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The last minute cancellation of a performance last week by the Tehran Symphony Orchestra at the World Wrestling Cup, infuriated its conductor Ali Rahbari. As the orchestra was about to play the national anthem, it was announced that women weren’t allowed to perform; Rahbari refused to perform if the orchestra could not play all together.  

Since the Islamic revolution in 1979, women have been forbidden from performing solo on stage. Outside the capital, performances are often cancelled if there is a female musician, even when tickets have been sold. To perform music in Iran, it is necessary to have a permit from the ministry of culture, however even with the permit, anti -music groups call off concerts; conservatives and some religious leaders claim music can “excite and cause deviation” among the country’s youth. Last week’s incident was the first time a performance by the Symphony Orchestra had been cancelled because of its female members.

Only this April, after a three year interlude, was the orchestra revived by Alexander Rahbari. According to Rahbari, this is thanks to Rouhani’s relatively moderate administration. Under the previous president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the orchestra was broken up, due to negligence and financial stringency.

Tehran Symphony Orchestra performs in Tehran in March after a 25 month break/ photo: Payvand Iran news

Tehran Symphony Orchestra performs in Tehran in March after a 25 month break/ photo: Payvand Iran news

It is odd that there are such gender issues in Iran’s entertainment industry. In many ways, the country is one of the more progressive middle Eastern countries; 70% of university graduates in Iran are women. The cancellation of concerts which have been permitted by the ministry of culture is considered wrong, and there doesn’t seem to be much clarity or consistency on the issue; Iranian law allows women to perform as part of an ensemble, however sometimes concerts go ahead and on some occasions they are called-off. Women aren’t allowed to sing solo either, as a result many are forced to go abroad in order to pursue careers in music. Are the restrictions on women performing just an extreme method of limiting music in Iran rather than restricting women? It seems that women in other industries aren’t discriminated against as severely, but according to some conservatives, music can “excite and cause deviation.”

The restrictions on the performance of music, the necessity of a permit and the cancellation of concerts because of female performers seem bizarre to Europe. Although females in the European music industry – most notably composers and conductors – do face gender issues, we have progressed considerably. This week, it was announced that Xian Zhang will be guest conductor at BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Although female conductors are still a rarity, the idea of women in this role is becoming normalised.

Conductor Ali Rahbari

Conductor Ali Rahbari

The human rights of women in Iran have been infringed upon; the orchestra was quite right not to perform rather than bow to the demands of the authorities, who prohibited the women from playing. Not only is it a kind of gender segregation, but audiences are deprived of music, which they have paid to hear. The head of the Wrestling Federation, Rasoul Khadem, has asked the orchestra to play the national anthem at another wrestling event in Tehran in January; let’s hope it goes ahead uninterrupted! 

(Written on December 4, 2015 )