Songs for Freedom: the Power of Music in Iranian Protests
Arghawan Farsi 17 October 2022

As Iran is entering its fifth week of protests after the death of Mahsa Zhina Amini on September 16th 2022, the Islamic Republic is using harsher methods to further crack down the protests. In addition to partially shutting down the Internet across the country, the Islamic Republic has increased the number of arrests and the use of live ammunition against its citizens.

Graphic art by @jalz depicting Azadi Tower in Tehran, with superimposed slogan “Woman. Life. Freedom”

However, despite the over five thousand people arrested and more than 244 killed, including 23 children, the Iranian people have not stopped protesting against the current government. Every few days, I get a brief opportunity to talk to my family in Iran. While I worry for their safety, their resilience and bravery these days is inspiring. My youngest cousin told me that they have lost their fear of the Islamic Republic. “Look what they did to Mahsa, Hadis NajafiNika Shakarami or Zakaria Khial… They should not have died for nothing” she texts me.

In the past few weeks, it has become increasingly evident that Iranians are finding alternative ways to unite against the Islamic Republic despite its increased repression and brutality. One of the most important is music.

From revolutionary anthems to melodies sung by soldiers on the battlefields or songs whispered by underground resistance units through housing blocks – they all sing the same tune, one of freedom. Since the first instances of mass mobilization, civil wars, uprisings and revolutions, music has been a great symbol of unity among people, singing together gives hope and reduces fear.

In the recent uprisings in Iran, this feeling has been embodied by “Baraye” (in English, “Because of”) from Shervin Hajipour, a 25-year-old singer and songwriter from Tehran, that spread like wildfire on the internet. Shervin collected a variety of quotes from Twitter in which Iranians were expressing the reasons why they are going on the streets. Among quotes such as “Because of not being afraid to kiss in the streets” and “Because of the kid that is picking up garbage in the street and because of his dreams”, as well as “Woman, Life, Freedom” that has emerged as the main slogan of the protests.

Shervin’s song quickly became the new anthem of the protests. People can be heard singing the song from the Kurdish provinces in the south all the way to Mashhad, my home, in the north. Even though internet shutdowns continue to disrupt communication in Iran, it failed to disrupt the power of the song and its message “Woman, Life, Freedom”. Only two days after Shervin released the song, schoolgirls in Karaj took off their headscarves, held hands, and began singing it together. As Amin Sabeti a UK-based cybersecurity expert emphasized, “the best way to understand the protests in Iran is not through policy briefs or speeches, it is that song, which encapsulates all the societal pressures, fears but also hopes for which the Iranian youth is yearning for”.

Another song that is equally seen as one of the anthems of the Iranian Liberation is the Farsi version of “Bella Ciao”. Once known to the world as the Italian partisan song, associated with freedom and sacrifice, artists such as Yashgin Kiyani published a Farsi version of the song on Instagram and Twitter. The Farsi version went viral instantaneously and Iranians inside started singing and dancing to the song during the protests. Through melancholic melodies, Yashgin sings about unity during the protests and how the song of freedom will travel among the people. While Shervins’s “Baraye” has become the anthem of the protests overall, the Iranian version of “Bella Ciao” is mainly sung by women and dedicated to oppressed women everywhere. Videos have been shared of women dancing, burning their headscarves, and  singing “Bella Ciao” on the streets of Tehran.  As Yashgin highlights: “There is no better way to express solidarity and unity if not through singing together”.

Indeed, the feeling of unity among Iranians through singing together seems to have become a weak point for the oppressive methods of the Islamic Republic. For instance, when major uprisings in the cities of Sanandaj and Zahedan were suppressed by police forces, videos immediately appeared of Iranians living in those cities, playing “Bella Ciao” using traditional Persian instruments such as the tar or the kamanshe, reverberating sounds of resistance, resilience, and bravery.

Throughout the night, one can hear the chants of the people singing “Baraye”, “Bella Ciao” but also the song of Iranian resistance since 1980: “Yare Dabestanie Man” (“My Schoolfriend”) by Fereydoun Foroughi. Foroughi was one of the most famous pop singers in 1970s Iran. When the Islamic Republic came into power in 1979 and gradually instilled more and more repressive measures, one of them became the ban of both western and Iranian pop, rock, and funk music. Foroughi released the song in 1980, just a few months before he was entirely banned completely from performing and publishing music for the rest of his life. Despite the heavy restrictions and censorship of musicians on behalf of the Islamic Republic, this could not deter the resistance as Foroughi, and his song became the anthem against the repressive regime. On social media platforms, videos are being posted from all over Iran showing families and friends of those killed during the protests singing the song together. Behnam Laikpour, 35, was one of them. He was shot on September 27th 2022, in the northern city of Rasht. A few hours after his funeral, a now famous video appeared on Twitter of women with their hair free, waving their headscarves and singing with everyone “Injustice and oppression have left their marks on our bodies (…), who but you and I can ease our pain”.


It is exactly the intersection between the old and the current resistance that makes the protests so unique. Sixty percent of all Iranians is under the age of 30, meaning they never experienced the 1979 revolution. They are the first generations of Iranians who were born and raised under the Islamic Republic. Nevertheless, it is evident that the Islamic Republic has failed to take the aspirations of freedom and equality away from the new generations. Teenagers as young as 15 years are out in the streets protesting. The two most recent and heartbreaking examples are those of 17-year-old Nika Shakarami and 16-year-old Sarina Esmail Zadeh who were killed for their chants of “Woman, Life, Freedom”.

Nika went missing on September 20th during the protests in Tehran. After ten days, her dead body was returned to her parents. An autopsy showed that she had a broken nose, skull, and several other contusions and fractures. An investigation conducted by Amnesty International concluded that she died of torture. Sarina on the other hand was shot on October 6th during protests with six bullets in her body, fired by the Islamic Republic police branch called the “Basij” who uses live ammunition and arrests as methods to suppress protests.

One of the videos that captured the hearts of millions online, is of Nika, singing one of the most well-known Persian songs “Solthane Ghalba” (King of Hearts) by Aref. It is devastating witnessing a young Iranian woman born under this regime, knowing, and singing the lyrics of a song that was prohibited the moment the Islamic Republic came to power. As for Sarina, a video of her singing “Take me to church” by Hozier in the backseat of a car with her sister without any headscarf, is similarly painful to watch. It shows once again the power and importance of music particularly for the young generation of Iranians. It is being used as a tool and symbol for the fight and the dream of freedom.

When discussing music within Iran, it is important to understand that Iran as a State is home to many different ethnic minorities, from Balochs and Arabs to Kurds. It is usual for Iranians in the south to have Arabic as their mother tongue and Iranians in the west to speak Kurmanji. Therefore, the solidarity of music groups from these ethnic minorities demonstrates once again the uniqueness of the current uprisings since all ethnic minorities have been exposed to structural discrimination through the Islamic Republic for four decades already. One song called “Serheldan” composed by the Kurdish music group Hunergha Welat, represents once again the power of music in exemplifying unity in diversity. The Kurdish band from the northern part of Syria, Rojava, released a music video on September 29th which depicts a woman in traditional Kurdish clothing taking off her headscarf while other women are chanting “Jin Jiyan Azadi” (Kurdish for: Woman, Life, Freedom”).


As for Shervin, the singer and author of the song “Baraye”, the young musician was arrested two days after the release of the song by Iranian intelligence. After several days without any information, news came through that Shervin was released from prison on bail. He subsequently made a video where he urges his followers not to tie his music video to the protests stressing that he will not be available for interviews. It is clear to many Iranians that the video was created under forced confession tactics, as Shervin was one of the main public figures to first share videos under the hashtag of #MahsaAmini. In solidarity with him and to show the importance of his song, over 115 thousand signatures have already been collected to nominate his song for the Grammys under the category “social change”. One can only hope that even in the darkest times, the people of Iran will not stop singing and that we, outside, will to continue to be their voice.


Graphic art by @jalz depicting Azadi Tower in Tehran, with superimposed slogan “Woman. Life. Freedom”.


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