By Niloufar Rostami
December 21, 2019
Photographs of Iranian actress Mahnaz Afshar have been removed from posters advertising her new film in retaliation for her agreeing to be a judge in a talent contest broadcast from outside the country, and for her continued support for human rights.
Soon after she posted a short video of her appearance on the talent show, a pro-government TV presenter insulted Afshar, portraying her as a B-list celebrity with no taste.
On December 16, the media reported that censors removed her photograph from posters advertising the movie Turbulence, which was released in cinemas across the country on December 18. Afshar plays the lead female role in the film. Reports said the move was likely to be linked to Afshar’s appearance on the satellite TV talent show.
Afshar regularly posts about human rights on Twitter and Instagram, and she has showed solidarity with arrested labor activist Esmail Bakhshi and with women who were arrested for protesting against Iran’s policy of mandatory hijab, known as the “Girls of Enghelab Street.” She has also posted about women’s right to enter sports stadiums and called for a ban on underage marriage.
The actress was recently selected to be a judge on an Iranian talent show launched outside the country, appearing alongside two controversial Iranian singers called Abby and Arash, who have been banned from performing in Iran.
Afshar’s outspokenness has landed her in court on double charges, and it is not the first time she has faced censorship as punishment for her views and online commentary. Prior to the most recent example, in 2017, her image was removed from a poster advertising a series called Golshifteh after she expressed support on social media for activists campaigning against the policy of mandatory hijab. But she has refused to be intimidated by the treatment, and has publicly stated that she will not have her career dictated by the Iranian regime, and that she does not share its values.
A Cause Worth Censoring
After the poster of Turbulence was released without featuring her photograph on them, the actress tweeted: “But I still exist, I’m still breathing, and I’m still out there…”
In another tweet, she posted photographs of the film while it was being shot, and commented: “But I’m not censoring myself. Hope you enjoy Turbulence. It will be released in Iranian cinemas on Wednesday.”
The film, which was made in 2018, was directed by Fereydoun Jirani. In addition to Mahnaz Afshar, it stars Iranian actors Bahram Radan, Mehran Ahmadi and Nasim Adabi.
After the censorship of the Golshifteh posters in 2017, Mahnaz Afshar tweeted that she was pleased that the photographs had been removed: ”Due to my support for the Girls of Enghelab Street [and using that] hashtag, my image was banned until further notice in all billboards advertising Golshifteh. Well done to those who feel happy. It was worth it.”
A day after the tweet, she announced that the ban on her image had been lifted: “After this tweet and your support and kindness and follow-ups by the producer of Golshifteh, the issue is now resolved. Thank you for your continuing support.”
Earlier this year, Mahnaz Afshar traveled to Europe with her young daughter, and not long after news emerged about her taking part as a judge on a televised talent show.
But unlike some celebrities, Afshar has stated that she does not want to leave Iran permanently, and, despite regular travel, she plans to return to the country, where she continues to receive job offers.
However, in October, the actress said in an interview with Khabar Online that she had been banned from working in Iran, but that she had not received official confirmation. “I heard from friends [in the film industry] that I was banned from working in Iran. Honestly, I don’t know if it is true. I haven’t been notified.”
An Insult to Women or Fake News?
Shortly after leaving the country in April 2019, Afshar was informed that two charges had been brought against her. The charges were brought following her comments about a cleric who had encouraged women to enter into “temporary marriages” with members of the Iraqi Hashd al-Shaabi militia, who authorities claimed had arrived in Khuzestan to help areas devastated by floods. According to Khuzestan locals, however, the militia was brought into silence citizens and prevent them from going public with their complaints about how authorities were dealing with the crisis.
Afshar took issue with the alleged cleric, who used the handle Mustafa Hejazi and tweeted: ”I urge all unmarried sisters to join in a sigheh [temporary marriage, or a concubine arrangement] with Hashd al-Shaabi brothers. Even with a one-day marriage with as many Iraqi brothers as they can, God will reward them in the afterlife.”
Mahnaz Afshar lashed out on Twitter, condemning the suggestion and the fact that people had remained silent about such an insult: “Alas, when I described the bravery of Khuzestani brothers, they shouted and labeled me a racist, but now they keep silent in face of such insults.”
The same day, a cleric named Mustafa Qasemi was killed near a seminary in Hamadan.
This was followed by a smear campaign against her by media linked to the Revolutionary Guards. She was accused of inciting murder via her tweet. Eventually a seminary student filed a complaint against the actress at the Culture and Media Prosecutor’s Office.
The Islamic Republic News Agency reported at the time that the seminary student from Mazandaran, Ghaffar Daryabari, had filed the complaint against Afshar. Daryabari claimed that somebody had used his photograph to create a fake Twitter account with the name of Mustafa Hejazi and then issued the invitation to women to enter into temporary marriages with Hashd al-Shaabi soldiers.
“I have nothing to say to the one who uses my image; he is an ignorant person,” Daryabari tweeted. “But I am addressing the celebrities who publish without researching and orphan the children of a Hamedani cleric.”
The actress’s lawyer, Abdul Samad Khorramshahi, confirmed in an interview with Khabar Online on May 3 that the Culture and Media Prosecutor’s Office had filed a case against Afshar on two charges, of “disturbing the public mind” and publishing lies.
“My client is abroad and she told me she was abiding by laws and regulations and did not think she would be accused of anything or that there would be any problems,” Abdul Samad Khorramshahi said. “She said as soon as she returns to Iran, she will report to the relevant judicial authority as soon as she can.”
Twitter Attacks and a Family Fallout
The actress’ Twitter comments on social and political issued attracted a wave of attacks, but Afshar continued, including commenting on tweets by her former father-in-law, Mohammad Ali Ramin, who had been a media adviser to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during his second term. Ramin had recently expressed opposition to women’s attendance at stadiums, posting on Twitter: “You should have told FIFA that women are not forbidden to enter the stadium, but the ladies’ entrance to the men’s stadium is forbidden!”
Afshar responded on Twitter: “You should just ignore some words, otherwise you’ll bang into a wall.”
Mahnaz Afshar married Yasin Ramin, Mohammad Ali Ramin’s son, in June 2014, drawing criticism from many Iranians. Sometime later, media reports said the Iranian Red Crescent Society had given two million euros to a company called Roshd to import medical equipment from Germany, but the equipment had never arrived in the country.
The company was affiliated with Ramin, who was arrested and detained for seven months for not being able to provide the 29 billion tomans [$2.4 million] the Crescent Society had paid him. Although he was later released, the case against Ramin remains open and no ruling has been issued.
Afshar wrote on Twitter in October 2019 that she and Ramin had divorced. ”Each person, strong or weak, has an existence. But when you decide to be a single mum, you have to have two existences. You have to be strong for yourself and your child.”
Afshar traveled to Europe again with her daughter during the summer and has so far not returned to the country, despite insisting that she had plans to. Whether in Iran or abroad, she remains one of Iran’s most celebrated actresses, and is admired by many for her outspoken political views and for the attention she pays to the events that shape her home country. The last twelve months have undoubtedly been tumultuous for her, and the latest act of censorship against her confirms that she is not only prominent with the public, but also with Iran’s authorities. It remains to be seen whether she will return to the country, and, if she does, what legal measures will be taken against her.