CHRI – “I am a professional Iranian singer but I am only allowed to work if I perform with a man, which is something I have never wanted to do,” female vocalist Sepideh Jandaghi told the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) in an interview.
A vocalist with 12 years of training in traditional Iranian music, Jandaghi spoke to CHRI on January 22, 2018, about discriminatory state policies banning women in Iran from performing on stage except in rare circumstances.
Women in Iran are theoretically allowed to sing for the general public in a choir or as a solo vocalist for a female-only audience, but solo performances are usually very difficult to organize.
According to Jandaghi, female singers are also prohibited from holding solo concerts for female-only audiences in most parts of Iran except Tehran and a few other cities, even though no law explicitly bans them from doing so. If location is not an obstacle, then the financial burden is usually exorbitant.
“It costs so much to hold a concert for a female-only audience that it’s not worth it,” said Jandaghi. “It’s hard enough to sell tickets for a normal concert, let alone one just for women. We have to pay all the costs out-of-pocket.”
“We cannot advertise the concerts anywhere except on Instagram and Telegram,” she added. “All the musicians have to be women, too. Photographers and videographers are banned—even I can’t film the performance.”
A graduate in Iranian vocal studies from the University of Applied Science and Technology in Tehran, Jandaghi produces some income by providing singing lessons.
Female vocalists were allowed to perform in Iran until the country’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, when then-Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini declared such performances against Sharia law. Iran’s current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has ruled that women can sing in public “if the intention is not pleasure.” However, women continue to be prohibited from going on stage or harassed until they leave it.
“All types of music and vocalizations performed for the purposes of pleasure and corruption are haram, whether performed by men or women,” Grand Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi has declared on his website. “But women can perform authorized songs only for their own gender.”
In some parts of Iran, the idea of a woman singing on stage is a totally foreign concept.
“In some cities, there has been no cultural education and it would be very strange for women to sing there,” Jandaghi told CHRI. “If you post billboards with pictures of four women promoting a concert there, some people would object to it. They would say, ‘Why should we allow women get involved in men’s affairs’?
“The Friday prayer leader of Isfahan has said, ‘If we have female doctors it is because we need them. But who needs female musicians when we have men?’” she added, paraphrasing comments made on November 18, 2015, by Friday prayer leader Ayatollah Yousef Tabatabaeinejad.
“In areas where women are not a necessity, they are simply banned and eliminated,” said Jandaghi.
Cancelations of concerts featuring female vocalists and musicians have been particularly frequent since 2013 when President Hassan Rouhani was voted into office promising a more open society.
Musicians in Iran have long complained that conservative local officials, including prosecutors and the police, sometimes take matters into their own hands and disrupt or cancel concerts operating on permits from the Culture and Islamic Guidance Ministry.
However, that ministry, which operates under Rouhani, has also prevented female performers from growing their audiences. In February 2015, the Culture and Islamic Guidance Ministry announced that it had not issued any permits for albums containing songs with female vocal soloists.
“As female vocalists, we are not allowed to make albums but there are a handful of male musicians who will collaborate with us,” Jandaghi told CHRI. “I know a man who agreed to record 10 tracks for me without pay. There are some who are willing to do it because they truly love music. In return, we put the songs online for free. Or we teach women how to sing.”
She continued: “Our activities are limited to cyberspace. We don’t have much of a presence in the real world. We do it for fun. We never get a chance to practice our art in a professional setting.”
“Homayoun Shajarian [the son of master vocalist Mohammad Reza Shajarian] can be a professional singer and put out albums and generate income,” added Jandaghi. “But we can’t have the experience of going on stage. We don’t get as much recognition. We are not heard as much.”
On January 16, 2018, Culture and Islamic Guidance Minister Ali Salehi said he had “no problem” with females performing with an orchestra on stage and that “this should be the case in all parts of the country.”
Salehi made the comment after the ministry’s local office in the city of Isfahan prevented female members of a mixed-sex orchestra from performing on stage.
“There’s no law that bans women from playing musical instruments but female musicians are prohibited from performing in some cities,” Jandaghi told CHRI. “The female performers appear on stage in a full hijab and long dresses but they are still not allowed to play. In Isfahan and a dozen other cities, there’s an unwritten law banning female musicians.”
“There are pressure groups that act as independent principalities in the provinces,” she added. “It’s really bad that they’re allowed to make a mockery of the government. I don’t know why none of the officials complain about this.”