At the door, uniformed security guards demand entrants to surrender cameras, mobile telephones and tape recorders. The aim is for nothing to leak out from the Jasmine festival, a series of singing performances by women that began in 1999. AFP
Regime's convictions prevents females from performing freely
TEHRAN: When entering a music hall in the Iranian capital to hear a performance by folk diva Pari Zanganeh, one could be forgiven for thinking the venue was a top secret military installation.
At the door, uniformed security guards demand entrants to surrender cameras, mobile telephones and tape recorders. The aim is for nothing to leak out from the Jasmine festival, a series of singing performances by women that began in 1999.
All men are also kept out of the Wahdat Hall. This ban also applies to sound technicians and the security guards themselves, who after a final sweep of the premises are also locked out, leaving behind an audience of some 1,000 women.
The middle-aged Zanganeh, blinded years ago in a car crash, is one of the few female singers who made her name before the 1979 Islamic revolution and is still allowed to perform here.
The performance begins with a bit of a tearjerker, a Persian-language version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic "Edelweiss" from the 1965 hit musical "The Sound of Music."
Enthusiastic applause follows, with subsequent exercises in national nostalgia also greeted with some cautious clapping along - many in the audience admit to never having seen a woman sing a live solo before.
The audience is a mixture of women dressed head to toe in the traditional all-black chador and others who take advantage of the absence of men by removing their veils and even watch the show in sleeveless tops.
Zanganeh herself wore a simple beige gown with her hair done up. Not being too flashy is singled out as the reason for her musical survival.
"Zanganeh has survived because she has always been a respectable, true artist. She never tainted herself with cheap provocative songs or improper attire," the organizer of the festival, Azar Hashemi, told AFP.
Herself a musician and composer, Hashemi admits women performers are still having a hard time changing the view of the Islamic regime that a woman's voice is provocative and arouses devious sexual thoughts in men.
"We have been fighting for years," she said. "Gender does not mean anything in art. And everybody's first experience with music is with their mother's lullaby," says Zanganeh, who sees the regime's efforts to silence women singers as a contradiction. After all, she reasons, "authorities who are worried about morality must also know that a woman is also likely to get aroused by a man's voice.
"Men do not trust themselves. They are afraid that women will grow stronger and flourish," is her view on the restrictions she faces.
But despite the limited career prospects of singing, many women are still learning privately at home with teachers, including Zanganeh.
"Women have not been convinced by this ban. They would have quit singing if they had," said Zanganeh, one of the few professional female singers who has not fled Iran for the US.
The teaching - as well as her love of classical music - has kept her behind in the Iran.
"Nature has given men and women equal rights. One day the authorities will realize that," Zanganeh said.
Many fellow singers have thought otherwise, and manage to make a living with their voices among the huge expatriate Iranian population in Los Angeles - and still have their tunes trickle back here on contraband CDs or videos.
Since reformist President Mohammad Khatami took office in 1997, restrictions on music have eased slightly - with male singers allowed to produce mild pop songs, and women allowed to perform in chorus as backing signers.
Attending the concert here was one wannabe female singer, Fereshteh Nafari, 26, whose view on her own prospects was bleak. "Unlike men we have absolutely no chance of being professionals in this industry, so it has to be our second job," she said.
"My biggest wish is to make a pop record. Traditional music is alright but it does not respond to our current needs - joyfulness and fun."