Iran’s celebrities face reprisals for supporting protests

BAGHDAD (AP) — 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.

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.

Some players on the soccer team Persepolis F.C. reportedly wore black armbands during a Wednesday match in solidarity with the protest movement and were later summoned by security, reported British-based Iran International.

Actress Hediye Tehrani said Iranian security had warned her about her posts to her nearly 1 million Instagram followers. Still, she continues to share images in support of the protests. “Millions of girls are now Mahsa Amini,” she wrote in a recent post.

Celebrities outside of Iran have also raised their voices, from Dua Lipa and Shakira to the fashion house Balenciaga. On Instagram, Angelina Jolie posted a photo of a protester holding up an image of Amini and wrote, “To the women of Iran, we see you.”

The ruling establishment clearly sees danger in celebrities’ wide reach. Ali Saaedi Shahroudi, a former representative of the Supreme Leader of Revolutionary Guards, called for an organization to oversee the behavior of musicians, actors and sports stars, similar to institutions regulating professional groups.

But the damage may have already been done.

Although Hajipour was forced to remove his song from Instagram, it continues to reverberate, sung by everyone from Iranian school girls to protesters in European capitals.

A campaign is under way to nominate the song for a Grammy, in the best song for social change category.

“While using #MahsaAmini might seem like keyboard activism, Iranians see the world’s attention is on them and they appreciate it,” said Dagres. “The solidarity invigorates protesters to keep braving batons and bullets to make a change in their country. It gives them hope.”

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