Women in Iran’s music scene

The effects of sexism in Iran’s music scene through the eyes of female Iranian musicians

At first glance, segregation and gender discrimination in the music scene, as a human – cultural and social phenomena that affects the entire society, might seem a non-important and imaginary issue. Throughout the entire history of human evolution, music has flowed as an identity, cultural and evolutionary phenomenon, with the participation of all members of any given society, regardless of age, gender and social status. Collected evidence of various musical products throughout history of mankind acknowledge the equal participation of both men and women in music.

Nowadays, women make up a considerable proportion of the scholars in Iran in a variety of arenas, like art schools, universities and private institutions. Women study in a variety of fields, like performance, musicology, pedagogy and composition.

The stage after studying, learning and graduation is but entering the job market. We need to see whether this gender inclusivity and strong presence of women continues into the professional scene or not. Unfortunately, our lived experiences and evidence is indicative of the deep impact of sexist cliches on the music job market and women’s involvement in it. In such an atmosphere, women do not easily enter the job market and have to suffer numerous gender discriminations in various ways, on different levels. These dimensions can be categorised as official and nonofficial (obvious and concealed/covert). In the official dimension, there are restrictions on the participation of female musicians in the cultural scene of Iran. These restrictions also affect male musicians to some extent, but the threshold of restrictions is different for men and women. Evidence shows that covert restrictions and discriminations can have an even more destructive impact on the climate of music in society.

To gauge these discriminations, and learn about their prevalence and impact, I had a chat with a number of young female musicians. To protect the personal and professional privacy of the interviewees, I have omitted their names.

One interviewee, who plays an instrument as a complementary occupation, says of the discriminations:

“From a broader perspective, everyone is paying for the restrictions on music. However, due to the general patriarchal structure of the society, as in many other fields, women naturally pay more dearly.”

Another interviewee says:

“Since I am a practitioner of Iranian music, working in Iran could be much better in financial terms, […] but the truth is that as a female soloist, I could not go on stage by myself in Iran because I play and I sing. This was not possible in Iran. Also, I only came to experience unrestrained and stress-free improvisation outside of Iran. I can say this has been one of the most important experiences in my life, which has also transformed my playing and my music.”

Another female musician living in Tehran, active in Iranian Music, says of her experiences of official performances:

“In my performances, I was constantly worried about the admonitions. In two or three instances, the performances at the university were cancelled and I had a hunch it had to do with my gender.”

Another female instrumentalist believes the following about the atmosphere of performance in Iran:

“We need to be fair. In classical music, there are many female instrumentalists and they do have a strong presence in orchestras; compared to men their numbers might be fewer and their position with regard to orchestra different: for instance, I have never seen a girl become the concertmaster or conductor in an orchestra, but women do participate.”

Although the unofficial and unseen dimension of gender discriminations are to some extent influenced by legal restrictions, they are not limited to it. Such discriminations have a silent, but palpable presence in several layers of Iran’ music community; discriminations that are carried out, knowingly or unknowingly, against female musicians.

A classical and pop musician writes: “In orchestral music, participation of women is inevitable, you cannot, easily, put together a male-only orchestra. But pop music is a different story. Those involved in the pop music scene regard female singers and players as props on the stage. When a female musician joins their orchestra, it is important to them how she looks, the way she dresses, and even her figure counts. But when these same people want to record an album, they (even the professional ones) forget all about the female players. If you take a look at studio recordings, most players are male; this has a higher pay and is more prestigious, both usually harvested by men.”

And another interviewee believes the following about these discriminations:

“These gender discriminations are aggravated by our male colleagues. How? With their silence and passivity, with their apathy. When your colleague – despite being aware of your skills as a player – chooses to work with another, male, colleague; or when women are not given permission to perform in concerts, and the male colleagues do not object or register a reaction and carry on without their female colleagues. All this is discouraging.”

A female player of rock and jazz music says of her personal experiences with discrimination and sexism of some male colleagues:

“There has been occasions when I joined a music group, and then was set aside, apparently, for no reason. Sometimes people have expectations beyond work relations and this affects the work; women might even have to give in to non-professional requests. I have other friends who have also had such experiences. This is in no way impressive and is very discouraging for me. So, I rarely approach team work.”

An interviewee has this to say of her experiences as a student and after graduation:

“The majority of female entries to our courses at university were more experienced in terms of music. They thrived in their studies. But it is interesting that, out of all those girls, very few entered the market as performing musicians in Iran, while most of the boys did: some even became university lecturers, while the total number of the girls who ended up being a lecturer, of the entire number of entrants, is less than five.”

A female music instructor says:

“I kept hearing from the male colleagues that the girls are not willing to put in the work and they lag behind in technique and capability. This attitude discouraged me and affected my self-esteem. As a result, I, gradually, let go of my work as a player and performer and focused on teaching music instead.”

This article has only dealt with some of the important issues raised in the interviews, and the difficulties, especially for women, in Iran’s current music scene, and reflects a fraction of the daily concerns of the female musicians. Of course, the passage of time, developments in learning and the attitude of the new generation will have an impact. Through engagement with the global music scene, it is possible that the new generation can (or already have) put some of these culture specific restrictions and discriminations behind them. However, for the total eradication of such discriminations, there is a need for deeper probing into the underlying cultural predispositions and closer attention of all strata of the society, regardless of their gender.

Originally published on Underline Magazine.


Infants and the musical beat

If you are living in a big family, or you just adore children, you might have noticed some of these phenomena:

• Infants pay attention to the music on TV.

• Everybody talk to infants like a Soprano Opera Singer, in a high pitch and with exaggerated expressions.

• Infants attentively react to these types of communication and look very interested

• If the infant senses aggression in the tone, they might start to cry. Some may even respond with a disapproving outcry.

• If held close to the sound of music or that of somebody singing, the infant starts to actually ‘dance’!


Parents might have noticed and experienced all of these reactions and assumed that their child was very talented and smart. This is correct in some ways and wrong in others: the ability to communicate and respond to the environment shows that the infant is probably healthy and possesses an appropriate level of comprehension and understanding. But the assumption that the infant, who reacts and dances to the music, has talent in music is a myth. Why? The answer is as follows.

In the mother’s womb, in addition to the chemicals and food from her body, a foetus receives stimuli from the outside environment. The physical stimuli that the infant receives are movement and sound. They feel the movement, and move themselves, and they ‘hear’ voices from inside and outside of the mother’s body— the heartbeat and the mother’s voice from inside (due to the vibrations of her speech within her body), and environmental sounds and other people’s voices from the outside world. Sound is an infant’s only non-chemical connection to the outside world. Vision and tactile senses appear after birth. Therefore, infants show significant reactions to sound: they move their head to find the source of sound; they react to their mother’s voice and every sudden sound. The auditory sense is normally more sensitive in infants than adults and they can hear a wider range of frequencies. Although this ability decays as they become older.

Infants react to music. Some types of music can make them cry and with some they start to move and enjoy themselves. What is the process? Has the infant actually learned to dance during 9-10 months or a year or is it because they receive social rewards and encouragement when dancing to music?

Indeed, to move to music is a human instinct. Although social rewards and encouragement do have influence on an infants’ reaction to the beat of music, it is not the primary reason for them to move and tap to the beat. A study* which investigated this phenomenon can be summarised as follows:

Infants between 5 to 24 months and from two different nationalities were chosen to take part in an experiment along with their parents. The infants were sat on their parent’s laps to avoid separation anxiety and also for them to move the detectable parts of their body (e.g. hands, upper body) so the researchers would be able to track the infant’s movements accurately. The parents were wearing headphones so that they were prevented from hearing the music and avoid any possible unconscious tapping and moving to the music. The infants were exposed to excerpts of classical music, children’s music, rhythmic patterns and also two types of speech: normal adult speech and infant-directed speech.

The results showed that infants detect the beat in music and move to the regular beat of the music. Although the complexity of rhythmic changes and also the speed can influence their reactions, they do it without any help or actual learning. In addition, it was suggested that the infants’ attention and reaction to music was higher than that to mere speech (even their own parents’ speech). Indeed, the infants dancing to the beat is related to a human’s innate ability of entrainment, in which we ‘sync’ our movements with others. To understand this ability, imagine being at a rock concert; is it only the music forcing you to move or is it also the flow of the crowd? You can detect entrainment in rituals as well. If you have taken part in the Shiite Moharram ritual, you will have noticed that people, tapping on their heart, is a form of entrainment, it is formed by the beat and the synchronisation is extraordinary. This example can also be seen in Kurdish ritual dances, in which very large crowds dance around a circle, people are in sync with the music and most importantly with each other, and this is rooted in the instinctive synchronisation with the environment, they have never been taught how to do this.

* Zentner, M., & Eerola, T. (2010). Rhythmic engagement with music in infancy. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(13), 5768-5773.

This article is originally published on Underline Magazine