Video: Female Vocalists, Social Media, and Cultural Policy in Islamic Iran

December 17, 2020
Nahid Siamdoust's 2020-21 research project is “Women Singing: The Regulation of Solo Female Vocals in Iran’s Hypermediated Public Sphere.”
Nahid Siamdoust's 2020-21 research project is “Women Singing: The Regulation of Solo Female Vocals in Iran’s Hypermediated Public Sphere.”

Nahid Siamdoust, Visiting Assistant Professor of Women’s Studies and Anthropology of Religion, presented the lecture, “Female Vocalists, Social Media, and Cultural Policy in Islamic Iran,” on November 12, 2020.

Nahid's 2020-21 research project at HDS's Women's Studies in Religion Program is “Women Singing: The Regulation of Solo Female Vocals in Iran’s Hypermediated Public Sphere,” which investigates whether processes occurring in Iran’s hypermediated public sphere can drive the Islamic Republic to redefine its rulings.


Good afternoon. My name is Ann Braude. And I'm delighted to welcome you to the last Women's Studies and Religion program lecture for this strange fall semester. I'm particularly pleased to welcome this international audience. We have participants on at least three, maybe four continents this afternoon. And I wish I could greet all of the research associates individually, but I'm happy to connect with you virtually.

Our lecture series will continue in the online format next semester. So we hope that our far-flung audience will stay with us. We'll have lectures next term on traditional religion in the Congolese war, as well as a lecture on women in ancient Egyptian religion. And I want to assure all of you who are joining us today that as much as we look forward to returning to a live format here at Harvard Divinity School, we are seeking ways to continue that connection with the sisterhood of women's studies and religion scholars around the world, as well as our broad audience, which has been the silver lining of this weird pandemic.

I also want to mention-- I know that most of you are aware of this already. But in case some are not, I want to announce that we will hold an online memorial service for our beloved past director, Constance Buchanan, on November 23rd. And anyone who would like information about that, who would like to join it, or would like to join our mailing list and is not already on it, you can put a private message in the chat to Tracy Wall, our program administrator and coordinator, who can keep in touch with you. And Thanks to Tracy for making everything goes smoothly today and every day.

All of our research associates, just like all of you out there, have been working under duress this past semester. They have continued their research under suboptimal conditions during COVID. And I want to thank them each for their perseverance, as well as to thank you for encouraging their work through your virtual presence in this event.

Without further ado, it is with great pleasure that I introduce today's speaker, Nahid Siamdoust. Nahid is visiting Assistant Professor of Women's Studies and Anthropology of Religion here at Harvard Divinity School, as well as this year's Colorado scholar. And I also want to extend a special greeting to our friends in Colorado, some of whom are joining us today, and to thank you once again for helping to endow the Colorado scholar who comes to the school every year.

Professor Siamdoust comes to us from Yale University, where she spent several years as a visiting lecturer in Persian Studies. And when she leaves here, she will be assuming a new tenure track position as Assistant Professor in the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas in Austin, where she will be part of a new cluster hire on global disinformation and new media, which just may be the most critical issue facing us today. Professor Siamdoust's first book, Soundtrack of a Revolution, established her as one of the foremost voices addressing the politics of music in contemporary Iran.

And I want to commend you, in addition to her book, to her recent op ed in The New York Times following the recent death of Iran's revered vocalist Mohammad Shajarian, beloved by the Iranian people but banned by the state. He is one of the figures Nahid wrote about in Soundtrack of a Revolution. And so they turned to her to help us understand and remember this important figure.

And if you really want to get inside contemporary Iranian music, which I have a feeling you're going to want to after this talk, you can listen to Nahid's podcast, 10 Songs that Define Modern Iran. And we'll put that link in the text so you can click on it later, please, after the lecture. Because we're very happy today to be able to hear Nahid speak to us about female vocalists, social media, and cultural policy in Islamic Iran. Nahid, the floor is yours.

Hi, everyone. And thank you so much, Ann, for the kind introduction. First of all, I want to thank Ann Braude and the Women's Studies and Religion Program at the Harvard Divinity School for supporting my research and for creating the space for us to do research on the intersection of women and religion. And I also want to thank Tracy Wall for facilitating all of the logistics of this, and the Colorado scholars as well.

And I also want to really thank everybody for being here. I know we're all spending way too much time on Zoom. And so I really appreciate you taking time out of your busy schedules to be here for this discussion today. As some of you may know-- you know what? I'm going to share my screen now. And so as some of you know, my book deals specifically with music in the public realm in post-revolutionary Iran, and as such focuses on a very gender-segregated, gender-hegemonic space of music and discursive sites mainly produced and performed by men, spanning four genres of music across 30 years in post-revolutionary Iran.

Partly to point to the void in the public realm of women's voices, I chose an image for the cover of the book which captures this enforced silence. The photo is of the electro-rock musician Maral Afsharian. And it's part of a photo series by NewshaTavakolian called Listen. She captures women in the passionate act of singing. But of course we can't hear them because of this prohibition against on their voice since the 1979 Revolution.

So today I want to focus specifically on women's solo singing, the legal and political foundations to the state's position, how women musicians have been affected by the restrictions and the impact of social media permeation in everyday life on this issue. I'll start my talk today with a story.

In October 2013, Iranian media reported that a woman vocalist had sung publicly for the very first time in post-Revolutionary Iran. And this headline caused a lot of controversy across the religious and political spectrum, enraging some and delighting many, and seemed to signal a new day in the cultural policymaking of the Islamic Republic.

What is more, it was reported that the culture minister of the time, Ali Jannati had a first front row seat to the concert, sort of giving this quote, unquote news more sort of an official look or sanction. It took some time and denials to establish that this event didn't, in fact, take place. The singer at the center of this controversy, Mahdieh Mohammadkhani, whom you see here in the picture, was on a European concert tour at the time of the fabricated rumor.

The poster of her concert was widely publicized, in part because this issue was so sensitive that people had called for the resignation of the culture minister, believing that he had somehow enabled this. The dramatic nature of this incident, the develops that led to its occurrence, and its consequences, highlight several intertwined strands of inquiry, some of which I will talk about today.

As far as my research is concerned, in an effort to center women's experiences, it relies heavily on conversations and interviews with the people in the field, so several of the most prominent and visible and active women singers, but also some government officials, government and media officials who are engaged in policy debates.

And I'm aware of the time. It's kind of a large subject to tackle, but I will try to keep my talk to about 35 minutes. I'm happy to discuss any issues that come up in the Q&A.

In what follows, I will first offer you some historical context, then briefly discuss the religio-political foundations that have led to the kinds of regulations that exist, then talk about the impact of social media on the work of these women and their subsequent experiences with the state security and judicial system.

First, for those of you, perhaps, not so familiar with Iran, I should mention that the Pahlavi era, before 1979, some of Iran's greatest singers were women, and some of them still continued to command huge audiences. Googoosh, for example, who's now 70, but still has sold out concerts the world over.

In fact, Iran had a very emancipatory figure of a female singer in the person of Qamar-ol-Moluk Vaziri. You see Qamar in the black and white photo to your left, I believe, or to your right-- I'm not sure-- who sang a very sort of feminist song already in 1924, unveiled in front of a mixed gender audience at the Tehran Grand Hotel. And all the women singers I spoke to were very keen to mention Qamar as an early role model.

And to take a comparative perspective, these developments in Iran were paralleled elsewhere in the Middle East and beyond by emerging modernities where women often served as symbols of the nation in post-colonial national projects. These developments were, of course, facilitated by ever more modern media technologies that amplified the voices of these singers and eventually beamed them into everyday households via radio, and later, television.

But the newly instituted Islamic Republic officialdom viewed music as suspect. This has some grounding in Quranic interpretations, but more importantly, Islamists who had taken the reins of government after the Revolution, and even revolutionaries of other political persuasions, viewed the cabaret and pop music scene of the Pahlavi era and its singers as corrupted by western notions of womanhood and gender relations.

So Revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini, in one of his first edicts, he banned music outright. He said music was like opium for the masses, and if you wanted your used to be righteous, you needed to ban music. Dance clubs and cabarets of Tehran where some of the first buildings and institutions and establishments to be burned down, and women singers suffered the most. The majority of women singers left the country for exile. The ban, however, on music as such didn't really remain in place too long. And this is something that I discuss in my book.

Soon after this ban, the Islamic Republic started to make tremendous use of music for its own purposes. Music was such an integral part of Iranian life that even the Revolutionary state couldn't ignore its usefulness. And also, Shia rites and rituals, lamentations, are through and through colored with singing and musicality. And so it's really futile to pretend that Islam, in its Iranian presentation, at least, was free of music.

As far as the religious injunctions against singing are concerned, how do officials justify the ban, the de facto ban on the solo female voice? I should probably be asking, is there actually a ban on the solo female voice? The core of this issue has to do with the term [FARSI]-- and I'm sure some of you know this in Islamic law-- which refers to a kind of singing that comes from the throat and causes extreme sort of excitement or ecstasy. And these concerns are, of course, not just in the Islamic tradition. The sirens in Greek mythology are famously dangerous creatures who lured sailors to their destruction with their sweet songs.

Despite Iran's rather illustrious history of women singers in the 20th century, female singing in public settings was so widely considered unacceptable in traditional circles that all-female singing was at first automatically put in the category of [FARSI]. As Iran's most accomplished vocalist of Persian classical music, Parisa, told me, she was told soon after the Revolution that she could no longer sing or teach singing because the woman's voice was categorically Haram [FARSI].

So although Parisa personified the nativist aspirations of the Revolution, dressed as she was in traditional outfits, vocalizing an art form that was considered authentically Iranian, she was still subject to the same punishment as the women who, in the eyes of the revolutionaries, personified this [INAUDIBLE] other.

Finally on the subject, during the 1980s, in a series of very public jurisprudential argumentations between various leading scholars and jurisprudence and Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of the Revolution himself, Khomeini laid down the principle of maslahat, of expediency, according to which, as Khomeini said nearly verbatim, the interests of the state, the interests of the survival of the state trump even Islamic law. So whatever is in the interests of keeping the state continuing is more important than even the Sharia.

And it was based on this concept that he permitted the use of ideologically committed music throughout the 1980s, which eventually opened the doors to other kinds of relaxation on other kinds of music as well. However, in the questions put to Khomeini, there is a tradition within Islam, at least in Shia jurisprudence, prudence of asking the ulama for clarification on certain subjects. And these are called [FARSI], and in the [FARSI] put to Khomeini in February, 1988, which were the last fatwas on music that he gave before he died, no one asks him if it's permitted for women to sing solo. This is so out of the question that nobody asks.

And when you look at this form, and I know it's probably fairly small on your screen and you might not be able to read Persian, people ask him about the solo male voice, which he says is permissible. He's asked about women singing together with men, which he says if it's free of corruption, it's permissible, so there's a bit of a qualification there.

But discussions on the permissibility of women's singing continued throughout these years, and they really came to the fore, really became a pressing issue with the gradually growing use of social media in everyday life. In effect, Iranians were increasingly living in two public realms that could be starkly demarcated from each other, but also overlapped and bled into each other in other areas.

Their actual public lives on the ground, in the streets, in universities, institutions, and on state media were formerly regulated by state policy, while their virtual lives took place on social media and other transnational media networks such as the expatriate television stations that are mostly beamed in from Los Angeles, and by now, also, Europe and the United Arab Emirates and elsewhere.

Two of the most widely watched pieces around that time were [FARSI] ensemble [FARSI], which you were just listening. It was the sort of walk in music that you all heard as you entered this talk with two solo female singers. One is Sahar Mohammadi, and the other one is [FARSI]. And another video featuring Mahdieh Mohammadkhani, the woman at the center of the controversy about having been the first to sing publicly in post-Revolutionary Iran.

I want to show you excerpts of each of those music videos just so you get a sense not just for the music, but also for the visual presentation that we're talking about. I'll start with [FARSI], which you just heard coming into the talk, but you'll get to see the video as well.





And the next video is a song called [FARSI], both of them composed by the man, the sort of older man you see on the tar called [FARSI].





These professionally produced videos were reflected on social media by dozens of others, by less professional and formal singers. This flurry of activity of young singers, many of whom had studied vocals for many years and were now using social media to publicize their work, had bled into the actual realm, rendering it conceivable that the unprecedented act of a woman singing solo in a formal setting in the presence of the culture minister could, indeed, have happened.

Three sources of emulation-- these are the highest clerical ranks close to the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini-- issued statements attacking the Culture Ministry's policies and reiterating that female singing was Haram. In response, the director in charge of the dissemination of the Supreme Leader's views, Muhammad Hossein [FARSI], responded that Ayatollah Khomeini had decreed, quote, that if the singing is not [FARSI] and the listener does not listen to it with the purpose of pleasure or-- watch out, double negative coming-- without sexual innocence, and if it's free of other sources of corruption, it is [FARSI].

In fact, this was not surprising and not a sudden change. Only six years after Khomeini's last fatwas on music, when no one had even dared ask him about the female voice, people have asked Khomeini for his ruling on the solo female voice, in response to which he has issued a fatwa basically saying what he said again now in 2015.

So as far as jurisprudence is concerned, it seems the kinds of videos that we just watched of women in hijab singing classical Persian vocals might be permissible. But what have the on the ground consequences been for those involved in the creation of the videos I just showed you?

All the musicians whom you saw in the two videos, as well as others whom I've interviewed, have been to interviews with state agents several times, and have had court cases drawn up for them, and have been ensnared in disciplinary and legal processes for years. Majid Derakhshani, the older man on the tar who has been the composer of a lot of the music and is also one of the ones who, with the initiative to form these groups, was banned from work for one year and banned from leaving the country for two years, and eventually left Iran to live in a sort of enforced exile-- were he to return to Iran, he couldn't partake in any way in the work in the actual public realm.

So even though he's a man, he could no longer be a part of concerts. This is something that he's been told. And it's important to remember that he is one of the country's most treasured, most well-known musicians. He was part of the [FARSI] group, which even by the state itself, at the time of the Revolution and subsequently, was seen as traitor to the Revolution because they had produced some of the most important Revolutionary songs at the time.

Mahdieh Mohammadkhani knew a travel ban would be coming-- she'd been told so much-- and left the country to live in enforced exile for about a year and can't partake in any music in the actual public realm. About her experiences of being charged by the public prosecutor, she told me, quote, I was brought to a place where they were holding criminals, thieves, prostitutes. And as an artist who struggled to create art and was now an ambassador for my country's arts, why was I treated like a criminal? End quote.

Sahar Mohammadi, the younger woman in the video with the two singers, seems to be the most heavily policed in that she's not allowed to partake in any musical activities at home and is too scared to get involved in productions in the virtual realm. She told me, quote, an artist needs attention, needs to be onstage and present. I was a travel banned for one year. I only taught. And many musicians wouldn't even come close to me. They were worried that they would get tainted by their association with me. This was really hard for me.

[FARSI], another accomplished young singer, is blacklisted and can't partake in music at home, not even in the role of a speaker or commentator at, say, university seminars. She told me that the public prosecutor's office told her the reason she was travel banned was because there were, quote, Mujahideen [FARSI], or an opposition group outside of Iran, Mujahideen [FARSI] organizing concerts for you, and you don't know who they are, and they use for their own political purposes. So we're protecting you from falling into political traps outside, and hence the travel ban.

What is of note is that throughout their ordeals, nearly all of the interviewees mentioned encounters with officials, judges, and security agents who apologized to the musicians for the treatment they were receiving and expressed their admiration for their work. One singer told me about a Kurdish judge who apologized to her and to the other band members for being there and said, quote, I hope one day the atmosphere will be different and we'll see you in different circumstances, end quote.

A male musician that collaborated with the women and also went through a court case told me of a judge who told him, I'm very religious and I love music, and gave him a piece of paper on which he had handwritten a 17th century poem by the poet [FARSI], in his own handwriting with the verses, [FARSI]. Roughly translates to that unruly palm tree that was axed was not done by us. If time should break us, we too will turn into musical instruments.

Another singer told me that on her way out of Iran, an immigration official praised her and said, don't look at my beard. My wife and I love your music. Ultimately, none of these musicians were charged with engaging in illegal music because, as one judge explained to them, there is no official law that prohibits solo female vocals. There are opinions and interpretations, but no law. There is no such law because there is no Islamic basis for the ban. Instead, they were charged with collaborating with expatriate television channels.

In these encounters with agents of the state, the musicians were told that they could continue their activity if they kept a low profile at home. So no viral videos. If they keep a low profile, the state turns a blind eye to their activities at home and their concerts abroad. And all these musicians have since produced new videos with sort of a lower profile, not promoting their videos everywhere. You kind of have to pay attention to actually find what they've been up to and what they've been producing.

But if these women want to be active in the musical field at home, giving concerts to all women audiences, partaking in seminars and teaching at the university and so on, they have to abstain from existing in the virtual public sphere or giving concerts abroad. [FARSI] went to great lengths to delete all of her videos online so she could be given a permit to give a concert to an all women audience and was given the permit. But she really regretted it because it was just so much work for her to try to take down all the videos of her online.

The Islamic Republic can't control the virtual or outside world, but it can control what happens underground within its jurisdiction. So as a female vocalist, you have to choose. You can't inhabit both worlds. You have to choose one or the other. And if you choose the virtual and become too popular, you get into trouble. In the end, it was never resolved who instigated the false piece about Mohammad [FARSI] breaking the 34-year taboo and singing publicly. But it's clear that the article forced the issue and led to clarifying by the state of its position, which despite the lack of a robust legal foundation, continues this prohibition.

But as various incidents across the last five years show, social media has facilitated the work of these musicians and left an irreversible mark on the actual sphere. The representational sites that these women have created through their musical productions have hemorrhaged into the officially regulated space and softened the contours of that space.

There have been many, many instances that point to a normalization of women's public singing despite the official regulatory intransigence on the subject. Videos of women singing in the public are in great circulation. There are some that are in more in formal settings, some that are in less formal settings. Any woman breaking out into song at a restaurant is filmed and shared online. And there are others that are more high profile instances.

And I think I have a little bit of time to share a couple with you. A couple of years ago, Hamid Askari, who was a very popular pop star, allowed his guitar player onstage to actually sing solo. And it might seem just so common to anybody who's been to a western concert, but that's just not allowed. She's not allowed to sing solo. And so her microphone is cut off, and Hamid Askari still has problems in terms of getting permits for a concert. I'll just show you a little sort of excerpt of this.




Another video that went viral was of a tour guide, who in [FARSI], a town, just had set up for a little concert for the tourists and the people of the town, singing a pre-Revolutionary pop song.



And even a war eulogist of the war era, there was news not too long ago that he'd done a sort of co-singing a song with a young girl who has made a presence on social media. She's released a few clips, and she's got a nice voice, and was asked on International Girls Day if he would co-sing the song with her. And he accepted, and this also made the rounds on social media, the point being that the virtual sphere is really saturated with these videos of not just girls singing, but even in this case, as you can see, the boundaries being pushed on official stages, such as at the pop concert in Tehran, or somebody who was one of the voices of the Revolution during the war co singing now with a young girl, and having that being distributed widely on social media.

And the song that you watched with the two women, [FARSI], the one of the younger and the older women singing together, it was picked up sort of as a melodic background for some religious eulogizing during the [FARSI] processions in [FARSI], a eulogy that is not incidentally centered on the women of Karbala, so on the heroines of Karbala, Imam Hussein's sister.

So the melody that was composed by Majid Derakhshani for the walk-in song that you heard being picked up for [FARSI], for the kind of rituals that are enacted during [FARSI]. And I'll show you a short clip of that, too.




So the point being that even in this all-male space, this sort of woman-centered song is sung to this melody. And on social media it's called [FARSI] to engage in that discourse, which is seeking to enable women's voices to enter the public sphere.

So the state seems to be at an impasse considering that policy-making bodies within the Islamic Republic of Iran, since the foundation of the state in 1979, have been able to use the policy of maslahat, expediency to allow for all kinds of music that were at first banned, so do a 180 completely on pop music, for example, which was banned for 20 years and then allowed.

Why are they unable to apply the same principle to female solo singing, even in the presence of the jurisprudence of the Supreme Leader himself, which does not categorically forbid the solo female voice? The Islamic Republic's core mission from the start was to augur a new dawn, a cultural revolution, one that created a Muslim polity tied at the core in the interpretation of the ulama who sat at the helm to the control over the social, especially the female body, and the kinds of vises that could arise if this body was not disciplined.

The women singers I've discussed are a far cry from the Pahlavi era pop stars and sex symbols. Their dress, their mode of singing, their comportment are all within the gender conforming framework of the state. Even when these women sing outside of Iran, the majority will wear some kind of head gear or headscarf in order to conform to regulations back at home and avoid getting into trouble when they go back.

But as Eileen Hayes and other feminist scholars have observed, the voice is a metaphor for vocality, cultural agency, political autonomy, and the solo singing voice offers a raw, unmasked, naked presence of significance. Or as Simon Firth has written, the voice is the sound of a body. It seems particularly expressive of the body.

In its denial of the solo female voice, these regulations deny the expression of autonomy of the female body. Women in Iran can sing publicly in choirs or even in duos, just not solo. As one of the musicians whom I interviewed told me, there always has to be the preposition co, co-singing, co-performing. In Persian it's [FARSI]. It has to be [FARSI]. It can't just be one woman sort of projecting herself solo.

The linkage between voice and body can be quite literal. It appears that the solo female voice is increasingly viewed in the same category as hijab. This is something that these vocalists were told in their interrogations. One singer was told, quote, if we allow you to sing, next thing we know, women are going to take greater liberties, and we will see licentiousness on and off stage. It appears the issue of singing is viewed as a gateway to cultural corruption and is hence securitized by state organs.

Indeed, because the movements for greater rights for women have accelerated over these last four or five years, if the movement for greater women's rights gets such momentum that it starts to directly threaten the status quo, I wonder whether the policy of maslahat, of expediency, will serve to give women those rights to ensure the survival of the state. That's one way of thinking about it. Or, with its Revolutionary ideology long dissipated and its security apparatus strong, is control over women's voices and bodies the most feasible and the most visible way to enforce its raison d'etre as an Islamic state?

Some of the younger musicians I interviewed were hopeful and believed that one way or another, this ban would be lifted in the next 10 years. They believed the social force was simply too strong. On the other hand, 70-year-old Parisa, Iran's most accomplished vocalist whom I mentioned earlier, said in response to this question, quote, they will never allow women to sing because it would be a denial of their own existence, end quote.

However this unfolds, the problem of women's solo singing provides an incisive window onto the interplay of the various forces, including women's decades-long struggles to create space for their voices, the impact of social media formation on these processes, and how an aging Revolutionary state balances its interests versus its anxieties of survival. Thank you.

Well, thank you so much, Nahid. Nahid, in case you can't see it, people are saying how wonderful the talk was, which is one of the nice things about our chat that they don't have to whisper serendipitously, that they can express it, that they can vocalize their appreciation for your talk, which we all enjoyed so much.

And you did leave time for questions, so we will definitely continue, at least until 4:00 PM here in Eastern time, with questions. And we can go over a bit if there is more discussion.

So I'm going to read the first question from Ernest Rubinstein for Nahid. He says, so fascinating. Thank you. Can you say a little about how the singers are received, if at all, in other countries of the mideast?

Yeah. Interestingly, there doesn't seem to be too much exchange within the Middle East itself. These women are often sponsored by European countries, for example. Sometimes in the US, there are some attempts. But it's been very difficult over the last several years for women to get visas because of the Muslim ban.

But the last photo that I had in my series was of a two-week-long festival, The Female Voice of Iran, in Berlin, where many of these women singers were brought and gave individual concerts. And this was really well-received widely.

So these programs, as far as I know, I haven't heard of a single one where some kind of concert or festival has been organized to bring these women elsewhere in the region, let's say. Beirut would be an option, or maybe the Emirates. And that I haven't heard of. But what I will tell you is that people in Iran pay very close attention to what's happening in the rest of the region. And when last year, Saudi Arabia, for the first time, broadcast [FARSI] on state television, that really made the splash on Iranian social media, with people commenting that even in the much more conservative Saudi Arabia, they've now allowed the female voice to be aired on their state media.

And then subsequently, of course, Saudi Arabia organized concerts where Mariah Carey and others like that, where even Nicki Minaj was invited to give a concert not very far from Mecca. She declined, ultimately, because this was not too long after Jamal Khashoggi's murder.

But what Saudi Arabia has done under MBS is that they have organized these concerts and actually invited musicians-- the ones who have migrated and live in exile in LA and elsewhere-- invited several of those musicians just this past winter to be part of this Festival at Tantura. And so they flew in from there.

But interestingly, either they didn't invite or the female musicians didn't accept an invitation. I doubt they invited them because they're going for a sort of more western kind of style of music for the concerts that they're organizing in Saudi Arabia. And even [FARSI], who recently, before his father's death, published a track, [FARSI], which was recorded by something like, I think, 12 musicians, if not more, in various continents-- he co-sang with a female singer, a Lebanese singer.

And he was criticized for that because this was the Tehran Symphony Orchestra. So it was sort of half official, and [FARSI], of course, has an official standing in Iran. He's given permits for concerts and records. And even in that, he didn't invite one of these Iranian vocalists to co-sing with him for the problems that would have ensued if he had.

So we have quite a few more questions, and I'll try to bring a few of them together. There are several questions about the women singers, what else they can do when they're not allowed to engage in the solo performances. And I'll just say, to add my own question to this, that I was really fascinated that they are permitted to sing in public as long as there are men singing also. So it's not a question of women's voice being prohibited in public.

So several people would like to know how they were able to continue their business as teachers in their homes. Was their teaching censored in any way? Did they give Parisa a hard time for training girls to be singers? Were they able to publish written memories about their experiences as long as they weren't singing?

Yeah. Great question. So these women have been able-- Parisa, for example-- they've all had different strategies of dealing with these restrictions. Parisa has treaded a path that a lot of the younger musicians really respect and follow, which is she simply decided that she wasn't going to engage with this public space in which women were allowed to give concerts to all women audiences. So that's something that the state itself started organizing in the late '90s, and that has been allowed. And some female vocalists have engaged in that space and have given these concerts.

Parisa has refused to do so. She says that's like, why should I only be singing to my own gender? Music has nothing to do with gender. Music has to do with the soul. And relegating my concerts to only half the population really denigrates the value of my work and my art. And she won't engage with that. So what she's done, in the mid-'90s-- of course, she was one of the most accomplished female vocalists of Persian classical music at the time. And so she was able to give concert tours in Europe and the US and elsewhere and was able to continue her work that way.

Other musicians, they do things like they dub children's voices. They dub other voices, women's voices for television series and films and so on. They sing children's songs. They have to change their voice, which many of them, again, find quite humiliating that that's the only way in which their voice is acceptable.

And teaching has been a large part of it. There's so many-- when I was talking to Majid Derakhshani, he said we had a-- what's it called, like an audition for singing. And he just couldn't believe the number of young and middle age and older women who showed up who had practiced singing for years and sometimes decades, and the quality of their singing.

And so the music classes have continued inside homes. And all of the women I've spoken to, they also teach singing. And Mohammadi told me that it's now also allowed for them to teach singing to men. So this was not previously allowed, but now they allow men also to be taught by these female vocalists as long as it happens in private, and that's fine.

Yeah. And so they can't publish music at home. Of course, some of these musicians, especially somebody like Parisa, was able to publish her records outside of the country, and these were easily obtainable in Iran. They would sort of seep back into Iran, and people were able to purchase them.

But then once the internet came, this trajectory where you either chose to oblige to the state rules, and really do the all-female concerts, or disengage completely, which is what Parisa did-- and she told me, it was very important for me to not engage in any of the governmental programs or anything because once you engage, you're kind of invested. And they find ways of having a say in how you conduct your life and your art. And she never engaged. She's given no interviews whatsoever to Iranian media, and in Iran doesn't go to any public settings. And so she was able to give these concerts abroad and sort of disengage from the internal.

But then with the internet, of course, this changed. People like [FARSI] and her generation of singers, and subsequently some of the singers that I discussed, this has changed. As of 2000 on the internet, and as of 2010 on social media, their work is widely, widely consumed.

The reason that these women got into legal troubles was because the video, for example, the walk-in music that you heard, went viral. This was a big deal, and it kind of made an explosion, a splash on social media when it came out.

Fascinating. We have so many questions. I'm going to try to get as many of them in as I can. Here is one from another research associate who is writing to us from Iran. She says, as you said and we know, women as mothers are the first singers to sing lullabies for their children. And this very genre of singing lullaby has been permitted for Iranian women to be performed in the public space and on national television. How can we understand the authorization of this genre of singing in Iran according to the example-- well, I can't quite parse the rest of the sentence, but I think you get the question.

Yeah. It's interesting. I mean, again, the gender framework that exists allows certain kinds of possibilities for womanhood. And so being a mother is part and parcel of that definition of the kind of womanhood that is promoted. And so lullabies-- [FARSI] has a collection of folkloric lullabies, a beautiful collection that received a permit and was published. And even on state television there was a series that had a woman's solo voice singing a lullaby.

And another one, actually, also state television it wasn't a lullaby, but it kind of sounded a little bit like that kind of singing. And they asked Khomeini himself for clarification as to why this was allowed. And he gave an answer that was not so different from an answer that Khomeini gave a few years into the Revolution when he was presented with a piece of music that was ideologically committed to the Revolution, but presented instrumental passages that would have been thought to be problematic.

And he said, well, this is committed music. It's for a higher good. It's for the elevation of man, and hence it's permitted. And so to go back to the lullabies-- and also, when there are no words involved in the music, the restrictions are always less stringent.

Thank you. Here's a related question. Are there any female vocalists who practice religious music in public, or maybe in private religious settings?

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, this is really where I knew of women performers growing up, sort of the first decade after the Revolution. In all these women's settings, women religious settings, whether it's the birthday of an imam or the passing of an imam, or other religious holiday, within these women's gatherings, there are always women singers, eulogists who get invited, [FARSI] who vocalize.

Something similar, for example, to the man whom you saw in that [FARSI] with the men beating their chests, the female version of that. And also in private gatherings, for joyous non-religious purposes, there are women performers who are invited, and more sort of traditional kinds. Now you have also younger musicians who play a whole different kind of music and make good money going to private parties and being DJs and singing. But even way before that, way before there were women-- and there still are middle-aged women who do a kind of more traditional kind of singing at these parties, folkloric songs, the songs of the [FARSI] of the street, and the bazaar, songs that are no longer sort of in currency, certainly not on social media, but they're there in these private settings.

And then I feel like there was another question attached to that that I'm forgetting.

Well, whenever it comes back to you, or perhaps it'll come back in the Q&A. But I'm going to go on so we can get in a few more questions. We have a question about how regular people, not politicians or officials, view this issue in Iran. Do people follow the rules? And is there an underground scene where women can sing in peace?

I mean, there are underground concerts where women give concerts. And as a matter of fact, the [FARSI], the second clip that we watched, it's not an underground concert, but that's a concert in a private home. And it was videotaped intentionally and professionally to be subsequently distributed on social media. But those kinds of concerts happen a lot, and also with women rock musicians, for example, or rappers.

And so those kinds of concerts take place, but they're not necessarily-- in those kinds of social settings, it's a mixed gender audience. And so there will be women singers, but there'll also be men singers, and it'll be sort of a mixed affair. And you'll get all women rock bands even giving concerts. But it's for mixed gender audience, and so other musicians will be part of it, too.

How do common Iranians think on this? I think it really depends. I mean, there are still a good number of Iranians of traditional backgrounds who think that perhaps the solo female singing is problematic. But if social media is anything to go by, a very large number of Iranians approve of women singing solo or otherwise because the kinds of clips that we see-- there was recently a clip of clearly sort of a rural older woman sitting at home and singing, and her family filming her, egging her on, and getting her to sing more.

And so this is especially folkloric songs. And music's just been so integral to Iranian life that it's hard to for me to imagine that it's more of a majority who disapprove of women singing. There aren't any numbers, but just based on even these government officials, judges, clerks expressing to these women that they don't really approve of what's going on, and expressing their sympathies with these women and congratulating them for their work and so on. Even a judge giving a handwritten note to Majid Derakhshani.

Yeah, I think, if I were to take a guess, my guess would be that the majority of Iranians approve. That kind of music had pervaded their lives for decades before 1979 when the Islamic Republic decided to ban the female voice. One issue that has come up, of course-- and this is something that Derakhshani expressed in an interview with [FARSI], a problematic sort of figure for the Islamic Republic because of her campaigns of unveiling and so on-- in which she asked, do you feel like you could have done more for women? Could you have done something that this ban wouldn't have stayed, at least, for as long as it has?

And he said something like I feel shame that we didn't do more. And when I asked him about this, and I've asked other men musicians about this, they express regret that they didn't do more at the beginning because it wasn't such a given. Right after the Revolution happened, with Khomeini as the sort of religious charismatic leader, those who followed his path thought women's voices were automatically forbidden. But this was not given for the majority of the population, especially not the male musicians.

And so they're both being accused of really not having done much for women musicians, and having used the space that was left empty by women musicians of taking up that space for their own purposes. And even today, because of the ban on the female voice, some of these musicians have told me because of this ban, they get paid much less. They don't get credit in the titles of certain works. If a man gets paid three million toman, for example, for a certain passage, the woman will get just about 1/10 of that.

And so these state regulations are having an impact, very sort of financial impact on the lives of women musicians. And all the women have expressed this to me, that being able to stay financially viable is very difficult for them. They can't publish their work, and if there's any kind of collaboration, because of the given official structures, condoned structures, it is easier for men musicians to just not give them their fair share.

Yeah. Well, that points to a question that another listener asked about the women before the Revolution that you showed us in the photo with the four vocalists. She noticed that most of them died in their 50s, which seems premature. And she wondered if there were reasons for that, if their lives were shortened because of the difficulties that they faced.

So [FARSI] died fairly young because she had a very difficult life. She was very famous but died in poverty. In part, she would just help other musicians and other people who needed. She was a very respectable character, and this is something that people have written about. She just gave up-- whatever she earned making music, she would give to those others who needed it.

And so she just died, and didn't have anybody else taking care of her. And her life was a hard one. She'd started to sing with her grandma at religious gatherings-- actually, this sort of links back to the previous question-- she'd gone along with her grandmother who would sing at religious gatherings, women's gatherings, and had sung as a child. And so I think partly, perhaps, she just didn't have very good health.

[FARSI], who you saw, who died, I think, even before she was 50, she died in a car crash. And she was one of the most popular musicians of the time. And it is said that her funeral, when she had the car crash, was one of the biggest that the city had ever witnessed. And she was sort of a louche singer. She was a cabaret singer. She had created-- not created, but was really a proponent of this genre of really popular, lower middle class music of the streets and the bazaar, with a lot of sort of revealing outfits and dances, and was really beloved.

And [FARSI]-- I'm not sure he's here-- he's written about her as somebody who gave us the alternative modern, that these women, throughout the 20th century, not just in Iran, but also elsewhere in the Middle East, in Egypt-- Virginia Danielson, others have written about this-- they really created the sort of alternative modernities. These modernities were not in any way sort of framed by a prescribed western modernity propounded by the west. These women musicians created these paths through the kinds of genres that they created, the vernacular sources and language and musics that they drew on.

And so anyway, [FARSI] was very popular. She died in her 40s. But otherwise, I think-- [FARSI], well, she died in exile. She died of heartache. That's what's commonly believed. She was also very overweight. But when she left Iran in 1979 and lived in exile, the majority of her songs are of heartache for the homeland, of nostalgia, of wanting to return to that homeland. And so many believe that she died young because of heartache.

So thank you for that question. It's interesting.

Yeah. And I have another question from the same listener, who is curious about the role of western music in Iran. Were Beethoven, Brahms, and Tchaikovksy on the agenda? And it's really interesting to hear you talk about the alternative modernities that emerged from the female vocalists, but did the classical musicians also have a role?

Yes. Interestingly, both Khomeini, and subsequently-- Khomeini actually has expressed his admiration for western classical music. He has said, I forget verbatim, but something like, not everything that comes from the west is bad. Look at their classical music. And so western classical music is not problematic in Iran. It's practiced and played by a large number of young people in various orchestras. And so it's not a music that is considered to be problematic.

Fascinating. And another question points us towards the legal sources that you cited concerning the Islamic ban on the solo female voice. Is there any counter fatwa or by other Shia scholars or others?

Yeah. Even when Khomeini was asked, subsequent to the release of this fabricated news about the solo singing by Mahdieh Mohammadkhani, Khomeini was asked to state his position. And he stated his position that, as I said, was the same as his position from about 20 years ago. In the same news release that Khomeini's position was sort of distributed in the media landscape, oftentimes it was juxtaposed to positions by, especially, [FARSI], who's a very conservative source of emulation, and who believes that the woman's voice is Haram and should not exist in any form or shape in the public in a mixed gender setting.

And so yeah, there are other [FARSI] who are completely oppose. And in fact, one of the people at state television told me basically that the issue is that there are these high-ranking ulama who really oppose the solo female singing in the public. And even though there are many more people who don't think it's problematic, the opposition to the fatwas and positions of these very senior clerics is just not worth it. There's no real benefit to come to others within the establishment of the Islamic Republic, including the Supreme Leader and others, for basically making those very senior clerics angry.

Interesting. I have a question, Nahid, from one of your sister research associates about the political purposes that-- the concern for protecting women from being abused by those who would use them unwittingly. Is this explanation ever applied to prohibit men from performing abroad, or only Women

I have not heard of that. Obviously-- well, even male musicians going and giving concerts abroad, even state approved musicians, many of whom have done this now for nearly two decades, the generation of pop musicians after the Revolution in the Islamic Republic, very popular even among expatriates in LA and Europe and elsewhere.

And so they come out of Iran, and they live in Iran, they make their work in Iran. They're approved artists. They produce work in Iran, and then they come out and they give concerts. And one of them, [FARSI], he actually got into trouble because on one of these concert tours abroad, he took a photograph with a pre-Revolutionary actor, a very famous actor. And so he got into trouble for the kinds of photographs that he posted on social media, the kinds of relations that he was engaging in while abroad. So I've heard of that happening.

And being used for political purposes, I suppose depending on the kinds of people whom he met and their political positioning, that could have been an accusation. But I haven't really heard that too much. These musicians are very, very careful when they leave Iran. They're very careful that if they go to any kind of Party in which there's a mixed gender sort of circle, if, God forbid, there's alcohol served or whatever, they're very careful that none of that is ever filmed by anybody even secretly and put on social media because that would definitely get them into trouble back at home.

Well, I think I'm going to end with a question of my own about the way that the voice has been separated its being a solo voice. In so many other settings, and I'm thinking here particularly of Jewish law, the female voice is banned because it is sexually enticing or arousing, and therefore hearing it at all is problematic.

But you're making a very different argument here that the female voice is not being banned because of its impact on male listeners, that it's about the woman's agency, that that is what must be controlled. And so I wonder if you have ever seen examples where the concern is about its impact on men, or whether this is really about shaping a very specific female role.

That's a really good question. Certainly some of these concerns come from- and if you look at the fatwas, it's all about there being no corruption. So certainly for the conservative clerics who do write injunctions against the female voice, it is about the female voice being arousing or creating any kind of excitement. The term [FARSI] is that it can lead to-- not just men, but anybody to kind of get overexcited and sort of diverge from their reason and become sort of too passionate.

That definitely exists, too. But the reason I'm making that argument is because the women I've been interviewing and studying, they are really not breaking the gender framework propounded by the Islamic Republic. They are presenting themselves in very gender conforming ways. They're wearing the headscarf. The ways in which they behave, the kinds of messages they put on social media, none of it is in any way the kind of behavior-- or they're a far cry from presenting themselves as sex symbols. And they're engaging in traditional Persian music.

So then the question really becomes-- and I think this really happened with the push that happened about five, six years ago, where women really tried to see if they could open that door that's been locked to them by the practice of this kind of music that's been considered not problematic as far as Islamic injunctions are concerned. And yet they weren't able to get state agencies and its sort of Supreme Leader to acquiesce, to allowing them to at least open the door to that kind of performance.

So because of the particular style and the comportment of these women, I argue that they are really sticking to the framework, and still they're being denied the right to sing solo and have solo concerts. One of the musicians did mention to me that in one of the interrogations that she had, the two men were very respectful and asked her very respectfully. But then the woman agent said, has it ever occurred to you that people are coming to your concerts to see you and not to hear your voice?

And she said, I was just aghast at how these men agents were just being respectful, and it was somebody from my own gender who was positing that maybe it was about my sexuality. And she said, those people, whoever you're talking about, they're sick. If you can find some kind of filter at the door to keep them out, then I commend you. But God created both sexes, and God created women and their voices. And I don't see how that should be a concern.

That was my answer.

That's a very revealing anecdote and a fascinating juxtaposition. We're going to close our conversation here. I want to thank you, Nahid, so much for the work that you've done and for bringing it to us today, and particularly because of the beauty of the music that you've introduced us to.

Many of the people in the audience, I think, were well familiar with it. But for those of us who are hearing these singers for the first time, it's a great gift, and I thank you so much for your work on this.

Thank you so much for allowing for this forum, and also for all the wonderful questions. I hope I managed to get to most of them. Thank you, everyone, for being here.

I bid you all adieu and hope to see you again. Thank you for joining us, and have a wonderful rest of your day.