By Venus Omidvar
November 23, 2018
After their names are checked against a list, members of the audience slowly enter the auditorium, which is located in a residential high-rise in Tehran. They have come to watch a live concert by two young female singers. They learned it was taking place through a private group, and most of them are friends and acquaintances of the concert’s organizers.
It takes about an hour for the guests, around 200 people, to be seated. The seats are neatly arranged and a small stage has been set up for the singers. After all the guests have been seated, a few scouts are sent outside. Their job is to raise the alarm if they see any sign of the police approaching the premises. Every precaution has been taken. All the female members of the audience are wearing scarves and manteaux — exactly as they would if they were going to a public concert at Tehran’s Milad Tower. The singers also wear headscarves and manteaux as they go on stage.
The first singer is a young woman of about 25. She wears a green manteau that is left open at the front and a white shawl emblazoned with the calligraphic rendition of a verse by Iran’s beloved poet Hafez. First, she apologizes to the audience for having to come together in secret to listen to her. She then talks about her love for music and her musical education. She tells the audience she has practiced for years, but she has never had a chance to present her art.
“The art of any artist is meaningless if it is not seen and heard,” she says, and adds: “Unfortunately, they do not allow our voices — the voices of women who long to sing or even to play instruments — to be heard. Perhaps a limited number of women have managed to get permission to present their art, but they can only sing in a chorus or for a female audience. So we never have the opportunity to show our creativity or even have an income through it.”
The singer starts her performance by singing a poem by the 13th-century Iranian poet Rumi. Afterward, the men and women of the audience enthusiastically applaud. “Pity that such a voice has been imprisoned!” an old man sitting in the row in front of us tells his neighbor.
She continues her performance with traditional songs, new pop music and old tunes. After each song the audience rises to its feet and cheers her.
After an hour the second singer comes on stage. She is wearing a long gown and has covered her hair with a hat. She does not sing in Persian but in English, singing some songs so skillfully that had I not been present and heard her I would have thought it was a concert by Celine Dion or Adele.
Each member of the audience has deposited 70,000 tomans, around $17, in the account of one of the organizers. The money from the concert will go to support charities that help women and girls without means to support themselves.
As the concert ends and the audience begins to leave, some people gather around the singers and thank them. A few of them ask for their phone numbers so that, if the singers are willing, they can invite them for private performances. What is heard more than anything else, though, is a lament that these women cannot be heard in public — “It’s a pity that these voices…”
Some Shia religious authorities believe that sharia law forbids women from singing. Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, female singers have faced numerous restrictions. In the early 1990s, it became possible forwomen to sing in concerts, but only for an audience of women and such concerts cannot be filmed, recorded or photographed.
The Islamic Republic bans albums by solo women singers. Women can only sing as part of a chorus or group and, even then, only if their singing is not louder than the male singers. In recent years, of course, with the rise of social media, female singers are heard more often, but the obstacles in Iran itself remain in place.
“We will Stop it”
Three years ago, when Noushin Tafi sang on the album “I Love You, Oh Ancient Land,” it sparked huge controversy because she was singing louder than other members of the chorus. Hardliner opponents of President Rouhani accused his administration of having overly liberal cultural and social policies. “Singing [by women] should not become normal through any means and we will stop it,” Ayatollah Hossein Nouri Hamedani was quoted as saying. And Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi, who never allows any opportunity to comment to go to waste, said: “The culture ministry tramples on religious values and there are complaints one after another against the ministry.”
A similar commotion followed when the video of a concert by the Mah Banoo (“Moon Lady”) Band was posted on YouTube. Mahdieh Mohammadkhani, the singer, and Majid Derakhshani, the band leader, were summoned for questioning and were banned from leaving Iran for a time. Nevertheless, many female singers resort to social media to release their voices from under house arrest. For example, on November 17, Sohaila Golestani shared a video of her singing on Twitter, posting it along with a sarcastic comment: “Two ladies and three gentlemen are needed to sing alongside me to make it legal.”
And some, like the two singers in the Tehran high-rise, opt to stage underground concerts, arranging it through their friends and acquaintances instead of using social media. But no matter what choices they make, they share the same ardent wish: A public concert, without fear and without intimidation.