In Iran and beyond, arrests of singers and dancers show how music can be a powerful tool of resistance

, by The conversation , GHADERY Farnoush

Iranian women are prohibited from singing and dancing in public. Yet many are posting videos on social media dancing and singing along to singer Mehdi Yarrahi’s song Roosarito (Your Veil). The wave of videos comes after Yarrahi’s August 28 arrest. The Islamic Republic of Iran deemed the song “illegal and inconsistent with the ethical and societal norms of the Islamic community”.

Roosarito is one of many anthems that have formed the soundtrack to the Woman, Life, Freedom movement that began with the killing of 22-year-old Kurdish Iranian Jina Mahsa Amini on September 16 2022 by the morality police. Amini had been arrested for insufficiently covering her hair, in line with Iran’s compulsory veiling laws. Since then, the country has seen steady waves of protest for freedom and equality, including, but not limited to, women’s rights.

In my research, I look at how music and dance can be forms of resistance and advocacy in human rights struggles, particularly feminist movements.

In Roosarito, Yarrahi advocates for Iranian women’s right to optional veiling and reminds listeners that Iranian people “have sacrificed many dear lives in order to achieve freedom and democracy”. A few months earlier, his song Soroode Zan (Woman’s Anthem) was played and chanted as part of protests across the country.

Perhaps no song encompasses the Woman, Life, Freedom movement as much as Shervin Hajipour’s Baraye (For). Hajipour wrote Baraye only days after Amini’s death by compiling tweets that expressed Iranians’ hopes “for” a future free of oppression and violence. Baraye was performed by artists around the world in an outpouring of support for Iranian people.

Social media channels have been flooded with images of women in Iran singing and dancing in defiance of the regime and its oppression. Most famously, a video of a group of five young women in Tehran dancing in public without the hijab to Calm Down, by Rema and Selena Gomez, inspired a TikTok trend. After the women were arrested, Iranians and non-Iranians began to replicate the dance and post their videos in solidarity.

A global sound

Iran is not the only place where music has been used to raise awareness of social justice issues. In light of the Taliban’s efforts to remove women from public life in Afghanistan, two anonymous sisters recorded songs in their homes, hidden under burqas for their own protection. Explaining that their “voice is the voice of women who can’t speak and protest”, their songs about pain but also hope for change attracted worldwide attention.

In 2019, Chilean feminist collective LasTesis’s song Un Violador en Tu Camino (A Rapist in Your Path) became the anthem of the Chilean struggle against state violence. From India and Turkey to the US and Venezuela, feminist movements used LasTesis’s song in their protests for gender equality.

"Women, Life, Freedom" protest in London - photo Garry Knight via flickr, CC0 1.0 (public domain)

There is a strong sense of community and collaboration at the heart of feminist movements. As an art form that relies on participation and fosters community building, music can be valuable for such movements. Listeners are invited to sing along, share music, dance with their communities and make their own performances. Music’s important role in many cultures makes it an effective medium for sharing powerful messages and rallying others to join a cause.

Artists have also used their music to bring attention to the causes of their communities. Peruvian singer Renata Flores writes, sings and raps in her native language of Quechua. Combining modern musical genres with traditional Andean instruments and music, she highlights the marginalisation of Indigenous people and their culture.

American-Syrian Mona Haydar rose to fame in 2017 with her song Hijabi. Haydar addresses both the Islamophobia and prejudice against Muslim women in western societies, as well as the misogyny they experience in Muslim communities.

Pakistani female rapper Eva B has also shot to fame. Rapping in Urdu and Balochi, she uses her songs to advocate for women’s rights and to address broader issues of her community in Lyari, Karachi.

Music and social change

Music has long been a tool for social justice. From blues to hip-hop, entire musical genres have emerged from the experiences of black Americans in the US. The internet and streaming have made it easier for the music of a wider array of social movements to reach global audiences.

The recent addition of the “best song for social change” category to the Grammy Awards shows that the recording industry also recognises music’s importance in activism. The inaugural prize went to none other than Hajipour’s Baraye.

Music’s power to inspire social change has not gone unnoticed by oppressive powers in charge. This is evident in Iran’s persecution of Yarrahi, Hajipour, the five women from the dance video, Toomaj Salehi (a rapper detained in October 2022 for his support of the protests and sentenced to six years in prison), and Saman Yasin (a Kurdish-Iranian rapper sentenced to death in October 2022 for participating in the protests, currently awaiting a retrial of his case).

Many others who have used their voice and artistry in support of the Woman, Life, Freedom movement have been detained, tortured or worse. Most recently, protester Javad Rouhi died in custody under suspicious circumstances, following accounts of severe emotional and physical abuse by the authorities. Rouhi was arrested in September 2022 after dancing and chanting in the street as part of protests.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban have not only banned playing or listening to music, but in July 2023 burned confiscated musical instruments to prevent the “corruption” of citizens with music.

These attempts to suppress artists and the performance of music are a testament to the ability of song and dance to unite people for a collective cause, and to spread a message that is heard far beyond the affected communities.

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