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Iranian Creatives Champion Change for Women Despite Dangerous Consequences: ‘We Need to Continue Fighting’

“Woman. Life. Freedom.”
“Zan. Zindagi. Azadi.”

These words have been chanted around the world for months in support of Iranian women who are demanding freedom of expression and an end to the country’s oppressive rules for women.

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This inspiring female-led movement was sparked by the death of Jina “Mahsa” Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian Kurdish woman who died while in custody of morality police for allegedly wearing a loose headscarf.

Iran is now experiencing its biggest wave of demonstrations in decades, with acts of protest by female demonstrators including publicly removing their hijab or cutting their hair. The cry for change has even won awards. Shervin Hajipour’s “Baraye” – Iran’s unofficial protest anthem – made history by becoming the first award-winner for a new Grammy Award category, “Best Song for Social Change.”

Iran’s security forces have responded with reportedly deadly force, with over 500 people killed since protests began, according to Tehran-based Human Rights Activist News Agency (HRANA).

Iranian actors have voiced their support for the movement, despite the dangerous consequences. “The Salesman” actor Taraneh Alidoosti was detained in December on charges of “spreading falsehoods” after condemning the country’s recent execution of Mohsen Shekari. Actors Hengameh Ghaziani and Katayoun Riahi were arrested on separate occasions in November for expressing solidarity with the protest movement. All three have been released on bail.

(2ndL-R) Berlinale Executive Director Mariette Rissenbeek, US actress and Berlinale Jury President Kristen Stewart and Iranian-French actress and jury member Golshifteh Farahani among others hold a placard reading "Woman Life Freedom" during a protest in solidarity with protesters in Iran on the red carpet at Berlin Film Festival the Berlinale on February 18, 2023 in Berlin. (Photo by John MACDOUGALL / AFP) (Photo by JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP via Getty Images)
Kristen Stewart joins Berlin Film Festival red carpet protest against the Iranian regime.

“Holy Spider” actor and Oscar hopeful Zar Amir Ebrahimi dedicated a protest to Iranians and jailed artists at this year’s Göteborg festival. The Oscar hopeful has been proud to see the world rise up in support of Iranians. “My wish for the Iranian people is for them to recover their freedoms and their basic rights – freedom of speech, peace, a better education system and a revised economic system. We lost so much during the 44 years of this regime, that it is almost like starting from zero. However, as long as we have so many amazing, intelligent people imprisoned in Iran, we can’t reach that point. That’s why we need to end this regime — for a better future for the people of Iran,” she tells Variety.

Nazanin Boniadi has been a vocal activist for Iranian women’s rights for years and has urged Hollywood to raise more awareness about the current political upheaval over women’s rights in Iran. She recently spoke on the topic at the Academy Women’s Luncheon presented by Chanel, held at the Academy Museum in Los Angeles.

Nazanin Boniadi at the Academy Women’s Luncheon Presented by Chanel held at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures on November 16, 2022 in Los Angeles, California.
Nazanin Boniadi at the Academy Women’s Luncheon Presented by Chanel held at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures on November 16, 2022 in Los Angeles, California.

“Iranian women have caused a paradigm shift by openly defying a system of patriarchal misogyny that has subjugated them for four decades, and they’ve gained allies across different sectors of Iranian society while doing it,” Boniadi said to attendees including Chloe Zhao, Claire Foy and Tessa Thompson. “There’s a lesson to be learned from Alfre Woodard, Danny Glover, Blair Underwood and several other longtime anti-apartheid activists in the creative community, who in 1989 founded Artists for a Free South Africa and were pivotal in helping turn the tide. They successfully used their platforms to amplify and elevate the movement and that’s exactly what we need to do for Iran right now.”

The “Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” star has been working tirelessly outside of the realms of entertainment, from delivering impactful speeches at the United Nations Security Council to meeting with Vice President Kamala Harris.

Another supportive move amid the protests has been Iranian filmmakers secretly filming dual versions of their films featuring hijab-free women in hopeful anticipation of a regime change. Iranian director Hana Makhmalbaf, who lives in London in exile after Iranian authorities issued an arrest warrant following the Venice premiere of her film “Green Days,” told Variety that women are even going to film sets without their hijabs.

“When asked to put them on, women say, ‘We are giving blood for this hijab, we are not going to put it on.’ This is what the regime is scared of — that nobody is afraid any longer. Taking the hijab off is a symbol. It is a symbol of saying, ‘We don’t want you [Islamic authorities].’”

Ebrahimi adds a necessity for Iranian creatives is to have support for their projects outside the realms of Iran’s strict censorship and restrictions. “I’m talking to different festivals, to financiers, trying to find artists’ residencies, looking for and trying to create special funds, in order to help Iranian artists,” Ebrahimi says. “We need to continue making movies and being creative because without art we’re going to die. Without cinema we can’t live, especially in Iran.”

Protests in Iran are not a novelty — as the country has witnessed several demonstrations for decades with the intention of removing the Iranian government and addressing economic and social issues in the country. This time, however, Iranians and non-Iranians alike feel something is very different. The world is participating, not just against Iran’s oppression of women but all oppression of women.

“Iranian women have been incredibly inspiring all these months,” Ebrahimi says. “Having a safer Middle East makes the entire world a better place to live so we need to continue fighting and trying to isolate this government that uses money, violence, and torture to control its people. It takes time but sooner or later the regime will fall — we need to stay united and vigilant.”

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