Tina Sabounati gives voice to Iranian women

Tina Sabounati lived in Germany as a refugee and arrived in Lisbon a few months ago. She is the leader of the movement supporting the struggle of Iranian women. A single mother, she fights for her mother, her friends, and her desire to return home. Tina cannot return to Iran because she had a child with a non-Muslim man. “That would get her arrested.”

Tina Sabounati gives voice to Iranian women

Iranians have been in protests since late September as a reaction to the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, a young Kurdish woman who had been detained by morality police for allegedly wearing the hijab, the Islamic veil, incorrectly.

“Mahsa represents three aspects that the power hates: women, young people, and an ethnic minority, the Kurds,” Tina explains.

Asra Panahi, a 16-year-old girl, was beaten to death for refusing to sing a pro-regime anthem at school. At least 27 children have died since the protests began.

Sabounati says she never imagined she would see what is happening in Iran. She can’t hold back her tears when she talks about the young girls killed by the police.


Tina is moved because she knows that she could have been one of the victims and because it was for these reasons that her mother fled Iran in 1986. Tina was only five years old and her brother nine months when they arrived in Germany to grow up in a refugee camp.

In early November, Tina Sabounati gave an interview with the online newspaper Mensagem where she recounts some past events and explains everything that is happening.

A “revolution” taking place

Tina recalls the day she left Tehran 36 years ago: “My mother told me we were only going on vacation. Even so, I thought it was strange that they insisted a lot on saying goodbye to my family, especially my grandmother.”

Tina’s mother was one of many Iranians who took to the streets in 1979 against the absolute monarchy. Part of the country wanted full democracy, a dream that guides Iranians today. She studied Finance and held a prestigious position in an Iranian bank. “I remember seeing pictures of my mother in Iran, before the revolution, wearing mini skirts,” she recalls. “By the time my mother had me, at 27, she owned two apartments in the capital. My father had a good job, in an insurance company, but it was my mother who was in charge at home, who earned more,” Tina recalls to journalist João Damião.

Tehran university students in 1971


Everything changed with the Islamic Republic: “Things that in Portugal are normal and that everyone can do when they want are forbidden in Iran, like riding a bicycle. A woman cannot check into a hotel or leave the country without authorization from the head of the family, a man,” explains Tina.

In Iran, in the event of a divorce, children at the age of seven automatically go into the father’s custody. In a court of law, a woman’s testimony is always worth half the word of a man’s, “It takes two to equal the testimony.”

Tina grew up in Germany, lived a year in the United States, a few years in London and South Africa. “It’s a portrait of someone who is always looking for a place to call home. I’ve always felt foreign all my life, and I had to grow up without my father – and I was daddy’s little girl.”

Because of a civil requisition, imposed during the Iran-Iraq War from 1981 to 1988, Tina’s father was unable to accompany the family to Europe. “We didn’t meet until seven years later. That’s a long time to maintain a marriage when there wasn’t even an Internet,” she says. The parents each remarried.

Today, Tina dreams of returning to Iran, “as soon as the regime falls.”


Still, Lisbon gives her a sense of “peace.” “I wanted to give my son a home since we cannot return to Iran,” she says. “Of all the European countries, Portugal is where I feel there is less racism, compared to Spain or Italy. But of course, there is racism everywhere.”

In Lisbon for three months now, Tina, who studied law and works in Marketing, divides her time between work, life as a single mother, and activism. All over the world, Iranians are spontaneously taking on the role of activists to “make the international community aware of the revolution that is underway in the country.

Lisbon is no exception. Portugal is important, Tina Sabounati reminds us. “This is the country of the UN secretary-general.” So with the Iranian community in Lisbon, Tina organizes protests in front of the Iranian embassy, writes letters to politicians, and gives conferences.

“We are all feminists” 

Susie, Tina’s friend, who also swapped Denmark for Lisbon four months ago, says she goes for the protests for pleasure “After all, we are all feminists, we have the right to choose what to wear – and that is not being respected.”

At the protest in Lisbon, in Rossio on October 1, more or less 350 people gathered in front of the Iranian embassy in Lisbon. “The Iranian community in Lisbon is small but very active,” says Tina.

In their mind, they all have the frustrated “Green Movement” of 2009, the last major confrontation with the regime. For months, thousands of people took to the streets of Iran to contest Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s victory in the elections.

The “silence of the West” contributed to the political failure of 2009-2010. This time, Tina has no doubts: “People want another regime. They want democracy.” For that, “we are dependent on the world, international powers have to intervene.”

Why Iran?

In the protests in Lisbon and other world cities, the demonstrators use a different flag from the Islamic Republic. They use the old version with the Lion and Sun or just the tricolor version, with red, white, and green without the Islamic symbol in the center. “Iranians feel that Islam is not their original culture,” says Tina Sabounati.

Photo by Murad Sezer /REUTERS


Tina evokes historical reasons to explain what is happening in the country. The territory that is now Iran was subject to Islamization in the 8th century.

“Our original culture is Persian. The main holidays are not Islamic, they are Persian New Year, for example.” And Iran is one of the countries in the Islamic world where Arabic is not spoken – the language is aboriginal, Farsi.

But this “is not a war against Islam,” says Tina. “In the streets, there are women without and with the hijab, because this is about freedom of choice. It is up to the woman to decide whether or not to respect religious precepts. It’s also wrong to ban the wearing of the veil, as is being discussed in France.”

Source: Mensagem de Lisboa, by João Damião

HERSTORY Makes History 09, November 2022