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date: 14 November 2018

Veiled Voices: Music and Censorship in Post-Revolutionary Iran

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines music censorship in post-revolutionary Iran, from the 1979–1989 revolutionary period to the reconstruction period (1989–1997), the period of political development (1997–2005), and up to the Ahmadinejād era (2005–2013). After providing a brief background on music censorship in Iran prior to the revolution of 1978–1979, the chapter chronicles developments in music censorship in the country, from Ayatollah Khomeini’s ban on all concerts, and especially the radio and television broadcasts of foreign and Iranian classical and popular music, to the relaxation of strict policies on music under President Hāshemi Rafsanjāni. It also discusses Iran’s cultural policy under President Mohammad Khātami and the emergence of a new regime of censorship under President Mahmud Ahmadinejād.

Keywords: music, censorship, Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini, ban, concerts, Hāshemi Rafsanjāni, Mohammad Khātami, Mahmud Ahmadinejād, cultural policy

Throughout Iranian history, music, like many other literary and artistic expressions, has often been subject to control and censorship by autocratic regimes, religious fanatics, and even families. Generating pleasure and emotion as well as mobilizing people, music’s power over both the performer and the listener makes it a sensitive subject from the point of view of authorities. The prophet Khezr when asked for his opinion on music replied, “It is the slippery stone on which only the feet of the learned stand fast.”1

The 1978–1979 revolution in Iran, which established a theocratic Islamic Republic, brought about major political, social, and cultural changes. Soon after the revolution, many forms of music and entertainment were banned from public life. Women could no longer sing solo or dance before an audience which included men (a restriction that still applies for media broadcasting, live performance, and films). Also forbidden were Iranian and Western popular music and all music that was judged to be arousing and vulgar. While some of the restrictions have been lifted or eased gradually, others are still in place.

Although the Koran does not contain any explicit statements against music, Islam, like many other monotheistic religions, has emphasized the power of music and the importance of controlling it. The legitimacy of listening to music has been the subject of endless controversy among Islamic jurists and theologians since the early Islamic period. The real source of the dispute has often been the association of music with worldly pleasures such as wine drinking and sensual enjoyment.2 Since the establishment of the Islamic Republic, music has been the subject of fierce political and religious debate. Members of the government and religious establishment are conscious of and worried about the powers of music on the human mind (see Youssefzadeh 2000, 40–41).

Up to the beginning of the twentieth century, musicians in the service of kings, princes, and aristocrats were obliged to perform for them exclusively. If they could please their patrons, they were sometimes rewarded with gold; if not, they lost favor and were punished.3 One of the earliest anecdotes is the story of the Sassanian king (p. 658) Bahrām Gur (r. 421–438) and his female harpist, Āzāde, recounted in Shahname or “The Book of Kings,” the Iranian national epic by Ferdowsi (940 ce–1020 ce). In this story, Āzāde expresses sympathy for the hunted gazelles instead of praising Bahrām’s skill as a hunter. Offended, he flings her to the ground and lets his camel trample her. Another anecdote from the late nineteenth century concerns a prominent composer and master of classical Persian music, Darvish Khān (1872–1926), one of the last court musicians in the Qājar period (1785–1925). He had to take refuge in the British embassy because his patron, a Qājar prince, had ordered his fingers cut off after he performed for other nobility to supplement his income (Caron and Safvate 1966, 220–221).

During times when religious authorities came into power, music seems to have been one of the first artistic expressions to be repressed. For example, in the late Safavid (r. 1501–1722) period when the ulamā (religious authorities) gained power at court, music was banned at court and in all social gatherings (Babayan 1996, 117; Matthee 2000, 145–146).

Music and Censorship in the Pre-revolutionary Period

The Persian term sānsur (censor),4 borrowed from the French, started to be used after the establishment of the Imperial Printing Office during the reign of Nāser al-Din Shah Qājar (r. 1848–1896) for the control of publications (see F. Milani 1985, 325–326; and Karimi-Hakkak 1992, 135–142). During that time, although classical music was cultivated and flourished at court, religious authorities forbade Muslims to trade in music such as selling instruments. These transactions were mostly carried out by religious minorities, in particular Jews and Armenian Christians.5 In public, musicians had to hide their instruments under their cloaks because of zealots who might smash them (Chehabi 1999, 144–145).

The Constitutional Revolution (1905–1911) reduced the influence of kings and nobility as well as that of the religious authorities. Poetry, music, journalism, and political writings flourished during that period. A type of rhythmic song (tasnif) became a much-appreciated genre. Often addressing and criticizing political and social events (for instance, encouraging womens’ rights, and condemning religious and political autocracy), they also served as vehicles for mobilizing pro-revolutionary sentiment. An important musician and poet of that period is ‘Āref Qazvini (d. 1934), known as the bard of the revolution. His famous line, “from the blood of the youth of the homeland tulips spring,” appeared on walls all over Iran during the 1978–1979 revolution.

Under the reign of the two Pahlavi kings, Rezā Shah (r. 1926–1941) and Mohammad Rezā Shah (r. 1941–1979), Iran experienced rapid secularization and vast increases in the power of the state. One of Rezā Shah’s most radical reforms was to ban the veil in public in 1936.6 Up to that time women had been veiled and segregated in public. The lifting (p. 659) of the veil allowed for more open and public performances by women. The great singer Qamar al Moluk Vaziri (1905–1959)—often compared to her Egyptian contemporary, Umm Kulthum (1898–1975)—was the first woman to perform in public without a veil.7

The Pahlavi period, especially the last two decades of the reign of Mohammad Rezā Shah, was characterized by rapid modernization and Westernization, which led to important economic, social, and cultural changes. Twentieth-century Iran witnessed the opening of Western-style theaters, concert halls, and conservatories of both Persian and Western classical music. Female singers were at the forefront of musical life during that period. They were performing all genres of music: Persian classical and popular music, Western classical music, and Westernized pop music.

However, in a male-dominated society like Iran, it was not always easy for a woman to choose music as profession. There are many accounts of female singers who were restrained from performing by their husbands or fathers. One example is ‘Ozrā Ruhbakhsh, who, while her father was alive, described herself as a “nightingale in a cage.” “When my father died, I was finally free” (Khāleqi, 2002, 2: 142–143). She was one of the first female singers (along with Qamar al Moluk Vaziri) to perform on phonograph records produced in the capital Tehran, and one of the first to perform on the radio, which began broadcasting in 1940.

In an autocratic state, political life under the Pahlavis was controlled, opposition suppressed, and censorship was applied vigorously to publications, broadcasting, and all artistic productions.8 Poetry, the most important component of Persian classical music, was regarded with suspicion. This has often led Persian poets to use symbolic and allegorical language to express themselves. For example, one of the most celebrated tasnif of the first half of the twentieth century was “Morqe sahar” (the bird of dawn).9 It has since been performed regularly by many classical musicians. Often, in different political situations, this tasnif has been censored (only a part of it was allowed) because it recounts the unfortunate situation of a bird in a cage and his hope for freedom, a situation with which people usually identified.

At the end of the Pahlavi regime more than five hundred poetry books were on the list of forbidden books (Rajabzadeh 2001, 28–31). For music, as is often the case, the essential target of censorship were lyrics on sensitive subjects such as political and social criticism and on antireligious themes, but not of the music per se.10 For example, several popular singers of the 1970s known for their social and political criticism, such as Farhad and Dariush, were banned from performing (see Shay 2000, 85; Hemmasi 2010, 70–93).

Although under the Pahlavis Iran was a secular state, religious holidays were strongly respected. Music was not allowed to be heard publicly on certain religious holidays including Moharram and Safar. Even the music schools such as conservatories and the music department of Tehran University were closed down (see Nettl 1978, 153; Blum 1978, 41).

However, Bruno Nettl observed that there was a large variety of music that could be heard in Tehran in the late 1960s:

The resident of Tehran is surrounded by a large variety of musics. On the radio, on television, in concert halls, music halls, and discotheques, on the streets, at private (p. 660) gatherings and weddings, and on records he is exposed to a universe of sound. He can hear Western music ranging from Beethoven, Vivaldi, and electronic music, on the one hand, to popular music of the 1950s and 1960s including American rock, Latin American dances, and European chansons, on the other. He can hear Persian classical music (most frequently in a style developed during the 20th century) as well as folk and popular music from various regions of Iran . . .

(1970, 183)

This sonic environment changed dramatically soon after the 1979 revolution.

Music and Censorship in Post-revolutionary Iran

The revolution, which forced Mohammad Rezā Shah to leave Iran, was initially a political reaction against the authoritarianism of the monarch’s regime, seen as subservient to Western power, principally to the United States. It was a multi-party and multi-ideological revolution. Many prominent contemporary classical Persian musicians participated in the revolution by composing and performing revolutionary songs.11 The monarchy, however, was replaced by a theocracy. Iranians were soon disillusioned as clerics took power, imposing religion as the sole authority for legal, cultural, economic, and political aspects of society.

The political system of the Islamic Republic combines religious autocracy (welayat-e faqih: authority of the religious jurist) with institutions modeled on Western political democracies. For example, the laws passed by the National Assembly do not take effect unless approved by the Guardian Council (Shorā-ye negahbān: a kind of constitutional court composed entirely of religious men). This body reviews all the laws and interprets whether or not political decisions are in accordance with Islamic principles. Based on its view of sharia, Islamic law, this court is in a position to make decisions regarding censorship and reject any aspects that do not respect these principles.12 In the evolution of the politics of the Islamic Republic, we can distinguish four periods concerning Iranian society and thus, its culture and music: (1) the revolutionary period from 1979 to 1989 (the Ayatollah Khomeini era); (2) the reconstruction period from 1989 to 1997 (President Hashemi Rafsanjani era); (3) the political development from 1997 to 2005 (President Mohammad Khātami era); (4) the conservative/controversial period from 2005 to 2013 (President Mahmud Ahmadinejād era).

The revolutionary period (1979–1989)

The revolutionary period began with the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979 and the appointment of Ayatollah Khomeini as the supreme spiritual leader, and lasted until his death in 1989. The decade of Khomeini’s rule was marked by eight years of war with Iraq (1980–1988) and an increasing regulation of behavior and ideological controls (p. 661) over the population: sexes in public were segregated, dress codes for both men and women were introduced,13 theaters and cinemas were closed, and music and entertainment in public and in the media were banned. Music and cinema were condemned for what was perceived to be the influence of the Pahlavi Westernization projects and the US cultural domination. Already back in the early 1940s, Khomeini had criticized Reza Shah’s reforms and “harmful” changes, one of which was the introduction of music and theater into public life (see Najmabadi 1987, 209)

Ayatollah Khomeini’s first remarks about music upon his return from exile in February 1979 addressed the question of radio and television: “Music is like a drug; whoever acquires the habit can no longer devote himself to important activities. . . . We must eliminate music because it means betraying our country and our youth. We must completely eliminate it.”14 As a result, all concerts, and especially radio and television broadcasts of foreign and Iranian classical and popular music, were banned. Women vanished from the musical scene. For a while, revolutionary and patriotic songs and hymns performed by men were the only genres of music allowed to be broadcast. Music was not meant to entertain, but to mobilize. The government, moreover, launched a massive propaganda program of Islamic ideology and revolutionary narratives into the mass media such as radio, television, newspapers, and public sermons. Religious Shiite ceremonies constituted the major public performances during the 1980s (Keddie 2010, 443). Singers who specialized in singing laments and narratives about Shiite holy men (called nowhekhān and maddāh), became stars of the “Sound and Image of the Islamic Republic,” the new name of the former Iranian Radio and Television. One such star, Hāj Mohammad Sādeq Ahangari, also called Ahangarān, was famously known as Khomeini’s “nightingale.”15 The texts of their pieces made frequent references to the martyrdom of Imām Hoseyn and his family and their tragic death at Karbalā in 680.16 Moreover, during the war with Iraq, many musicians all over Iran from different ethnic groups and languages were commissioned to compose songs with themes such as praise for the martyrs, the revolution, and the mobilization.17 In this period it was not even safe to carry a musical instrument in public. Revolutionary guards (pāsdārān, a paramilitary force deployed since 1979) would often raid houses looking for alcohol, cards, and forbidden cassettes, which they would confiscate, and the owner of the house would often be taken into custody.18 In small towns and villages, these forces would organize raids to collect and destroy musical instruments.

As a reaction against the Westernization of the imperial regime, the cultural revolution of 1980–1983 aimed to “Islamize” the institutions and cleanse them of “subversive” elements. This led to the closing of all universities, research centers, music schools, and conservatories. Many professors and students were dismissed; several of them subsequently emigrated.19 During these repressive times, many musicians also emigrated to Europe and the United States. For example, many pop singers, especially women, went into exile, mostly in the United States. In Los Angeles, an active Iranian diaspora has since been established.20 Others who stayed in Iran either performed secretly or were forced to remain silent.

Although the musical institutions and departments were officially closed, music continued to be performed in private. Ironically, the attempts to abolish music in public (p. 662) life led to an increase in music making within family circles by all generations and sexes of all social classes. Moreover, despite these measures, all genres of music were widely available through black market cassettes and satellite television channels.21 People continued to do in private what was prohibited in public.

The reconstruction period (1989–1997)

The reconstruction period following the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988 and the death of Ayatollāh Khomeini in 1989 gave rise to a desire for change, as well as to an opening up toward the outside world. Ayatollāh Ali Khāmene’i was appointed Supreme Leader and Ali Akbar Hāshemi Rafsanjāni became president.22 After the economic decline caused mostly by the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, Rafsanjāni began a slow social reform, which contributed to a more open cultural environment, implemented some economic reconstruction, and improved Iran’s foreign relations. Furthermore, at the end of his life, Khomeini had begun to loosen the morality codes. Some films previously banned were released and hundreds of new journals and magazines soon appeared. In 1989 Khomeini had issued a fatwa (a religious decree establishing the licit or illicit character of a given act) authorizing the purchase and sale of instruments “serving a licit purpose.”23 The same year, the music department at Tehran University reopened and classes were permitted again. The level of instruction, however, had declined due to the emigration of many teachers and early retirement of others.

Little by little, music slowly started to be broadcast again, and concerts also began to take place. A key musical event during this period was the concert of the famous vocalist and classical musician Mohammad Rezā Shajariān held on December 1988, in celebration of the end of the Iran-Iraq war. Performed in Tehran’s most prestigious opera house, the Tālār-e Vahdat, six performances were originally scheduled. During one of the concerts, over two thousand people requested a piece called Bidād. (During 1992, 142–143).24 “Bidād,” meaning “injustice or oppression,” is based on the poetry of the great fourteenth-century poet Hāfez who, in this poem, asks “what happened to friends?”25 For Shajariān, it was a political statement: “Bidād was a complaint that we had because of the circumstances that took place after the revolution. The whole work was basically a criticism of the situation . . . ” (Shajariān cited by Simms and Koushkani 2012, 35).26 However, after the third night, the concert hall security canceled the rest of the programs, saying that the unexpected audience turnout far exceeded the number of seats available (During 1992).

In 1989, Hoseyn Alizādeh, the prominent composer and master of classical Persian music, founded an ensemble called “Hamāvāyān” (singing together) in which, along with Persian classical instruments, he used a chorus of both male and female vocalists.27 “I wanted to reintroduce women’s voices in public,” he explained.28 According to Alizādeh, women’s voices without lyrics can be considered to be like an instrument, and thus are acceptable.29 While solo female singing continue to be prohibited to male audiences, choral singing is not, since it becomes impossible to clearly identify an individual (p. 663) woman’s voice. Many artists inside and outside Iran have expressed their concern about this prohibition. The Iranian-American artist Shirin Neshat (b. 1957) in her video installation, “Turbulent” (1998), shows two screens facing each other. In one, a man, the artist Soja Azari, sings for an audience in a full hall; in the other, a women, the vocalist and composer Sussan Deyhim, sings for an empty hall.30

To monitor and control artistic and cultural productions, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance (often called simply Ershād, “Guidance”) issued new regulations. All productions to be released commercially, such as music (CD, cassettes, concerts) and films, had to go through several stages to be approved for a permit (mojavvez) for their production.31 According to Article 24 of the constitutional law of the Islamic Republic (approved in 1988): “The publications and press are free to express their views, only if they are not disturbing the foundation of Islam or public rights” (Rajabzādeh 2001, 5).

For music, the control division (bakhsh-e nezārati) of the Music Division of Ershād, has had the responsibility of controlling the musical productions. First the lyrics have to be approved by the Council for the Authorization of Poems (Shora-ye mojavvez-e she’r), then the Council of Evaluation of Music (Shora-ye karshenasi-ye musiqi) has to inspect the music. Finally, the Cultural Council (Sho’rā-ye Farhangi) has to approve the final production. Each division has its own criteria and also shares a set of general criteria (for both music and lyrics), quoted below:

  1. 1. Should not have an association with pleasure and debauchery (lahv)

  2. 2. Should not inspire atheism

  3. 3. Should not criticize the Islamic order (nezām) and religious authorities

  4. 4. The content of music and words should have solidity (estehkām)

  5. 5. From the point of view of the society, music and lyrics should reinforce the spirit of national unity

  6. 6. Should guide the youth and the whole society to a bright future and an atmosphere of hope32

Certainly, some of these criteria seem vague; no wonder that the situation of music and its acceptance remain ambiguous. Another responsibility of Ershād is to issue permits for musical organizations, such as music classes, cultural centers, printing houses, concerts halls, etc.33

It should be noted that even though the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance is responsible for all the tasks cited above, other authorities can sometimes disregard its decisions and authorizations. One such authority is the Friday prayer leader (Imām Jom’e), who had been appointed for each city after the 1979 revolution. His great power permits him to cancel a concert, close down a music center, and the like. For example, in 1995 a poetry evening (Shab-e she’r) was organized in Quchān, a city in north Khorasan, where Kurdish poets and musicians from Khorasan were to appear. The Quchān Ershād had supported the event, yet the performance was interrupted by the Friday imām who declared, “I don’t see such a crowd during prayers.”34 Sometimes, one hears of concerts that are canceled at the last moment for unknown reasons even though they have a permit.

(p. 664) Another factor contributing to the reintroduction of music in public life came in September 1992, when Ayatollāh Khāmene’i launched a campaign against “cultural aggression from the West.” Ultimately, this initiative restored a certain degree of legitimacy to Iranian musical traditions, both classical and the music of the different regions of Iran, since the authorities came to view them as a valid and valuable expressions of Iran’s national identity. Since then, the country’s cultural policy has been based on the following directives: “The preservation and propagation of our noble culture as a barrier against cultural aggression”; “The exaltation of our national identity”; and “The preservation of [these musical traditions] to support and uphold our Nation’s culture.” This sort of liberalization led to an increased production of audio recordings of Persian classical music, which from 1988 to 1998 grew by 80 percent (Youssefzadeh 2005, 432).

Moreover, both of the two major organizations dealing with music, the Music Division of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance and the Arts Division of the Islamic Propaganda Organization, have sponsored festivals and concerts in the capital city of Tehran as well as in most of the provinces. Most of the events have been organized by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance and commemorate political, military, and religious events. Indeed, the Islamic Republic has established a series of commemorative days and events of remembrance in order to reinforce national and communal identities, such as “The Week of Unity” (Hafte-ye Vahdat) for the anniversary of the Prophet; “The Week of Holy Defense” (Hafte-ye defā’e moqaddas), commemorating the beginning of the Iran-Iraq war; and Fajr (Dawn), marking the anniversary of the revolution. The Fajr Music Festival, a ten-day celebration in the capital and other regions of Iran, has been the most significant musical event since its inauguration in 1986.35 During the first three years of its existence, the musical pieces reflected the atmosphere of the country, with titles such as Zālem Emerika (America the Oppressor) and Rāh-e khun (The Way of Blood). Later, the emphasis was on the traditional repertoire. However, lyrics with moral and religious content were (and continue to be) favored over love songs.36 The masters of Persian classical music rarely participate in these sponsored festivals, which they see as propaganda for the regime.

Some of the rhythmic instrumental pieces in the repertoire of both Persian classical music (called radif) and popular entertainment music (motrebi), such as reng (a dance piece) and chāhar mezrāb (meaning four beats), were considered by authorities to be vulgar and arousing.37 Some vocal techniques such as tahrir, a sort of melismatic yodeling characteristic of Persian classical singing, were also considered to be illicit (During 1984, 12).

The Period of Political Development (1997 to 2005)

A period of political development began with the landslide election of President Mohammad Khātami in 1997. A reformist cleric and modernist, Khātami planned to create a more open and moderate cultural policy.38 During his electoral campaign he promised greater freedom, sovereignty of the people, support for greater rights for women and youth, and emphasis on civil society. His minister of Culture and Islamic (p. 665) Guidance, Ata’ollah Mohajerani, eased restrictions on the press (allowing many reformist newspapers to open), book publications, and music. Two of the most significant developments regarding music during Khātami’s period were the lifting of the ban on certain types of pop music and the issuing of permits for the public performance of women, but only for all-female audiences.39

During the first years of the revolution, pop music produced by exiled musicians, called Losānjelesi (because most of it was produced in Los Angeles, California), was heard only through illegally imported recordings that circulated in Iran. Even though anyone caught listening to or owning one of these recordings was subject to fines and even imprisonment, this music always had a vast audience. Following the lifting on the ban on pop music, the Sound and Image of the Islamic Republic (Sedā o Simā) became the supporter of the “new pop” (pop jadid) as it is called. Many pop singers became famous because of performing in broadcasts made under the auspices of this organization. One of the best-known is Mohammad Esfahāni. A former member of the Revolutionary Guards, he said, “With the help of Sedā o Simā we can compete with the pop-e Losānjelesi (pop music produced in Los Angeles).40 Dr. Esfahāni, as he is called because he studied medicine, gave a concert in 2003 in “Iran Hall,” the large hall of the Ministry of the Interior. It was the first concert given in this hall, holding over four thousand people.41 Other pop singers who became famous thanks to Sedā o Simā are ‘Ali Rezā Asār and Khashāyar Etemādi. Both usually use lyrics drawn from the mystical poets such as Rumi (thirteenth century) or Hāfez (fourteenth century) mostly associated with classical music.42 Some people refer to this music as “mystical pop.” However, the dance rhythm characteristic of the pop music of the Iranian diaspora is lacking in their works (Fatemi 2000, 329; Shay 2000, 61–87). In a concert by Etemādi, as reported by Fatemi (2000), a member of the audience complained: “Aghā Khashi! Ye tarāne-ye shad (Mr. Khashi, a happy song!).”

Many young people started to form new bands, which led to a new grass-roots popular music. One of the first pop bands to be formed in the post-1997 period was the band Arian, which achieved great success. Arian was the first band to include women as back-up vocalists, as instrumentalists, and as composer/lyricists (see Nooshin 2009, 245–268).

In 2002, the growth in the production of pop music was astonishing; 50 percent of the permits issued by Ershād were given to pop music, and fifty-one pop music concerts were programmed for the spring of the same year.43

We should note that in any concert, regardless of the musical genre (classical or popular), there has been a strict control on the behavior of both the performers and the audience. Any moving or clapping to the music is considered un-Islamic and can have consequences; for instance a person can be removed from the concert. This how the Iranian scholar and bestselling author Āzar Nafisi describes a concert that she attended in Tehran in the early 1990s:

The group consisted of four young Iranian men, all amateurs, who entertained us with their rendition of the Gipsy Kings. Only they weren’t allowed to sing; they could (p. 666) only play their instruments . . . The players were solemn. Since it was almost impossible to play with no expression at all, their expressions had become morose. The lead guitarist seemed to be angry with the audience; he frowned, trying to prevent his body from moving—a difficult task, since he was playing the Gipsy Kings.

(Nafisi 2003, 301)

In any institutions, cultural centers, universities, or governmental offices, a security office called Herāsat (meaning “guarding” or “custody”) is in charge of the control of the people’s behavior.

Since 1997, the state has sponsored several festivals and concerts for and by women. A section dedicated to both classical and regional Iranian music has been added to the Fajr Festival. Another, the annual Jasmine Festival (Jashnvāreh-ye Gol-e Yās), which began in 1999, celebrates the birthday of Hazrat Fātemeh, the daughter of the prophet Mohammad and the most important female figure in Shiite Islam. It is divided into different sections, including classical (both Iranian and Western music), regional, and pop music (see DeBano 2009, 229–244).

During the Kh presidency a discourse on civil society emerged. In 1999, the House of Iranian Music (Khāne-ye Musiqi) was established in Tehran, to provide a syndicate for musicians. It was the first time that a trade union for music and musicians had been founded in Iran. Since its foundation, this organization has tried to voice musicians’ needs. In 2000, Ershād spared from censorship control most of the recognized masters of classical Persian music, who have since that time been able to present their works on the market without any permit. Also, the export formalities regarding the taking of musical instruments and recordings out of the country have been eliminated.44

Although, as mentioned earlier, Sedā o Simā (Sound and Image of the Islamic Republic) was instrumental in advancing the careers of several pop musicians, it was (and continues to be) heavily criticized by both musicians and critics. Since the revolution, this organization has been in the hands of the conservatives and under the direct supervision of Ayatollāh Khāmene’i, the Supreme Leader. As one of the biggest producers and consumers of music (for use in advertising, as background music, during and between programs, and so on), it has its own censorship unit, the “Sound and Image Division,” to evaluate music and lyrics and to decide which kind of music is authorized and which is not.

Iranian Television has six channels; one is oriented toward cultural activities. Even today, when a concert of traditional music is broadcast, everything is done to hide the instruments themselves. For instance, large vases of flowers are used to obscure the instruments, or the camera will only show the faces of the performers. For many musicians and critics, “not showing the instrument is like an insult to the musicians.”45 Other genres such as marches and hymns continue to be broadcast on special occasions.

Apart from the popular music promoted by Iranian media, many young artists have been involved in several varieties of musical genres, such as rock, heavy metal, jazz, and rap, known collectively as “underground rock” or “alternative music.”46 Although few of them have managed to get permits to give concerts or to publish CDs, their music can (p. 667) be heard thanks to international communication networks such as satellite programs, video tapes, and the Internet, where it can be downloaded from numerous web sites.47

The second term of the Khātami presidency (2001–2005) was marked by the never-ending internal struggles between the two major sections of the government, the reformists and the conservatives, and by a government crackdown on cultural freedom. Most reform measures passed by the Parliament were rejected by the Guardian Council (Keddie 2010, 456–457).48 Even the Arts Division of the Islamic Propaganda Organization, which is under the supervision of the Guide, Khāmene’i, was criticized for not performing its mission, the propagation of Islamic values:

The activities in music and art have always been used by the enemy to destroy the identity and the culture of the people, that is why they have to be kept under close watch. The centers of music have become centers of immorality for illicit and immoral activities for young girls and boys.49

In 2001, a book was authorized to be published on women and music in which the author, using different historical sources, established that the Prophet himself is said to have enjoyed music as performed by singing girls. It was banned and the author became mamnu’ol qalam: no longer allowed to publish.50

The Ahmadinejād Era (2005–2013)

In 2005, when the conservative President Mahmud Ahmadinejād succeeded President Khātami, a new regime of censorship commenced. His minister of culture, Mohammad Hosseyn Safār Harandi, a conservative figure and editor-in-chief of the newspaper Keyhān, one of the most conservative state journals, criticized the cultural politics of the prior president. Censorship became more restrictive; getting permission to publish books, recordings, or performance became much more difficult. In June 2009, when Ahmadinejād was reelected, strong public protest and demonstrations took place because the election was widely regarded as fraudulent. Called the Green Movement, the protesters demanded the removal of Ahmadinejād. Many people were arrested, tortured, and killed. Many Iranian musicians in Iran and all over the world wrote and performed songs in support of this popular movement and against the violent crackdown of the government. Moreover, the revolutionary and religious songs, such as Irān sarāye omid (Iran the house of hope) and Sepide damid (The dawn appeared) of the prominent singer Shajariān, had been continuously broadcast since the beginning of the revolution on special occasions without his approval. He protested, asking the Sedā o Simā not to broadcast his songs. “When I sang Sepide damid,” he explained,

it was to express the resurrection (hālat-e rastākhiz), that was the state of the people back then. Now they broadcast it when Khomeini is shown descending the stairs of (p. 668) the airplane at Tehran Airport [February 1, 1979 after fourteen years in exile]. I sang this for the state of people, not for a single person!51

Many concerts that had obtained permits to perform were canceled. One of the most significant was the concert in July 2010 of the classical singer Hesāmeddin Sarāj in Kermanshāh, in Western Iran. Before the concert, the militia (basiji) were in front of the hall with chains and prevented people from going into the hall.52 According to Keddie (2010, 460), the Revolutionary Guards and Basiji militia (the supporters of Ahmadinejād) include many who volunteered to go to the front during the Iran-Iraq war and are not happy with the cultural liberation under the previous presidents (Rafsanjāni and Khātami). These men “want a return to egalitarian and strict Islamic policies of the early revolutionary years.”

Ahmadinejād’s cultural crackdown encouraged a new emigration of artists. Many artists in Iran and outside of the country have voiced their concerns about the restriction on music. The Iranian-Kurdish filmmaker Bahman Qobadi, in his film “No One Knows About Persian Cats” (2009), shows the difficulties that young musicians have to endure in starting a band. The film, which was produced without government authorization, was banned and its filmmaker and the musicians went into exile after the film was shown at the Cannes Film Festival in 2009. Two of Qobadi’s other films such as Marooned in Iraq (2002) and Half Moon (2007), also deal with the restrictions upon music and musicians.


Music is still an object of controversy in Iran and its role is still contentious, partly because the political and economic situation itself is constantly evolving. Its acceptance remains ambiguous, and it is still the object of variable restrictions. The prohibition of a solo female singing for a male audience is only one of many. Musical instruments are still not shown on television. Many alternative bands are not allowed to give concerts or release their CDs. The culture is still under close watch; as the Guide of the Revolution, Khamenei said, in July 2010, “crossing the red lines of moral, religious, and cultural matters is very harmful.”53 According to the Friday prayer leader of Tehran, Ayatollāh Seyed Ahmad Khātami (not to be confused with former president Mohammad Khātami): “The danger of cultural indulgence and negligence is as dangerous as political indulgence and negligence. Here is an Islamic Iran and there is no room for the singers of Los Angeles.”54

The Islamic Republic, however, seems to have failed to root out what are called “Western cultural values.” The extremely literate younger generation, the largest segment of the population, are clearly attracted to values that are not uniquely Western but rather universal: self-determination and freedom of expression. Since the end of the twentieth century, in the context of political and social reform and the emancipation of women and youth, women have managed to play a more active role throughout society and on the musical scene.55 Today, we can hear Iranian female singers in major international festivals and concerts, performing in front of mixed-gender audiences. (p. 669) Iranian musicians prefer to perform abroad since at home they have to struggle to get all the required authorizations. Private teaching and concerts in homes remain common.

Apart from governmental or religious restrictions, there is also self-censorship. Musicians, like other artists, are continually pushing against the boundaries that have been set up for them. However, they need to be very calculating. As Mehrdad Oskouei, a prominent documentary filmmaker, said: “In the end, people have to be flexible. I think about how far I can go” (New York Times, May 7, 2011).


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(1.) Cited by Robson (1938, 5). Robson uses “audition” in his translation but it’s understood in the sense of listening to music.

(2.) On the theological debates on music, see Robson 1938, al-Faruqi 1985, and Farmer 1994.

(3.) The Abbasid Caliph, Hārun al-Rashid, was so pleased with his Persian court musician, the outstanding Ebrāhim Mawseli (742–803), that he made him a rich man (Farmer 1994, 116–117).

(4.) The other term used is the Arabic word momayyezi, which means to control.

(5.) The prohibition was put in place when the Safavids came to power (Loeb 1972, 4). More information about Jewish musicians in Iran in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries can be found in Chaouli Les musiciens Juifs en Iran, aux XIXe et XXe siècles (2006).

(6.) The police were ordered to be harsh with women wearing the veil. It was acceptable for the veil to be replaced by a European-style hat (Nashat 2004, 22).

(7.) She performed in 1924 even before the ban was lifted (Chehabi 2000, 151–166).

(8.) For example, to possess a book by Maxim Gorky could cost the owner seven years in prison. Some of Shakespeare’s plays, such as Richard the Third, Macbeth, and Hamlet, were not allowed to be performed since they feature the death of a king (Rajabzādeh 2001, 28–31; N. Cram Cook 1949, 407–408). However, during the time when Mohammad Mosaddeq was prime minster (1951–1953) and the government and people campaigned for the nationalization of oil resources, publications and the press flourished up until the 1953 coup. At that time the press was again suppressed and a new security police, the Organization of State Security and Information (known as SAVAK), was founded in 1957 (Rajabzādeh 2001, 27; Karimi-Hakkak 1992, 135–142).

(9.) The poem, by one of the most prominent Iranian poets of the twentieth century, Malek al-Sho’arā Bahār (d. 1951), was set to music by Morteza Neydavood (1900–1990). Many of Bahār’s poems were censored in both the pre-revolutionary and the post-revolutionary periods, in the latter because he supported women’s freedom and criticized religious fanaticism in his work.

(10.) The Ministry of Information (raised to full cabinet status in 1964) had, through its various divisions, responsibility for control over all broadcasting and publication enterprises, both at home and abroad.

(11.) This participation was short lived. Prominent musicians, such as the singer Mohammad Rezā Shajariān, soon became disenchanted with the government’s policies. (See Simms and Koushkani 2012, 11 and 26).

(12.) On the legal system of the Islamic Republic, see Vogel 2010, 306–313. On the power of the clerics in Iran, see Digard, Hourcade, and Richard 1996, 200–203.

(13.) Men were not allowed to wear ties and had to grow beards, and women were required to cover the hair and the body. On the political and economic situation during the revolutionary period see Keddie 2003, 240–262.

(14.) Khomeini’s statement was published by the Keyhān in 1979 in an article called “Radio and Television Must Strengthen the Young” (See Youssefzadeh 2000, 38).

(15.) His songs introduced each commentary about the war, so he was heard every day, at peak viewing hours, just before the evening news (Adelkhah 1991, 25).

(16.) See a video of Ahangarān singing about Imam Hoseyn:

(17.) Iran is a multiethnic state where non-Persian groups constitute almost half of the country’s population. There are a number of Turkic-speaking peoples as well as Kurds, Baluchis, Lors, and Arabs who have distinct musical practices. For more information on different genres of music in Iran, see Blum 2002, 823–838. For revolutionary songs in the repertoire of Khorasani bards, see Youssefzadeh 2008, 281–289.

(18.) Later, one could get away with paying a fine or a bribe. For a description of a similar situation in Afghanistan, see Baily (2009, 153–154).

(19.) While the universities reopened after three years, their music departments continued to be closed until 1989.

(20.) On Iranian popular music in Los Angeles, see Hemmasi (2010, 148–208).

(21.) On satellite television in Iran, see Barraclough (2001, 25–48).

(22.) The first decade of the Islamic Republic witnessed three presidents, the first two with very short terms: Abol-Hassan Banisadr (January 1980–June 1981), Mohammad-’Ali Rajā’i (July 1981–August 1981) ‘Ali Khamene’i (1981–1989).

(24.) This song was first available in 1985 on a cassette album “Bidād (Homayun).” Bidād is a melody type or gushe in the mode or dastgāh of Homayun.

(25.) The first line of the poem says: “We don’t see friends in anyone, what happened to friends? / How did friendship end? What happened to friends?” Hāfez probably wrote this poem during a period when the fundamentalist Mobarez al-din Mozaffarid ruled his native town Shiraz (1353–1358). Fanatically religious, he forbade wine and music and ordered all to be “severely sober” (see Davis 2012, xiv).

(26.) For an analysis of the piece see Simms and Koushkani 2012, 35–46.

(27.) The traditional performance of classical Persian music features a solo vocalist accompanied by one or more instruments. Alizādeh’s CD “Raz-e No” (“A New Secret”), including three singers (two women and one man), was released in 1998 (Tehran: Mahoor Institute of Culture and Art).

(28.) Personal communication with Alizādeh, Tehran, February 2002.

(29.) Alizādeh first used womens’ voices without lyrics in film scores. He composed many scores for films such as Gabbeh (1996), by Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and Half Moon (2006) by Bahman Ghobādi.

(30.) Turbulent was awarded a Golden Lion at the 1999 Venice Biennale.

(31.) For an analysis of censorship rules in cinema, see Naficy 1992, 173–208.

(32.) Quoted from the statement the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance gave to the publishing houses; I thank the Mahoor Institute of Art for letting me have a copy of the statement.

(33.) For more detailed rules on the control of music see Youssefzadeh 2000, 44–48.

(34.) The influence of the leaders of Friday prayers continues into the present era. In 2008, the cultural center of the city of Bojnurd, the capital of northern Khorasan, where music classes as well as concerts were organized, was closed down because the Friday leader of the city decided that the music was illicit (harām) (personal communication with the musical director of Bojnurd’s Ershād, Bojnurd, July 2010).

(35.) There have also been Fajr festivals for Film, Theater, and Poetry.

(36.) Prior to the festivals, musicians had to provide Ershad with their bibliographies, concert programs, samples of recordings, and the transcriptions of the lyrics (if not in Persian, their translations).

(37.) For a further explication of these terms (radif, reng, and chāhar mezrāb) see Encyclopedia Iranica, free access on line.

(38.) Khātami held various posts before becoming president. In 1983 he became Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, a post he held until 1992. During his term he encouraged the easing of censorship of printed material and the expansion of Iranian cinema.

(39.) For a definition of “pop” music in Iranian context, see Nooshin 2005b, 262n2. The tradition of an all-female orchestra performing for an all-female audience is common in nineteenth-century Iran and is existed in many parts of the Middle East and North Africa. See Caton 2002, 140; Ciucci 2005, 188–89; Jones 1987, 81.

(40.) Interview with Mohammad Esfahāni, in Hayāt-e Now, August 13, 2002/1381.

(41.) In Yās-e Now, 2003/1382, no. 186.

(42.) They use instruments such as electronic keyboards and guitars as well as instruments such as the daff, a frame drum often associated with Sufi music.

(43.) In Hambastegi, August 15, 2002/1381.

(44.) All recordings and instruments taken out of the country had to have an authorization from Ershad, which was presented to customs inspectors.

(45.) Mohammad Eftekhāri, “atāye andak o jafāye besiyār,” Faslnāmeye musiqi-ye Māhur 3, 1378/1999.

(46.) See Nooshin 2005a, 231–72; 2005b, 463–97.

(47.) Iran has the world’s fourth largest number of bloggers, and access to the web and to illegal satellite television is widespread (Keddie 2010, 460)

(48.) At the end of Khātami’s first term in 2000, Mohajerani, his minister of culture, was forced to resign, but his successor Ahmad Masjed Jamei continued Khātami’s policy.

(49.) Jomhuri Eslāmi mordād 1381/August 2002.

(50.) The book is by a female author, Toka Maleki: Women and Music in Iran: From Mythological Times to Today, Tehran: Ketāb-e Khorshid, 2001 (See Youssefzadeh 2004, 129–135).

(51.) Documentary film on M. R. Shajarian, produced by BBC Persian,

(52.) Sharq, 20 tir 1389/11, July 2010.

(53.) Khorasan, 1389/4 July 2010, no. 1759

(54.) This declaration came following the rumor that Ershād had issued a permit for a performance by an Iranian singer from Los Angeles, Aftāb Yazd, 11 July 2010, no. 2957.

(55.) Female literacy rose from 36 percent in 1976 to 72 percent in 1996; in universities 60 percent of the students are women.