“Iranian women have always been brave”: How actress Zar Amir Ebrahimi is fighting back

 (Martin Pope Getty Images)
(Martin Pope Getty Images)

Children are dying, 17, 18, 19-year-olds are being executed. There is no more WhatsApp. The internet doesn’t work. Every time I try to speak to my family I get cut off 10 times in a minute. They are under control and I have no idea how they are doing, I just feel their pain. It’s a scary time for everyone in Iran but change is happening and we are making history.

I was born in Tehran just after the revolution, at the start of the Iran-Iraq War. What I remember from my childhood are the dark days — the very bad times. Everyone knows about the history of Iran and how everything turned really dark after the 1979 revolution. The Islamic Republic regime has created an atmosphere of fear for the past 44 years. In school we were taught to lie and to think of imaginary enemies. We can’t dance, we can’t party, we can’t drink, we can’t gather with boyfriends and girlfriends and have fun. Fear was always in the background for our friends, family and colleagues.

We are seeing people unite again. Iranians have always managed to find some optimism out of the sadness. I remember growing up, we were under a bomb attack and I asked my father if we could go to the rooftop to watch it. I was amazed by the lights in the sky, I didn’t really understand. All those nights were full of dances and songs — despite the war we didn’t stay underground, we didn’t hide.

And this new generation is so brave. We didn’t think another revolution of this kind was possible because the last one cost so many lives. That is why I’m very proud of those growing up in Iran today. They want to be more connected to the rest of the world. They only want their freedom back. Now, my parents and my peers are braver. Everyone I see is inspired to leave the fear behind. I’m so happy to see that women have reached the point where if they take back control of their bodies, no one can control them — what to wear, where to go, what to do. It’s beautiful, but at the same time it’s very sad to see all these executions. It’s not easy to open your eyes every day and read the bad news about your country and continue as normal. Us Iranians living outside of the country are trying our best to be their echo.

I fled to Paris when an explicit tape of mine was leaked and then sold on the streets, ending my career and life as I knew it in Iran. As you can imagine it was scary but choosing self-exile gave me my femininity back. I became a woman in Paris. All those years in Iran, I was suffering from trying to be accepted in a patriarchal society. Misogyny was always there. Anytime I was just walking in the street, someone would harass and assault me — this is a common story for all Iranian women. I miss Iran — a part of your soul is always in your own country and I think that never faded but it was always tainted with fear.

I started my acting career at 18 and I became well known very fast, then this video came out and I lost everything overnight. No one listened to me. The man who was involved in the video was free and the only one who was under pressure was me. People saw me naked, the same people who were watching me the night before covered by a hijab. Everyone was surprised — Iran is a religious country where everything is censored and forbidden. I was going to be imprisoned and then killed. I was sentenced to 99 lashes. I remember thinking I have two options: either you’re going to kill yourself or you fight for your rights. You shouldn’t be ashamed because it’s your body in one of the most beautiful moments of your life. I chose to defend myself and that gave me the motive to stay alive. This incident was the biggest role I played in my life. I would never win their game, I just had to play it in the best way possible to protect myself and my dignity.

 (Zar Amir Ebrahimi)
(Zar Amir Ebrahimi)

All of this is was what drew me to Holy Spider and the character of Rahimi, the journalist who uncovers the brutal murders of women in the holy city of Mashhad. She was always existing inside of me. With every step she takes, someone stops her, but she continues to put her life in her own hands. That was my story, too — I had to learn to live a lie but I never thought for once that I’m a victim. So I brought my experience of life as an Iranian woman to her character.

The film is based on the true story of Saeed Hanaei, who killed 16 female sex workers in 2000 and 2001 and was regarded as a hero in the eyes of the Iranian public. It was terrifying. This was not the only incident of women being murdered; we had two or three years when we were living in a sphere of serial killers ‘cleansing’ the city around us. Again, there was an atmosphere of fear. I remember going to university and at one point I just decided not to go alone any more. My father or mother would accompany me because I had this idea that if I just sit in a taxi or walk on the streets, someone might kill me. It was horrible for us women because society somehow supported their behaviours.

Self-exile gave me my femininity back. I became a woman in Paris

In light of the protests and death of Mahsa Amini, it was so important that we made a movie of this kind — we wanted to see a real movie from that society just once. Iranian cinema has always been a window into Iranian society, but it is always kind of half the truth because all these movies have been done under the pressure of censorship and control. Filming was difficult and Iran’s Culture Ministry has since threatened us — they said this movie is in the direction of Salman Rushdie, it goes against our religion and all actors and crew who worked on this project must be punished. After winning Best Actress at Cannes, I would open my eyes in the morning and see death threats on Twitter and Instagram, messages like ‘we will find you and we will kill you’.

Actress Taraneh Alidoosti was imprisoned for three weeks after expressing solidarity with the anti-government protests. She said that not taking action was a disgrace to humanity, which I agree with. She took off her scarf and that action, for an Iranian actress, meant you had just said goodbye to your career there. They have taken passports off film-makers and actresses so they can’t leave because they are afraid they will come out and say something against them. She’s now out, but she’s not free. She is still in a kind of prison. Like many women film-makers who have spoken out, she will face many, many problems and troubles.

I want to see freedom for my country. For the women, I hope their rights are given back to them — and with less blood. Iranian women are saving our country. They are changing things for themselves. Even men are fighting for women’s rights now, and that’s something very surprising and very important — having this demand for freedom is a basic human right for all of us. Iranian women have always been brave. We were always fighting, we just learned how to play the rules. Little by little we removed our scarves, little by little we changed how to wear things and little by little we found our way to universities, to administration and jobs.

We have to risk our lives, otherwise we can’t change this regime. It will be a long way to get there but I really hope we can get our freedom back and for life to change.

‘Holy Spider’ is out in cinemas now