We have to speak out against violence against women much louder. Especially when it comes to situations in which women have to fear for their lives over the simplest things and actions. Like wearing their hair uncovered. Or sing in public when men are around. The right and freedom of having sovereignty over their own bodies and decisions. Things that are so normal for us, that we do not waste much thought on and the kind of freedom that we take for granted. But this freedom unfortunately doesn´t exist for everyone. This is also a call to all of us! Please speak up!
Iranian artist and women’s rights activist Golazin Ardestani aka Gola grew up in Iran but now lives exiled in London and Los Angeles. We talked to her about the Iranian morality police, where she get’s the strength to keep fighting and what each of us can do for change.
Hello, first of all I would like to say that I am very honored to do an interview with you. I am happy to talk to someone about this, because this topic has been on my mind for so long. Unfortunately, the whole issue has been ignored in the media and by feminists in the western world for too long time. I have been supporting the project My Stealthy Freedom – an independent campaign by Iranian women for many years. Through acts of peaceful civil disobedience, the campaign highlights and pushes back against discriminatory gender laws within Iran. I’ll start right away: What can each individual do to help women and girls?
Thank you. Doing this interview is already a big help. Right now, the most important thing that we can all do is to be the voice of Iranian girls and women. Share the news as much as you can. If you have a platform, please do not underestimate sharing the news. You can save lives and possibly change the course of history. The government is doing its best to silence people by shutting down the internet. Last time, in a similar situation called Bloody Aban, the Iranian Regime killed around 1500 people. Their tactic is to cut people off from the world and take back control by shooting them in the streets.
You grew up in Iran. And you have – according to my research – been arrested three times. Which experiences have shaped you the most?
Yes, I was arrested countless times, but I was put in jail three times. I remember vividly, once I physically resisted getting into their van and the morality police broke my arm in the process. I couldn’t attend my classes at University, as I was unable to play any instruments for a while. To be honest, being a woman in Iran made me really tough. There is never a day when your plan goes your way; there are always obstacles. You could be walking with your brother in the street and the morality police can stop you and ask you about your relationship. If you can not prove you are relatives, you will end up in the police station until your family comes to collect you with a proof of ID! This is if you are lucky and are not beaten to death by the police, like what happened to Mahsa Amini. Living in Iran as a woman is living in constant fear. You must be ahead of everything for the next threat that may come your way. You are constantly in a fight or flight mood. It was tough, but it made me who I am – I always find a way to achieve what I envision. These experiences also push me towards wanting to fight for women rights and human rights. I believe humanity must be able to enjoy their birthright: freedom. Until that day, I will not stop fighting for it, no matter where I live.
“Share the news as much as you can. If you have a platform, please do not underestimate sharing the news. You can save lives and possibly change the course of history.”
Iranian women are only allowed to sing in front of a female-only audience or as the back voice of male singers such as in duet or group performances when there are also men among the audience. Many girls and women therefore often sing in secret, taking private lessons in the background. Many are also afraid of shame in front of the family. What was that like for you?
Yes, this is correct. I mean, can you imagine a country where you can only hear male voices on the radio or TV? It is a crime against humanity and art. The government believes the female voice is provocative and must not be heard by men, hence it does not allow women to sing. If you record, release, or sing in public, you may face arrest, lashes and jail time. I always envied my male friends when we were university students. They could take on signing modules, and we couldn‘t. Many of them started their singing career while studying and we had to be their backing singers. It felt suffocating being the second citizen, even on stage! If we wanted to record a song (just for ourselves), we had to book a friend’s studio after 12 am so that no police would come in to check, as they thought the studio was closed. As for the female audience only concerts, sometimes despite going through the whole process of getting permission from the ministry of direction, even when the concert is only for women, the police suddenly come and interrupt you right in the middle of the concert. Once, we were performing in front of a female audience and we were all sitting down, not even moving or dancing. The audience was all sitting as well, and there were female morality police officers present to make sure the concert didn’t turn into a big party. However, a bunch of male Basiji police interrupted the concert, disconnected the microphones, and threatened me and the musicians that they would start beating everyone if we did not stop and evacuate as soon as possible! They make it impossible for you when you are a female musician or singer. They do not want you to exist at all and they do their best to stop you. Regardless, I can see the day we will sing in Iran freely!
Your new album “Change” is a statement directly to Iranian women and men that speaks to the fight for gender equality in spite of the nation’s oppressive compulsory hijab mandates and human rights violations. And it also gives hope. What future do you want for your country?
I want a big change. I want the dark blanket of lies, murder, dictatorship, repression, and poverty to be taken away from my country. Iran is a very beautiful place; the culture, history, food, music, and nature is amazing. I want women and girls to be able to walk in the streets of Iran with no hijab and not be arrested. I want them to be able to do things like ride bicycles freely and sing and express themselves without being arrested or killed. Iranian people deserve freedom, happiness, and dignity! That is all I dream us to have. I am sure by bringing awareness, we can have an extraordinary change in Iran. I will shout and sing about the truth of what is happening in Iran so that the world will see the real face of the regime. The future of Iran is in the hands of women, and change is on the way.
You are an incredibly powerful voice for all those who, for whatever reason, do not have the courage to step forward. It is not easy to rebel against a regime, especially when the repression is strong. What could give these people more courage to stand up for themselves but also for others?
To know that they are not alone! If Iranian people know that the world is standing by them, they’ll stand up and fight for their rights. They must know that the world is on their side for them to be able to generate change. This is the whole point of my album: to bring awareness, to ask for everyone to join us. Solidarity can be the best gift for Iranian men and women at this time in history.
“Solidarity can be the best gift for Iranian men and women at this time in history.”
You are also the face of the ‘Hijab No Hijab’ movement in Iran. What exactly does this movement do and how can one support it?
This is a movement against compulsory Hijab in Iran. After the revolution in 1979, Iranian women had to go in public with an extremely restricted dress code including heavily enforced headscarf or hijab mandates. For more than 40 years, women and girls have been saying no to hijab by removing their headscarves in public and risking fines, jail time, and their lives. On the national day of Hijab this year, hundreds of women came to the streets to remove their scarves and posted photos and videos freely so that they could show the government that they are against Hijab; this resulted in many arrests and pushing false confessions from women on national TV. On that day, my song “Haghame,” which is a protest song against the compulsory Hijab, resonated with many girls and women and was shared by thousands, ultimately going viral.
On September 16th Mahsa Amini was arrested by the morality police in Iran. She was beaten while in their custody, went into a coma, and later was pronounced dead. Following that, and in support of freedom of choice, women have been setting their veils on fire and cutting their hair in front of the camera. People are enraged, and protests continue spreading in many Iranian cities. They have had enough. For those who do not know what the morality police is, they are men and women in special vans called “Gashte Ershad,” the direct translation is “Guidance Patrol,” and they are present everywhere making sure your hijab is appropriate. If a couple of strands of hair are out of your scarf, they take you savagely to their vans to the police station. It is very similar to kidnapping – they push you in a van against your will and you never know where you will end up!
Iranian officials and their Chambers abroad are trying to normalize forced hijab as a “cultural” dress code. We should know that there is nothing cultural about something that is widely opposed by the people of that culture, to the point where people risk their lives protesting against it.
Things that people outside of Iran can do to help: spread the word and let everyone know the Islamic republic of Iran is like ISIS and Taliban. They do not respect human rights, and killing is in their DNA. They do it with a smile and lie to the world, saying that they care while Iranian citizens know all too well that they don’t. Also, it is important for female journalists, politicians, or those who meet with the Iranian officials not to obey and follow their protocols. You don’t need to wear a headscarf out of respect for a man who does not respect its people and their lives. Hijab is a way of control for the Iranian authorities – do not legitimize their misogynistic laws by following their requests outside of Iran.
photograhy by Laetitia Dumez
“I gave up my life in Iran not only to pursue my passion, but to create tangible change in this world.”
You have been living in London since 2011. How painful is it for you to be exiled from your own country? What do you miss the most?
I can’t describe the pain, it is so much that it makes you numb. I really miss my friends and my family, I miss going to my dad’s grave in Ardestan where my family originally came from. The city is famous for its amazingly tasty pomegranates and for that I have a small pomegranate tattoo on my wrist to keep my dad very close to me. I really miss our family home, we had the most beautiful rose garden in Isfahan where I grew up and that was my safe haven. Knowing that I am on a mission to change something helps me to deal with the pain. I know I am here for a reason and that makes everything ok. I believe that no woman should be forced to face such a life-shattering decision, to choose between living in her country with her loved ones or to follow her passion for singing, music, and her right to freedom of expression. I gave up my life in Iran not only to pursue my passion, but to create tangible change in this world. That is what keeps me alive.
And what do you love most about Iranian culture?
Poetry, and of course the Iranian traditional music. I play Santoor which is a beautiful Persian instrument with 72 strings. It kills you to tune it, but when it‘s done, it takes you to heaven! Iranian poetry is very rich; one of my favorite poems is called “Bani Adam,” and is written by poet Saadi Shirazi from his Gulistan. Its first sentence is:
“Human beings are body parts of each other,
In creation they are indeed of one essence.
If a body part is afflicted with pain,
Other body parts uneasy will remain.
If you have no sympathy for human pain,
The name of human you shall not retain.”
The poem is also inscribed on a large hand-made carpet on the wall of a meeting room in the United Nations building in New York.
photo by Vision
“Iranian officials and their Chambers abroad are trying to normalize forced hijab as a “cultural” dress code. We should know that there is nothing cultural about something that is widely opposed by the people of that culture, to the point where people risk their lives protesting against it.”
When you spend years trying to change something, it takes an incredible amount of strength. Where do you get the strength to keep fighting?
The only way you can do that is to turn the rage into fuel and use it to change what is not inline with humanity and love. When I envision a future that is full of love, freedom, and peace, I find energy. The journey of change is always a long one, no big change has been generated overnight. It starts with a vision that doesn’t exist and people thinking it is impossible; they discourage you, try to stop you along the way, and you might keep hitting big walls along the journey, but there is always a way to create a new path. You should stick to your vision, don’t give in, and use your rage in a positive way. It is a matter of time, but it will be done!
Would you like to tell us something important?
Dictatorship is like a cancerous tumor; if we don’t get rid of it, it will spread all over the world and kill us one by one. Stand by Iranian people to get rid of this dictatorship! We are in a very important time in history to support Iranian women, isolate their suppressors, and ask your government not to shake hands with and keep saving them.