In early summer 2016, a group of female singers – and the men who had worked with them – were summoned as a group to appear before the Culture and Media Court in Tehran. More than 50 individuals were originally named as would-be defendants, and most were subjected to multiple interrogations.
Finally, in 2019, the Court issued a preliminary verdict against six of the female singers and eight male producers. Each was sentenced to one year in prison, and one of the men was also hit with a cash fine. They all appealed, but another three years later on July 30 this year, they were told the sentences were upheld, and to pack their bags for jail.
Five years of torment have issued forth from a single source: the women having sung in public, an activity the Islamic Republic finds intolerable, and the men having helped them make music videos. IranWire spoke to Faravaz Farvardin, one of the convicted parties in the case and spokeswoman for the Women’s Right to Sing Campaign, on how we got here.
A man laden with shopping bags passing down in a street just refreshed by a drizzle; a handful of construction workers on scaffolding; a housewife doing her daily chores; a young boy waking up; a man hidden in sunglasses, kitted out like a government employee in a gray suit, wearing a white shirt and standing next to a wall – each one dances in a corner of Tehran to the sound of a trumpet.
The singer has a big smile draped across her face. “Come and dance with me – come to the street and sing with me – shout ‘til the last note into the dormant ears of sleepy ones – kiss me and laugh with me – lift all the distances...”
The music video for Faravaz Farvardin’s Dance With Me was one of the last she recorded in Iran. The lyrics, by Pooyan Moghaddassi, mentioned a few concepts the Islamic Republic has long sought to remove from citizens’ social vocabulary: dancing, singing, kissing, embracing. But far more offensive was the nature of their delivery: to whit, by a woman singing solo.
“In 2016, when I was summoned to the Culture and Media Court, I wasn’t told which one of my songs had gotten me,” Farvardin told IranWire. “There were close to 50 of us and we’d never met before.
“We thought the others might have been released after signing confessions. But the final verdict issued on July 30 named 10 female singers and 14 male producers involved in making and distributing these videos. Some of them had only met at a party and hadn’t played any role in making the videos.”
The examining magistrate in this case was Bijan Ghasemzadeh, Farvardin said, and the judge was the notorious Mohammad Moghiseh. “Ghasemzadeh is the same one who oversaw the case against [the rapper] Amir Tataloo. He was also the one who blocked Telegram. But he himself was later arrested on corruption charges. And I’ll never forget coming face to face with Judge Moghiseh, whose name is tied to the 1988 massacre [of political prisoners] and other political and security cases.”
All those named in the case, Farvardin said, were interrogated, often for days on end: “Apart from the long hours, we had to endure all sorts of insults and degradations. After the preliminary verdict was issued, they called us anything they liked. They said we were scum who wanted to promote corruption.
“Although we’d been summoned for different reasons, interestingly in the final verdict we were all convicted on the same charges. My lawyer even asked Ghasemzadeh: ‘If you were going to bring the same charges against all of them, and give them all the same sentence, then why did you question them one by one?’”
Farvardin is a vocal supporter of the Iranian #MeToo movement. She was one of the first artists and performers to publicly back the victims, and also made a video about sexual violence in the country. “Don’t think for a moment it’s just the female singers in this case,” she told IranWire. “Women’s identity is devastated in almost all aspects of our lives in Iran.
“During interrogations, we were told repeatedly: ‘It’ll be your own fault if you get harassed and raped. What do you expect, when you dance with men and sing in the studios?’ In their eyes, we had no rights as human beings.”
Every last defendant, Farvardin said, appealed against their sentence, but all were rejected by the court of appeal due to a “lack of admissible evidence”. The actual offences they had committed, according to the judgment, were “commission of forbidden actions, immoral acts by attending licentious gatherings, participating in producing vulgar music and images, and broadcasting them on hostile networks.”
None of the other defendants has yet publicly outed her or himself as having been involved. “To be honest,” Farvardin said, “most of us were hoping the appeals court would change the verdict. And anyway, a female singer is a non-person in Iran. With the ban, nobody in Iran recognizes it as a legitimate vocation. Many believe that if they talk about threats, summonses, interrogations, related to their singing, not only will they not receive support, but they might also be challenged by people who don’t see them as legitimate.”
The defendants notified on July 30 were given five days to present themselves to the authorities, after which they would begin serving their sentences. It comes at a time when Covid-19 is on the rise again in Iran, and concerns that the virus will once again rapidly spread through the country’s overcrowded prisons. The latest dispatch by Narges Mohammadi, a veteran human rights activist being held in Evin Prison, reported that several inmates had returned positive tests and her ward was so over-capacity there was nowhere to quarantine them.
Farvardin told IranWire that in her view, unlike the drive to allow women access to football stadiums in Iran on a par with men, or the pushback against forced hijab, campaigns in support of female singing were less widespread. “In all the years women have been banned from performing on stage, they’ve been alone, and paid for the fight all by themselves. When [pop singer] Mr. Reza Sadeghi tells men not to into stadia until women are allowed in, I want to say men should stop singing, stop going to events organized by the government, as long as women are banned from singing.”