of the regime but also challenged deeply ingrained traditional and ideological norms that gave them a secondary status in society. This is why “Zan, Zendegi, Azadi” has been perceived as excessively progressive, even by certain segments of the opposition to the Iranian regime.

The actions of the brave women of Iran have inspired me to recount the stories of Iranian women spanning multiple generations who have found themselves in exile in Berlin. These women not only serve as the central figures in my exile story but also as cornerstones of the broader narrative that portrays the arduous journey that Iranian women have undertaken to declare, “Enough is enough.”


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