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Iranian ‘gangster’ regime must change, says refugee pop star Shab

At eight, Shab fled persecution in Iran for safety in America. She’s hopeful current protests mark the beginning of the end for the Islamic Republic.

Shab was just six years old when she started to question the Iranian regime. “I would come home from school, and I would take the hijab off and throw it across the room,” she remembers. “I would tell my mom, ‘Why mom? I’m a young girl! I don’t have boobs. I look like a boy. Who’s looking at me? Why don’t they let us be free? We’re just kids.’”

Two years later, Shab and her family managed to flee turmoil and persecution in post-revolutionary Iran. Now living in America, she’s a pop singer with hundreds of thousands of followers on Instagram and TikTok. Her latest single, Sexual, is a celebration of feminine desire and power.

In Iran, women are still struggling for freedom. The country has been gripped by civil unrest since the death of Mahsa Amini in September. The 22-year-old Iranian had been arrested by the ‘morality police’ and eyewitnesses described seeing the police beating her. She died three days later. Her crime? She was wearing an “improper” hijab. 

As nationwide protests rip through her motherland, Shab is on a European stadium tour with Left Outside Alone singer Anastacia. Every night, before she goes on stage, she cries tears of gratitude. “I don’t know where I would be right now if my mom didn’t really push to get our passports and to get us out of the country,” says Shab. “My heart just aches and breaks for the people of Persia, Iran. I wish I could go back and help them. What I can just do right now is pray for them.”

Since her music career started to gain momentum, Shab has been mostly silent about what’s going on in her motherland, afraid that she would seem like she was “jumping on a bandwagon”. But a couple of weeks ago she decided it was important to break that silence and speak directly about her own experiences, and the fact that “women in Iran have second-class citizenship”. Taking to Instagram, she saluted the brave protestors and offered support.

Following that video, she agreed to open up to The Big Issue about her story and her hopes for the future of her motherland.

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Born in Tehran as youngest of 13 children, Shab’s father died when she was just six months old, leaving her mother to bring up the children alone. “It was very hard times,” she says. My mother had to feed all the kids and meat was so hard to find. My mother was like a tigress, protecting us. She’s my hero and best friend. She’s 82 now, and she still cooks for us.”

As a small child, Shab remembers hiding under her chair in school listening to bombs going off. She’d pray that her family would still be safe when she got home.

Then one day her brothers didn’t come back. They’d been detained by the ruling party and were held for almost two weeks. “My mom had to beg these officers to bring my brothers back.  She said, ‘My husband died, if I don’t have these boys, who’s going to feed these little kids?’”

The guards eventually relented and Shab’s brothers were released, but it was clear that Iran was not safe for them. They’d been banned from leaving the country, so they had to be smuggled out in a dangerous route through Afghanistan and Turkey before they got paperwork to get into Germany.

For the younger children, the way was slightly easier. They lied, saying they were going on holiday to Turkey, before escaping to Germany. “I went to German boarding school,” says Shab. “My sister was my guardian, and I was there without my mom for four years. I missed her very dearly. I didn’t see the rest of my brothers and sisters for years, because when I got to Germany, they had already gone to California.”

Shab's family fled Iran when she was eight.
Shab’s latest single, Sexual, is a celebration of feminine desire and power. Photo: Matt Doheny

The family was eventually reunited in suburban Baltimore, where most of them still live today.

Was life as a refugee hard? “I was just feeling grateful to be there,” Shab says, a catch in her voice as she wipes a big tear from the side of her nose. “The most difficult thing was just learning the language and the culture to be respectful of the people that live there. Honestly, I want to thank my beloved Germany and beloved America for taking me in as a refugee. Some things you just never forget.

“I’m so grateful for the people that do take refugees. We just want to new life. We want to contribute to society, we want to be good citizens of the world, we want to be good citizens for that country. We want to add value, we want to do our part.”

Shab hasn’t been back to Iran in 27 years. America is now her country, she says, but she still misses being able to connect to her heritage. “I would love to go back and go to places where I remember growing up. I would love to see my history,” she says.

As she looks at the people rising up in Iran, Shab feels hope that change may not be too far away. “I honestly think something is going to happen,” she says, firmly. “I have high hopes that people from other countries will be able to go experience Iran one day, when the regime changes from those gangsters.

“Persian people are so nice. They’re so welcoming. And they love Americans, they love people from UK, they love Germans, they love all kinds of people. They will treat them like their own family. That’s how big their hearts are.”

Shab opens for Anastacia on her UK tour until November 15. More information at shabofficial.com

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