Women Singing: An Issue of Religion or Politics?
Is the issue of women’s singing rooted in religion or politics?
Translated by Parvaneh Torkamani
Throughout Iranian history, women’s voices and their singing has provoked discussion and argument. As far as modern history is concerned, discussions after the 1979 Iranian Revolution led to a complete ban on women’s singing forced all established female singers to stop their artistic activity, causing many of them immigrate to outside Iran’s borders. Then there was the loosening of restrictions after May 1997 that allowed women like Parisa and Sima Bina to start singing. Yet, every once in a while, the right of women to sing is challenged by the media and by the people.
But the history of women singing spans beyond that of the 1979 Revolution. It was a contentious issue even before the Revolution. This issue is so sensitive that in traditional theater such as Ta’zieh, men play women’s roles in the Karbala tragedy. Also in Mouloodi Singings—a kind of religious singing in praise of the Prophet Mohammad and his family on occasion of their births—women possess the right only to sing in front of other women. Young boys before puberty, under the age of seven could be present too in the event, but their singing was and is related to the level of their dignity. In tribal communities, however, women sang and danced alongside men and they still do.
Classic literary texts document women singing and dancing in court before and after the introduction of Islam to the court. At the court of kings who ruled Iran – especially after the Safavids, whom scholars of the time called protectors of Islam – this issue was current and influential.
- Ali Kalaei is an Iranian journalist, blogger, and activist who rose to prominence for his work criticizing the Iranian government for its human rights abuses. He is a member of the Committee of Human Rights Reporters (CHRR) and the Human Rights Activists News Agency, and has written regularly for publications that include RoozOnline, Mellimazhabi and Gooya News, and he has been an active member of the Peace Mark Magazine, an online human rights, social and legal magazine, since March of 2014. Ali Kalaei has been repeatedly targeted by Iranian security forces for his work, and in 2011, the Tehran Revolutionary Court sentenced him to six years in prison, in part for his writings about prisoners of the regime. Ali Kalaei is the ICORN writer-in-residence of the Eskilstuna City of Refuge in Sweden.
In the years after the Constitutional Revolution, stars such as Qamar-ol-Muluk Vaziri had the power to shine. In the era of the first Pahlavi the singing of women, in concerts and generally in public, began with some restrictions and it increased in the era of the second Pahlavi. Existence of radio and television and presence of visual and hearing media had a great role in this.
Women’s voices are always prone to discussion and exchanges of ideas. It is so sensitive that even the opinion of someone like Ali Jannati—who has academic experience in Haghanni School and finished his academic experience in courses outside of religion by being student to such people as Shobeiri-e Zanjani, Yusuf Sanei, and Azari-e Ghomi— was disregarded and he was taken to the Islamic Council, causing the newly elected government of Hassan Rouhani to be issued a warning.
But this issue has always been presented as an issue of human rights for women and it still is. The fortune of female singers, whether traditional or pop, depends on the right of all people to sing. This has presented the government of Iran with a challenge, from traditional singers who are newly relevant such as Mahdieh Mohammadkhani, to the women who are given the opportunity to sing within the social gamut of Iran.
It is certain that every issue within Iran’s cultural spectrum is relative to religion. This certainty is rooted in a history where religion became the backbone of tradition. Religion exists in every aspect of Iranian life; it is palpable and distinct. Until the 1979 Revolution, this religious life belonged to the social sphere and after that it took a governmental form. According to many believers, it became an object in the hands of the government officials for exercising power. But the question here is: What is religion’s approach to this issue? What does religion say about this domain?
In the case of a woman’s right to sing, most contentions arise from the Jafari sect since in many Islamic countries apparently there is no problem with this issue on the public stage; women appear with Hijab on the stage and sing. In Malaysia, this is completely visible. In Lebanon, there is also support for women’s singing from some of the same people who defend religious groups like Lebanon’s Hezbollah. But, how is religious rhetoric being used?
What frequently is discussed is the issue of ghana. The term appears both in religious texts and in the dictum of the religious references—governmental or not. Issue with or respect for women’s singing is generally related to this quality. With the exception of some very conservative clerics—such as Makarem-e Shirazi and some others—most people base their arguments of what is and isn’t permissible on the condition of whether or not the voice is qualified by ghana. But, what is ghana?
There are many definitions of ghana. But the most apt definition is from the scholar Naraghi from the book Mostanad ol Shia. Naraghi defines ghana as how high the voice is in combination with tarjii and tarab. Tarjii is the undulation of the voice in the throat, giving highs and lows to the voice and the song. Tarab is both the sadness and joy in the song—playful musicality.
Ruhollah Khomeini, the originator of the Islamic Republic, in his Tahrir ol Vasileh says that ghana is how high the voice is and how playful the quality that is suitable for gatherings that are meant for playfulness and happiness, and it is instrument of playfulness. (2) In fact, this definition is not only applicable to women’s singing, but also applies to men’s singing. The issue of ghana is famous in the Shia sect of Islam. Sheikh-e Tousi considers the Moghani, or the person who practices ghana, to be sinful.
In an interview in February 2013 with Ikna, Fazel Lankarani, with respect to ghana, brings up another argument regarding something he calls khozoo, or reverence. The extent to which a voice has khozoo has to do with whether or not the singing arouses desire in others.
Although these talks are more contemporary than what previous Shia clerics would say, Mohaghegh in “Al-Sharaye” says that: “The voice of the woman is hers,” and considers a woman’s voice erotic and disapproves of it. But today’s religious scholars—except for a few very conservative ones—bring up the issue of ghana and khozoo as the condition of singing and explain those in depth.
So far in the many arguments, the issue of the voice of women is not that it is taboo, but that its highs and lows and reverence makes it to be respectful or to be considered an ornament.
Abdolhamid Maasumi is one of the high-ranking clerics. When the human rights journal Khat-e Solh got in touch with him, Maasumi called the definition of ghana unclear and said: “During each era there is a different understanding of ghana, and there is no definite definition of it.” According to him it is logical, more or less, to consider that in different periods of history words have different meanings. In fact, words and language change. One should know the meaning of these words at the time that they are quoted in the Quran or in Hadith or other stories, and what meaning they have when language changes. Semantic changes are studied in academic circles, and is a vast subject which discussion demands a place of its own and it is not possible to delve into here.
Anyway, assuming we can accept the majority opinion on the meaning of ghana and khozoo, two things are obvious. The first is that the voice of woman is not respected completely, and its dignity is based on the aforementioned conditions. And now one must examine what Shia clerics (either governmental or non-governmental) have said about this issue in the past three decades. Here the author cites the dictums that he had access to.
The answer that the website Islam Quest gives regarding opinions of Shia references on the subject of women singing for men who are not related to them is tshat experts such as Safi-e Golpaygani, Fazel-e Langarani, Behjat, Ruhollah Khomeini, Vahid Khorasani and Makarem-e Shirazi consider men listening to voices of women as impermissible.
On the other hand, experts such as Javad Tabrizi, Seyed Ali Sistani, Ali Khamenei (3) and Noori Hamedani cite the condition of ghana. They say that listening to a woman’s song is permissible if there is no ghana, if it does not cause sexual gratification and excite lust, and if its corruption is not permanent. This answer is dated July 6, 2013 on the site.
Yusuf Sanei, another Shia reference whose dictums regarding women’s issues have stirred much discussion among academics on the one hand, and on the other hand in political circles, says: “Voice of woman, on its own, is not taboo. But in consideration of modesty, the hijab for women is necessary, and everything that causes a woman to lose her cover and modesty should not be practiced. It is necessary to drop that activity, and also the content of the singing (in men as well as in women) should not be refutable.” (4)
It is obvious to many Shia scholars that the voice of woman on its own is not taboo. Each scholar has created their own conditions to argue for or against a woman’s right to sing.
Here an example would be refreshing. Syed Moussa Sadder, who in Lebanon and in Iran is known as Imam Moussa Sadder, is an example of someone whose personal attitude could shine a light on this issue.
His daughter Syedeh Houra Sadder said in an interview that her father used to listen to women singers, or to a woman singer. The name of this woman singer was “Marzieh”. This means that Syed Moussa Sadder—a well-known Shia cleric who is chosen to lead Lebanese Shias, and himself is the child of a well-known Shia reference, Syed Sadder ol Dinn Sadder, who before Mr. Broojerdi had the leadership of the circle in Ghom in his hand—had listened to a female singer and enjoyed it. Here it would be interesting to tell a story from the book Glory of Shia. Moussa Sadder begins a letter to his friend Mohammad Masoudi in this way: “Now that I write these lines, my wife and children have come to Iran, and the only reminder of that dreamy and sincere land is the warm voice of Mr. Ghavami and a Samovar and a Homa cigarette…” Even though the name of a male singer has been mentioned, it shows the kind of relationship this high standing Shia cleric has to music and singers.
Maybe at first the issue of women singing and its problems in Iran seems like an issue of religion. But under closer scrutiny (which as much as possible was expressed above), it becomes obvious that this issue is more political than religious. It is the leader of the Islamic Republic who declares which attitudes and rules are valid, and the validity is clearly based on his religious opinions on this issue. The leader of Islamic Republic, in an answer to a reporter who was asking for a religious opinion, said, “The voice of woman (whether in singing solo or in chorus with other men and women) is alright to listen to if it is not high, and if listening to her is not for the purpose of enjoyment and checking her out, and it does not cause corruption. But if it is corrupting or it raises lust, it is not allowed.”
This means he does not think of the women’s singing as opposed to religion and according to structure of an Islamic axiom. As the absolute supreme leader in this regime, his word must be standard for the religious circles. Even many times they have spoken of supremacy of the words of the leader of the regime over other religious references. With the use of this power, he gives governmental decrees and in all circles he has domination in opinion and action.
That said, in November of last year, a letter from some members of Parliament was written to Hassan Rohani that expressed concern about women singers’ broken respect. Meaning the members of Parliament—specifically Naghva Hossaini, representative of city of Varamin–despite the words of the leader of the regime and the absolute religious qualifications of the Minister of Islamic Guidance, believe he cries foul of Islam, and in fact, what mostly plays a role in this issue is political reasons rather than religious reasons. Even though the supreme leader, with his own religious opinions, defends such a politically motivated move, every once in a while, with talk that is confusing and interpretations that could be understood differently, not only gives the radical movements a means to attack the Reformists and the Moderates (today), but also does not give an excuse to the opposition to find contradiction between his religious words of yesterday and his political words of today. In short, this issue is like many others. Religious discussion has become hostage to the political situation in Iran. It may be said that religion is taken hostage and its language is subverted and used to further the political goals of the powerful in Iran. Issues like the singing of women, which cause differences among Shia clerics, will always be of discussion in these circles.
1 The fact that Syed Ali Khamenei is a religious reference has not been approved by many major Shia references and clerics such as Ayatollah Montazeri, and announcing him as a reference has been called a corruption of Shia reference-hood. But in structure of Supreme religious leadership in Iranian constitution, his name has come as a reference and anyway in the real world and outside the circles of opinion he is known to hold this position and he gives Fatwa and religious opinions.
1- Ali Janatti , Tehran Press website, August 15, 2013
2- Hassanzadeh, Mahboobe; Respect for Women Singing; Acting as in Religion or in Sinful Habit?! Mehrkhaneh, August 9, 2014
3- The fact that Syed Ali Khamenei is a religious reference has not been approved by many major Shia references and clerics such as Ayatollah Montazeri, and announcing him as a reference has been called a corruption of Shia reference-hood. But in structure of Supreme religious leadership in Iranian constitution, his name has come as a reference and anyway in the real world and outside the circles of opinion he is known to hold this position and he gives Fatwa and religious opinions.
4- Mohammadi, Maysam; In Search of Religion Today (Part two and conclusion), Ayatollah Sanei information Relating Base
5- Letter of MPs to Rohani about Women Singing. Mehr News, November 1, 2014
This article was originally published in Farsi at Hoghoogh-e Bashari-e Khat-e Solh.