A year of protest in Iran: the pen, the brush and the humor, weapons of the revolution

Since the death of the young Mahsa Amini on September 16, 2022, the uprising of the Iranian people against the Islamic regime has not weakened. But within a year, another way to take part in the protest quickly emerged: art. Words and poems, colours and graffiti, movements and melodies, or pencil and brush strokes are all means to make a contribution, however small, to the national movement "Woman, Life, Freedom".

The Instagram account "Iranian Women of Graphic Design" brings together more than 800 images, drawings and visuals made by artists from around the world to support and share their solidarity with the protest movement in Iran. © Screenshot of the Instagram account "Iranian Women of Graphic Design"

By: Louise Huet


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On the drawing, a woman: Mahsa Amini. The gaze turned towards the horizon, the eyes serene and sincere, the lips painted scarlet red. On one side of his skull, a relaxed blue scarf that reveals brown locks. On the other, its brown mane released in the wind, whose tips turn into blood-red flames. Bahar, an Iranian illustrator living in France since 2010, made this striking portrait a few days after the death of the young Iranian Kurd on September 16, 2022, following her arrest by the morality police, claiming a "poorly worn" veil.

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A post shared by Illustrations by Bahar Seyedin (@baharillu)

Images like this, there are hundreds, thousands more. On social networks, in newspapers, during demonstrations, in the streets... Illustrations or posters of the Iranian protest against the Islamic regime have been raining down for a year around the world, each more vibrant and powerful than the last. Each expresses sometimes unspeakable feelings in favor of freedom.

The movement with the slogan "Woman, Life, Freedom" was not only built with the demonstrations in the streets of Iranian cities, a terrain of violence and brutal arrests by agents of the regime. He has also trained through songs, graffiti, poems or theatrical performances, from the most famous artists like the cartoonist Mana Neyestani, to anonymous people from Iran and elsewhere.

According to the latest assessment of the NGO Iran Human Rights, dated April 4, 2023, 537 people have been killed by the armed forces in Iran since the beginning of the national uprising, including 48 women and 68 children. "I think Iranians need something positive in these dark days, and that's what art can bring. We need a song to sing, photos to admire and drawings to contemplate. And above all, we need to feel that we are not alone, and that we are heard," says Yasi Mosadeq, an Iranian cartoonist currently in Iran.

  • Drawing and graffiti: illustrating Iranians' struggle for freedom


In this revolution, our drawings are like colorful flowers in a black and white world. It is an essential part of the fight. This is what gives hope and the desire to continue fighting, "abounds the illustrator. On Instagram, her cartoons are among more than 800 illustrations compiled by the "Iranian Women of Graphic Design" account, which shares all the visual works made in support of the Iranian people.

Examples of the works of the Instagram account "Iranian Women of Graphic Design" in support of the Iranian movement "Woman, Life, Freedom". © Screenshot of the Instagram account "Iranian Women of Graphic Design"

Slogans in Persian, women gathered, the headscarf brandished in a raised fist or strands of hair cut as a trophy. Portraits of the deceased, who have become the faces of the Iranian revolt: the 9-year-old boy, Kian Pirfalak, shot dead in November 2022 or the 16-year-old girl, Nika Shakarami, who, according to Amnesty International, died from injuries inflicted by Iranian security forces in September 2022.

A multitude of styles, colors, graphic choices that adopt the iconography of the events. "I draw a lot of inspiration from the images of the demonstrators in the streets, and I use a lot of national symbols such as the tulip, emblem of the martyrs, or the colors of the Iranian flag," says Yasi Mosadeq.

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A post shared by @yasimosadeq

One goal: to be the voice of the people, to convey in images the emotions that the murderous repression in Iran provokes for many – anger and dread, but also resilience and determination. Admiration for the courage of the demonstrators. "As an artist, creating is the only way you know to express yourself. Iran is my homeland, and I feel the pain that people are going through there, so it's natural for me to produce works that echo it," says Bahar.

Initially, Bahar admits that he did not appreciate the importance that art and images could have on the national uprising. Then, she realizes the speed of diffusion of the works: her own images made in France have, for example, been taken in the form of stencils and tagged on the walls of the streets of Tehran. "That's our strength, and that's what touches me. It shows that even if we are not geographically gathered in the same place, we collaborate, we are together through drawing. Proof that art, too, is its own form of power.

Because as the artist points out, "we may not have weapons, but we have creativity. Art has become another battleground in Iran." Indeed, for their part, the authorities of the Islamic regime have also tried to produce visual works, by making a "copy and paste of our posters, with their own messages for their interests," says Bahar. "It was ridiculous, it didn't work at all. They have the means, the money and the power, but they have no creativity, since there is only one brain that thinks: that of the Supreme Leader. But creativity lies in diversity, in the crowd, in the fact that everyone produces something individually and freely. The echo that our art holds with the people compared to that of the regime shows how weak it is on the terrain of the cultural battle.


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A post shared by زنان طراح گرافیک ایران (@iranianwomenofgraphicdesign)

Nevertheless, by disseminating works against the regime, Yasi Mosadeq, like many others in Iran, risks his life. "Of course I'm scared," she says. They arrested some of my friends and artists I know. But I always think of those young women and men who have such courage and are fighting for freedom, and that gives me courage too. I won't stop drawing.


See alsoMojgan Ilanlou, Iranian documentary filmmaker, tells the fight of women in a patriarchal society

  • Music and voice to tell the unspeakable

In addition to visual art, songs in tribute to the struggle of the Iranian people have proliferated in recent months. With in mind the song "Baraye" by the young artist Shervin Hajipour, which has become an anthem for freedom and the sound emblem of the demonstrations. The emotional song has had a worldwide impact, with more than a million views on YouTube and covered by many international artists.


Sometimes there are magical songs, says Iranian author and composer Tara Mehrad. If "Baraye" has become such a masterpiece, it is because Shervin has managed to say everything in very few sentences. And his voice gives a frank, sincere and touching side to the music. Something mystical.


Bahar shares the same admiration for the track, composed by tweets from Internet users. The songs of this revolt also make it possible to gather and unite. "During a France demonstration with the Iranian diaspora, they played a song that we all know, and we had a moment of communion, of harmony to sing all together," recalls Tara Mehrad, who herself composed the jazz piece "Ta Azadi" ("Until Freedom" in English) in November 2022 to honor the struggle of her people.

Among these songs that the diaspora knows by heart: those of the Iranian rapper Toomaj Salehi, another of the essential symbols of this revolt. Arrested in October 2022 after supporting the protest movement and sharing songs to denounce the Islamic regime, the 32-year-old musician was sentenced to more than six years in prison, according to his lawyer. To celebrate his music and activism at the risk of his life, Toomaj Salehi has received several international awards, including the "Cultures of Resistance Awards", and the "Heretic Award for Protest/Activist Music" in August 2023.

Saying a lot in very few words. Tell everything that cannot be expressed, through a melody, a tempo and some rhymes. "Artists are also there to put words and images on what we feel and that we can not explain or share. That's what helps to heal, to heal wounds, to digest, to soften," comments the composer. This is what other musicians such as Iranian sisters Behin and Samin Bolouri have undertaken in their cover of "Bella Ciao" in Persian, or singer Kian Cyrus Tehrani with his rap title released in September 2022. A way for musicians from the diaspora to support their fellow citizens in Iran.

Read alsoExclusive interview with Narges Mohammadi, human rights activist, imprisoned in Iran

  • Dance, a symbol of the lost lives of Iranians

Many videos of the protests in Iran show women and men dancing outside in the streets of Iran. An act normally prohibited by the Islamic regime. Several clips marked at the beginning of the uprising: that of a young woman, her hair in the wind, her arms raised to the sky, swirling around a fire before throwing her headscarf into it. The unforgettable dance of the five young inhabitants of the Ekbatan district of Tehran, moving to the sound of a planetary tube, their hair freed and navel in the air. After the video was published, their fate remained uncertain, as many Iranian women resumed the choreography.

روز زن تبریک میگیم به تمام زن هایی که پیشرو در مسیر آزادی بودن
دمتون گرم
به امید آزادی#زن_زندگی_آزادی pic.twitter.com/fdyg9P6ZCL

— شهرک اکباتان (@shahrak_ekbatan) March 8, 2023

Dance has become a symbol of resistance in Iran. This is in any case what was shown by the massively revived choreography of Khodanour Lajai, a young man shot dead during a demonstration on Friday, September 30, 2022, or thebanal and tender dance of fiancés Astiage Haghighi and Amir Mohamad Ahmadi, last January, in front of the "Shahyad" monument on Azadi ("Freedom") Square in Tehran. For their act shared on social networks, the couple of 21 and 22 years old were sentenced to ten years in prison.

To honor the late little boy Kian Pirfalak, students from a university in Isfahan and Elm-o-Sanat also made boats in the colors of the paper rainbow, which they let sail on the fountains of their establishments. "Kian is known for a heartbreaking phrase he said during a science project presentation: 'In the name of the rainbow god,'" says Yasi Mosadeq, who herself drew the child with rainbow-colored blood gushing from her heart.

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A post shared by @yasimosadeq

This flood of works and the scale of artistic performances dedicated to the Iranian uprising are unprecedented for Bahar. "During previous movements in Iran, there wasn't as much creativity and artistic production. So this time, it may be the effect of social networks where we freely share our creations. The nature of this movement is also very inspiring for artists: its slogan, the symbol of a woman with Mahsa Amini, the values of freedom it defends... ", analyzes the illustrator. Perhaps also because the art of this revolt brings hope more than ever necessary, and the feeling that the Iranian people are not alone.

" READ ALSO Violence against women: Iranian women face the regime

  • Humor, an inflexible weapon of war for protesters

Since September 2022, mockery against the Islamic regime has intensified, multiplied and diversified on social networks. At the heart of the "Woman, Life, Freedom" movement, one of the most popular jokes was to knock down and throw the mullahs' turbans into the street, all filmed. The phenomenon has grown to such an extent that some mullahs have stopped wearing their turbans for weeks, while others have secured them to their heads to deter attacks. This is one of the first times that mockery of the system has gone beyond words and is embodied in tangible actions in the streets.

Even during the recent series of scandals related to homosexual relationship videos (decrypted in the investigation of our journalist Alijani Ershad) involving ultra-conservative officials in Iran, Iranian social networks have been the scene of mockery, each more piquant than the last. When it was revealed that two mullahs had sex and were otherwise brothers-in-law, Iranians had a blast with satirical drawings and "memes." Unsightly photos of some of the Islamic regime's agents and politicians were circulated, with the caption: "If I were in their husbands' shoes, I too would still prefer to sleep with my brother-in-law.


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A post shared by Mana Neyestani (@neyestanimana)

Over the past 44 years, since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979, ordinary Iranians have become virtuosos of the art of political humor, able to provoke real laughter while crumpling the feathers of politicians. Once confined to private circles, these taunts have now become public, spread rapidly, are even sharper and have adopted new forms, on video or through "memes".

However, these antics can lead to legal proceedings. In recent months, at least two comedians have been arrested for their activities: Zeynab Mousavi, detained for a few weeks and then released, and Shaker Bouri, still in detention. They are known to mock the Islamic Republic's political figures and government policies. Many youths were also arrested for throwing away the mullahs' turbans. Arrests publicized as a warning to others.

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