Wednesday 11 February marked the 36th anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution. Every year, on this day, Iran’s official news outlets report of street celebrations attended by millions – waving flags and singing songs of 22 Bahman propaganda. Iranian TV channels broadcast state-approved traditional music and documentaries to remind Iranians of the unity and durability of the country through 36 years of self-proclaimed resistance against intruding outside forces.
The documentaries, films, music and other forms of Iranian art shown during this period will not, however, reflect Iran’s culling of its artistic community. Over the past three and a half decades, Iran’s music has changed drastically.
In an attempt to avoid Western hegemony, Ayatollah Khomeini, founder of the revolution, condemned all music deemed to be influenced by “foreigners”. This lead to an aggressive “cultural reconstruction” that attempted to eradicate many artists from Iran’s music scene. Women were banned from singing in public and payment of musicians was made illegal. Cafes became heavily regulated and cabarets were shut down.
Post-Khomeini, this cultural policy has been maintained to differing intensities. While the Khahtami era (elected 1997) led to the encouragement of cultural and economic liberalisation, the Ahmadinejad rule continued to echo Khomeini’s orthodox views. Many musicians, such as Arya Aramnjad, were arrested for their protest music after the 2009 election unrest. These years saw a rampant increase in dissent through art that hadn’t been seen in Iran since the 1979 Revolution.
Currently, inconsistency has been the name of the game and the hallmark of President Rouhani’s regime. Rouhani promised Iranians to bring about an atmosphere of free expression. He pledged to reduce censorship of artistic and cultural works. As Saeed Kamali Dehghan notes, Rouhani preached that the state must provide security rather than interfere in the affairs of artists and cultural figures.
Yet the reality on the ground has been somewhat different. From the arrests of the “Happy Dancers” for their YouTube video, to the arrest of BargMusic managers for their music distribution website, Rouhani’s promises do not seem to be transpiring as one would have hoped.
Many noted certain improvements for musicians (especially compared to 2008’s music black-out) during the Rouhani administration, including permission for some women to partake in certain public solo performances.
Last February, Rouhani proposed his Draft Citizenship Rights Charter. This move shows a promising step in the right direction. With regards to freedom of artistic expression, Article 3, Section 28 – 30 highlight rights owed to citizens and obligations of the state. However, this Draft is not the good news human rights defenders have been waiting for. Excitement by its introduction has been dampened by six simple words that ensure original barriers remain: “within the framework of the law”. This refers to existing laws that permit repressive policies towards freedom of expression. Once again we are faced with Rouhani’s mixed messages on artistic freedom.
An Iranian musician who prefers to remain anonymous told Azad Tribune that there’s a vacuum of knowledge — and a lack of interest — in the West about the dire situation facing musicians in Iran. Many are disillusioned due to heavy censorship and the uncertainty of “official permits” which allow them to perform. To him, the quagmire of the Iranian music scene is fading into the darkness of censorship. Iranian musicians need support more than ever, he adds.
Artists are seen as a “suspect group” that can be targeted at any point. Creativity has become their chosen weapon. This weapon is most avidly utilised in the cinema of Iran. In 2010 Jafar Panahi was sentenced to 6 years imprisonment and 20 year ban on film making for national security and propaganda against the state charges. This was after his news broke above a proposed documentary on the 2009 post-election unrest.
Though the international outcry led to his release, the ban has been upheld. This Is Not a Film was Panahi’s response to his ban. This homemade film was smuggled out of Iran on a USB hidden in a cake; it wowed film festivals worldwide. Other prominent directors have left the country to escape the Islamic Republic’s controls, leading to a ‘culture drain’ in Iran.
Many circumvent the blades of censorship through heavy use of metaphors, symbolism and a trust in the Iranian viewers ability to decode their messages. An Iran expert at Hivos notes “For example, there is a film that subtly addresses the AIDS issue without once mentioning the disease’s name.” He goes on to highlight, “(e)very form of art in Iran is a form of protest. Iranians are constantly trying to find gaps in the law.” For example, the perilous tunnels of Iran’s underground art scene is one creative arena that is flourishing like never before.
The total deconstruction of the Pahlavi reign’s overzealous attempts to Westernise Iran* lead to a more defiant and variant artistic community – an unexpected byproduct. Promises and proclamations that freedom of artistic expression will be protected in Iran have been broken over and over. Yet, the art war continues. The streets continue to be dressed in political graffiti, the cinemas full of symbolic dissent and the music echoing the outcry of the masses. Freedom of artistic expression is being forced upon the un-willing Iranian regime through the stealthy tactics of Iran’s creative minds. They have a 100% of our support.
* We should note that the clampdown on FoE did not start with the Islamic Revolution. Prior to the Islamic Revolution, censorship of anything deemed political and anti-monarchical was widespread. Arrests and executions of political prisoners became more and more common place throughout the 70s.