Iran: Setar master openly critised ban on women vocalists

28 April 2008
Mohammad-Reza Lotfi – a highly recognised musician thoughout Iran as well as the rest of the world – said at a press conference that he wishes to eliminate Iran’s prohibition on solo vocal performances by women, reported the Tehran Times.

“I don’t believe in the segregation of men and women because I think that art is not just for only one gender. However, if Iran’s constitutional law and political system have prohibited women from solo vocal performances in public, despite my desire, I have to respect the law as an Iranian citizen.”

The renowned Iranian traditional musician and conductor Mohammad-Reza Lotfi stated this when he held a press conference on 19 April 2008 to promote a concert series of his at Tehran’s National Grand Hall in May, wrote the Tehran Times.

He was also quoted as saying, “it is unfair to use women as carriage wheels of men.”

The 61-year-old setar virtuoso is often referred to as the “father of new aesthetics in Persian music” and a “living musical legend”, and because of his recognition a statement like this is highly controversial in a country where solo performances by female singers are currently permitted only in concerts restricted to all-female audiences, and where women singers are allowed to appear only in choral performances if the audience includes males.

Mohammad-Reza Lotfi returned home to Iran from the United States after 20 years in 2006, and soon after he reopened the Mirza Abdollah Music School and the Ava-ye Sheida Institute recording company. Then he founded the Women’s Sheida – a band with women musicians and a male singer, and the Sheida of Restoration – a band which performs and records Lotfi’s rearrangements of Iranian traditional pieces.

“Protection” against sexuality of women
“In Iran, the revolution has resulted in a bizarre model of Islamic democracy. The government is elected and thus is supposed to represent the will of the people. However, since all laws have to ultimately approved by a council of Islamic clerics who sit at the top of the pyramid of power, it is very difficult to make any legal reforms no matter who you vote for in the elections. All bills deemed to be non-Islamic are rejected and the Islamic clerics’ interpretation of the Koran cannot be challenged.”

This explanation can be found in an article entitled ‘Divine discrimination’ by Nakissa Sedaghat on The author of the article argues that the religious law in Iran imposes unequal treatment of women. Segregation of women, she writes, is a result of the religious law:

“Gender segregation is a result of religious leaders’ cultural viewing of women as sexual beings whose sole goal in life is to tempt men so that they can fulfill their own sexual desires. This cultural view affects the interpretation of Islamic and Jewish edicts on “modesty” of women, resulting in the wearing of the veil in Iran and of long skirts and wigs or hats for Ultra-Orthodox women in Israel. This imposed “uniform” results in a further segregation of women when they venture out of their homes into the public sphere. It succeeds in dehumanizing them, and robbing them of their individuality.

(…) Women are encouraged culturally and religiously, if not by law (yet), to remain in the confines of their homes to fulfill their “duties” as wife and mother. Also, for the same reasons of “protection” against sexuality of women, women are not allowed to sing in public in Iran.”

A case of self-censorship
Yvonne Buchheim from University of the West of England visited Iran while she was working on a project where she invited people from different ages and social backgrounds to perform a song of their choice in front of her video camera. The project, entitled ‘The Song Archive Project’, examined contemporary song culture in a visual art context, based on a suggestion that the cultural identity of a people is reflected through their song tradition. In Iran she came across a woman singer in a mountain village, and one evening the woman’s family invited her to join their party. Yvonne Buchheim wrote:

“Family gatherings are a fundamental structure to the social relations in Iran and family bonds are very close. The young woman was a music student and performed a beautiful song in the garden as her family looked on. As the evening progressed everybody started dancing (officially men and women should be dancing in separate rooms) and even some alcohol appeared (strictly forbidden). The woman grew more and more quiet and finally asked me to erase her singing. I was shocked at the self-censorship but I followed her request to black out her singing. However I kept all the video footage before and after the song recording, the chatter and applause, and on reflection I realized that the absence commented far more deeply on the social dynamic of this culture.”




Mohammad-Reza Lotfi


Tehran Times – 21 April 2008:

‘Iranian music icon wants to bring solo female vocalists back to the stage’

Home / News / Iran: Setar master openly critised ban on women vocalists