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Only Married Women Allowed to Play Music

November 30, 2017
Shima Shahrabi
5 min read
Only Married Women Allowed to Play Music
Kashan University new bylaws prohibit unmarried female students from playing in concerts
Kashan University new bylaws prohibit unmarried female students from playing in concerts

Students in the central Iranian city of Kashan have been told female musicians and singers will face heavy restrictions if they take part in any performances at the city’s university. 

A group of students submitted a concert proposal to the university, but were shocked when not only did university authorities reject the pieces of music they had selected to perfom, they sent them a list of rules that female musicians must follow.  

The bylaws, which were set out in a letter to the secretary of the university’s Student Music Society, were drawn up by Kashan University’s “cultural specialist,” and list out wide-ranging restrictions for female musicians. Among other points, the laws stipulate that female musicians must be married, must refrain from wearing headbands, tight-fitting pants, short-sleeve shirts or anything in loud colors, and that, during performances, women must avoid making any movements beyond what was absolutely necessary for playing their instruments.

Many of the students couldn’t believe what they were told. “I have to glue my ID on me to prove that I have a husband?” said Hoda, a student who plays the Iranian traditional instrument the santour. “What for? I guess tomorrow they will ask my husband’s written permission to let me play.”

Hoda said that the university’s cultural specialist cited no reasons for the new regulations, and simply reiterated parts of the Bylaws of Musical Curriculum, which was originally communicated to universities in March 2016. 

Prior to the guidelines being circulated, in the summer of 2015, officials from the vigilante and paramilitary Basij Organization, which operates under the control of the Revolutionary Guards, met with the then Minister of Science Mohammad Farhadi to complain about concert performances at universities. As it was reported by the Guards’ news agency Tasnim on July 1, 2015 [Persian link], the Basiji officials argued that the main job of universities was to promote science and that hosting concerts not only made universities “deviate” from this path, but were also detrimental to “hijab and chastity.” One Basiji described some of the concerts as having “dangerous goals” and violating the “dignity” of universities.

On January 4, 2016, the Council for Islamification of Universities passed the two-page Bylaws of Musical Curriculum [Persian PDF], which was signed by Farhadi and sent to institutions of higher education. The bylaws banned teaching music except in “approved” fields, but no explanation was given as to what these fields might be. In Article 1, the bylaws state that “promoting music is not one of the main tasks of universities.”

Only “Classy” Music Allowed

However, the bylaws do provide an exception, allowing for “classy” music to be performed — but only if the musical performance meets six conditions. It must strengthen national identity and observe Islamic values, it must promote adherence to moral, social, political and revolutionary duties, it must promote a scientific mindset, it must use “culturally acceptable” singers and figures, it must not induce undesirable emotions, such as lust and debauchery, and it must not encourage unwanted feelings such as despair.

The bylaws do not outline how one is to determine whether a piece of music meets these lofty requirements. In any case, the decision does not rest with the students but with the “Cultural Council” of each university.

“The Musical Curriculum Bylaws are strict,” a Kashan University student told IranWire, “but they are the same across all universities. Nowhere do they say that the cultural councils can add new laws on their own, like saying that women players must not wear loud colors or they cannot have headbands or they must be married and so on. In the bylaws it makes no mention whatsoever of women players.” Yet when it comes to the university at Kashan, it’s different.  

“One of the students who had pursued the matter says that according to a university official, ‘the people of Kashan are traditional and don’t approve of such things. They don’t like to see a single girl sitting and playing an instrument.’ But are the people of Kashan at our university? Students want to hold concerts for ourselves.”

Following the announcement of the restrictions, student members of Kashan University’s Musical Society went on to the society’s Telegram channel to post a statement Ayatollah Khamenei had made concerning female musicians. When asked about female musicians, the ayatollah’s answer had been simple: Any performance they took part in should not involve any “corruption” or “debauchery,” and the performance must not lead to “sin.” But he didn't say anything about marriage, or about what a woman should wear when performing.

Keyvan Saket is an Iranian composer and university professor who plays traditional instruments the tar and setar. He is also the author of 12 books for the two instruments. When IranWire asked him about the new rules at Kashan University, he said, “the universities must teach equality between men and women. What can you expect from other [people] when such rules are published by a university?”

Saket also manages the group Vaziri. “We have had repeated problems in various cities regarding our women players. Only a few hours before performances, officials ask us to remove the women. We have never understood why when a man plays an instrument it is all right, but when a woman wearing perfect hijab plays the same music on the same instrument it is not acceptable.”

He says he doesn’t know why the new rules have been introduced now, or who ordered them. “Those who require women players to be married are the same people who do not allow women on stage in [various] cities,” he said. “But what are they doing in universities?”

In 2014, the Iranian Student Correspondents Association (ISCA News) reported [Persian link] that in 13 major cities, including Isfahan, Tabriz, Urmia, Zanjan, Gorgan, some cities in Khuzestan and all cities in Khorasan, bands cannot include female players if they want to perform. Across Iran, women are banned from giving solo performances, but they are often allowed to sing as part of a group. But in the cities and towns listed in the ISCA report, they cannot even perform as part of a chorus or band.

“They blame everything on tradition and the local people,” Hoda said. “For instance, they say that it troubles the people of Kashan. Well, if people are traditional and if they are troubled by equality between men and women, why don’t they try to teach them about it?”



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