Iranian musician faces prison for women dancing, singing

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Iranian musician Mehdi Rajabian said he is under house arrest as he awaits trial for working with female dancers and singers, in the country’s latest move to stop women artists performing.

Rajabian, 30, said he was arrested on Aug. 10 following media reports that his latest project will include women singing and the publication of a video of a woman dancing to his music - both of which can be deemed immoral under Iranian law.

Iran’s justice ministry and the ministry of culture and Islamic guidance did not respond to requests for comment.

“Even if I go to prison hundreds of times, I need female singing in my project, I need female dance,” said Rajabian, who has been jailed twice before over his music.

“Whenever I feel the need to produce this music, I will definitely produce it. I do not censor myself,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation via text message from the northern city of Sari where is currently out on bail.

Iran has long censored art and music and arrested hundreds of performers under vaguely defined morality laws that target women and sexual minorities, according to Human Rights Watch.

There are no laws banning women in music, but religious decisions issued under Iran’s Islamic rulers, who came to power in the 1979 revolution, have been used arbitrarily, said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of Center for Human Rights in Iran.

“The government would like to propagate ... a traditional attitude toward women’s presence in public in general,” he said.

“It doesn’t have to be about performance.”

Hunger Strike

The legitimacy of the Islamic republic’s rulers was challenged by nationwide protests last year, sparked by fuel price hikes, which were met with a violent crackdown.

Many young Iranians are disillusioned with laws that limit women’s freedom, with fines and jail terms for having their hair uncovered or for wearing clothes deemed immodest. Thousands have protested by removing their hijabs in public in online videos.

Women wearing protective masks cross a street in the Iranian capital Tehran on March 2, 2020, following the coronavirus outbreak. (AFP)
Women wearing protective masks cross a street in the Iranian capital Tehran on March 2, 2020, following the coronavirus outbreak. (AFP)

The video which led to Rajabian’s latest arrest features Iranian dancer Helia Bandeh, who lives outside Iran, performing to a track from his 2019 peace album “Middle Eastern” by Sony Music, which features about 100 artists.

Rajabian spent three months in solitary confinement in 2013 for propaganda against the state and in 2015 he served two years behind bars until he was released after a 40-day hunger strike.

Freemuse, a non-profit that supports freedom of artistic expression said at least 11 artists were prosecuted or sentenced to jail in 2019, with women targeted for performing for mixed - rather than all-female - audiences.

Negar Moazzam was investigated for singing solo in traditional costume and her Instagram account was taken down after a video of the performance went viral on social media, Freemuse said.

It also said male musicians Ali Ghamsari and Hamid Askari were banned from performing in Iran after they allowed women to sing during their concerts, with authorities turning off the sound to stop the women being heard during both shows.

“This has been happening ... because of one-sided interpretations of religious doctrine supported by political power,” said Srirak Plipat, executive director of Freemuse.

Meanwhile, Rajabian is undeterred by the latest prison threat as he has been living in isolation for a long time.

“I have been completely alone at home for years,” he said.

“It was as if I had been transferred from a smaller prison to a larger one.”

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