Iran Threatens Musician With Jail for Encouraging Women to Sing, Dance

Iranian composer Mehdi Rajabian lives with the constant threat of prison hanging over his head. The 30 year old has already been jailed once for his work, but on Tuesday he was taken to court and arrested again over his latest project: an album featuring music from across the Middle East.

The album includes songs by female singers and features dancing by a fellow Iranian female performer. Female vocals are banned in Iranian music and women are not allowed to dance.

But Rajabian told Newsweek he included women regardless. "History requires us to produce important works of art, censorship weakens my art," he said. "I do not censor myself."

Handcuffed and brought in front of a judge in the city of Sari, north of Tehran, Rajabian was freed only because his family was able to post bail. Now he is waiting to be given a date for his follow-up trial. Newsweek has contacted the Iranian justice ministry to request comment and clarification on the case.

"If they did not post bail, I should have been in prison now," he said of his family. In the meantime, he was ordered by the judge not to engage in any musical activity or he will be sent to prison.

Rajabian's first stint in prison included torture, solitary confinement and ill health. He was arrested in 2013 and has been in and out of detention ever since. Much of that time was spent in the notorious Evin prison in Tehran, where Rajabian says coronavirus has now taken hold. A return to Evin is now more dangerous than ever.

Though he was eventually freed, Rajabian has since lived under the watchful eye of the regime. Even those around him are at risk; earlier this month, a music journalist was arrested and detained in Evin for several days after mentioning Rajabian's name in an article.

"All artists, journalists and even ordinary people inside Iran are afraid to even talk to me," the composer explained. "I am completely alone and I am always at home."

For this reason, Iran's coronavirus outbreak has not been too much of a burden on Rajabian. "I am completely alone and I am always at home," he said, describing the coronavirus era as more or less "normal" for him.

"The Iranian regime hates me," Rajabian told Newsweek while awaiting his trial date. "They banned me from working and studying and leaving Iran... Now the pressure is on me not to even produce another work of art. It means complete death. In general, their plan is my complete destruction."

Rajabian was first arrested alongside his brother Hossein. He, too, is still under surveillance and pressure from the regime. "My brother, like me, is banned," Rajabian explained. "He has made a banned feature film and is not allowed to screen it. I made the music—in the film's final credits, I used the voice of a female singer."

Despite the harassment, Rajabian said he won't stop producing music, even if it ends up with him back in Evin. "I only think of freedom of art, artistic independence and the production of music with a message and philosophy, even if I go to prison hundreds of times," he said.

"I need females singing in my project, I need female dance along with philosophy and thinking," he explained. "Whenever I feel the need to produce this music, I will definitely produce it. I do not censor myself."

Rajabian appealed to the rest of the world to recognize the oppression of artists and others in Iran. Even as the regime in Tehran voices support for Black Lives Matter protests in the U.S., authorities in Iran are passing death sentences for demonstrators, imprisoning musicians, throttling internet connection, and oppressing minority groups.

"Find out what difficulties we go through here to produce just one work of art," Rajabian said. "My musical notes will come to you from the barbed wire of the prison, the pressure of the Iranian regime, the absolute ban, the non-cooperation of artists in Iran."

"Do not enjoy our art, find suffering in it."

This article has been updated at 08:25 ET on 08/14/21.

Mehdi Rajabian, music, Iran, jail, women, Evin
This undated photo shows Mehdi Rajabian—an Iranian composer who has previously been jailed for his music. Rajabian is now facing another possible prison term for working with female artists. Mehdi Rajabian