Growing up in Iran, Sahar Ajdamsani, 26, recalls that she was in love with reading and writing stories from the time she was eight years old, and realized that, despite the risk, there was nothing else she wanted to do with her life other than to become an artist.
“Of course I knew it was dangerous,” the singer-songwriter and poet said recently from exile in Germany. “But I liked music beyond anything in this world.”
In 2021, Sahar, who has over 400,00 followers on Instagram, wrote a song, “Quarantine World,” which became a global call to action featuring 11 artists from around the world calling for unity during the COVID-19 pandemic. The song was not a viral hit, but for the Iranian authorities, that didn’t matter—Sahar had committed a crime simply because she was a woman who had released music, which is, in Iran, an illegal act that can lead to imprisonment, and even death. In September of that year, she was summoned to appear before the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence. Her bank accounts were frozen and her family received repeated calls from unknown numbers—which they suspected were from the government.
Fearing for her life, Sahar fled to Iraq. Broke and separated from her family, she suffered severe depression and anxiety, while facing an unknown future.
For decades, Iran has been one of the most dangerous places in the world to be an artist, with extraordinarily high levels of repression and censorship that penetrate every aspect of society. In PEN America’s 2021 Freedom to Write Index—an annual count of imprisoned writers worldwide—Iran is one of the top five global jailers of writers, with at least 21 jailed during 2021 for their free expression.
The situation has only worsened dramatically since the outbreak of mass demonstrations in September 2022 following the death of 22-year old Mahsa Amini, a Kurdish woman who was arrested for allegedly wearing her headscarf improperly and was later killed in custody. Thousands of Iranians have taken to the streets across the country in response to her death, demanding freedom and equality for women. Approximately 18,000 people have been arrested and over 450 killed. Among these are many writers, poets, musicians, and public intellectuals.
The Iranian government recognizes and fears the power of artists to encourage Iranians to rise up and join the protest movement, as well as their ability to draw global awareness to the atrocities that take place in Iran each day.
The Iranian Alliance of Motion Picture Guilds, for example, reported that over 100 Iranian artists—including filmmakers, actors, and musicians—have been detained, banned from working, or subjected to travel bans for supporting the protests or joining rallies. According to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, at least 40 Iranian artists, writers, poets, actors, filmmakers, and musicians have been arrested and jailed since the start of the protests. Women artists are at particular risk.
Artists targeted for their involvement in the protests in recent months include musician Shervin Hajipour, who was detained for six days when his song “Baraye” became a viral anthem for the protests; poet Mona Borzeoi, who was detained for reading a poem in support of the protests; and rap artist Toomaj Salehi, who was indicted on November 27 and could now face the death penalty for songs he wrote in support of the protests. The Iranian regime has also charged several artists and writers with crimes that carry a death sentence.
The crackdown on the demonstrations escalated tragically on December 8, when Iranian activist Mohsen Shekari became the first protester in the recent uprising to be executed by the Iranian government, after the Islamic Revolution Court reportedly found him guilty of moharebeh or “waging war against God.”
In the days since, Iranian actress, activist, and literary translator Taraneh Alidoosti has joined the ranks of persecuted artists after she was arrested and detained by Iranian authorities for criticizing Shekari’s execution. She is best known internationally for her role in The Salesman, which won the Best Foreign Language Film Award at the 2017 Academy Awards.
The Artists at Risk Connection (ARC), a project of PEN America, consistently receives more urgent requests for assistance from Iranian artists than from any other nationality, representing 12 percent of our total caseload since 2017.
ARC has received requests from Iranian singers, filmmakers, poets, sculptors, painters, graphic designers, authors—and the list goes on. Each has faced targeted persecution in retaliation for their creative expression. ARC has helped these artists, including Sahar, apply for emergency funding, legal assistance, relocation opportunities, and other forms of direct support from arts and human rights organizations around the world.
Many of the Iranian artists that ARC has worked with over the last five years have received mysterious phone calls, telling them to appear before the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence. Some have had their homes searched, their private spaces desecrated by security officials, their artistic equipment destroyed. Others have been incarcerated and often tortured, in a country notorious for its inhumane prisons and brutal treatment of political prisoners. Many have been forced to flee, often languishing in unsafe countries like Turkey and Iraq for months or even years as they struggle to relocate somewhere where they can live and work without fear.
The Iranian Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance is responsible for reviewing and pre-approving nearly all forms of artistic expression in the country, from lyrics and music to screenplays and books. Movies, for example, must gain approval for shooting permits as well as distribution. The Ministry often imposes strict sanctions on artistic content, such as removing sexual content, altering scenes to fit with the Islamic Republic of Iran’s rigid morals and values, and imposing adherence to government dress codes. A movie scene where a woman removes her headscarf, for example, would not be permissible. Foreign films are also subject to review and censorship before they can be distributed within the country.
Female artists, like Sahar, are at particular risk of persecution. All women in Iran are required to wear hijab in public and face discriminatory laws in the areas of marriage, family law, custody, and reproductive health. This discrimination also impacts women’s autonomy as artists and limits their access to cultural and artistic expression. Iranian women are not allowed to perform music in public and must request permission from a male family member before traveling for work or pleasure. Sahar was even prevented from making an account on the Ministry of Culture’s website, where artists request permission to publish their artistic work on the basis of her gender.
Samaneh Atef, an Iranian painter who has worked closely with ARC since 2019, said censorship in Iran often felt all-encompassing. “Censorship did not end with only one foreign film; everything was censored. We were raised in such a way that we were forced to censor our thoughts. We couldn't be our real selves,” she said. “The fear of losing my family, my friends, and my country often made me censor my work, but when the pain and suffering of the people of my country increased day by day, I could not be silent, I put my fears aside and started painting.”
Samaneh was forced to leave Iran in 2019 and relocated to France.
Although Sahar is now safe in Germany, her work as an artist, musician, and human rights activist is not over. She misses Iran deeply—her family, her language, her culture—and wishes that she could return.
“I would like to live in Iran,” she said. “I had a mission in my country.”
Artistic expression is a core human right, which is being denied every day to Iranian artists, who are being silenced through intimidation, imprisonment, and worse. The UN Human Rights Council’s decision to launch a special investigation into Iran’s violent treatment against protesters is a welcome first step. It is critical for the UN’s investigation to include an emphasis on artists and writers as a group that is being specifically targeted and attacked on the basis of their power and cultural clout.
Iranian artists, like artists around the world, deserve to live in a world where they can create freely and without fear from persecution. It is our collective responsibility to stand in solidarity with them and fight for their voices to be heard.
Juliette Verlaque is a program assistant with PEN America's Artists at Risk Connection.