When singing is a revolutionary act: the women challenging Iran's fear of female creativity

No Land's Song, a new documentary by Ayat Najafi, follows her sister Sara's fight to put on a revolutionary concert. 

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“How can we sing without the colour of the female voice?” This is the question at the heart of No Land’s Song, a new documentary by the Iranian director Ayat Najafi.

The film follows the director’s sister, Sara Najafi, a singer and composer who is attempting to host a concert of female singers in Tehran. Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, solo performances by women have been banned. Women can appear as backing singers but never on their own. In the hope of changing the law, Sara gathers a group of musicians from Paris and Tehran, only to be drawn into negotiations with Iran’s ministry of culture and Islamic guidance.

The sanctions on female creativity are so harsh that it is a wonder that Sara, a woman born after 1979, became a musician at all.

“Limitations can, in a way, be a source of creativity,” she says.  One is reminded of a shot in which Sara stuffs a Dictaphone into her hijab so that she can tape her conversation at the ministry. And yet, there is a long-standing culture of resistance in Iran. We see Sara singing and talking about music with friends, one of whom, Sayeh Sodeyfi, laughs at the absurdity of her position as a music teacher who must pretend that she teaches theoretically – without ever singing in front of pupils at her school. “If your uvula shakes like this, you’re singing correctly,” she jokes.

An older singer, Parvin Namazi, remembers when, as a child, she sang on Iranian television. The conversation returns again and again to the female singers who flourished in Iran before the revolution and one in particular, Qamar ol-Molouk Vaziri.

“Qamar was the person who first brought the female voice into the public arena,” Ayat explains.

When Sara and Parvin visit the site of Vaziri’s first public performance, which took place at the Tehran Grand Hotel in 1924, they are visibly moved by the experience.

Opposition to the ban isn’t exclusive to frustrated female singers in Iran. “My family always motivated and encouraged me,” Sara tells me.

At which point, her brother, Ayat, says, “There is something important that we need to address and that is that the majority of people in Iran do listen to the female voice. They don’t really care what the system says. They buy cassettes and albums on the black market, or watch [music videos] online or go to private concerts.” The film carefully unpicks the contradictions inherent in a society forced to denounce publicly the female creativity it privately consumes. Even the men interviewed in cafés and music shops in the film refer to “their system” – not “ours” – when speaking about the ban.

“Nothing changes when you host a private concert,” Ayat continues. “We wanted to use this to challenge that.”

An excerpt from the documentary, courtesy of the Gijon film festival.

When Sara meets Abdolnabi Jafarian, a religious scholar who attempts to offer her a theological explanation for the prohibition, she is told: “If you eat a simple cheese, that’s fine. But if you add more and more ingredients, the joy begins to harm you.”

“How is that connected to singing?” Sara replies.

“How can putting [the concert] on be considered a revolutionary act if you need to get permission from the government?” Sara is asked by Emel Mathlouthi, a Tunisian singer who agrees to take part. “When you get the government to agree with you [rather than staging it in secret], you are making a political statement: the regime has been publicly challenged,” Sara tells me.

As Sara makes her case at the ministry of culture, Ayat’s film shows nothing but a black screen. She comes close to failure, deciding to cancel the performance rather than proceed with the limitations imposed on it by the state. But the fear of criticism from abroad, amplified by the presence of French guests, forces the ministry’s hand and it ultimately gives her full control of the project.

When the long-awaited concert finally takes place, it is at once triumphant and a little sad. Earlier, Sodeyfi had complimented Sara’s music for its tonal depth, the qualities of “spring” and “winter” it contains: “Spring revives many things but it cannot make you forget everything.”

The performers in Tehran revel in the opportunity to sing but have been marked by the long silence. Asked if, after the concert, she is hopeful for the future of creative women in Iran, Sara replies: “No, not at all. There has been no positive change. In fact, things are getting worse.”

“What you need is hope,” says Ayat. “Unfortunately, there is little hope. With this movie, what I wanted to show was just, let’s say, the dream
of hope. The power of music is stronger than the power of their stupid systems.”

“No Land’s Song” screens at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in London, 20-22 March

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, British politics is broken