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.