The sleet was thick in Tehran as I boarded a bus from the bazaar to a stop near my hotel. The jittery old bus was packed, and I hurried on through the middle entrance. There was a steel bar dividing the doors − as you can see in any bus around the world − and without thinking, I walked up to the left hand side of it.
Suddenly, an Iranian man flung out his hand and stopped me from moving onto the bus. He shook his head at me and then pointed to the right. I was confused for a moment, but then I understood. The back of the bus was reserved for women only.
But it also made me ask some hard questions about the Iranian underground. It’s easy to think of it as a liberal haven. But it’s not quite as progressive as it might seem, says hip-hop artist Saye Sky.
“I wanted to write songs. But I went to so many studios where they said: ‘What the fuck is that? We cannot make a song out of this, it’s bullshit. It’s about women, about lesbians.’”
Born in 1989, Saye Sky met up in a bar in Ankara to speak about her experiences in Iran. Raised in a very religious family in Iran, she realised at a young age that she was not into guys.
The LGBT community in Iran faces continual persecution. In 2006, president Ahmadinejad once again made headlines around the world after declaring in a talk at Colombia University that: “In Iran we don’t have homosexuals.” Saye juts her jaw in defiance. What would she tell the president now if she could? “I would say to Ahmadinejad that, ‘Hello, we’re here, we exist.’”
It was her experiences with her own sexuality and her passion for women’s rights that drew her to hip hop music. “My lyrics come from the heart. From what I see and what I feel. In rap music, you can talk about everything. You don’t have any limitations.”
Saye has become well acquainted with the underground scene in Iran, and produced several of her own raps songs inside the country. Her lyrics confront the struggles of women and homosexuals in graphic detail. Her song Executing Rights is about the struggles transsexuals go through in Iran.
“The government gives a card to transsexual people which says that no one can bother them. But it’s bullshit. Many times, I’ve seen government and Basij people beating transsexuals in the street.”
Saye’s underground activities soon drew the ire of the regime. After a while, she noticed that she was having problems with her phone and internet connections, and soon she discovered that she was being monitored.
“I found another person who asked me: “What did you do? They have been recording you for 6 months. They have everything; your emails, your addresses, every site you ever logged on”.
Saye tried to flee, but she realized that the government had blacklisted her passport. So she left Tehran to move from city to city in Iran, sleeping occasionally under cars in the street in her efforts to stay hidden. Eventually, she bribed an official with $2,000 to take her name off the blacklist long enough to get on a plane out of the country.
Her escape from Iran was harrowing. When talking about it, she begins to rub her left arm and shivers slightly. The bar is warm but the scars from her experiences run deep.
But, for all the hardship she has endured at the mercy of her country, Saye still wants to return one day to continue fighting for LGBT and women’s rights.
“My biggest wish is to one day have a concert in Iran for LBT people. That would mean that on that day, Iran is in peace.”
Saye Sky is now living as a refugee in Canada.