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Special Features

Iranian Women You Should Know: Arfa Atraei

July 14, 2020
IranWire Citizen Journalist
5 min read
Arfa Atraei was one of the first young women to enter the Persian National Conservatory of Music in Tehran
Arfa Atraei was one of the first young women to enter the Persian National Conservatory of Music in Tehran

Global and Iranian history are both closely intertwined with the lives and destinies of prominent figures. Every one of them has laid a brick on history’s wall, sometimes paying the price with their lives, men and women alike. Women have been especially influential in the last 200 years, writing much of contemporary Iranian history.

In Iran, women have increased public awareness about gender discrimination, raised the profile of and improved women’s rights, fought for literacy among women, and promoted the social status of women by counteracting religious pressures, participating in scientific projects, being involved in politics, influencing music, cinema... And so the list goes on.

This series aims to celebrate these renowned and respected Iranian women. They are women who represent the millions of women that influence their families and societies on a daily basis. Not all of the people profiled in the series are endorsed by IranWire, but their influence and impact cannot be overlooked. These articles are biographical stories that consider the lives of influential women in Iran.

IranWire readers are invited to send in suggestions for how we might expand the series. Contact IranWire via email ([email protected]), on Facebook, or by tweeting us.


Arfa Atraei, who turned 79 last month, has a musical career studded with one-off accolades. She is the first woman to play the santur professionally, the first woman to teach santur at Iran’s National Conservatory of Music and the first woman to play solo in front of the country’s great masters. In addition, she has been a powerful advocate for equality in Iran's music sector and an end to the segregation of orchestras since the Islamic Revolution.


Sent by her Father to Grow Up Among Masters

Born on 29 June 1941, Atraei was one of the first young women to enter the Persian National Conservatory of Music in Tehran. This prestigious institution was founded in 1949 through the efforts of Iran’s Society for National Music, which celebrates classical and folkloric Iranian composition, and its creator, the famous violinist, composer and historian Ruhollah Khaleqi. At the time of Atraei’s enrolment Khaleqi was teaching at the Conservatory, along with such celebrated figures as tar player Ali-Naghi Vaziri, santur player Hossein Saba, musician and composer Mostafa Kamal Purtorab, santur player Faramarz Payvar and vocal music master Mahmud Karimi.

In an interview with the website, Atraei has spoken of her entry into the world of music in those years. “At that time, music was not still recognized as an official educational field,” she said. “My father’s decision to send me to the Music Conservatory under the influence and guidance of Khaleqi surprised our relatives and friends.”

Atraei began learning the santur under Hossein Saba. But a year before her graduation, Saba passed away, and so she continued her training with Faramarz Payvar. Her training did not end with completion of the course: “Mr. Payvar’s technics and training led me to continue taking lessons from him after my graduation.”

Music scholars consider Atraei to have been one of Faramarz Payvar’s finest pupils. Great musicians have also admitted that whenever Payvar was not available for a concert, they asked Atraei to replace him.

In an interview with Sharq, Atraei has said: “In 1958, on the occasion of the launch of Iran’s first television station under Habib Sabet,[composer Hossein] Dehlavi and Payvar jointly composed and arranged a piece called the Concertino for Santur, which was to be performed with Mr. Dehlavi’s orchestra and Payvar’s solo. However, when Payvar went to London for three years, the only person who played this piece with Mr. Delavi’s orchestra was me.”


Nurturing a Generation of Santur Players

After graduation, Atraei was the first woman to teach at the National Conservatory of Music and, later, at other higher education centers and universities in Iran. In 1974 she became the leader of Roudaki Hall performing arts complex in Tehran and collaborated with many acclaimed artists. Before the Islamic Revolution Atraei performed without any restrictions and afterwards, she became a strident voice against the segregation of orchestras and the treatment of female musicians at concerts.

“In the past,” she told the website, “unlike now, the best Iranian musicians taught at music colleges. There were no gender segregation and that in itself solved many problems. On reviewing the contemporary history of Iranian music we see the names of female musicians such as Qamar ol-Moluk Vaziri used to overshadow even the names of music masters such as Arsalan Khan Dargahi and Morteza Naydavud.”

In the same interview she also voiced her displeasure with the now well- established House of Music in Tehran. “The House of Music is a totally masculine and patriarchal organization in practice, contrary to its charter,” she said. “Many directors of the House of Music are the students of women musicians, whose names are not even mentioned.”

In the course of more than 60 years of artistic activity, Arfa Atraei has succeeded in introducing new audiences to Iranian traditional music: particularly national music scales and keys, contemporary santur playing and the works of the great musicians of Iran. She has produced many articles and books on the subject, including The Persian Music Dictionary, Nazemi’s Santur, The Life and Works of Habib Samaei, Booyeh Jooyeh Mulian [The Scent of Mulian River], Iranian Musical Instruments and Payvar’s Knowledge, which deals with Farmarz Payvar’s style of santur playing. These are used as course materials at several higher music education centers in Iran. She herself is also among the few Iranian musicians with a first-class artistic degree from the Ministry of Culture.


Tragedy Brought About by Medical Bills

Atraei was diagnosed with cancer in 2014 and sought treatment in the US. In 2016, she gave a shocking interview with Sharq magazine in which she revealed the near-impossibility of paying her medical bills there - and revealed that she had had to sell her most treasured possessions as a consequence.

In Iran, she said, her health insurance didn’t permit her to get the healthcare she needed either. “Well,” she said, “in a situation when after 60 years of continuous artistic work, there is no one except my sons to help me and ask how am I doing, I had to sell my most precious assets: that is, my musical instrument and my books, in order to survive.”


Read other articles in this series:

Goli Ameri, Tehran-born Face of US Diplomacy

Shahindokht Sanati: Lady of the Roses

Saeedeh Qods, Founder of Middle East's Biggest Children's Cancer Hospital

Fakhri Malekpour, Traditional Iranian Piano Practitioner

Fakhr ol-Doleh, Figurehead and Political Agitator

Sardar Maryam Bakhtiari: Decorated Revolutionary and Tribal Military Commander

Ashraf Bahador-Zadeh, Iran’s Mother Teresa




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