Iran's Crackdown on Celebrities

During the first two months of protests, dozens of major celebrities—from athletes and artists to award-winning actors, from poets to theater directors—publicly supported the growing challenges to the theocratic regime. Their actions and statements reflected the willingness of national figures to use their platforms, often at serious personal risk, to show solidarity with the movement that erupted after the death of Mahsa Amini on September 16.  

Toomaj
Toomaj Salehi: "I immortalized the voice of the people. Even my dead are victorious."

The government soon targeted the national figures with pressure to apologize on national television, summons to interrogations, detentions, threats of confiscated family property, travel restrictions. “The state security establishment long targeted anyone and everyone with a public platform, or with a large supporter or fan base who criticized state policies, to muzzle and crush dissent,” Jasmin Ramsey, deputy director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran, told The Iran Primer. “Their rights are infringed upon with impunity by state forces just as though they're any other average person in society.”

Female athletes appeared in public without their headscarves; the uprising was sparked over the issue of hijab. Male athletes refused to sing the national anthem at both national and international soccer, water polo, basketball and other sporting events. Toomaj Salehi, a musician, rapped, “Someone’s crime was that her hair was flowing in the wind. Someone’s crime was that he or she was brave and was outspoken.” Mani Haghighi, a filmmaker, posted a video statement criticizing the government requirement that women cover their hair; it received some 700,000 likes. A female poet recorded her homage to Iran’s young activists. “We will take this homeland back from your hands,” Mona Borzouei warned the regime. The following is a list of more than a dozen prominent Iranians who came out in favor of the demonstrators. Over the first two months, security forces detained more than 15,000 people from the general public, many of them young.

 

Sports teams

Beach soccer: National team members refused to sing the national anthem in the semifinal match of the Beach Soccer Intercontinental Cup against host team United Arab Emirates on November 5. A day later, they refrained from celebrating after winning the championship against Brazil. After his goal during the championship match, Saeed Piramoun, a player, made a gesture as if he was cutting his hair; many supporters of the protests, both at home and abroad, posted videos snipping their hair to signal support for the protests. Iran’s Football Federation condemned the actions. “People who have not followed professional and sports ethics…will be dealt with,” it warned in a statement. “Political behavior must be avoided in sports fields.”

 

Water polo: The national team refused to sing the Iranian anthem at a match against India in Thailand on November 8.

 

Sitting volleyball: The national team refused to sing the Iranian anthem after they won the world championship in Bosnia-Herzegovina on November 11.

 

Basketball: The national team refused to sing the anthem at a game against China in Tehran on November 11.

 

Athletes

Hamidreza Aliasgari (32-year-old former soccer player): After social media posts supporting the protests, the government detained the Persepolis Club player on October 2. He was later released on bail.

Ali Daei (53-year-old former soccer player): The national soccer team captain and head coach called for the government to “solve the problems of the Iranian people rather than using repression, violence and arrests” in an Instagram post on September 26. The legendary player had 10.8 million followers on the platform. Security forces seized Daei’s passport on October 1, when he returned to Iran from Turkey. They reportedly banned him from leaving the country but returned his passport on October 10. On November 14, he rejected an invitation to the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar and said on Instagram that he wanted to remain “in my homeland and express my sympathy with all the families who have lost loved ones these days.” Daei, who also played in Germany’s soccer league, held the international goals record until Cristiano Ronaldo surpassed him in September 2021.

 

Parmida Ghasemi (30-year-old archer): She removed her headscarf during an awards ceremony after placing in a local competition in Tehran on November 10. People cheered as it slipped off;  Ghasemi refused help when another woman tried to fix the headscarf. Ghasemi later apologized in an Instagram video. She had not realized her headscarf moved “due to wind and a lot of stress,” she said. Ghasemi also played down any connection to the protests. “This led to reactions which caused some misunderstandings,” she said. “My family and I have not, nor have (we) ever had, any problem with the hijab. I wanted to apologize to the people, officials and my teammates.”

 

Ali Karimi (43-year-old former soccer player): The national soccer team captain was an early supporter of the protests on social media. “Woman, life, freedom. Man, country, people,” he posted to his 15 million followers across Twitter and Instagram. Some of his tweets supporting the protests received hundreds of thousands of likes. On September 26, the judiciary seized his former property in Tehran (he had moved to the United Arab Emirates in June 2022 and sold the property). On October 4, the judiciary charged him in absentia with “sympathizing with the enemy” and “encouraging riots.” The Intelligence Ministry reportedly attempted to kidnap Karimi to forcibly return him to Iran and coerce a public retraction. On October 24, Karimi tweeted that he and his family had been threatened, but that he was “still mourning and worried about his compatriots” at home. After the disputed reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Karimi in 2009, he had also backed the 2009 Green Movement protests, when he and teammates wore green wristbands at a match against South Korea in Seoul.

Hossein Mahini (36-year-old former soccer player): The national team player tweeted early approval for the demonstrations. Security forces raided his home. On September 29, he was taken to Evin Prison for encouraging “disorder and chaos.” Mahini was reportedly held in solitary confinement in Tehran’s Evin prison. He was released after having “the chance to make good on his mistakes,” according to Deputy Interior Minister Majid Mirahmadi.

Niloufar Mardani (29-year-old speedskater): The former national team member competed on her own, after leaving the team, in a skating marathon in Istanbul. She accepted an award without wearing a headscarf on November 6. Two days later, the Sports Ministry condemned her decision to compete “without authorization,” since she had not been on the team since October, and without “the outfit approved by the ministry.” It said that she had competed in Turkey “as part of a personal trip without obtaining necessary permits.”

 

Elnaz Rekabi (33-year-old rock climber): She competed without a headscarf in the Asian Continental Championships in South Korea on October 16. After a video of her climb went viral, she said that her headscarf “inadvertently came off,” although she reportedly had planned for weeks to compete without a hijab. Hundreds cheered her at the airport when she returned to Tehran. She told local media that she had forgotten to wear her headscarf. On October 20, the president of Iran’s national Olympic committee said that she would not be punished. But Rekabi reportedly was placed under house arrest and told that her family’s land would be seized if she traveled abroad, gave interviews, or engaged in “sensitive activities” on social media.

Hossein Soori (head of Iran’s boxing federation): He announced that he would not return from Spain, where he was traveling for a tournament, on November 19. “I have decided not to return to Iran so that I can be the voice of those whose voices aren’t heard by the authorities,” he said in a video on social media. “I could no longer serve my dear country, in a system that so easily sheds the blood of human beings.” Soori was outspoken and condemned security forces following a September 30 crackdown in Zahedan, the capital of his home province, Sistan and Baluchistan.

 

Actors and Filmmakers

Sahar Dolatshahi (43-year-old actress): In late September, she was traveling abroad with singer Homayoun Shajarian when he displayed Mahsa Amini’s picture at a concert in Australia. After she returned to Iran on October 8, security officials reportedly seized her passport and banned her from future travel. 

Hamid Farrokhnejad (53-year-old actor): On October 9, he said that he had been interrogated twice for backing the demonstrations. “I was summoned twice, interrogated for 10 hours, and banned from leaving the country to prove to me that I was wrong when I said that even a peaceful protest is not possible in this country,” he said on Instagram. Farrokhnejad had supported previous protests in 2018, when the Intelligence Ministry summoned him over comments he made online.

Hengameh Ghaziani (52-year-old actress): She was an early supporter of the protests on social media. She condemned the “child-killer” government for the deaths of dozens of children in an Instagram post on November 17. Security forces detained her on November 20 after she posted a video of herself without a headscarf on social media. She was detained for allegedly inciting and supporting the protests as well as communicating with dissident media. “From this moment on, whatever happens to me, know that as always, I am with the Iranian people until my last breath,” she wrote to her 2.2 million Instagram followers.

Mani Haghighi (53-year-old filmmaker and actor): In late September, he criticized the mandatory hijab law and the government crackdown in an Instagram video that received almost 700,000 likes. On October 14, security officials prevented Haghighi from boarding a flight to London, where he was due to screen his latest film, “Subtraction,” at the London Film Festival. They also seized his passport. “Perhaps the authorities thought by keeping me here they could keep a closer eye on me, perhaps to threaten me and shut me up,” he said in an Instagram video. “The very fact that I'm talking to you now in this video kind of undermines that plan. If this is a punishment, by all means, bring it on!”

 

Mojgan Ilanlu (documentary filmmaker): Ilanlu posted support for the protests, including pictures of herself in Tehran without a headscarf, on Instagram. On October 17, she posted solidarity with climber Elnaz Rekabi and students at Al Zahra University for women, who had protested while President Ebrahim Raisi was delivering a campus speech. Security forces detained Ilanlu on October 18.

Katayoun Riahi (60-year-old actress): She was an early supporter of the protests and appeared in an interview with Iran International, a London-based television station critical of Iran’s government, without a headscarf on September 18. “Imprisoning people has become useless because Iran itself has become a prison,” she said in the interview. She was detained on November 20 after being summoned by prosecutors for her “provocative” social media activity.

 

Musicians and Artists

Shervin Hajipour (25-year-old singer): On September 29, security forces detained him after the release of a song inspired by Mahsa Amini’s death. His lyrics for “Baraye…” (or, in Persian, “For…”) were pulled from phrases used in Twitter posts or in public protests about Mahsa Amini. Hajipour’s song on Instagram went viral, with 40 million views in two days. It became the anthem of the protests, sung by defiant schoolgirls, blared on car radios, and picked up by sympathetic protesters in foreign capitals. Security forces pressured Hajipour to take down the song; his Instagram account was later deactivated. He was released on bail on October 4.

 

Toomaj Salehi (32-year-old rapper): Security officials detained him on October 30 for criticizing the government in his songs. “Someone’s crime was that her hair was flowing in the wind. Someone’s crime was that he or she was brave and was outspoken,” he sang. The security forces reportedly raided Salehi’s home, beat him, then detained him. Iranian media claimed that he was leaving the country, but his family refuted the allegation. His family denied that he had apologized in a video released by state-affiliated media. On November 26, the judiciary charged Salehi with “corruption on earth” and “enmity against God,” both of which carry the death penalty. He was also charged with “propaganda activity,” “forming an illegal group,” “cooperating with hostile governments,” and “spreading lies and inciting others to commit violence.” Iran Human Rights claimed that Salehi was not allowed to choose a lawyer for his trial.

In September 2021, he was detained and charged with propaganda against the regime his anti-government songs. He was released on bail after a week, but in January 2022 he was sentenced to six months in jail. His sentence was then suspended for a year.

Homayoun Shajarian (47-year-old singer): He sang a song implicitly criticizing the government at a concert in Australia in late September. “The tyrant’s oppression, like a hunter, has blown away my nest. God, Sky, Nature, bring dawn to our dark night,” he sang as Mahsa Amini’s picture was displayed behind him. After he returned to Iran on October 8, security officials seized his passport and banned him—along with actress Sahar Dolatshahi, who was traveling with him—from future travel. 

Mona Borzouei (38-year-old poet and songwriter): She was detained on September 28 for a poem supporting Mahsa Amini and the protests. “We will take this homeland back from your hands,” she said in a video posted on Instagram. Borzouie was released several days later.

Behrouz Yasemi (poet): Security forces detained Yasemi on October 18 after he read a poem in an Instagram video supporting Amini and the protests.

 

Connor Bradbury, a senior program assistant at the U.S. Institute of Peace, compiled this report. 

 

Updated