Music, Young Women and Human Rights

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In an authoritarian mind-set, gender segregation is a key factor in controlling the society. Iran's male dominated society derives concession for containing women, directly from the Sharia law, or the will of God, as interpreted by high-ranking clerics who also happen to be male.

Not only is God referred to as 'he' in the Islamic scripture[1], but it is made clear in Quran & the hadith that men alone are suited to holding the highest positions in the Islamic court. One will never observe a female Imam in the mosque, more importantly one is discouraged to question the credibility of all such verdict; even developing such thoughts and imagination border on blasphemy. Not only in the mosques, but also in the leadership of, Ummah (the Muslim nation), all positions of significance are strictly held for the highest, and male, cleric of the time.

Human rights activists around the world have made rightful observations of many areas in which women are subjected to violation of their basic human rights in Muslim communities. One cannot turn a blind eye, when women are stoned to death and prosecuted for sex outside marriage. It is not a small matter that the value of women's lives, as well as their words as witnesses in court, are only half of their male counterparts. However, the atrocities against women are not limited to treating them as merely half human in matters of life & death.

The interference of the Islamic rule into every private aspect of human life is specially wide and deep when it comes to women and young girls. This article is primarily aimed at shedding light on how musical expression is contained in Iran's Islamic republic particularly in the case of young women. Here, once again the system has succeeded in suffocating one of the most basic human needs, that of self expression by means of art.

It is worth noting that the discussion of human rights violation in Islamic countries, in this case in Iran, are often wrongly diverted from the actual facts and events, to whether this is the true Islam or it is the result of incorrect interpretation of the Quran and Sharia law. The point of this article is not to argue the degree to which practice of religion in Iran has remained true to Islam in its 'original' form. The reality is that restrictions are posed on human lives, human choices and their freedom to explore the arts, to express themselves in unique ways, and to communicate and integrate with the rest of the world through the common language of arts and music. These restrictions are imposed and justified by means of religious authority.

In Iran's Islamic Republic, from the moment of its inception by Khomeini, music was one of the many art forms that faced scrutiny. In 1970s, prior to the revolution, on par with their Turkish and Indian neighbours, Iranians were on their way to establishing their unique sound in the world of popular and classical music. With the rise of the Islamic regime in 1979, the country underwent a cultural revolution that aimed to undo every bit of progress made in music and arts over the past centuries and decades. This had the greatest impact on the progress of young women who were involved in the field of music professionally or vocationally.

Suddenly, the female portion of the society was no longer allowed to sing or play music. When young women sing and express themselves musically, the tone of their voice is thought to cause distraction and sexual excitement in men. After the 1979 Islamic Republic, while women were prohibited from appearing on stage altogether, the male portion of Iran's musical society was also driven away from the country and mostly went into exile. There was no longer any place for popular music, let alone rock music and other forms that were never allowed to flourish among the Iranian youth.

If women cannot sing, and men cannot sing about women and about human earthly love, that's essentially the end of popular music. However, the traditional Persian music was also pushed back into a corner and it has not been truly celebrated, explored, and developed in Iran after the Islamic revolution. There were still musicians who remained in the country and tried to continue producing traditional music or some form of a more modern music. Some were silenced; others resigned to producing only certain kinds of pro-Islamic revolutionary anthems to meet with the approval of the regime.

For the best part of the first decade of Khomeini's rule Iran was engaged in a war with Iraq. During this time people's priority was to survive. All means of import and export for luxury items, such as musical instruments, from the West, was completely closed. For the first few years after the revolution some families had only had their old cassettes and vinyls from the Shah's era. Soon the Iranian musicians in exile majority of whom now re-settled in Los Angeles, California, began to produce music, which was then smuggled into the country by passengers visiting their families in Iran. This was the start of a movement that brought back some life into Persian music, although one could face a penalty for carrying music cassettes, listening to them or selling them.

The Islamic Republic played the greatest role in keeping the Iranian culture from integrating many aspects of modernity, yet, modern technology found its way into Iranian homes; CDs and videos, E-books, Internet, and satellite TV channels are illegally accessed by many Iranian families. This has opened the eyes of the younger generations to a degree of freedom of expression in music and the arts, in the modern world, that is otherwise inconceivable for a young person growing up in Iran. For the first time in many generations, Iranian youth, especially the females among them, have begun to pose questions about many of their rights or lack thereof. Musical expression is possibly one of the most important means through which, young Iranian females can hope to get their voices heard, literally and metaphorically, a voice that had been silenced through three decades of Islamic rule.

[1] And in almost all major world religions

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