The Iranian protests’ surprising spring of creativity

The Iranian protests’ surprising spring of creativity | Soho House

With his song ‘Baraye’, Shervin Hajipour has given a voice to Iran’s people, who have been suffocated for so long, says Kamin Mohammadi

Saturday 15 October 2022   By Kamin Mohammadi

Since widespread protests broke out in Iran nearly a month ago, there has been one song that has become the anthem of the demonstrations, ringing out from Tehran to the streets of London and New York where people march in solidarity. It is Shervin Hajipour’s ‘Baraye’, a ballad that the Iranian singer wrote in the first days of the protests, taking as its lyrics the words of Iranian people using the hashtag #baraye (‘For or Because of’) on Twitter in response to the question of why they are protesting.

Hajipour released the video on his Instagram page, which shows a young man singing poignant words into a mic in a bedroom. Apart from the particular poignancy of the lyrics, he could be anywhere in the world, another bedroom popstar seeking fame on TikTok: ‘For being able to dance in public. For the fear of kissing a lover on the street. For my sister, for your sister, for our sisters…’

It ends with a melodic setting of the chant that has swept the country: ‘For Woman, Life, Freedom’. And it has become synonymous not just with these protests, but with the four decades worth of suffering that Iranian people have endured under the regime that rules Iran.

Hajipour, who has more than a million followers on Instagram, thus penned the protest song that broke the internet – 40 million views within a couple of days, and counting. 

After going viral, the video suddenly disappeared from his social media and his phone went silent – a sure sign that he was arrested and taken into custody by the authorities. 

Hajipour joined thousands of protesters arrested over the past four weeks in Iran. They include at least 35 journalists and many artists, intellectuals, activists, actors, footballers and students. Human rights groups estimate those killed at 185 people (a dramatic underestimate for sure, but with the regime not counting, this figure is impossible to verify) and many thousands arrested. 

In the Islamic Republic of Iran, strict Sharia law prohibits women from singing, dancing or showing hair in public, and from going out with any man who they are not closely related or married to. Since the Revolution of 1979, Iranian women have been obliged by law to wear a hejab (head and chest covering) when they appear in public. 

On 16 September, a young Kurdish Iranian woman called Mahsa Amini was visiting Tehran when she was stopped by the notorious morality police for not wearing her hejab appropriately and taken for ‘re-education’. Within just two hours in police custody, she was so badly beaten that she ended up in hospital in a coma. 

She died from her injuries three days later.

The authorities claimed that she had a heart attack from a pre-existing condition, but her family deny this. Protests exploded in the Kurdistan province of Iran and have spread through the whole country in the four weeks since, despite the regime’s forces shooting live bullets into the crowds. In response to this brutal killing, the enraged women of Iran took to the streets to tear headscarves off their heads and cut their hair in public. They danced around fires burning headscarves and walked the streets shaking their hair in the wind. These women – and men – are not against Islam. As the protests attest, religious Iranians stand shoulder to shoulder with those who are against the hejab. The point is the right to choose. And not just about the hejab, but for basic human rights. 

These demonstrations have swept across Iran, from the metropolis of Tehran to small provincial towns, and everywhere the chants are the same – we stand united, for Woman, Life, Freedom.

The women of Iran have been demanding freedom ever since Ayatollah Khomeini took power in 1979. Before the revolution, Iranian women had some of the most liberal laws in the Middle East and they had been voting since 1963. Significant uprisings led by women have taken place in 1999, 2009, 2017 and again in 2019. 

With his song, Hajipour has given space to Iran’s people whose voice has been suffocated for so long, allowing them to speak directly of their desires without imposing his own narrative, or that of any opposition party or group. As a protest anthem, this song is as unusual as the protests themselves in not being allied to any particular organisation, group or movement. The protests are grassroots, spontaneous and leaderless uprisings driven by the fury and humiliation of not only the gender apartheid visited on Iranian women, but also a free-falling economy, widespread corruption and the utter hypocrisy of the ruling regime. 

A social media campaign to download Hajipour’s song from Spotify and make him ‘too famous to kill’ has been effective enough to see him released on bail, but he faces charges of ‘spreading propaganda against the system’, and his passport has been confiscated. Another campaign, to nominate him for the Grammys’ new ‘song dedicated to social change’ special awards category ran until 14 October. So far, Hajipour had received around 83% of the votes.

The Grammy’s CEO, Harvey Mason Jr, said in an email statement that the Academy was ‘deeply moved’ by the social media campaign. The frontline of feminism and human rights is in Iran, and as such, Hajipour’s song and the protests touch us all.

Kamin Mohammadi is author of The Cypress Tree: A Love Letter To Iran

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