Sultana Banu learned to sing as a child, working the fields with her family in lush northern Iran. But as her rough-edged voice rose and fell in homage to agricultural life Monday, her outfit was not work clothes, but a red tunic and full burgundy skirt. And her audience was not the livestock and seedlings of Golestan, but a thousand Tehrani women who clapped and whistled ecstatically for Ms. Banu and the other 65 female folk musicians at the First Music Festival of Iran's Regional Women.
The festival marks a continued expansion of artistic opportunities in Iran, where public music performances have long been controversial and where several genres are still banned. While musicians and fans welcome the new opportunities, many recognize the festival as little more than a nod to reform by hard-liners who still block real change.
The folk festival joins the Jasmine Festival, a folk-classical showcase that debuted in 1999, in celebrating Women's Day in Iran.Organizers say these concerts demonstrate an increasing concern for women's full participation in Iranian society.
"Women in our society are responsible for a great share of music-playing, but unfortunately their music has not received much attention," says Reza Mahdavi,head of the Hozeh Honari music center, which organized the folk festival. "This festival demonstrates the way women, while paying attention to their existing limitations, have preserved their culture and customs."
Such publicity was much needed this week after the Council of Guardians, the unelected body that vets new legislation, rejected a bill the reformist Majlis passed in July to make Iran a signatory on the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Council members claimed that CEDAW provisions run counter to the Iranian legal code, particularly in the area of family law, which is based on Islamic law, or sharia, and explicitly favors men.
Legal restrictions define many of the festival's boundaries. Women in Iran cannot sing solo before men; both festivals are for all-female audiences. The ban on men includes male sound technicians, who must vacate before the performance begins, no matter what technical glitches arise.
These restrictions, says Wendy DeBano, an American ethnomusicologist who studies Iran, cast doubt on the extent to which such festivals truly celebrate women, or are artistically satisfying.
"Women-only programs are more likely to be thought of as less serious," she says. "Whether that means less compensation for the musicians, timing the festivals early in the afternoon so that women with families can attend, or not securing adequate staffing."
One Iranian musician, who did not want to be named for fear of professional repercussions, agrees, saying the point of these festivals is not music at all. "It's all about publicity," the musician says. "In the US and Europe they say that Iranian women are under pressure, so they hold these festivals so they can say that Iranian women don't have any problems."
The streets of Tehran are testament to the ongoing struggle between many Iranian women and religious conservatives, who find themselves increasingly unable to enforce social restrictions. Young women in form-fitting manteaus (supposedly "Islamic" overcoats) pay little attention if their brightly colored scarves slide down their heads; they hold hands with boyfriends, and visit cyberdating sites at Internet cafes.
Tehran is a far cry from the years after the 1979 Islamic revolution, when popular and women's music were banned. Today, bootleg CDs of female pop singers blare from taxis.
But as hopes that President Mohammad Khatami could enact substantive reform have dimmed in recent years, public frustration, especially among the roughly 60 percent of Iranians under the age of 30, continues to provide incentive for hard-liners to try to present the government as flexible and responsive.
"[This kind of] festival is a safety valve," says Ms. DeBano. She points out that the Jasmine Festival, organized by the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance, even includes pop music this year. "At the same time, [it] simply is not enough."
Farzaneh Rasouli, who studies and teaches classical Iranian music, characterizes the marginalization of female musicians not as political, but as cultural. And she says that Iran is not the only country where a majority of professional musicians are male.
"[Women] need to have the courage to come forward and play," she says.