Baraye, the Iranian protest song that has become an anthem against the Islamic Republic over the last six months, won a Grammy Award over the weekend in the specially created ‘social change’ category. US President Joe Biden’s wife, Jill, made the announcement on stage, provoking comments about the US music industry being hand in glove with the establishment and willing to entertain bias against nations who don’t fall in line.
But Baraye—a Persian word also widely used in Hindustani and Urdu and meaning ‘because’ or ‘for’—is an unusual vehicle for a nationwide protest. First, it’s a song; it is highly unlikely that the Iranian regime, led by Conservative President Ebrahim Raisi, will be affected by a few bars of melody.
Second, the Iran Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC), which backstops the regime and its associate volunteer militia, the Basij, remain all-powerful and aren’t about to relinquish power because a few thousand women and men are demanding greater freedoms—including on how to wear their hair.
The birth of ‘Baraye’
Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish girl from the northern Iranian province of Saqqez, evidently annoyed the Iranian religious police when, on a visit to the capital on 13 September 2022, she allowed her scarf to slip and reveal some hair. She was arrested and allegedly thrashed within an inch of her life. Soon, she fell into a coma. Hours later, she was dead.
‘MahsaAmini’ soon became a hashtag that trended worldwide, and Baraye, sung by 25-year-old Shervin Hajipour, a finalist in the Iranian version of American Idol, became its anthem. The song’s lyrics were sourced from Iranians writing about the challenges they faced in their daily lives on social media.
“Baraye….because of our sister, mine and yours,” “Because we yearn to dance in the streets…” “Because of the shame of poverty…” “Because of the longing to have an ordinary life…because of this dictatorial economy” came to define the struggle of Iranian protesters.
The freedom to choose, after all, is the underpinning of democracy. Or, as French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre famously said, “I am my choices.” Except, the Islamic Republic of Iran was restricting the choices of its citizens in accordance with what it believed to be right. Wear a hijab in public. Don’t protest against your leaders. Be a good woman.
Mahsa Amini’s death became a catalyst for thousands of Iranians, young and old and across all walks of life, to protest against an oppressive regime. Women led the movement. ‘Zan, Zindagi, Azadi’ or ‘Women, Life, Freedom’ became its slogan. Hajipur’s video crossed 40 million views in the first 48 hours after it was posted.
Iran, of course, is used to being both shaken and stirred. Not just back in 1979, when the Shah, Reza Pahlavi, was ousted by Islamists and Ali Khomeini came to power; it was the people that did it. They were helped to stay the course by rousing poetry and music on the streets of Tehran.
In the decades since, the Islamic regime began to crack down on freedom of speech and expression, even as it transformed the country on parameters such as health and education. The people marched against the regime for different reasons. In 2009, the alleged rigging of the election that brought Mahmoud Ahmedinejad back to power as president was met with protests. In 2019, an increase in gas prices gave way to a people’s storm. Each of them was quelled by the police, and several hundred people died.
Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi has described the ‘Mahsa Amini’ uprising as one against “theocratic tyranny.” It is also true that America’s decade-old sanctions against Iran for refusing to give up on its nuclear programme have significantly weakened the economy. Moreover, Iran’s Sunni neighbours are increasingly seeking peace with the US—Syria is reaching out to Sunni Gulf nations, while Lebanese militant group Hezbollah has allowed the US to settle the Lebanon-Israel maritime boundary. The 2020 Abraham Accords between the UAE, Bahrain and Israel have underlined that compact.
What India thinks
The question, as India celebrates 75 years of Independence, is what the world’s largest democracy thinks about its neighbour’s yearning for change. The Ministry of External Affairs says it doesn’t comment on the internal issues of other countries.
But in November last year, India hosted Iran’s deputy foreign minister Ali Bagheri Kani, a relative of Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Hosseini Khamenei. He complained that the Western media had built up a “baseless and fallacious atmosphere” about Iran and that Mahsa Amini “wasn’t killed; she passed away.” He didn’t say how, though.
Coincidentally, on the day Amini died in a Tehran hospital, Prime Minister Narendra Modi met Iranian President Raisi at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) meeting in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Two months later, in November 2022, India abstained from voting on a United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution that sought to form a fact-finding committee on human rights violations that followed Amini’s death. The US supported the resolution, but Pakistan and China were among those that rejected it.
Significantly, the Modi government is following the middle path on the Iran question as well, just as it is doing on the Russia-Ukraine war. Certainly, India’s $85 million investment in the Shahid Behesti terminal at Iran’s Chabahar port in 2018, has made the Gulf sit up and take notice. Only in December did the Taliban ‘welcome’ the proposal to include Chabahar in the North-South International Transport Corridor that links Mumbai with Moscow.
Delhi is careful, however, not to antagonise the Americans too much by violating US sanctions—note these are American, not UN sanctions—by buying Iran crude, which is just right for Indian refineries (most of the Russian oil India buys is being refined and sold to Europe). The US has also sanctioned an Indian company for indulging in Iranian oil trade. India also realises that China has filled the vacuum left by the US and its reluctant allies.
It is this middle path walk that prevents India from making any statements that may sound critical of Tehran, even if privately. Indian officials may be holding their noses at the indiscriminate beating of Iranian citizens, especially young women like Mahsa Amini.
It is why Baraye will remain largely unsung and largely unpublicised in India, even if its lyrics resonate widely across the land.
Jyoti Malhotra is a senior consulting editor at ThePrint. She tweets @jomalhotra. Views are personal.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)