Iran’s reigning queen of pop is more likely to walk the red carpet in a kaftan than a flank-steak dress, but when it comes to promoting equal rights in a country ruled by religious law, Googoosh is right up there with Gaga. On Valentine’s Day, the 63-year-old Persian icon released the music video for her latest ballad, “Behesht (Heaven).”
In between glamour shots of Googoosh crooning in a dark nightclub, the video follows the love story of a beautiful young Iranian woman and her lover, unseen behind the camera. Their relationship unfolds as their love for each other faces obstacles from disapproving parents and violent youths, culminating in the young woman sitting in the audience, tearfully watching Googoosh sing the song’s chorus: “I know they say these feelings should not be, but they are.” The camera then pulls away, showing that the young woman’s off-camera love is another woman (a similar tactic was used in an iconic Australian ad for marriage equality in 2011).
The video has racked up more than 10,000 likes on Facebook, and 120,000 views on YouTube, with many young Iranian commenters applauding Googoosh’s bold stance in favor of same-sex love. “You made my Valentine’s Day!” “Beautiful, hope some day people in our country understand and respect it better!” “I love you… as a gay fan!!!”
Navid Akhavan, who wrote and directed the video, told The Guardian that it’s been viewed by thousands of Iranians online or via illegal satellite channels. “The comments I have read online and the messages I have received from people within the Iranian LGBT community have brought tears to my eyes.”
Iranian ex-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad once elicited guffaws when he told students at Columbia University that, “In Iran we don’t have homosexuals like in your country.” In reality, homosexuality is a crime punishable in the Islamic Republic with imprisonment, whipping, and even execution. Because trials on moral charges in Iran are usually held in closed sessions, it’s difficult to determine how many gay and lesbian Iranians are executed annually, but human rights organizations report multiple executions of gay men as recently as 2012.
Googoosh herself was a victim of Iran’s repressive religious laws—after the Islamic Revolution in 1979, she served a three-month jail sentence for living with a man outside of marriage. Additionally, strict bans on female singing literally silenced her until she fled Iran in 2000. Bootleg copies of more than a dozen albums sustained her popularity within the Islamic Republic, however, and today she hosts a popular reality singing competition, Googoosh Music Academy, broadcast on a London-based satellite channel popular with Iranian exiles. For them, “Behesht” has another message: “The end of this road is not clear, I know this, just like you do; Don’t tell me to stop loving, you can’t do that and I can’t either.”