The conductor smashing Iranian taboos over women, and music

Nezhat Amiri’s recent high-profile performance caps a 38-year fight for recognition

In her 38-year career, which is as long as the history of the Islamic republic, Iran’s first and only female conductor had led as many public performances as the number of fingers that hold her baton.

Last month, however, Nezhat Amiri conducted a 71-member orchestra performing at Tehran’s most prestigious concert hall – a remarkable milestone in a country where it is considered taboo for state TV to show musical instruments, women are not allowed to sing solo and female musicians have been prevented from going on stage in provincial cities.

“From the beginning, I’ve swum against the current – I wasn’t seen, the society didn’t make any effort to nurture my skills and the ruling establishment turned its back on me,” Amiri, 57, told the Guardian. “But I’m still doing it, I’m showing that there are ways, and there will always be.”

Amiri’s performance, part of the annual state Fajr music festival, brought 55 musicians and a 16-member choir – with women making up almost half of both groups – on stage for two hours, to play three pieces by masters of Persian classical music, including a work by the legendary composer Morteza Hannaneh, for the first time.

Amiri conducted a 71-member orchestra as part of the Fajr music festival.
Amiri conducted a 71-member orchestra as part of the Fajr music festival. Photograph: Alireza Ramezani/

The Naghmeh-Baran (the melody of rain) ensemble had been practising for six months. All of them, including Amiri, worked for free. It was Amiri’s first performance on such a large scale in 12 years, and took place at Vahdat auditorium, which was one of the world’s best-equipped modern opera houses at the time of its inauguration, prior to the 1979 Islamic revolution. Even then, when Tehran hosted many music and dance performances, no Iranian female conductor appeared on the Vahdat stage.

Amiri’s most recent performance received unprecedented attention inside Iran. The reformist Ghanoon daily published an interview with her image on its front page alongside a headline quote: “I don’t even earn as much as a construction worker.”

Press TV, Iran’s state English-language network broadcasting for a foreign audience, featured her performance. But restrictions still remain on domestic TV. One band, Pallet, once mimed their performance without their instruments, in a subtle protest that circumvented the censors.

Nezhat Amiri at the Vahdat auditorium in Tehran.
Both male and female musicians were included in the Naghmeh-Baran ensemble. Photograph: Alireza Ramezani/

Amiri, who has a master’s degree in music composition from Tehran Arts University and studied under the acclaimed musician Parviz Mansouri, said although she had celebrated the importance of her performance, she could not remain silent about the challenges she had faced in the years leading up to it.

“There’s a fatigue. How many times can you continue knocking on a closed door?” she asked. “How many years can you remain silent and not talk about your sorrow? When sorrow becomes public, it needs a public remedy, too.”

Prominent female conductors fight for recognition across the world; the recent appointment of Marin Alsop as the first woman to become artistic director of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra made international headlines.

Amiri acknowledged the difficulties of being a female musician in Iran, but she said problems within the arts were more wide ranging. “Music in my country is like a child without parents, like an orphan,” she said.

After the Islamic revolution, Iran started a crackdown on music – initially even banning uncontroversial traditional Persian music. Restrictions have since loosened, with pop and even rap and rock becoming popular. But the laws and codes governing the arts are ambiguous and, at times, arbitrary. Female musicians, in particular, face bigger and more fundamental problems.

One recent image, shared widely online, shows a female musician who was blocked from appearing on stage in a provincial city peeking through the curtains, watching her male bandmates playing.

“After 38 years, the authorities need to come forward and make clear if music is haram [forbidden by Islamic law] or halal,” said Amiri. “They should say whether women can perform on stage or not. We have one system, one country, how come in one city [Tehran] you can, in the others you can’t?”

Nezhat Amiri at the Vahdat auditorium in Tehran.
No female conductor had previously appeared at the Vahdat auditorium in Tehran. Photograph: Alireza Ramezani/

Under the current moderate administration of President Hassan Rouhani, the Tehran Symphony Orchestra – previously disbanded – has been revived. Amiri said pressure under his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was huge, but it also meant many turned to music to remain hopeful or as an expression of their resistance.

“You face so many challenges when you’re a musician [in Iran],” Amiri said. “In our country, music is an art that, according to religious edicts, should not be given space, or priority … We have lost generations of musicians, theoreticians, music historians – some people in this country have given their lives for music.”

Yet, the incremental changes that have taken place under Rouhani have disappointed many. “I’ve seen many ups and downs, we’re in downhill now … now it’s the era of losing hope after becoming hopeful,” said Amiri.

Despite the challenges, Amiri says she wants to be “a symbol of hope”.

“You live because you have hope. Sometimes you know you’ll be defeated, but you make the effort anyway. You know you have to try. My head was broken, but I wrapped it and stood up again, for a hundred times.”


Saeed Kamali Dehghan Iran correspondent

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Tehran hijab protest: Iranian police arrest 29 women
New wave of protests spread across country, sparking personal freedoms debate

Saeed Kamali Dehghan Iran correspondent

02, Feb, 2018 @5:00 AM

Article image
Iranian rapper Amir Tataloo arrested in Turkey
Musician was detained in Istanbul after Tehran issued Interpol request

Bethan McKernan in Istanbul

29, Jan, 2020 @4:20 PM

Article image
Iranian single women might need father's permission to go abroad

Parliamentary bill proposes requirement for single women to obtain official consent from their guardian to leave country

Saeed Kamali Dehghan

15, Jan, 2013 @4:51 PM

Article image
Iranian president criticised for all-male delegation to meet Swedes
Pictures showing majority female Swedish delegation in hijab highlights Hassan Rouhani’s broken campaign promises to Iran’s women

Saeed Kamali Dehghan Iran correspondent

13, Feb, 2017 @6:19 PM

Article image
The former child bride who is using her story to liberate Afghan women
Zahra Yaganah was married off to a violent man at 13. Now an author, her book is shining a light on abuse in Afghanistan

Sune Engel Rasmussen in Kabul

18, Jul, 2016 @5:00 AM

Article image
EU's Catherine Ashton criticised for meeting Iranian women activists
EU foreign policy chief sparks fury by meeting six leading campaigners during landmark Tehran trip

Saeed Kamali Dehghan

10, Mar, 2014 @6:16 PM

Article image
Iranian musicians help out in secret on Israeli singer's new record
‘I don’t agree with anything that comes with seeing Iran as our enemy,’ says singer Liraz Charhi

Oliver Holmes

08, Oct, 2020 @4:00 AM

Article image
Iranian women spark debate by defying hijab rule in cars
Judiciary and police insist a car interior is public space but more women are defying authorities by driving with ‘bad hijab’

Saeed Kamali Dehghan Iran correspondent

11, Jul, 2017 @5:00 AM

Article image
Iranian women post pictures of themselves without hijabs on Facebook
Campaign set up by London-based Iranian journalist Masih Alinejad attracts more than 130,000 likes on social media site

Saeed Kamali Dehghan

12, May, 2014 @6:30 PM

Article image
'The best cabaret in Europe' - Nazi prisoners' music premieres, 70 years on
Pieces composed in Nazi concentration camps are heard for first time in Jerusalem, after decades-long quest by Italian composer and pianist

Harriet Sherwood in Jerusalem

16, Apr, 2018 @10:01 AM