Sara Najafi (centre-right) organises a controversial concert in Iran.
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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. 

“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 a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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

Marc Brenner
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Carey Mulligan is oddly unemotional in Dennis Kelly’s powerful new play, Girls & Boys

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, don’t read this review.

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, then you should do two things. First, come back to this review: it’s a production best seen with no preconceptions. Second: have a child.

Still here? Good, because there is no way to discuss this play without spoiling its big reveal. It opens with Carey Mulligan centre stage, in orange shirt and red trousers, against set designer Es Devlin’s boxy backdrop of purest cyan. It’s a palette favoured by Hollywood posters, because the contrast is so striking. (Van Gogh once used it on a still life of crabs.) Mulligan’s unnamed narrator tells us how she met her husband, who is only ever “he”. Her monologue starts off funny – “Paris? Call that a world city? It’s Leeds with wider streets” – and sexually frank, but it’s also cleverly disconcerting.

She met him in an Easyjet queue and “took an instant dislike to the man”. Why? Because he was obliviously buried in a book – or because of his interaction with two models, who tried to queuejump by feigning sexual interest to stand next to him? (“And he’s just like, well of course… but I get to sleep with one of you, right?”) One of the models snottily tells him that she would never sleep with a Normal like him, and he acknowledges the truth of this. Then he calls them “bitches” for playing with his feelings, makes a chivalrous speech about the transcendence of loving sex, and suggests that sleeping with them would be “necrophilia… wanking into a pretty dress”. The temptation is to cheer – he put those stuck-up cows in their place! – and I wondered if my disquiet was evidence I’ve gone full Millie Tant. (Beware men who think there are some women to whom it’s OK to be sexist.)

But no. The husband is indeed a wrong ‘un. Mulligan’s monologues are interspersed with role-plays against another pure-cyan set; a living room, with details – a sippy cup, a blanket – again picked out in orange. She chides her children, Leanne and Danny, talking to the empty air about their petty squabbles. And then, halfway through the 90-minute running time, comes the punch: “I know they’re not here by the way. My children… I know they’re dead.” My mind went instantly to a routine by Louis CK. “A woman saying yes to a date with a man is literally insane,” the comedian says. “Globally and historically, we’re the number one cause of injury and mayhem to women. If you’re a guy, imagine you could only date a half-bear-half-lion.”

The narrator’s story, of a relationship going sour, is achingly familiar. Her burgeoning career, and growing confidence; the failure of his business, and his consequent loss of status. She asks for a divorce. He tells her: “There will never come a time when you have my kids and I don’t.” One night, he sweet-talks his way past the babysitter and twists a knife into little Danny’s heart, guiding it in with his thumbnail, before stabbing Leanne eight times. (Mulligan marks each wound on her body.) He tries to kill himself.

My friends with kids tell me that giving birth rewired them, leaving them reluctant to watch any drama with children in peril. To me, Mulligan seemed oddly unemotional in recounting these horrors; but perhaps a parent’s imagination would supply all the horror required.

Is it a coincidence that this play had its premiere at the Royal Court, where artistic director Vicky Featherstone has led the theatre world’s response to a reckoning with sexual harassment? Her code of conduct outlines potentially abusive behaviour, from the obvious – “physical force or threat of force, for sexual action” – to the situational: “staring, meaningful glances”. Yet Dennis Kelly’s script, which depicts one poison drop of sexism blossoming into a manifestation of the most extreme masculine rage, shows how difficult such behaviour is to police. When should the narrator have seen the danger? How can women sort the good from the bad?

In an industry convulsed by a feminist reckoning, I was left wondering if a female playwright would have dared to write lines as starkly confrontational as the narrator’s conclusion: “We didn’t create society for men. We created it to stop men.”

Girls & Boys runs until 17 March.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia