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Portraits of exile: Musical resistance to oppression from Iranian singer Faravaz

An imminent prison sentence caused her to opt for ‘self-imposed exile’ in Germany

This story is part of a series called “Portraits of exile” that delves into the experiences of Iranian women in the diaspora as they pursue freedom and showcase their resilience. The story comes as a commemoration of the tragic passing of Mahsa Jina Amini, a Kurdish woman who was killed at the age of 22 at the hands of the morality police for not fully covering her hair. This incident ignited widespread protests in Iran, which persist to this day despite escalating government oppression.

On the set of the music video for ‘Mullah‘ in July 2023. Photo by Yana Kaziulia, used with permission.

Many fans got to know  Faravaz, a 33-year-old Iranian singer based in Berlin, during her time in Iran. She gained recognition by sharing videos of herself singing and providing singing lessons in Tehran on Instagram. Faravaz became one of the prominent figures among brave young women who, in a country where solo singing in public is forbidden for women, gradually crossed borders in their struggle for freedom. 

In recent years, the younger generation in Iran, specifically Generation Z, and particularly young women, have increasingly used social media to challenge the oppressive Islamic regime and patriarchal structures within families and society. This is the same generation of young women who, since the September 2022 “Jin Jiyan Azadi” (Women, Life, Freedom) uprising, have garnered global attention through their bold resistance against systemic misogyny.

In the video below, Faravaz and Justina, an Iranian female rapper in exile, sing about the religious rules of the Islamic Republic in “Fatva,” where singing has been banned for women since the Islamic revolution until now.

From Tehran to Berlin

Driven by her passion and career aspirations, Faravaz eventually transcended the borders of her home country. In 2018, she was invited to Germany for the “Female Voice of Iran” Festival. Although she partially covered her hair while performing in front of the cameras in Berlin’s Villa Elisabeth, hoping to return to her homeland with minimal problems, a piece of news changed her mind, leading her to decide to stay in Germany. 

Being a longtime fan and follower of Faravaz on social media, I was thrilled to engage in a conversation at a cafe near Berlin's central station, overlooking the Spree River, where she shared some pivotal moments of her story. “I had been interrogated and tried in Iran for singing without a hijab, and my case was under appeal. While in Germany, I learned that a one-year prison sentence would be approved, and I would have to go to prison in Iran when I returned,” Faravaz shared with me. 

Then, the narrative of the past several decades, since the Islamic Republic regime gained power in Iran, resonated once more as the imminent prison sentence persuaded another Iranian to opt for a life in “self-imposed exile.” Crossing this “border” was no easy feat she told me. “I was shocked. It took me about two years to come to terms with the fact that there was no turning back.”

During those two years, Faravaz navigated the asylum process in Bavaria, Germany. However, before she could resume a relatively normal life, the currents of the COVID-19 pandemic washed her ashore like a piece of driftwood, extinguishing any possibility of returning to the cultural scene. This is why she expressed having lost the “golden years,” both inside and outside Iran.

“I lost four significant years of my twenties in Germany and two important years in Iran during the interrogations and court process,” Faravaz said.

Facing backlash and digital oppression

However, when crossing borders, discrimination and stigma cannot be left behind. By aligning with the MeToo movement, which resonated with influential figures in Iranian cultural fields in 2020, Faravaz, faced severe backlash for speaking out against a fellow Iranian male singer. She became the target of intense hate attacks. She was labeled an “attention-seeking whore” and received disturbing images, including severed heads. Ultimately, because of one of these waves of attacks, Faravaz's Instagram account, boasting thousands of followers, was removed as a result of mass reports — a tactic employed by Iranian digital armies to silence activists

“It was like they had closed my office,” she remarked. Although she managed to regain the account, the insecurity never left her — the lingering fear that, at any moment, a misogynistic force could dismantle what she had built as a public figure, whether through mass reporting or alternative methods like bot attacks.

Faravaz's choice to participate topless in one of the Jin, Jiyan, Azadi demonstrations in Cologne, Germany, in October 2022, subjected her to various insults and, in some instances, isolation, yet she believed it was the most authentic way to support a movement against several decades of the regime's control of women's bodies. This daring gesture prompted many to inquire about her motivations.

“In Iran, when you are a female singer, everyone keeps asking you, ‘Why don’t you leave Iran?’ They believe that, if you work as an Iranian female singer, the doors to success are wide open to you outside Iran. It is just a myth; either you have to work in an Iranian community, where it is often the case that the atmosphere is more misogynistic than that inside Iran, or you have to enter the world of non-Iranians, where you also need to know the language,” she said.

However, she continued, “In Europe, at least, you can go ahead, which is in contrast to inside Iran, where it felt like I was punching an unbreakable wall.”

Outside Iran, Faravaz did not hesitate to advocate for the right of Iranian women to sing. Female singers in Iran were among the early targets of Islamists following their rise to power in Iran in 1979. After the revolution, many female singers fled Iran, and those who remained were interrogated, imprisoned, and unemployed. Googoosh, the most famous Iranian pop singer, optimistically returned to Iran from abroad after the revolution but could only leave the country and resume her work as a singer two decades later

The video below, the song “Ey Iran,” is about the oppression of women in Iran and commemorates the suppressed women striving for freedom.

Navigating despair

While serving as the protagonist in the short documentary “My Orange Garden,” directed by Anna-Sophia Richard, which explores the prohibition of women singing, Faravaz shared insights into her occasional despair throughout her journey of activism, describing  it as a “product designed by the Islamic Republic to bring about inaction.” She also expressed disappointment on realizing that discrimination against women extended beyond the oppressive regime and persisted within households. “We have to be prepared for the substantial amount of work that will be required the day after the regime’s change,” she emphasized.

One of Faravaz’s latest works is entitled “Mullah,” and features provocative lyrics that rhyme, “I wanna ah with a mullah, make love with a mullah … bang bang with a mullah.” The song serves as a bold statement against the dominant political power that has controlled women’s bodies for decades, compelling them to leave their home country just to have their voices heard as singers. 

“Mullah” brought forth a barrage of attacks, ranging from criticism of her body shape to downgrading her activism and the quality of her voice. In an interview with Voice of America, she expressed her frustration: “I am angry and cannot remain calm as the misogynistic society expects women to be. I wonder why I should not be angry; I am filled with so many years of repression.”

In Berlin, Faravaz is not just an Iranian singer; she is an exile, determined to channel her anger into a movement that Iranian women, both inside and outside the country, have shaped through ongoing protests and daily resistance.

Second publication by courtesy of Global Voices


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