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.

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.

Parisa
Parissa performing at the Shiraz Arts Festival, 1967.

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.

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