'Don't be afraid, we are all together': Ghazaleh Chalabi, another Iranian heroine murdered for speaking up

Ghazaleh Chalabi, the Iranian woman who refused to be silent
15 min read
19 October, 2023

“Her smiles. She was never without a smile on her face.”

The memory brings tears to the eyes of Fatemeh Mojtabaei. It is a Thursday afternoon, the day of the week in Iran when it is customary to visit the graves of loved ones.

At Emamzadeh Ghasem cemetery in Amol, in the northern province of Mazandaran, Fatemeh is seated by her daughter Ghazaleh’s gravesite. Lights flicker from the white tea candles above the tombstone. Sombre music plays from a loudspeaker.

Propped up in one corner of the gravestone is a framed photo of Mahsa Amini and other victims of the 2022 uprisings in Iran: Erfan Rezaei, Nika Shakarami, and Mehran Samak, alongside Ghazaleh. Above two red gerbera daisies in a flowerpot, someone has pinned a small card with a handwritten message: “In the hopes of a different spring.”

"Her last words before being shot were, 'Don’t be afraid. We are all together!'"

One woman, whose recently deceased son is buried about 20 feet away, muses how the presence of a loved one never leaves. She calls out to Fatemeh, “Their shadow lingers in the entire house. You feel it, don’t you!”

Visitors drop in to pay their respects, kneel by the gravesite to say a prayer, and offer condolence to Fatemeh. She appreciates the solidarity demonstrations but remains fixated on the various images of her daughter arranged across the gravesite. Every so often, she breaks out in tears. Suddenly, she wonders aloud, “How can I go on never seeing her smile again?”

It was September 21, 2022, five days after the death of Mahsa Amini, who was brutally murdered at the hands of Iran’s so-called morality police.

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In the heat of a nationwide revolt pioneered by women and girls, 33-year-old Ghazaleh Chalabi was filming the uprising in her hometown of Amol. She was fatally shot in the head after authorities opened fire. The moment of the shooting was captured on her phone, and the footage circulated on social media and international news outlets.

Her last words before being shot were, “Don’t be afraid. We are all together!”

A banner commemorating Ghazaleh with the verse: "Gazelles are lost in the night of the plains/Alas, those who leave never return
A banner commemorating Ghazaleh with the verse: "Gazelles are lost in the night of the plains/Alas, those who leave never return [photo credit: Tara Jamali]

A relative of Ghazaleh recalls the protests starting at around 6 in the evening and lasting for a couple of hours. Towards 8 p.m., gunshots rang out in the street overlooking Amol’s governorate.

“Someone fell to the ground. We couldn’t tell who it was at first, but we saw it was a girl when they lifted her up. Her head kept falling back as if unconscious,” she says.

It was revealed afterwards that the girl who had been shot in the head that night was Ghazaleh. She did not die immediately and remained in a coma for five days. Although she was an eligible organ donor and had an organ donation card, authorities kept her in the hospital for an extended period so that her organs would deteriorate.

“They didn’t allow a protester’s organs for donation,” the relative explains. “Because such an act would have made a legend out of Ghazaleh.”

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The relative’s sister would visit Fatemeh in the hospital, who was beside herself with grief. On the fifth day, she saw tears falling down Ghazaleh’s face and said it was how she breathed her last – as if crying.

Ghazaleh’s aunt, Vida, was in Turkey on vacation when she heard the news. Upon returning, she donned a white outfit and stood vigil at the hospital entrance. Taking out a knife, she inflicted wounds on herself and screamed: “You think we should stay silent and cease to protest, but we just lost a loved one!”

Police were summoned. Fatemeh showed up by the aunt’s side to take the knife from her hand and stop the guards from taking her away, but she, too, was bloodied in the struggle. Shirin recalls how Vida’s arms were in bandages for a long time. “Her blood-stained outfit was her symbol of protest. It’s so unsettling you can’t afford to think about it too long.”   

Ghazaleh and her mother both were involved in charitable organisations and had a heart for helping those in need. Her friend Amirdokht recalls Ghazaleh phoning her, saying, “Look Amirdokht, see how many of your acquaintances you can call for donations, as there’s a family in need with a sick daughter.”

Ghazaleh was also trying to come up with all the funds she could for the family; it was how she spent her last night.

Authorities strategically placed her gravesite in a narrow corner of Emamzadeh Ghasem cemetery, near an end wall with little space around it to prevent masses from gathering.     

On Ghazaleh’s chehelom (forty-day commemoration), however, crowds showed up at Emamzadeh Ghasem to commemorate.

An acquaintance of Ghazaleh’s mother, who was there with her two friends, remembers the mob lighting a fire and assembling in a circle, chanting slogans.

Women were burning their headscarves in protest of Iran’s mandatory hijab laws. “Believe me, it was jam-packed!” she says. “I was surprised to see such a massive gathering in a small town like Amol. They were all there for Ghazaleh.”

“We were older and not targeted by the security forces as much. The brutes! They passed right by us and kept firing at the young people”

After a while, the crowd exited the cemetery towards an intersection, still chanting. She tried to warn the group not to wander in the dead-end alleyways, knowing that an undercover agent or two tend to place themselves in front to trap everyone else.

“Sure enough, somebody led them into a closed passage. Several stopped in their tracks just in time, but others walked right into gunfire. I remember a guy and a girl were shot.”

They started running. She and her two friends stuck to the wall, getting out of the way so everyone else could escape. The gunshots had intensified, and they did not want to block anyone’s path.

“We were older and not targeted by the security forces as much. The brutes! They passed right by us and kept firing at the young people.”

Most of the crowd managed to escape and set off into town. Police cars were out and about, using loudspeakers to command everyone to disperse.  

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Arriving at the falakeh (main square), the trio could hear a commotion from the corner of Aftab 2 Street on Haraz Boulevard. The protesters were gathered there and chanting slogans. They then ventured upwards, all the way to Aftab 5, 17, and beyond, with security forces after them the whole time.

“It was marvellous!” she exclaims. “The police had gotten a real headache that night and were completely dumbfounded.”

Ghazaleh’s gravesite attracts company every Thursday afternoon. In particular, a group of seven people around Ghazaleh’s age make the rounds of the gravesites of the youth in Amol who lost their lives in the uprisings: Ghazaleh, Erfan Rezaei, Sina Mousavi, Farshid Mousavi, Mahdis Hoseini, and Ali Fazeli.

Two were imprisoned for several months since the uprisings, while several others were arrested during the protests on Ghazaleh’s chehelom.

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As a result of beatings, one had lost some of his hearing, and another’s teeth had been smashed. They visited Ghazaleh’s gravesite several times before introducing themselves to her mother.

Visitors travel to Emamzadeh Ghasem from all over the province to pay their respects to Ghazaleh. Younger men and women address Fatemeh as “Mother” while in conversation with her.   

“Their sense of solidarity never ceases to amaze me,” she says.

"I can’t know what it’s like in other parts of the world, but in this country, people are always struggling, always on edge, always in anguish. Every day, you face an onslaught of bad news. You can’t avoid the consequences no matter how hard you try"

Fatemeh Mojtabaei feels powerless in terms of seeking justice for her daughter. People inquire whether she has filed a complaint against Ghazaleh’s murderer, to which she replies no, she has not done anything of the sort.

She would not know whom to complain to and insists that even if she finds out who the murderer is or presents a photo, footage, or any trace of evidence, authorities will deny involvement.

“They’ll still say the evidence is insufficient,” she posits. “Whomever the murderer may be, it doesn’t matter as much as the one behind the act. It’s all about who gave the command to shoot when my daughter and all the other protesters were unarmed.”    

In the five days her daughter spent in the hospital, Fatemeh was only allowed half-hour visits each day. Authorities would summon her repeatedly, ordering her to keep silent and using scare tactics such as threatening to take Ghazaleh’s body somewhere she could never find as long as she lived if she dared to speak out. They also intimidated her husband and son.

“You can’t imagine what I went through in those five days: on the one hand, suffering the loss of my daughter who was taken from me like that – something I wish no mother will ever endure – never being given a chance to mourn, and the ongoing threats on the other hand. I was in utter shock, increasingly concerned they would vanish with my daughter at any moment.”  

Fatemeh Mojtabaei, Ghazaleh's mother (right) in a state of mourning
Fatemeh Mojtabaei, Ghazaleh's mother (right) in a state of mourning [photo credit: Tara Jamali]

She acknowledges that the pain of losing Ghazaleh will always remain with the family. As much as she tries to come to terms with what happened, she knows it still takes time to process everything. She used to tear up a lot at first, but seeing how it affected her husband and especially her son, she now tries to keep her composure in their presence, allowing herself to cry only in private.

Whereas her daughter’s death occurred under unique circumstances, she believes that any mother who mourns the loss of a child has a hole in her heart and will never fully get over the pain. “It stays with us for the rest of our lives. All we can do is learn to live with it. Unless we accept this grief and this loss as our companion, it will kill us.”

She contemplates how it is not only she but all people living in Iran who bear the burden of grief and loss daily. She sees it as a fact that no matter how carefree they may try to live, all are unhappy in some way. Although the state of those living in financial difficulties is obvious, and each family is affected by economic conditions, even the wealthy are discontent.

“I can’t know what it’s like in other parts of the world, but in this country, people are always struggling, always on edge, always in anguish. Every day, you face an onslaught of bad news. You can’t avoid the consequences no matter how hard you try.”

For Norouz, the family had planned to hold a memorial service at Ghazaleh’s gravesite, but at the last moment, authorities informed them that it would not be permitted. Fatemeh shared on Instagram: “At the last minute, we had to change plans to hold the service at home. But those cowards should know the people in Amol sided with my family and me, demonstrating unwavering support and never leaving our side.”

She says she cannot describe her daughter enough. Ghazaleh always took care to look and dress her best. Her joie de vivre was contagious. When she met someone for the first time, it was as if she had known that person for years. Healthy and active, she was motivated to live life to the fullest.

“She was an influencer in the true sense. If there is only one word to define her, that would be it.”

A social butterfly, Ghazaleh would make plans throughout the week to get together with her classmates from high school and college with whom she had remained in touch over the years.

With her love of nature and adventurous spirit, she was well-known in the mountaineering community and would often organise expeditions with other members. She also inspired her friends and relatives to participate and experience the mountains for themselves.   

“She did whatever she set her mind to do. Even having raised her as a mother, there were times when she’d astound me with her level of confidence.”

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In the summer of 2019, Ghazaleh succeeded in climbing Mount Damavand, the highest peak in the Middle East.

Even in the coldest time of the year, she would wake up at 3 a.m., load her backpack, arrive at the mountains at dawn with her mountaineering group, and trek waist-high in snow.

Fatemeh recalls that often, her daughter would come back with a deep sunburn and flaky skin. “Just look what you’ve done to your face!” she’d exclaim. “Why do you put yourself through this?”

But it was her passion. Especially in the springtime and good weather, she was twice as energized for mountain adventures. While Fatemeh would urge her to rest and relax on Friday, her only day off, she still insisted on heading off to the mountains. “Maman, being in nature energizes me. I can’t tolerate my job all week if I don’t do this!”

Ghazaleh had married young, at 21. All seemed well, she was provided for financially, and her husband could afford for them to live in the capital city.

Five years into the marriage, he started an affair. “We all have some bad and good in us, and Ghazaleh put up with all his characteristics, yet she could not tolerate infidelity and asked for a divorce,” Fatemeh says.

She fell into a depression after the split. Her mother would remind her how she had studied hard in college and graduated with honours; it was wrong to confine herself to the house and give up on life. “I encouraged her to go out into society and explore different paths, knowing it would be good for her.”

And she listened. With her degree in banking and accounting, she found employment at a company in Amol where she had been an intern in college. Her impeccable communication skills enabled her to make friends smoothly and gain a network of connections in the workplace. Her newfound career and immersion in the mountains helped her heal and renew her confidence.  

"Ghazaleh was one of over 700 people, mostly women and children, murdered in Iran for protesting the death of Mahsa Amini. Her last words stand as a testament to her nation’s aspirations for human rights, freedom, and equality"

In the meantime, one of her colleagues, an engineer, started to call on Ghazaleh. He had known her before she was married, from her time as an intern at the company, and approached her mother about the possibility of courtship. Fatemeh was yet to give him an answer when she found out his mother disapproved of the match. And so, Ghazaleh went on to meet her husband, and the engineer ended up marrying and having a son.

Like Ghazaleh’s ordeal, his wife had an extramarital affair, leading to their divorce. As fate would have it, he was still working at the same company when Ghazaleh reappeared.

Although he too had been wounded by his wife’s betrayal, he found a kindred spirit in Ghazaleh. They started seeing each other regularly and their friendship gradually blossomed into love. “I could see he cared for her deeply and had a positive impact on her life,” Fatemeh says.

He was about to propose to Ghazaleh when she was slain in the protests.

Fatemeh affirms that while Ghazaleh may have been taken from their midst in the physical sense, she has made a place for herself within hearts.

A girls' high school is close to the family home, where several classrooms tower above their alley. Fatemeh describes that one morning as she was on her way to work, a schoolgirl suddenly called out, “That’s Ghazaleh Chalabi’s mother!”

Her friends joined her by the windowsill, all waving. Fatemeh was so pleased they knew her and blew a kiss in their direction. The girl returned the gesture and exclaimed, “Auntie, I love you!” Tears came to her eyes, and she thought, “Ghazaleh, dearest, you may have left us, but look how you’ve made a place in people’s hearts!”

This year, on July 4, the National Day of Mount Damavand, a banner in memory of Ghazaleh Chalabi was erected in an area overlooking the mountain.

Later that month, authorities tore down the railing across Ghazaleh’s gravesite, putting up a cement wall in its place to limit access and visibility. Supporters took to social media to denounce the act, citing the regime’s fear of gatherings at the site as Ghazaleh’s birthday and first death anniversary approached.

Visitors gather around the gravesite
Visitors gather around the gravesite [photo credit: Tara Jamali]

As this took place during Ashura, the commemoration of the death of Hoseyn-ibn-Ali observed by Shia Muslims, a religious musical band in Amol organised a march to Imamzadeh Ghasem in addition to their usual procession around town.

Stopping by the new wall towering above Ghazaleh’s gravesite, they played their instruments to the protest song Az khune javanan-e vatan laleh damideh (tulips grow from the blood of the land’s youth) in honour of Ghazaleh and paid their respects to her mother who was present at the scene. The bandleader was summoned to turn himself into Amol’s intelligence service the next day.

On August 3, the eve of what would have been Ghazaleh’s 34th birthday, authorities closed off the alleys leading to Emamzadeh Ghasem.

Concrete barriers were propped up in entryways and police cars were stationed around the entire grounds. The sheer number of security forces in the area prompted nearby residents to advise passersby to steer clear for their own safety.

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Voices were not silenced. A female mountaineer decided to climb Mount Damavand on Ghazaleh’s birthday and dedicate her ascension to Ghazaleh. “You will always be with us, Ghazaleh dear,” she says in a video message at the summit.

It was only 47 days after her birthday last year that Ghazaleh set foot on the front lines of the revolt. She was one of over 700 people, mostly women and children, murdered in Iran for protesting the death of Mahsa Amini.

Her last words stand as a testament to her nation’s aspirations for human rights, freedom, and equality.

An Instagram post addressed to Ghazaleh by her mother on Norouz says it all: “Beautiful champion! Your legacy beats in the hearts of all freedom fighters, and your name has gone down in history.” 

Tara Jamali is a freelance journalist and multimedia specialist who holds a degree in global communications from the American University of Paris

Follow her on Twitter: @jamali_tara