Iranian singers push boundaries, face restrictions

Iranian authorities have begun to crack down on female singers and musicians, despite attempts by the culture minister to issue more licenses for performances.

al-monitor Iranian singer Googoosh salutes the audience during a concert north of Baghdad, Sept. 12, 2010.  Photo by AFP/Getty Images/Safin Hamed.

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women and islam, women's issues, west, shiism, music, iran, censorship, artists

Mar 13, 2015

Amid the political clashes in Iran, more and more unwritten restrictions are being imposed on female singers and musicians every day. Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, women have been banned from singing in solo performances and today, after 36 years, steps are being taken by hard-liners to prohibit women from playing musical instruments as well.

“I could not release a music album in Iran and the situation was even worse when [former President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad was in office,” Fariba Davoudi, a singer who has reached the master level in teaching radif (the styles of traditional Iranian music), told Al-Monitor. “When they arrested my student, I realized that I can no longer stay in Iran.”

Today, she has an office in the School of Performing Arts at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada. Davoudi has male and female students from all around the world and she teaches them via Skype.

“Based on the recommendation of my mentor, Mohammad-Reza Shajarian, I spend most of my time with women who are interested in singing," she said. "Half of my students are female.”

She has a weekly program based on which she teaches singing to female students in Shiraz, Tehran, Paris and Washington, while sitting in front of the computer.

Another active Iranian musician, Majid Derakhshani, had lived in Germany and other parts of Europe for many years before moving back to Iran to mentor students. More than a year ago, he created a band called Mah Banoo (Lady Moon), which was made up of mostly female singers and musicians.

In October 2013, this music band did a revolutionary thing and for the first time since the 1979 revolution, after which women were prevented from singing in public, did a performance with a female singer in front of a mixed audience.

According to various interpretations and fatwas issued by the clerics, it's forbidden for a woman to sing in front of a man who is not either her brother, father or husband. Majid Derakhshani overlooked this and released a series of video clips in which women were shown singing. His actions angered conservatives and as the result, in January, when he wanted to leave the country, his passport was confiscated and he was summoned to court and interrogated. After that, he was subjected to a series of interrogations about the video clips he had released.

Derakhshani told Al-Monitor, “Members of Mah Banoo were repeatedly summoned to court and interrogated. A case was also created for me and was sent to court.”

There has been a series of conflicts between conservatives and President Hassan Rouhani’s Culture and Islamic Guidance Minister Ali Jannati, who had previously told reporters, “There is no [unanimous] agreement among Islamic clerics on whether or not women are allowed to sing solo.” This eventually found its way to the Iranian parliament, and 10 members gave him an official warning about female solo performers.

Every week for the last four months, there has been news of a concert being canceled after receiving the necessary license from the Ministry of Culture and even having sold tickets. There was a range of explanations offered as to why the concerts were canceled; sometimes the reason was that the concert coincided with a national mourning period or that the concert was being performed in a religious city. The anti-music groups, whether within the police force or other irregular forces, seem to always have more pull, and the ministry is powerless to do anything other than offering its regrets.

Even when the hard-liners are not successful in canceling a concert, they show up at the concert venue and attack spectators. This is what happened recently in the city of Yazd when a group of spectators were watching a traditional music concert. The question that no one can answer is that even if the hard-liners have a problem with Western and pop music, why do they attack traditional music concerts?

Recently, it appears that an unwritten law has gone into effect in several cities in Iran, based on which a music ensemble, whether performing traditional music or pop music, should not include women. If female musicians are on stage, then the security organizations cancel that concert. Such incidents have happened repeatedly in cities such as Khorramabad, Mashhad, Bushehr, Esfahan and many others. As the result, these days, it is considered a novel and rare event when a music concert concludes uninterrupted in Iran.

Tehran is the only place where these musical bands have an opportunity to perform in a concert hall belonging to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. Venues belonging to the City Hall, which is dominated by conservatives, have prevented women from performing for more than a year. Female Iranian musicians are now confined to a small number of venues located in the capital.

Derakhshani said, “Male musicians should refuse to perform on stage when they see that their female colleagues are not allowed to perform just as 36 years ago male singers should have stopped singing when women were told that they are not allowed to sing. These restrictions that women face when it comes to singing are illegal and should be removed no matter what.”

Nonetheless, when an album composed by Peyman Khazeni titled “I Love you O Ancient Land” was released, two marjas (top religious clerics) in Qom harshly protested against it without even listening to it first. These two marjas, Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi and Ayatollah Nuri-Hamadani, claimed that the Ministry of Culture had given permission for a female singer to sing solo; however, contrary to their claim, the album featured co-singing of a male and a female.

While Jannati has even been threatened with impeachment, it seems he has pushed sensitivities too far and various groups are taking matters into their own hands.

While female Iranian singers pack their suitcases and travel to Europe and North America to perform, women’s voices inside Iran are silenced amid the clash between religious conservatives and reformists in Rouhani’s administration.

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