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'Break this taboo': Religious singer Koveitipour's duet with young girl shocks Iran

A number of recent cases, aided by the growing influence of social networks, are helping to challenge a ban on females singing in Iran
Gholam Koveitipour has caused controversy by releasing a recording of a duet with a 13-year-old girl known as Parichehr (YouTube)
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Tehran, Iran

A well-known religious singer has caused controversy in Iran by releasing a recording of a duet with a 13-year-old girl, which has gone viral on social media. 

The song, which was first released by Gholam Koveitipour during the Iran-Iraq war, was reprised by Koveitipour and a girl, known as Parichehr, recording their lines separately.

Women singing on their own or with, or in front of, men, was banned in Iran after the 1979 Islamic revolution.

But a number of cases in recent times have brought the issue to the fore once again.

Known by almost all Iranians, Koveitipour is a eulogist - a speaker who delivers a funeral oration - and singer who embarked on his career by singing epic songs during the eight-year war with Saddam Hussein's Iraq in the 1980s. 

“Mamad Naboodi Bebini”, translated as “M0hammad, you weren't [alive] to see”, is among the most celebrated songs in Iran’s contemporary history, released on the occasion of the liberation of the southwestern city of Khorramshahr in 1982. 

Koveitipour sang the song a year after the port city was recaptured. In it, he also eulogised the “martyrdom” of Mohammad Jahanara, the commander of Iranian forces in Khuzestan, who was killed in 1981. 

Shockwaves

Koveitipour’s decision to sing with the young Parichehr, the recording of which was released on 23 June, has sent shockwaves through Iran. 

Maysam Motiee, a hardline eulogist, on 24 June attacked Koveitipour for performing with a girl, tweeting that he was “delivering serious blows to our religious traditions and spiritual legacy”.

Tebyan, a conservative cultural institute whose head is appointed by the country's supreme leader, on 28 June lamented Koveitipour's actions, claiming that he had been taken advantage of by a company specialising in introducing new singers.

What may have angered hardliners more, however, were the lyrics: “We can't go back, this is the result of our own actions, and the result is not good at all.”

On 24 June, the Fars news agency took a swipe at Koveitipour, saying it was not clear whether he was denouncing the country’s current economic problems, or his past beliefs about the Islamic revolution. 

Economic statement

In reaction to the criticism, Koveitipour spoke to a cultural journalist on 25 June on Instagram.

He did not say why he had chosen to do a duet with a young girl, but said that he was proud of singing the song and that his purpose had been to raise people’s spirits amid the country's economic troubles. 

Koveitipour asserted that 40 years ago, when the revolution occurred, “I told [myself] ‘Thank God that we won't have any poor people in the country anymore.’

“We have a wealthy country, why should such a rich country reach this point?” he asked. 

Speaking to Middle East Eye, Hossein Kanani-Moghaddam, a conservative activist, expressed his regret over Koveitipour's song.

“We should find out who is behind the project of tarnishing the image of such a eulogist, whose voice is reminiscent of our martyred soldiers in the 1980s war,” he said.

'No problem from a religious perspective'

Before 1979, Iran had numerous successful female singers, most of whom decided to leave the country following the revolution to pursue their careers abroad. 

In recent years, the country has slightly softened its approach, with some female vocalists permitted to perform in concert halls solely for women. 

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However, allowing women to sing to an audience of both men and women, live or on TV, has not been allowed since 1979, with some clerics saying that women singing may tempt and induce men to commit “sin”.

Former Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, was reportedly not opposed to women singing. 

However, during his leadership in the 1980s, no women were allowed to perform. 

Mohammad Khatami, a former Iranian president and the leader of the country's reformists, once quoted Khomeini as saying that women singing solo, and men listening to the music, was not a problem from a religious perspective.

'Officials should show courage'

The present religious leadership in the country also seems to hold similar views.

“The current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has been asked once about his view regarding women singing solo,” a former concert organiser, who wished to remain anonymous, told MEE. “In response, he didn't reply negatively.

"Therefore, there is no religious obstacle issue standing in the middle of our path. But we have been told that they believe society wouldn't accept this.” 

The organiser hypothesised that the influence of hardliners in Iranian politics may have kept the issue from being re-examined.

“If the priority is Islamic law and the supreme leader, they all have no issue with women singing solo,” he said. "Officials should show courage and break this taboo, but I think they are terrified of radicals’ possibly harsh reactions.” 

Iranian female singers angered

Koveitipour is not the only Iranian musical artist to have flouted the rules.

Popular folk singer Homayoun Shajarian, the son of legendary singer Mohammad Reza Shajarian, released a video on 19 June with Lebanese singer Abeer Nehme, with a cover of the old song “Morghe Sahar”.

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But the backlash against Shajarian has not only just come from conservatives.

Iranian female vocalists have slammed him for preferring to choose a foreign woman to accompany him on the song.

“Even Iranian male singers ignore [Iranian] female vocalists,” acclaimed Iranian vocalist Sahar, who based in London, told BBC Persian last month

Referring to the ban on women singing solo in Iran, Madmazel, another singer, addressed her fans on Instagram, saying: “Have you seen the video clip of Homayoun Shajarian? Only the voice of Iranian women provokes [men]?”

Anger from Iranian women vocalists also followed the release of a comedic movie, Motreb, which was screened in Iran in November.

In the movie, Iranian actor Parviz Parastui sings a song with female Turkish singer Aysegul Coskun. 

While this could have led to the movie being barred from theatres, neither the government nor hardliners objected to it. 

“Some are resorting to the strategy of the normalisation of breaking taboos,” Kanani-Moghaddam, the conservative activist, said, before claiming that certain individuals “want to pave the way for feminist thought to dominate our art arena”.

Risky resistance

In spite of Kanani-Moghaddam’s assertions, violating the rules remains a risky endeavour.

On 2 February 2019, pop star Hamid Askari held a concert in Tehran during which he suddenly handed over the microphone to the female guitarist, who began to sing solo. 

As news of the incident went viral, the Iranian Ministry of Culture announced that Askari was banned from staging any more concerts. 

He has not been back onstage in the country since.

A similar situation occurred in 2015 when Mohammad Motamedi, a traditional vocalist, performed a song with a female singer from Spain, leading the Ministry of Culture to refuse to issue him a permit to release his new album for a period of time. 

Social networks effect

But social networks are helping to break these red lines, paving the way on Instagram and Twitter for societal changes. 

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Amanullah Qarai Moqaddam, a professor of sociology at the University of Shahid Beheshti, argued that technology was changing lives, manners and habits. 

“Social networks will bring down all the walls and limitations,” he told MEE. 

“Some think that they are able to prevent such happenings, but they are wrong, especially regarding women singing solo.

“I’m sure decision-makers and the government will eventually retreat and will allow women to sing.

"In fact, society will impose this on officials, and they have no choice but to accept it.”