SINGER AND ACTIVIST ARGHAVAN ON FIGHTING FOR FREE SPEECH AROUND THE WORLD – EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW

Arghavan - Louise Roberts - The Untitled Magazine Issue 8
Arghavan – The Untitled Magazine #GirlPower Issue – Photography by Louise Roberts.

We have to help women who dont have freedom of speech.” -Arghavan

For Iranian-born, Swedish-bred singer-turned-womens rights champion, Arghavan, these words define her world. Both an activist and musician, she began garnering attention in the media after landing a spot on the British TV hit, Googoosh Music Academy. The London-based show, filmed by what is in Iran an illegal television channel, is a global sensation known as the “Iranian X Factor” with over 32 million viewers worldwide, tuning in to see performances by Iranian women who defy the religious restrictions imposed after the 1979 revolution, to sing in public.

After Arghavan landed a spot on Googoosh Music Academy, her chronicles as a competitor were broadcasted to the world, viewable even in heavily censored Iran via illegal satellite. Subsequently, she accumulated a wildly loyal fan base across continents, namely in her motherland, where women slowly emerged out of the woodwork to pour their hearts out to her through illicit mail correspondences, regarding their own creative pursuits vis-a-vis Irans state-sponsored censorship laws that prevent them from flourishing as artists. These events marked the beginnings of her career as an activist. She decided to publish an anthology titled, Zan (woman, in Farsi), containing the writings of the Iranian women with whom she had corresponded over the years – her fans-turned-friends – whose creative voices were being systematically stamped out by the government. 

The tipping point that transformed Arghavan into a full-fledged human rights champion occurred, in true millennial fashion, as the result of a YouTube video titled “Happy In Tehran” which she stumbled upon and posted on her Facebook page. The video (which went viral soon thereafter) featured six young (and very trendy) Iranian men and women lip-syncing to Pharrell Williams’ “Happy, which they produced to celebrate The United Nation’s International Day Of Happiness. As a result however, they were apprehended and arrested by the Iranian police and thrown in prison, which quickly turned the ordeal into a global controversy that even Pharrell spoke out against publicly.

Since the video, Arghavan has become an ambassador for the Swedish National Committee for U.N. Women. She lectures frequently on womens rights, and gave a Tedx talk last year. Finally, Arghavan is creating a project called Creative Change Makers, which aims to promote female artists in Sweden and Iran. I have a project now that is about artistic women in Iran and Sweden. Women that paint, photograph, do music, and write poetry. Im mixing it up with female Swedish artists, so they will all be collaborating together. The aim is to empower women there and empower women here through their art. By crossing the cultural borders between different worlds, I wish to create a strong connection between them. I have huge networks in Iran and in Sweden, so I want to mix them. I think these women can inspire each other to make great art – to do great things together”.

Read The Untitled Magazine’s full interview with Arghavan below, and snag a copy of the #GirlPower print edition on stands now!


Indira Cesarine: So, let’s just start with the beginning… I understand that your family fled from Iran after the 1979 revolution?

Arghavan: Yeah, after the Revolution in 1979 we had to flee because my dad was a poet. I was three. So then we went to first to Russia and then to Berlin and we came to Sweden when I was five. My parents wanted to give me and my sister all the possibilities in life. So we had to flee for us to get that. 

IC: I understand that a lot of your activism started from the Facebook video that was posted, “Happy In Tehran.” I read a lot about the story, and about your friends that were dancing and lip syncing who got detained. Can you tell me about the background on this Facebook video that started all the controversy?

ARG: Well actually it wasn’t just that.  The journey began when I took part in a British TV show, Googoosh Music Academy. It was broadcasted worldwide. The channel it’s on is not allowed in Iran, but it’s by satellite so everybody sees it. Over 32 million people saw it, it was like I became famous in a night. After this competition, I didn’t win it, I realized that there were a lot of boys and girls, mostly girls, that saw me and were inspired. I started getting letters from them and began to realize the impact I had made on this show, because I was this pop star. We always had these traditional singers but I was dancing and choreographing onstage, so it was different for them. When I realized my impact, I started to think, ‘Ok, maybe this is a mission for me, to be a kind of voice for the women in Iran.’ Because after the show, every time I went on stage, I went to Dubai, Malaysia, Germany, I thought, ’79 million people in Iran and girls are not allowed to sing.’ I felt guilty, because we had to flee from Iran because of this, and it was still going on. So after the show I started to think about this more and more and I felt so lucky. I had this freedom of speech that I  felt I had to do something with. So then the idea came to me about girls in Iran who were my fans, but who I started to chat with over the years, to have them write stories about how they live in Iran, as a woman. So after maybe three years, I released the book Zan – that means, a woman -a year ago in June. It’s about their stories and my stories. I try to inspire [the notion that], we can do so much; we just have to start.

IC: So these are your fans from the TV show?

ARG: Yes. But we became friends through Facebook. They were writing and supporting my singing, so I thought, ‘well I’ve got to give back…already!’ laughs.

IC: When was the “Happy In Tehran” video actually posted? 

ARG: It posted one week before my book was released. So I’d been waiting for three years for Zan to be released, and I was really excited. And one night my friend emailed me and she said, ‘Do you know what happened?’ Because one of the girls from the video, Rayhanna, actually wrote to me two weeks before. She posted on my Instagram, ‘Wow, I love the work you do and I love your style!’  And then I saw this ‘Happy’ video and I was like, ‘Oh my God, I want to share this, it’s so beautiful.  They’re expressing themselves, and they’re happy.’ I think a week later, my friend emailed me and was like, ‘Do you know they’ve been arrested?’ And you know, I wasn’t happy about my book anymore.  I forgot about the book, I forgot about everything because suddenly I was fighting for something. It was right in my face that they cannot express themselves.

IC:  And they were arrested for lip-synching and for dancing in the video?

ARG: Yes, yes.

IC: Now, did you post the video or did they post the video?

ARG: Well, actually, I posted—it was two different videos on YouTube that I found, so I mixed them. I mixed them, and I put it on my Facebook. And actually, this girl in the video who had made it wrote to me, ‘How did you find this?’ And I was like, ‘You know you have 400,000 views on YouTube?’ One week after they got arrested, the video was removed. But it got a lot of global awareness! Even Pharrell was writing about it.  I wrote under his comment, ‘You should write to me! I know so much more about the stories.  If you only knew what is going on with women in Iran!’ He didn’t answer, but I did my best.

IC: Were they imprisoned for a long time?

ARG: Well, they took them, and they actually got court time. Even though I know some of the girls in the video we can’t speak on the phone, so we are always writing, still writing privately to each other. They don’t have even Facebook anymore; they removed it because everything is watched. Most of them were fined $10,000 and they got warned, ‘If you do it again, we’re going to imprison you.’

IC: Tell me a little bit about Iran. I imagine a lot of our readers don’t really understand what it’s like for women today. Obviously, there’s a lot of female oppression. I know you had to interview a lot of women for your book, and you understand the experiences. What is it really like there as far as female oppression?

ARG: Since the Revolution it’s been that people with artistic talent are limited, but now it’s getting better. We always have to push ourselves. In Europe, and here on the other side, we have to push in a way to show the stories. We have to work everyday to show people how the women live there. They cannot put pictures on Facebook. Music is not allowed. Girls are not allowed to sing. It’s getting a little bit better, but they’re still not free as they want to be.

IC: So is it still illegal for women dance and sing in public in Iran? 

ARG: Yes.

IC: Is it only against the law for women?

ARG: Yes, there’s no written law anywhere. The guys have a difficult time too. Especially in the music business. They have it a little bit easier. In every country, guys and men always support each other, a little more than women do. I met some incredible women that sing.  So I am doing a lot of projects with some of them now. It’s a struggle, for women they have these rules like ‘Ok, You can sing if you sing traditional music. You can sing if you stand in the background of some other man.’ But you can never sing as a popstar.

IC: I know that your TV show, Googoosh Music Academy, inspired a lot of women, and that’s where a lot of your initial inspiration for these projects came from. Tell me about how you got involved and some of your experiences with the TV show?

ARG: It wasn’t like I was five when I started to sing. I was eighteen, and I moved around a lot. I’m so thankful for my parents, especially my dad, because he’s a poet, and writer, so he knew that he had to give me this chance, even though I hadn’t told them out loud that I want to be a singer.  In some families it’s a little bit shameful to admit,’I want to be a dancer, or I want to be a singer.’ So I felt like I have to prove to him how much I wanted this. I went to studios, recorded, I did my best and I started writing songs. But still I didn’t say to him, ‘I want to be a singer.’ So I started to sing Persian songs mixed with English, like pop songs. But still, it was people telling me ‘Your Farsi is so bad, you cannot sing like this.’ My Farsi’s not good—it’s worse than my English [laughs]. I wanted to do music that people who grew up like me, with mixed cultures, could relate to. I saw this audition, and I thought to myself, ‘I’m gonna apply, with my bad Farsi.’ It was one of the reasons I got to the competition, because my Farsi accent was the way it was.  The style I have was a little bit different. Then I finally told my dad ‘I wanna sing.’ I was about to sing for Googoosh who’s the biggest Persian singing star. After the Revolution, she hid for twenty years in Iran and she didn’t sing at all. So in the competition girls were fainting, because they saw her. I started to cry, because I had come a long way. 

IC: Yeah, that’s amazing. I know that you inspired so many people with being on the show, and that a lot of Iranian women were inspired by seeing your performances which eventually drew you to go back to Iran, to make your documentary on the artists. Can you tell me about the project that you’re working on?

ARG: Nobody knows I went back. So, it’s nothing that’s official. But I can say this; I have projects now that are about artistic females in Iran and Sweden. Iranian women artists that paint, photograph, create music, and poems. So I’m mixing this with Swedish women, so they are going to have a collaboration together. This is to empower women there and empower women here with their artistic ways.

IC: I know that you risk imprisonment to go back to do these kind of projects. Does it worry you to go back to Iran?

ARG: Artists cannot go back. It’s a risk every time they go back.

IC:  Does it worry you to go back to continue the documentary?

ARG: Yeah, that’s why I cannot talk about it! Laughs.

IC: Totally fair! Laughs. So, tell me about your book, Zan.

ARG: I wrote something actually, on the background of my book, on the backside. I wanted to interview or have the stories of the women who stayed during the Revolution, and through the wars and the sanction, and the demonstrations. Different women that have taken the human rights extremely seriously. Unlike my upbringing in Sweden, where we take almost everything for granted. I wanted to hear the stories of the women who stayed there. These women are my heroes. Most of the women in the book, are artists. So they’re telling me about their struggles and how they reached their goals against all odds. So this is the women in the book.

IC: Amazing. I know that you’ve also become the ambassador for the Swedish national committee in the UN. Can you tell me about that role and what you are doing for that position?

ARG: The UN was a big support for me when I started these projects three or four years ago.  So they’ve been following my journey all these years. I think that they saw everything I did, without any financing, without any big book publisher, or sponsors.  I did these projects and I think I inspired many people along the way so I think that was how I became the ambassador because they saw me doing so many things.

ARG: So, right now, we go around and talk. I work with women in Iran, I go and talk about their stories. Every person I talk to about the situation in Iran is shocked because everybody thinks it’s alright there but there are no women’s rights there.

IC: Yeah, there’s a lot of female oppression that still exists.  What is it that you think is the most shocking?

ARG: The most shocking is that they don’t know the situation, how the human rights work there. For example, women cannot travel without their fathers’ or husbands’ signature. They cannot travel to any country if they don’t have this. They cannot even divorce! It’s like only the man has the right. So I’m telling about the laws, and especially artistic women that paint and sing. So, they don’t know that this is still going on after so many years.

IC: Are women allowed to paint, or no?

ARG: They’re allowed to paint. But I think that this is why I try to inspire them to keep doing it. Because of course people with money in Iran have a really good life. Because money solves many problems! But my focus is more the women who don’t have the finance to do these things but are still doing it. They inspire me.

IC: So obviously the big sort of issues that concern you are very much women’s rights focused. What do you think are the key issues revolving around today, even in the European context? I mean women’s rights are still an issue even in European countries.  Is that something that resonates with you, or do you feel like it’s just so bad and extreme in Iran that you prefer to focus mainly on Iranian equal rights?

ARG: No, I focus on gender equality. Even in Sweden,  I focused on putting together a big group for the women that support each other. And I always talk about ‘Why is it always men that support each other?’ Now we have this campaign, HeForShe, but I think that women have to support each other more. If someone is doing something good, tell the person. We’re always so shy, and even now I’m working with some talented women in Sweden who are afraid to take certain jobs and they’re saying, ‘Why are we saying no? If I was a man, I would say yes.’ I’m like, ‘Why don’t you say yes then?!’  

IC: Definitely there’s a lot of fear. Obviously in Iran there’s a lot of extreme laws and regulations with regards to women’s rights, and female oppression that exists. Do you think there could ever be social political change that could really shift that?  If so, what do you think would need to happen? 

ARG: No, but if people who live in the West keep still fighting for this stuff there can be a change. Maybe it’s not going to be perfect, but I have seen so many changes, since the competition, since four years ago. I‘ve seen more now, that women sing and release these songs.  They use like, anonymous names, but they’re doing it. So, four years ago, we didn’t have that. We only had these really famous pop stars who were releasing songs. On another note, it has been four years  and I have released only like two songs, because every song is a risk for me, to go back to Iran. So, since I don’t want to take that risk, I don’t complete my album! It’s really sad, because music is my life, but this is more important in my life right now.

IC: It sounds like the music led the way for you to be inspired to help all of these other women.

ARG: Yeah I think I found a voice for the voiceless. Somebody told that to me a couple of weeks ago,’You’re the voice for the voiceless.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, but they have their voice.’ I just need to push their voices.

IC: That’s a great point. So what’s next for you? You plan to go back to try to finish the documentary. Is there anything that else we can look forward to?

ARG: I’m working on the project I told you about, like the collaboration between Swedish and Iranian female artist. This is something I want to be global but I’m starting like this to see how it goes. By crossing the culture borders between different worlds, I wish to create a strong connection, with these women. Because I have a huge network in Iran and in Sweden I want to mix this.  I think these women can inspire each other to make great art and to do great things together. So yeah, this is the thing. It’s called Creative Change Makers.

IC: Amazing. So, just a last question, are there any sort of words that you live by?

ARG: There are so many. But, I used to say, ‘You get so many no’s, but in the end, somebody’s gonna hear your voice, you always have to believe in yourself.’ So this is what I always think of because it has been so hard to do all of this stuff, and I was about to give up, but a person called Mariane Pearl heard about these stories and emailed me when I was about to give up.  Ever since that, I have that somebody’s gonna hear your voice. She changed my life.

IC: Well you need other women to support. I agree. That’s really important and like you said, not all women are willing to speak up or to reach out.

ARG: Yes, but she helped me. She was the manager/editor for Chime For Change. So she helped me show my pilot there and she helped me to get the Glamour interview. You know, she changed my personality, because I started to believe in myself even more. This is what I want to do for other women who are also about to give up. But you have to believe in yourself and everything you do. In the end, somebody’s going to hear you, but you have to believe in yourself. That’s the most important thing in everything you do.

IC: Yeah absolutely. Do you have a position on feminism today? What is the most important change that you think we need to be making? 

ARG: Well, to try to make a change.  We have to help the women that don’t have freedom of speech. So we have to try. Maybe everyone doesn’t want to work with women’s rights, or with art. But every person needs to find something to change. I go to schools and talk a lot about that, for example maybe you can only help a friend, but that’s your mission in life. I think everybody should know that they can make a difference in the world. 


Interview by Indira Cesarine for The #GirlPower Issue
Photography by Louise Roberts

Hair and Makeup by Frances Prescot

Image 2 courtesy of Norma Jean Roy/Glamour

This article originally appeared in The #GirlPower Issue of The Untitled Magazine (2015), pick up a copy of the issue today in our online store.


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