MSU community uses art to show solidarity with Iran protests
Amid ongoing protests and government repression in Iran, a group of artists at Michigan State University is raising awareness about the women fighting for their rights in the country.
The group hosted a packed crowd one January evening for a night of music, dance, and poetry performances. The pieces, inspired by Iranian stories and icons, show solidarity with the ongoing movement abroad.
A wave of women-led protests has swept across Iran for more than four months following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody. The Islamic Republic has responded with force to women defying its mandate that they wear a hijab, or head covering. Thousands have been detained.
One of the primary curators of the event is Parisa Ghaderi, an artist and professor of graphic design at MSU. She planned the cultural performances to support what she calls a historic moment of "the first women-led revolution" in Iran. The name of the event is Woman, Life, Freedom, the same Kurdish slogan protestors have been chanting across the country.
As a member of the Iranian diaspora, Ghaderi said she feels isolated from the movement back home. She wanted to promote awareness about the country while channeling her own feelings. And art is a powerful way to do both.
"Art has always served...not only the audience, but also the artist, as an outlet for expressing and channeling their anger and frustration," Ghaderi said. “It was also an opportunity to see how else I can talk about this issue without being redundant without sounding like a broken record."
MSU’s Lab Orchestra played several pieces throughout the night, including one inspired by the dance of Baloch protestor Khodanour Lojei, whose death in the protests has made him a martyr. Ghaderi added it was important for the event to illustrate the unity in the protest movement between the different gender, religious and ethnic minorities in Iran.
During a dance performance, three women drag a red ball of thread around the stage that contrasts with their black outfits. They contort their bodies in various positions to emulate the struggles of protestors and show expressions of rage and sorrow, at times clapping. They cover their eyes as if they received gunshot wounds and link arms with one another to indicate solidarity.
A male narrator reads the names of nearly 600 Iranians killed in the protests since Sept. 16, 2022. It’s a number Ghaderi is certain has grown since the recording was made.
She said these are the things that people hear about in news stories, but don't often see.
"I thought that could be like a symbolic representation of what's happening in the streets and what people are experiencing," Ghaderi said.
The night also included performances of several Persian songs played with traditional instruments. Mohsen Zayernouri is an Iranian professor of mechanical engineering at MSU. He plays a Persian flute, called a ney, during one solemn song called Withered Jasmine. The lyrics feature a mother singing a lullaby to her son who’s been killed in the protests.
Zayernouri said it was humbling to be a part of the performance and support the movement. He emphasized the goal of the event is to make the stories of the protest personal to the community, not to score political points.
“The whole purpose of this was not even of any political nature, rather it was to have a safe and honest conversation with people to share our story and our experience with them," Zayernouri said.
Ghaderi and her team hope to continue working with the community to support the protesters’ push for freedom in Iran. She feels her efforts will be successful if people in the U.S. learn more about the country’s rich artistic history beyond headlines detailing conflict in the region.
“There's still beauty, there's still culture, and we don't have to let them be ruined by all this, the chaos that is happening,” Ghaderi said.
It’s unclear how much the protests in Iran have swayed the Islamic Republic. There have been conflicting reports on whether the theocratic government has ended its so-called morality police, and it continues to use the death penalty to execute detainees. But Ghaderi hopes events like these show Iranians worldwide are standing behind their cause.