Iran: dissent by public figures has amplified the protest across the country – and the world
Posted on: 19 December 2022
Protesters in Iran have challenged limits on freedom of expression and civil liberties, explains Dr Roja Fazaeli, School of Languages, Literatures and Cultural Studies, in this piece for The Conversation.
Iran’s Islamic Republic continues to violently suppress ongoing pro-democracy protests, which broke out in September in response to the killing of a young woman who had been arrested for not wearing a proper head covering. According to the NGO Iran Human Rights at least 458 protesters have been killed, including 63 children. Death sentences have been issued to at least 11 people.
Mohsen Shekari, a 22 year old Tehran café worker, was executed on December 8 after being found guilty of charges of using a weapon with intent to kill and “enmity against God”. Amnesty International called it “a grossly unfair sham trial” with no due process.
Majidreza Rahnavard was publicly hanged on December 12. He was alleged to have killed two members of the paramilitary Basij force. Human rights advocates have resolutely condemned the execution, which took place only 23 days after his arrest, as being based on a forced confession. Similarly to Shekari, Rahnavard faced an unfair trial that was fast-tracked and lacked clear due process.
At least 18,000 people have been detained during the current protests. There are some fears of mass executions, raising the spectre of the notorious 1988 mass executions of Iranian political prisoners. The current Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi, was one of the judiciary officials who oversaw the 1988 executions.
The Islamic Republic shows no sign of relaxing its stranglehold over the country. Yet the broad-based protests have spanned various ethnic and religious communities, as well as across economic classes and geographic regions. The protesters have challenged limits on freedom of expression and civil liberties and have been strongly supported by Iran’s actors, musicians and athletes who have been among those arrested, imprisoned and tortured. This public dissent by well known public figures has had amplifying effects across Iran and internationally.
Rappers Toomaj Salehi and Saman Yasin were arrested in October for online performances in support of the protesters. Toomaj Salehi articulated his criticism with the following lyrics:
Someone’s crime was dancing with her hair in the wind. Someone’s crime was that he or she was brave and criticised… 44 years of your government is the year of failure.
Shervin Hajipour’s song Baraye (Because of…) has also become part of the protest soundscape reaching far beyond Iran. Baraye has been covered by various international artists, including Coldplay in a performance with Iranian actor Golshifteh Farahani.
In the world of film, Taraneh Alidoosti, award-winning Iranian actor, published a photo of herself without a headscarf, holding a sign with the protest slogan “Woman, Life, Freedom”. The photo was published on Alidoosti’s Instagram account, which has a following of eight million people. Other Iranian actors have engaged in similar acts of dissent.
Rakhshan Bani Etemad, the renowned Iranian director, posted a video of herself without a headscarf on social media in which she spoke out against the regime’s violence, and particularly lamented the death of nine-year-old Kian Pirfalak, who was killed when regime security forces opened fire on the car in which he was a passenger.
A group of prominent members of Iran’s theatre arts community also issued a statement on Instagram in which they announced that they “will not participate in or watch performances where women were subjected to compulsory hijab”.
The Committee to Follow Up on the Situation of Arrested Artists, a nongovernmental effort dedicated to tracking the arrest and detention of artists, says at least 150 figures from cinema and stage “have been summoned, arrested, accused, banned from leaving the country or persecuted” since the start of the protests.
Sports personalities and national sports teams have also had significant public reach during the protests. Elnaz Rekabi competed in an international sport climbing competition in South Korea without wearing a headscarf. She was welcomed home by crowds at the airport in a show of support. But she was later forced to make a public statement disowning the act and explaining it as an accident. It has since been reported that she has been placed under house arrest. It was also reported that her family home was demolished by government officials.
Similarly, Iranian archer, Parmida Ghasemi, removed her headscarf in Iran only to be forced to recant and apologise for the action. Fasiha Radmanesh, who won bronze at an international Muay Thai martial arts competition in Turkey, accepted her medal at the awards ceremony having written out “Zan, Zendegi, Azadi” (Woman, Life, Freedom) in black ink across her forehead and cheeks.
A number of Iranian sports teams, including the men’s national beach football team, men’s national basketball team, men’s national sitting vollyball team, and men’s national water polo team, have refused to sing the national anthem as a show of solidarity with protesters.
The men’s national football team initially followed suit in their first match of the 2022 FIFA World Cup. In their match against England the team stood silent when the anthem was played. They had previously faced fierce criticism for meeting with Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi before departing for Qatar.
However, it was reported that after the game they were summoned to meet with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and that the families of team members were threatened with imprisonment and torture. They sang the anthem at subsequent games.
The head of the Political and Ideological Office of the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, Ali Saeedi Shahroudi, has called for stricter state control over the behaviour of musicians, actors and sports stars.