Diss Talk: Imogen Flower on Iranian women singers and their quest to make the world listen

My dissertation examined the interweaving of politics, religion, gender and music in relation to Iranian women singers. My focus was on the changes incurred by the revolution in 1979, which saw a dramatic shift from the modernising, Westernising stance held during the Pahlavi era (1925-1979) to the Islamic theocratic rule secured by Supreme Leader Khomeini.

As dominant attitudes towards religion and gender changed, legislation surrounding music, which Khomeini believed was ‘like a drug’, also transformed to correspond with Shari’a law. Under immense religio-political pressure, music largely retreated into the private sphere, with the notable exceptions of the revolutionary hymns and anthems played by the Tehran Symphony Orchestra, and the establishment of the annual Hymns and Revolutionary Music Festival in 1986. More specifically, the solo voice was thought to symbolise Western individualism and consumerism, antithetical to the revolutionary vision; and, furthermore, women’s voices were considered to make men think of things other than God. As a result, Iranian women singers were hit hard by the revolution, which appeared to present them with an ultimatum: either stop singing or leave their country.

Parissa performing at the Shiraz Arts Festival, 1967.

However, the perceived contrast between the freedoms of the Pahlavi era and the restrictions imposed by the revolutionary regime is problematic, and threaded throughout my dissertation was an attempt to unpick assumptions that women singers lost all agency under the Islamic revolutionary regime. The Pahlavi era certainly presented its own issues for Iranian women, including the forced unveiling in 1936, which created difficulties for the religious population. For musicians, the Pahlavi era’s emphasis on modernisation infiltrated cultural production, and women singers, such as Parissa, could only get licenses to perform pop songs despite being trained in traditional Iranian music. Thus, the view that the revolution and Khomeini’s subsequent Islamic rule was responsible for removing the agency of Iranian women singers required complexifying.

Although quite typical of contemporary ethnomusicology, this topic raised a number of academic issues for me, as a white British woman assessing my own positionality and my right to comment on other women’s experiences. In the end, I felt compelled to address the subject from an angle which critiqued Western representations of Iranian women, rather than constructing my own representation, which I was clearly ill-equipped to do. I argued that contemporary Western views have been bolstered by Islamophobic sentiment, particularly those which applaud Westernisation in the Middle East and see the reinforcement of the veil in 1979 as dramatically more oppressive than its forced removal four decades earlier. The binaries created between the West and Islam, freedom and oppression, needed to be interrogated and the voices of those at the intersections sought out and listened to. In my dissertation, Iranian women singers provided those voices.

The use of music as resistance is wide-spread, particularly in situations where censorship is in place, such as post-revolution Iran. While professional opportunities for musicians, instrumentalists and singers decreased after 1979, people continued to play music for entertainment and expression. An old instrument maker was apparently delighted by the ironic boom of the Iranian classical music tradition under Khomeini, stating:

I have no reason to complain. You know how the Iranians are: the moment they are prohibited from doing something, they immediately want to do it… It’s the same with music. I can hardly keep up with the demand. I’m snowed under with work.

Similarly, women have not stopped singing but instead have formulated ways of negotiating the bureaucratic system. Some use vocal techniques, such as co-singing, whereby men also sing but very quietly, almost inaudibly, so as not to obscure the voice of the soloist. Other techniques are situational, including performing at illegal private house concerts or licensed women-only concerts and music festivals. On the other hand, some women singers refuse to perform under the continued constraints, exhibiting in their silence a form of protest.

For many Iranian women singers, as for lots of others after the revolution, the only option was to leave Iran. This has given rise to a number of interesting cross-cultural musical collaborations, such as the work of Mamak Khadem’s band, Axiom of Choice, and Mahsa Vahdat’s album with soul blues singer Mighty Sam McClain (see above). Unfortunately, many of these women singers are pressured by Western audiences’ expectations and desires. As Mamak Khadem told me:

The festivals, they say, ‘Here comes this group from Iran’. And they want them to be covered with a veil. They want them to come with traditional dresses… Because, for them, this is the exotic thing that the audience likes.

While the sociopolitical context of Iran is, to a certain extent, inextricable from these singers’ musical identities, the sensationalism and exoticism surrounding their imposed ‘silence’ is destructive. Inaccurate representations reinforce the discursive binaries between the West and Iran, creating a mould within which Iranian women singers must fit in order to have any success in the diaspora. Instead of listening to their voices, audiences are drawn in by their ‘silence’.

Imogen Flower graduated from Emmanuel College last year and is currently studying at SOAS on the MA Music in Development course. Her Masters dissertation is about a project called the Sex Workers’ Opera (http://www.sexworkersopera.com). As a rule, more than half of its cast and crew are sex workers, and the project is built on the concept that participation, integration and advocacy can extend from the artistic realm into the political arena. The project members are involved in campaigns to decriminalise sex work and improve standards of working in the UK, maintaining the stance that sex work is a choice.

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