The Iranian singers shrugging off their headscarves
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Once part of Iran’s underground scene, several female Iranian singers have become more daring of late. They’ve shrugged off their headscarves, sometimes swapping them for outrageous hairstyles. They go for bold make-up. They’ve also started posting their music videos online, where anyone can see them. What’s most remarkable of all, however, is that Iranian authorities seem to be letting them do it.
In 2013, we wrote an article about how these same female singers were going to great lengths to hide their faces and identities in their music videos.
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However, these days, it’s all different.
First, though, a little history: after the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Sharia law was introduced in Iran and it became illegal for women to sing. During the 1980s and 90s, the only female voices that you could hear on the radio were those of Iranian female singers who lived in exile in the United States.
But the situation evolved starting in the early 2000s. A new generation of female singers, all of whom were born in Iran, started recording their own music in underground studios and sharing it. Then, these same singers started releasing music videos along with their songs. For a long time, however, the identity of these singers — as well as their faces — were hidden.
Then, in 2013, things began to change.
In this video — first released in 2013 — a singer called Justina shows her face, even though she is still wearing a headscarf.
Then, in 2015, she went a step further.
The singer Madmazel went through a similar progression. In 2012, she hid her face behind enormous sunglasses in her music videos.
The next year, she showed a little more of herself in her videos. Finally, in 2015, she dropped the veil and showed her face clearly.
Another example is the singer Melanie: at first, she didn’t appear in any of her music videos, and instead hired actresses to play her role.
That all changed in 2015, when she appeared for the first time in one of her own music videos, boldly going without a headscarf.
“One day, you wake up and realize that the conservatism that you’ve adhered to isn’t really who you are”
Madmazel, a pop-rock singer, spoke to the FRANCE 24 Observers team about this evolution.
Showing my face in a music video didn’t actually change my life that much. The only big difference is that, now, people stop me in the street to take selfies with me because they recognise me, but that’s about it. Why did I decide to show my face? For me, it’s part of a normal progression in my music videos. It’s like I am entering a new phase. At first, we just wanted to make music. Then, we wanted to make music videos. Then, we wanted to organise concerts. Now, we want to show ourselves in our music videos.
Female singers face a lot more obstacles than their male counterparts. Technically, under Sharia law, it is “haram” (or forbidden) for women to sing. However, I think most Iranians don’t care much about this law — they just want to listen to music that they like and often don’t worry about the singer’s gender.
When we started, we were much more conservative because we were in uncharted waters. We had no idea what kind of reactions we’d get as female singers. That explains why our risk-taking was gradual. One day, you wake up and realize that the conservatism that you’ve adhered to isn’t really who you are, so you push boundaries a little further.
Taking risks to reach my goals is part of who I am. I feel like I have to push back against the red lines in our society, doing my best to shift them step by step. It’s an obligation that I have to myself, but also to the world in which I live.
"Of course I’m afraid of being arrested"
What scares me most is getting stuck in one phase of my life and losing my motivation to keep pushing boundaries. Of course, I’m also afraid of being arrested. People often ask me if I’ve ever been arrested, which makes me even more afraid.
I reassure myself by saying that I’m not a card-carrying member of the political opposition. I think that government officials know that I’m not a danger because, for the most part, they seem to tolerate me and other singers like me.
I love my country and I love seeing things get better in Iran. I’m not just talking about female singers here, but the entire society. I have fans who wear the chador [Editor’s note: A chador is a large piece of cloth that women wear wrapped around their head and shoulders, leaving only their faces exposed] and yet they will write positive comments about how they like my new haircut. That shows that parts of Iranian society are changing and that some conservatives are starting to understand that they shouldn’t see themselves as the enforcers of rules for the entire society.
At the same time, it’s just not possible for the authorities to control everything. Iranians are constantly doing forbidden things. They eat forbidden food, they drink, they wear forbidden styles and, even in human relationships, they are constantly pushing the boundaries established by the state and religion.
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Authorities would be shooting themselves in the foot by
reprimanding these singers
Thousands of people have watched Madmazel’s videos and those made by other female singers. It’s clear that, if the authorities wanted to stop her, they could, says an Iranian political analyst, who spoke to the FRANCE 24 Observers on condition of anonymity.
There are three reasons why the authorities are pretty tolerant towards these singers, even though some of their behavior might be considered “unacceptable.”
First of all, Hassan Rohani’s government tends to be centrist and reformist. His electoral base is made up of people who are pro-democratic and middle class and, most of all, who like these singers and the music they make. Authorities would be shooting themselves in the foot by reprimanding these singers.
Of course, the Revolutionary Guards, who get their power from Iran’s theocracy could arrest these female singers. However, currently, Iran is like a little island of stability in an extremely turbulent Middle East and authorities want to avoid any social unrest as much as possible. And these singers aren’t seen as a real danger. They don’t have power to mobilise the masses. Their networks aren’t very developed. Most of them just have a few hundred loyal fans on social media.
The analyst’s reasoning makes sense when you consider the case of singer Amir Tataloo. Tataloo has four million followers on social media and is thus much more significant than Madmazel and other underground female singers. He was arrested twice, in 2015 and 2016, and, after that, he suddenly started performing patriotic songs.
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If, however, one of these underground singers does get arrested, the punishment could be severe. By law, someone who sings without permission could be punished with up to 79 strokes of the whip. Moreover, a singer could go to prison if a judge finds one of their songs to “promote decadence”. For the time being, however, this punishment has never been handed down.