Iranian celebrities have been startlingly public in their support for the massive anti-government protests shaking their country
BySAMYA KULLAB Associated Press
BAGHDAD — Singers, actors, sports stars — the list goes on. Iranian celebrities have been startlingly public in their support for the massive anti-government protests shaking their country. And the ruling establishment is lashing back.
Celebrities have found themselves targeted for arrest, have had passports confiscated and faced other harassment.
Among the most notable cases is that of singer Shervin Hajipour, whose song “For …” has become an anthem for the protest movement, which erupted Sept. 17 over the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody after she was arrested for not abiding by the Islamic Republic’s strict dress code.
The song begins with a soft melody, then Hajipour’s resonant voice starts, “For dancing in the streets,” “for the fear we feel when we kiss …” — listing reasons young Iranians have posted on Twitter for why they are taking to the streets against the ruling theocracy.
It ends with the widely chanted slogan that has become synonymous with the protests: “For women, life, freedom.”
Released on his Instagram page, the song quickly went viral. Hajipour paid the price: The 25-year-old was arrested and held for several days before being released on bail on Oct. 4.
Since the protests took off — and expanded from anger at Amini’s death to a complete challenge to the 43-year-old rule by conservative Islamic clerics — a string of celebrities have faced reprisals, from singers and soccer players to news anchors.
At least seven public figures have been detained inside the country, most of whom were released on bail and could face charges, according to Iranian news outlets. Others were questioned and released.
But their popularity has also made it difficult to crack down too hard on them — in contrast to protest activists whom security forces have arrested in large numbers. Iran has a vibrant scene of singers and actors, as well as sports stars, who are closely followed by the public.
Holly Dagres, an Iranian-American non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council, said the attempts to intimidate public figures were no surprise.
“Celebrities — be it athletes, actors, singers or artists — have a large following inside Iran, particularly on social media, and their support gives life to these protests,” she said.
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Their support has helped invigorate protesters struggling with widespread internet outages that limit their ability to have their voices heard and facing a brutal government crackdown. There have been widespread arrests, dozens have died and many more wounded. Still, protests have spread to dozens of cities, drawing broad segments of Iranian society, from schoolgirls to oil workers.
One of Iran’s most beloved singers of classical Persian music, Homayoun Shajarian, projected a large photo of Amini behind him on stage as he sang a traditional song, “Dawn Bird,” during a tour in Australia in September.
The audience joined him in singing one of the song’s most iconic lines: “The tyrant’s oppression like a hunter has blown away my nest. God, Sky, Nature, bring dawn to our dark night.”
When Shajarian returned to Iran, his passport and that of actress Sahar Dolatshahi, who was traveling with him, were seized at the airport. He later said on his Instagram account that they had been barred from travel.
Similarly, a soccer legend in Iran, Ali Daei, had his passport confiscated at the airport when he returned from abroad. He had urged the government on social media to “solve the problems of the Iranian people rather than using repression, violence and arrests.”
A few days later, the passport was returned to him, he told the press.
Two well known former soccer players, Hossein Mahini and Hamidreza Aliasgari, were arrested and released on bail. Mona Borzoui, a female songwriter and Mahmoud Shahriari, a former state TV showman, have also been arrested and face charges.
Iranian leaders blame foreign governments for fanning the protests. Iranian Deputy Interior Minister Majid Mirahmadi said celebrities in particular have had a “steering role” in the unrest.
Mirahmadi said celebrities who have backed the protests will be allowed to atone for their “mistaken actions.”
He denied any athletes had been arrested but said some had received “guidance.” He said Mahini, for example, had been released and given “the chance to make good on his mistakes,” according to the Mehr News Agency.
Public figures have not been deterred.
Amirhossein Esfandiar, a national volleyball player, reposted a video of violent confrontations between security forces and protesters, writing, “You have no sense of humanity, why do you beat and kill innocent people?”
Qasim Haddadifar, a veteran sportsman and former soccer captain, published photos of girls protesting and wrote he was proud of them in an Instagram story.
According to British-based Iran International, some Persepolis F.C. soccer players reportedly wore black armbands during a match on Wednesday in support of the protest movement and were subsequently summoned by security.
Actress Hediye Tehrani claimed that the security forces in her country had forewarned her about her posts to her nearly 1 million Instagram followers. She nevertheless keeps posting pictures in support of the demonstrations. She recently posted, “Millions of girls are now Mahsa Amini.”
Outside of Iran, celebrities like Dua Lipa, Shakira, and the fashion label Balenciaga have also spoken out. Angelina Jolie wrote, “To the women of Iran, we see you,” alongside a photo of a protester holding up an image of Amini on Instagram.
The power structure is aware of the danger posed by celebrities’ extensive influence. Former Revolutionary Guards representative Ali Saaedi Shahroudi called for a body to monitor the conduct of athletes, musicians, and actors in a manner akin to that of organizations governing professional groups.
However, the harm might already have been done.
Despite the fact that Hajipour was compelled to take his song down from Instagram, protesters in European capitals and Iranian schoolgirls alike continue to sing it.
There is a movement to nominate the song for a Grammy in the category of best song for social change.
While using the hashtag #MahsaAmini may appear to be keyboard activism, Dagres explained that Iranians are grateful for the attention the world is paying to them. “The solidarity energizes protesters to continue putting up with batons and bullets to bring about change in their nation. They gain hope from it.
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