Back in early October an anonymous Iranian artist poured red dye into the fountains in Fatemi Square in Tehran to make the pool of water look like blood. Before the authorities had a chance to drain it away images of the red fountains were quickly shared on social media. It was one of the many small but eye-catching acts of protest that Iranian artists have been making over the past couple of months in response to the murder of Zhina Mahsa Amini, a young Kurdish woman.
On a trip to Tehran Amini was picked up by the so-called 'morality police', the henchmen of the supreme leader of Iran, the chief cleric Ayatollah Khamenei, for female dress-code violations. All women are required by law to have their hair covered with a hijab in public in Iran. Although Amini was wearing a head covering, she wasn't wearing it 'properly' apparently. The police bundled her into a van where she was beaten up. She fell into a coma, and died a couple of days later. The government claimed she died of a pre-existing condition.
This murder was the spark that lit yet another burst of protests in Iran against the hardline religious regime which has held power there since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Iran is a sham democracy, a bit like Russia. There are Presidential 'elections' every four years, but the candidates who can run for this office are selected by the supreme leader and can be overruled by the supreme leader. Given that the incumbent chief cleric is a religious fanatic there's no chance of moderate leadership. And little hope of reform.
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Over the past 40 years Iran has become a pariah state in the international community because of its state-sponsored terrorist activities. This has led to crippling economic sanctions which have brought Iran to its knees. The recent Covid lockdown was the nail in Iran's coffin, and inflation is now at 60% which is causing widespread poverty. And because there’s no way for people to change things at the ballot box their only recourse is to protest on the streets. That’s a dangerous risk though. Those who came out to protest in 2019 over the sharp rise in fuel prices were brutally suppressed with machines guns.
Iranian citizens have been subject to strict social and legal controls for years and there is a sense that people have no agency in their lives. Although there is a significant university-educated population, there are no jobs for students when they graduate. Iranians exist in a corrupt, tightly surveilled system with few opportunities to thrive and no freedom of speech.
Women in particular have had their rights repressed and their bodies controlled. But when you have nothing to lose and everything to gain, that's when you have power. And what's striking about this current round of protests is that young women and school girls are leading the dissent, supported by men. The Kurdish political slogan ‘Woman. Life. Freedom’ has now become a popular rallying cry.
This is a tech-savvy generation alive to the power of images and videos, and the networks they can use to spread them on social media. Within Iran artists, musicians and film-makers have been creating work which is critical of the regime, sharing it widely to inspire others to join the fight or to keep going. Protestors have been performing art in the streets, chaining themselves to lampposts whilst bending down in submission. When the police started rounding them up, protesters padlocked mannequins to the lampposts instead.
The visuals in urban streets have shifted over the past couple of months too. Stencils of Amini and other women killed in the uprising have been appearing all over walls. And stickers have been plastered over street signs with the names of young people who have been murdered. Posters of the two clerics who have been the supreme leaders since 1979 which you see everywhere on buildings now have eyes bleeding with red paint.
The artists have had to work fast though, because if they are seen by police they are shot. This kind of protest art undermines and mocks the regime, and it's hard to remove because it's not just visible on street furniture and buildings, it's all over social media too despite internet blackouts.
Artists in the Iranian diaspora have also been important for raising awareness of the human rights abuses taking place, and for keeping the protests in the public eye in the West. Last month an anonymous artist collective made headlines and drew support when they unfurled banners proclaiming ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’ from the top of the rotunda at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. And the high-profile Iranian-American artist Shirin Neshat collaborated with the Cultural Institute of Radical Contemporary Arts (CIRCA) to project an artwork on huge screens in central London and in Hollywood in solidarity with the Iranian protestors. Neshat has been outspoken in the media and on instagram about the political situation there.
Given the Iranian government’s track record on crushing protest it’s hard to see how this will end well for these young people. But the more pressure the Iranian regime feels from both inside and outside, the more likely reform will come. There has been widespread international condemnation of human rights abuses and cracks are appearing in the leadership already, with at least one significant politician arguing for a more moderate approach.
Art has been an important weapon in the fight to get this far. And it’s a reminder that it’s not possible to separate art and politics. Artists who are able to express themselves in whatever way they want to without fear or risk to their lives demonstrate (consciously or not) a political freedom that artists don’t have in countries like Iran.
“The artists have had to work fast though, because if they are seen by police they are shot.”
Just unimaginable bravery
Boldness. Very bold. 🔥🔥🔥