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Her face has lit up a billboard in Times Square, and been painted on murals in Paris and Berlin. It has been splashed on the Barcelona soccer team’s private jet and commemorated on T-shirts with the red, white and green colors of Iran’s flag. Vienna and Los Angeles have even named streets after her.
At rallies across Iran and the world last year, tens of thousand of men and women waved placards with her face shouting, “Say her name: Mahsa Amini. Mahsa Amini.”
Saturday will mark one year since the 22-year-old woman from Saghez, a small city in a Kurdish province in northwest Iran, died in the custody of the country’s morality police on allegations of violating the hijab law, which mandates women and girls cover their hair and bodies.
Her death in Tehran ignited monthslong protests nationwide, led by women and girls who tossed off their head scarves in defiance and demanded the end to the Islamic Republic’s rule. The uprising bearing her name, the “Mahsa movement,” morphed into the most serious challenge to the legitimacy of Iran’s ruling clerics since they took power in 1979.
Security forces responded with a violent crackdown, arresting thousands and killing at least 500 protesters, including children and teenagers, rights groups have said. Seven protesters have been executed, and even relatives of demonstrators have been targeted.
But if Ms. Amini in death became a global icon, the young woman with brown eyes and long dark hair was also a daughter, a sister, a niece and a favorite granddaughter. In recent interviews, Ms. Amini’s father, an uncle, two cousins and a family friend described her as an unlikely candidate for global fame, a person whose story has resonated so widely and deeply precisely because she could be any girl living and walking the streets of Iran.
Ms. Amini was quiet, reserved and treated everyone around her with a kind of old-school politeness, they said. She avoided politics and activism, and did not follow the news. She didn’t have many friends and mostly socialized with her relatives, family members said.
Her mother was her best friend and her biggest influence, they said, and the two cooked, hiked and listened to music together. On the day she was arrested, walking with her family in Tehran, she was wearing a long black robe that belonged to her mother and a head scarf. The morality police arrested her on allegations of violating the hijab rules.
“She was an innocent and ordinary young woman from a middle-class family who was just starting to discover her adult path,” said Vafa Aeili, her 43-year-old uncle, who left Iran for Finland a few weeks ago. “She was very inquisitive, always asking me questions, always seeking advice about what to do, how to improve her studies and organize her work.”
Iran has stepped up crackdowns on dissidents ahead of the anniversary of Ms. Amini’s death with a new wave of arrests. Another uncle of hers, Safa Aeili, was detained in a raid on his home in Sanandaj last week. Her father, Amjad Amini, has been interrogated multiple times recently and pressured to cancel commemorations planned for Saturday.
Kaveh Ghorieshi, a Kurdish journalist from Ms. Amini’s hometown, whose family are old friends of her family, said security forces have taken steps to intimidate residents, openly installing surveillance cameras all around the city and at the cemetery where she is buried. Helicopters have been hovering over the city for days, said Mr. Ghoreishi, who is now in Berlin.
Ms. Amini’s parents issued a statement on their Instagram accounts in early September saying they plan to hold a “traditional and religious ceremony” at her gravesite on Saturday to honor their daughter but asked that people “avoid any violence or reactions to violence.” As of Friday, they were still planning to hold the rite.
Ms. Amini was born into a Kurdish family of modest means but deeply entrenched in their ethnic community and its traditions and cultures. Her parents were mindful of potential state discrimination that their daughter might face as an ethnic minority. So they gave her two names: Mahsa, for official documents, and a Kurdish name, Jina, which means eternal. That was the name everyone who knew her used.
The family was tight-knit, with conservative values. Some members of Ms. Amini’s extended family are religious and observe Muslim practices such as praying and fasting, but faith was never enforced, her uncle, Mr. Aeili, said.
Ms. Amini’s father worked for the state social security agency, retiring about a year before her death. Her mother, Mozhgan Eftekhari, was a homemaker known for her renditions of classical Persian songs. Her parents lost their firstborn son, Armin, at the age of 5 from food poisoning and lack of proper medical care, family members said. When their daughter was born they were overjoyed and overprotective, Mr. Aeili said.
“When Jina was a child she loved big dolls, and I had to buy dolls for her if I took her shopping in the bazaar; it’s as if she dreamed big from an early age,” her father wrote to The Times. “Jina had a very pure and kind heart. If you met her once and heard her soft voice, you could never forget her.”
Cherished memories of Ms. Amini haunt her relatives: how she always played a happy Iranian video clip when the family sat down for a meal; her love for clothes in bright colors; and how she timidly joined sing-along sessions in small family gatherings.
“Sometimes I forget you are gone, I want to dial your number and tell you I’m devastated,” wrote her younger brother Ashkan, 19, on his Instagram page next to Ms. Amini’s picture.
After graduating from high school Ms. Amini was unsure of her career path, and considered medicine, acting and even becoming a radio host, her family said. She actually did earn a certificate in pharmacology, but wasn’t ready to make a career of it. She tried out different hobbies: playing the flute, hiking and volleyball.
In the months before her death, Ms. Amini worked at a women’s clothing shop that her father had purchased with his retirement payout. Her brother now runs the shop.
She loved traveling but had never left Iran. She dreamed of going to Turkey and visiting Istanbul and the shrine of the poet Rumi in Konya, her uncle said. After years of taking the university entrance exam and failing, she had finally been accepted to a microbiology program at Azad University, in the Iranian city of Urmia, and would have started classes in the fall of 2022.
“Her favorite thing to do was to hang out and play with all the babies and children in the family,” said her 27-year-old cousin in a telephone interview from Saghez, Iran, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution. If there was one place she emerged from her shell it was at weddings, her cousins and uncle said, where she wore long colorful Kurdish dresses, curled her hair and danced hand-in-hand with her relatives.
Her uncle recalled giving her a notebook and recommending she take daily notes of her thoughts to help her find direction. In the months before her death, she surprised him by showing him the notebook with charts and mapped out plans, a blueprint of a life that could have been, Mr. Aeili said.
The Iranian government has said that Ms. Amini died while in police custody because of underlying medical issues. Her family has said she had no health issues, and that she died because the police beat her. A photo of Ms. Amini in a coma in the hospital with blood dripping from her ear and tubes in her mouth went viral, further undermining the government’s narrative.
Saleh Nikbakht, the family’s lawyer, said that no one has been arrested in Ms. Amini’s case because the coroner’s office rejects the assertion by her family and doctors that she was killed from a blow to the lower part of her skull.
The United States House recently overwhelmingly passed the “Mahsa Act,” a package of sanctions aimed at punishing Iran and its top leaders for human rights violations and to limit the country’s import and export of military equipment. It is not clear if the Senate will take it up at a time when Washington and Iran have taken steps to defuse tensions.
On Saturday, protests honoring Ms. Amini on the year after her death are planned in more than 50 cities across the world including Washington, New York, London and Sydney.
For members of the Amini family the anniversary brings some solace, in that their daughter’s death has galvanized Iranians to seek change. But it also brings pain and regret.
They had traveled to Tehran on that week in September to visit Ms. Amini’s aunt and buy clothes to stock the shop. They had spent a week at the Caspian Sea, after which Ms. Amini had asked if they could skip the drive to Tehran and instead fly back home, her uncle said.
“I will never forgive myself as the head of the family because I was the one who insisted we go to Tehran,” her father said.
Leily Nikounazarcontributed reporting.