On September 13, a 22-year-old Iranian-Kurdish woman named Mahsa Amini was detained by the Islamic Republic of Iran’s “morality police” in Tehran. Three days later, she died in police custody. Protests erupted around the country, and while their causes are manifold, they have been led by women and take as their primary target what Iranian composer and founding member and co-artistic director of the Iranian Female Composers Association Niloufar Nourbakhsh calls “gender apartheid.” In a statement condemning the “horrific murder” of Amini, the IFCA writes, “We firmly believe that the arts can only blossom in a politically and socially free society, and the right to choose what to wear is one of the fundamental aspects of such a society.” I spoke with Nourbakhsh by video chat from her home in Maryland about supporting her countrywomen from abroad, her 2017 work of musical protest, “Veiled,” and the striking unity of the demonstrators.

VAN: Have you been discussing the demonstrations much with your colleagues from the Iranian Female Composers Association?  

Niloufar Nourbakhsh: Yes, with a few of them. In fact, we’re organizing a concert in Iran in December, so two of our coordinators and IFCA team members are in Iran. It’s a weird situation where we’re talking about this concert and the coordination and then also, “Oh, did you see that protest? Are you coming out there?” Gradually all of our conversations have just shifted towards this, and at least for me it’s very difficult to concentrate on work, or to create music.

Every artist participates differently in such movements. The right thing for me to do is to just be the voice of the people in Iran who are in the streets and literally putting their lives on the street for what they’re demanding, which is freedom, and share their voices—that’s what I can do.

Your 2017 piece “Veiled” deals with an extremely similar topic, a protest that happened that year. Do you have a sense of déjà vu when you see these current protests happening?

Yes, but I think what we’re seeing now is unprecedented: this unity, especially among women. To see a movement that has women at the center of it is important and different from all the previous movements, because a lot of times during the [2017 protests] that were the inspiration for my piece, men would be watching and taking videos, but they wouldn’t protect the women who were protesting, so that the police would come and take them away and everybody was just watching.

This is now the next step: Everybody is actually defending [women]. I think it’s very clear that compulsory hijab is one of the main pillars of the Islamic Republic of Iran and more women have been vocal about it in the past few years, they’ve protested against it. We see the morality police increase the number [of arrests], we see long sentences for women who protest with their unveiling. We also see the morality police getting more violent. There was an occasion of a forced confession—it’s very clear that this is one of the main pillars of the machine.

In a lot of our freedom movements in the past 40 years, every time there was an opportunity to demand reforms, women would ask for the right to choose what to wear. The reformists or people leading the movements would say, “But that’s not the priority right now. We have other things to ask for.” It was always pushed aside, and now it’s very clear that women actually should be at the center of any demand for freedom in Iran.

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Can you see yourself writing a new piece analogous to “Veiled” that deals with the current protest movement, or does that piece say what you want to say because the subject matter is so similar?

I think it says what I want to say. Maybe I will write another piece, but I’ve already also written an opera that is inspired by Iran’s 2009 Green Movement, which is similar to what’s happening right now. There’s a staged presentation of the opera [“We, The Innumerable”] in its entirety on October 21 at National Sawdust.

It’s a similar reflection on how propaganda works. The main role of the opera is a woman who has this arc of becoming brave and not lying about the person that she loved and protecting their memory. That protection of a memory—we are protecting the memory of Mahsa Amini right now—can lead to freedom in many different ways. 

Do you ever get tired of writing works that have to do with political and social movements in your country, or is that a rich vein of inspiration?

No, I don’t get tired. It’s also not the only thing I write about. But they’re inspiring. It’s interesting to me to investigate stories like this sonically in a piece of music. I don’t call them political pieces, per se, but they are definitely inspired by political situations and how they affect people, and that’s what I’m trying to investigate: How are people affected by these political machines?

Do you see an analogy between Iranian women unveiling themselves, taking off the hijab, and Iranian women making art?

For sure. I think another important factor that should be clarified is that Iranian women are not allowed to sing solo. It’s similar—Iranian women are singing, using their voices during this time. That’s very significant.

Do you wish you were in Iran right now?

Yes, I do. I wish I was in Iran. And I wish I was as brave as the people who are in the streets. I wish I was as brave as the women who are unveiling themselves in front of ten, 20 guards who are ready to beat them up. I don’t know if I have the same bravery; I really applaud them. ¶

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Jeffrey Arlo Brown

... has been an editor at VAN since 2015. His work has also appeared in Slate, The Baffler, The Outline, The Calvert Journal, and Electric Lit. He lives in Berlin.