The Islamic Republic of Iran has been in existence for over 44 years, but the regime is now facing intense unrest due to four months of relentless protests. Despite the regime’s attempts to crack down on protesters with violence and executions, the protest movement has grown. 

Remarkably, the protest movement lacks identifiable leaders. Instead, it operates as a spontaneous collective.

Among the dissidents are filmmakers, musicians, visual artists and writers using their public platforms as powerful insurgent forces against the Islamic Republic. The Iranian Alliance of Motion Picture Guilds has reported that over 100 Iranian artists have been arrested, banned from working, or had their passports and other travel documents confiscated for supporting the protests.  

In a show of solidarity, several cinematographers withdrew their films from the Tehran Short Film Festival, refusing to be “complicit with endorsing brutality.” In the same spirit, Academy Award-winning film director Asghar Farhadi expressed solidarity with protestors on several occasions. In one statement he said, “You must have heard recent news from Iran and seen images of progressive and courageous women leading protests for their human rights alongside men.”

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Taraneh Alidoosti, co-star of “The Salesman,” which won Best Foreign Language film at the 2017 Academy Awards, spoke on behalf of Mohsen Shekari, a protestor who was executed by the regime. Her sentiment quickly spread among many other celebrities and influencers through social media. Iranian authorities arrested Alidoosti, fearing her statements would expand the protest; instead, their action fueled the dissent.  

International advocates for Alidoosti’s release include the efforts of Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal, co-founders of the Tribeca Film Festival, and of the International Coalition for Filmmakers at Risk (ICFR). Over 1,000 French film professionals signed an open letter demanding the release of Alidoosti. Protests can work. Unfortunately, another ICFR ambassador, Iranian director Jafar Panahi, is currently in prison for seeking the release of fellow filmmakers.

 According to Justina, an Iranian rapper, the music world is not a mere onlooker; rather, “Protest art arises when the society is full of anger and the artist is part of the angry society.” In September 2022 Shervin Hajipour, a lyricist and singer, composed a protest song, “Baraye,” which translated means “For this.” Its cantatory format based on tweets encapsulates the troubled state of Iranian youth: “For my sister, your sister, our sister; To change brains that rot; For shame of poverty; For yearning for an ordinary life …” “Baraye” has become an anthem for the protest at home and abroad. It has received over 100,000 nominations for the 2023 Grammy for Best Song for Social Change awarded by the Recording Academy of the United States. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken listed “Baraye” as one of his favorite songs of 2022.  

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Visual artists have also contributed to the protest. One anonymous Iranian visual artist reimagined the colossal statue of Lady Liberty in New York’s harbor as portraying Mahsa Amini. Instead of a lighted beacon, her scarf flutters aloft as a symbol of strength, resistance and unity. Other protest images appear in graffiti, stencils and fountains stained blood-red. Banners naming and depicting the Supreme Leader have surreptitiously appeared at night and been burned.

Origami, too, has found a place in the protests. After Kian Pirfalak, a 9-year-old, was killed in the protests, his family shared photos of him playing with paper boats. Immediately, origami boats carpeted the country. Paper boats appeared in lakes, canals, pools and even in trees to remember this child. In addition, eight long, red banners depicting Mahsa Amini and the words “Woman, Life, Freedom,” were anonymously unfurled at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Visual images such as these have prompted 500 international artists, academics, critics and curators to sign an open letter supporting the protests.

In December 2022, sixty Iranian writers pledged to publish their work without seeking government approval until repressive policies have been lifted. They decry censorship and demand freedom of expression as a fundamental right. Supporting Iranian writers is PEN America, which has followed the insurgency closely.  

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Iranian artists of all mediums are using their creativity to lead a protest movement against their oppressive government, advocating for a democratic future in which Iranians can freely express themselves.

How can Americans support this cause? 

One way is to ask the U.S. Department of the Treasury to reevaluate its current Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) sanctions to allow aid to organizations and individuals persecuted by the Iranian government. It should issue an OFAC General License that defines and clarifies how charities, nonprofits and philanthropies can help Iranians. Such action would embrace President Biden’s statement that “the United States stands with Iranian women and all citizens of Iran who are demonstrating exemplary courage around the globe.” It would provide meaningful support for women, life and freedom.

 Bahman Baktiari is the executive director of the Baskerville Institute.