Iran Regime Has Musicians, Actors, Artists In Crosshairs

Growing up in Iran, Sahar Ajdamsani, 26, recounts that she loved reading and writing stories from the age of eight, and realized that, despite the risks, she wanted to do nothing else with her life. rather than being an artist.

“Of course I know it’s dangerous,” the singer-songwriter and poet recently said from life in exile in Germany. “But I like music more than anything in the world.”

In 2021, Sahar, who has more than 400.00 followers on Instagram, wrote a song, “World of Quarantine,” became a global call to action with 11 artists from around the world calling for solidarity during the COVID-19 pandemic. The song wasn’t a viral hit, but for the Iranian authorities it didn’t matter—Sahar committed a crime just because she was a woman who released music, in Iran it’s a crime. Illegal behavior can lead to imprisonment. , and even death. In September of that year, she was summoned to appear before the Iranian Intelligence Ministry. Her bank account was frozen, and her family kept receiving calls from unknown numbers—which they suspected were from the government.

Fearing for his life, Sahar fled to Iraq. Broken and separated from her family, she suffers from severe depression and anxiety, and faces an uncertain future.

For decades, Iran has one of the most dangerous places in the world became an artist, with extreme levels of repression and censorship pervading every aspect of society. In American PEN 2021 Freely Write Index—annual number of writers imprisoned worldwide—Iran is among the top five countries that imprison writers globally, with at least 21 jailed in 2021 for their freedom of expression. surname.

Iranian women are not allowed to perform music in public and must ask permission from a male family member before traveling for business or tourism.

The situation has only worsened since the outbreak of mass protests in September 2022 following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, a Kurdish woman who was arrested for allegedly wearing an improper head scarf. way and then killed in captivity. Thousands of Iranians took to the streets across the country to react to her death, demanding freedom and equality for women. About 18,000 people were arrested and more than 450 people were killed. Among these are many writers, poets, musicians, the intellectual public.

A motorcycle catches fire in Tehran, Iran on October 8, 2022 during a wave of social unrest.

AFP / Getty Images

The Iranian government recognizes and fears the power of artists in encouraging the Iranian people to stand up and join the protest movement, as well as their ability to attract global awareness of the atrocities committed by the Iranian people. out daily in Iran.

For example, the Union of Iranian Film Associations reported that more than 100 Iranian artists—including filmmakers, actors, and musicians—have been detained, barred from work, or banned from traveling for supporting protests or participating in demonstrations. According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, at least 40 Iranian artists, writers, poets, actors, filmmakers and musicians have been arrested and imprisoned since the beginning of the protests. Female artists are at particular risk.

Artists targeted for taking part in protests in recent months include musicians Shervin Hajipour, who was detained for six days when his song “Baraye” became a viral anthem for the protests; poet Mona Borzeoi, who was detained for reading a poem in support of the protests; and rap artist Toomaj Salehi, who was indicted on November 27 and could now face the death penalty for songs he wrote in support of the protests. The Iranian regime has also charged a number of artists and writers with crimes that could lead to the death penalty.

The suppression of the protests tragically escalated on December 8, when Iranian activist Mohsen Shekari became the first protester in the recent uprising to be executed by the Iranian government, after the Islamic Revolutionary Court announced that he had committed a crime. moharebeh or “make war with God.”

In the days since, Iranian actress, activist and literary translator Taraneh Alidoosti has joined the ranks of persecuted artists after she was arrested by Iranian authorities for criticizing Shekari’s execution. She is best known internationally for her role in Sales agentwon Best Foreign Language Film at the 2017 Academy Awards.

The Artist Connections at Risk (ARC)a project of PEN America, consistently receiving more urgent requests for assistance from Iranian artists than any other nationality, representing 12% of our total cases as of 2017.

ARC has received requests from Iranian singers, filmmakers, poets, sculptors, painters, graphic designers, authors—and the list goes on. Each has faced targeted persecution in retaliation for their creative expression. ARC has helped these artists, including Sahar, apply for emergency funding, legal assistance, relocation opportunities and other forms of direct support from arts and human rights organizations around the world. gender.

Many Iranian artists with whom ARC has worked for the past five years have received mysterious phone calls, asking them to present themselves to the Iranian Intelligence Ministry. Some people have had their homes ransacked, their private spaces insulted by security officials, their art equipment destroyed. Others have been imprisoned and often tortured, in a country notorious for inhuman prison and brutal treatment of political prisoners. Many have been forced to flee, often languishing in unsafe countries like Turkey and Iraq for months or even years as they struggle to move somewhere where they can live. and work without fear.

The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance of Iran is responsible to review and pre-approve nearly all forms of artistic expression in the country, from song lyrics and music to movie scripts and books. Movies for example, consent must be obtained to apply for a license to shoot as well as to distribute. The ministry often imposes strict sanctions on artistic content, such as removing pornography, changing scenes to match the rigid values ​​and ethics of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and imposes compliance with government dress codes. For example, a movie scene in which a woman removes her hijab would not be allowed. Foreign films must also be reviewed and censored before they can be distributed domestically.

The Iranian government recognizes and fears the power of artists in encouraging the Iranian people to stand up and join the protest movement, as well as their ability to attract global awareness of the atrocities committed by the Iranian people. out daily in Iran.

Female artists, like Sahar, are at particular risk of abuse. All women in Iran must wear a headscarf in public and cover their faces law of discrimination in the areas of marriage, family, child custody and reproductive health. This discrimination also affects women’s autonomy as artists and limits their access to cultural and artistic expression. Iranian women are not allowed to perform music in public and must ask permission from a male family member before traveling for business or tourism. Sahar was even prevented from creating an account on the website of the Ministry of Culture, where artists asked for permission to publish their artwork on the basis of her gender.

“Women in Black” by Iranian artist Samaneh Atef.

Samaneh Atef

Samaneh Atef, an Iranian painter who has worked closely with the ARC since 2019, says censorship in Iran is generally all-encompassing. “Censorship doesn’t just end with a foreign film; everything is censored. We grew up in such a way that we were forced to censor our thoughts. We can’t be who we really are,” she said. “The fear of losing my family, friends and country makes me often censor my work, but as the pain and suffering of my people increases day by day, I cannot remain silent, I Put your fear aside and start drawing.”

Samaneh was forced to leave Iran in 2019 and move to France.

Although Sahar is now safe in Germany, her work as an artist, musician and human rights activist is far from over. She misses Iran deeply – her family, her language, her culture – and wishes that she could return.

“I want to live in Iran,” she said. “I had a mission in my country.”

Artistic expression is a core human right that is being denied daily to Iranian artists who are being silenced by intimidation, imprisonment and worse. of the United Nations Human Rights Council decision launching a special investigation into Iran’s violent treatment of protesters is a welcome first step. Crucial to the United Nations investigation is the emphasis on artists and writers as a group that are being specifically targeted and attacked based on their power and cultural influence.

Iranian artists, like artists around the world, deserve to live in a world where they can create freely and without fear of persecution. It is our collective responsibility to stand with them and fight for their voices to be heard.

Juliette Verlaque is a program assistant for PEN America’s Artists at Risk Connection.

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