Sixth Edition December 2002 - Azar 1381 
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> Behind the Curtains Once Again

Women’s Best Friend


School Counselors: Clichéd and Useless?




Behind the Curtains

A Look at Women, Music and the Fourth Annual Women’s Yaas Music Festival

Shadi Vatanparast

I have just arrived at Vahdat Hall to cover the Fourth Annual Yaas Women’s Music Festival. Tehran, Hafez Street, just south of Enghelab (Revolution) Street, Shahriar Street.

Located in a culturally important and happening area, if you’re attending a theatre performance or major concert event, you’re bound to wind up here. On just two blocks of Shahriar Street there are three concert halls, a music school, several restaurants and cafés, and the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance’s Office of Music, which among less notable tasks, is responsible for approving every album and concert in the country. A walk through Daneshju Park further down will lead you right to the City Theatre, Tehran’s most important theatre venue. As for Vahdat Hall, being the only hall to have been built specifically for live music performances, it is arguably the most prestigious music locale, and certainly the most acoustically sound. And for an entire week, the Ministry of Culture has reserved it for an all-women’s music festival to showcase their talents. 

I go through the women’s entrance and begin the usual routine. The on-duty female attendant asks me if I’m packing a camera or tape recorder. Although I carry a reporter’s badge and am usually authorized to bring a camera, I know better than to bring one today. I reply that I’m not, knowing she will search anyway. She points to my bag, and I comply. Once satisfied, she waves me through and I walk through the open courtyard and into the main building.

I look around for familiar faces and am surprised at what I find. The place is swarming with women who are unveiled, dressed in fancy clothing, styled hair, and laughing faces. The atmosphere is filled with excitement and anticipation. After mingling around, I head backstage and find that same prevailing stir. The singers and musicians are dressed in various styles- women from outlying provinces are dressed in their regional clothing while those from Tehran have opted for urban chic. They represent all ages, but most are in their twenties. Bustling around in preparation for what is for many their first major stage appearance, I can’t help thinking about how much things have changed. 

Two decades have passed since female singers’ voices were first silenced, and then restricted. After the 1979 Revolution, women singers were banned from performing publicly. Based on Islamic precepts, a woman’s voice, like her unveiled body, can arouse men and therefore cannot be heard by the male ear. Although Islam has never banned women from singing tout court (two or more voices singing simultaneously is ok and soloists can sing for women-only audiences), unwritten restrictions forced them into the corners of their homes and out of the music scene for many years. 

During the austere revolutionary and early war years, music in general was considered provocative and severely restricted. The only music broadcast was revolutionary and war anthems sung by choirs that included both men and women. Then Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa that allowed for other forms of music, and Persian traditional music performed by men seeped back onto the airwaves and music stands. As for women, with a few exceptions, their musical expressions were confined within university music departments or underground classes. It was not until after the Iran-Iraq war ended that music regained some dynamism — music schools and conservatories were established and other forms of music, like Iranian pop, were allowed a public space. Alongside this trend, women musicians and background vocalists began tentatively appearing in public again.   

A big break occurred five years ago when the Ministry of Culture allowed prominently featured female vocalists to perform for a mixed audience. The landmark concert, entitled Raaz-e Now (New Secret), featured singers Afsaneh Rathaee and Homa Niknam singing duet, and was headlined by Hossein Alizadeh, a tar and setar virtuoso highly respected for his musical innovations and challenging compositions. Significantly, the two women were not seated modestly to the side, apart from the male musicians as expected, but center stage among the men. Furthermore, although there was a guest male singer, it was their voices that sang lead. Later, the group broke further ground by releasing an album by the same name. To people familiar with the music scene, the feat did not go unnoticed. It was one thing for rules and norms to be subverted for a night, but quite another on recordings that had to pass approval by the Ministry of Culture. Soon after, another first was achieved when famous pre-Revolutionary women singers- a group historically maligned by the current regime- like Pari Zanganeh and Simin Ghanem were given permission to hold public concerts for women-only audiences.

While female solo performances for mixed audiences are still banned, duets inevitably flirt with the limitations by having one singer sing a few bars alone. Since the relaxing of restrictions, women have mostly sung traditional and folkloric music, but with the more recent emergence of female background vocalists in pop music, there is growing anticipation on what will come next. 

In the meantime, the Yaas Music Festival repertoire was limited to the safe sanctuary of traditional, classical, and folkloric music (no pop was allowed). This year featured orchestras performing classic Iranian oldies and ensembles playing regional music from the provinces of Fars, Kurdestan, and Azarbaijan. Fariba Davoodi, the head of the Festival, came onstage to welcome the audience, and referring to the improvement of quality every year, expressed great hopes for future performances. Later, she returned to request that the audience refrain from whistling and clapping with the music, upon which she was promptly ignored once the performances resumed.  

The Music Office of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, the event’s sponsor, released an overblown and self-congratulatory statement declaring the all ways in which the Festival afforded women a spectacular opportunity to elevate their cultural activities and enhance their participation. Considering the restrictions imposed on women and the infrequency and limited nature of such opportunities, I couldn’t help viewing the Festival’s exhibitionist nature as a form of gender discrimination. Moreover, because the Festival offered a rare opportunity for women soloists to perform publicly, only women could attend, hence the public unveiling. As a result of this visual and auditory unveiling, all audio and visual recordings were strictly forbidden in the fear that they could fall into the wrong hands. Exigencies required that the Festival leave no record behind, unless of course, you count the plaques that were handed out to the performers.   

In light of the Islamic Republic’s past, government sponsorship of women’s music is no small accomplishment. Yet this fragile détente doesn’t change the fact that much of women’s musical artistry remains concealed from the public at large. Deprived of wider recognition, these artists have little beyond a sense of personal accomplishment to serve as their encouragement and reward.  

I exit Vahdat Hall. Outside, the car headlights of men waiting for their wives are shining brightly in the dark. I close my eyes for a moment. Someday men will be filing out of the concert hall with their wives instead of standing outside. I hear a woman say, “My father loves Qamar’s voice. The singer in the blue dress sounded just like Qamar. I wish my father could have heard her.” I open my eyes. This is Tehran, 2002. 

transl.: MS

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