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"Why is it these days that singing is a crime?"

googoosh, iranian diva
The Iranian Diva Googoosh in Vancouver.

Iran: Press, Pop, and Big Oil

by Kelly Cogswell

AUGUST 13, 2000. As big oil, big sticks and big bluster in the shape of two Texas oil men, and Republican big military spenders aim for the U.S. presidency, it seems prudent to take a peek at the Persian Gulf and Iran, home of the Ayatollahs who love to hate all things American.

Iran Lately
As the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei himself intervened in Tehran to kill Parliamentary legislation that would have restored freedom of the press, Googoosh, an Iranian diva sang from the safety of Vancouver, Canada "Why is it these days that singing is a crime?"

It was her second public performance in more than twenty years, the first a few days earlier in Toronto. The 1979 Islamic revolution, among other things, banned women from singing in public. Ayatollah Khamenei and his fundamentalist Islamic clerics, who still call the shots in Iran, believe not only that women's voices corrupt men, but that pop music is intrinsically decadent. Nevertheless, the 50 year-old Googoosh's Elvis-like stature has continued to grow despite her isolation.

Two Steps Forward
Critics wonder whether the decision to give the singer and her filmmaker husband Massoud Kimiai, unconditional permission to travel abroad, was a softening of official policy, or a cynical attempt to improve the country's image. Likely, it is a little of both.

There have been incremental changes in Iran's civil society since reformists were elected in 1997. Though the sale of pop music is still illegal, possession is now tolerated.

Women have also made slight inroads. August 9th, a few days after the free press bill was killed by the Ayatollah, legislators approved a segment of a draft law to raise the marriage age to 15 or 16. The age, which had been 18 for women, and 20 for men, was precipitously dropped after the revolution to let fathers marry off their daughters as young as 9. The official law is expected to pass in Parliament, though the last word remains with the Council of Guardians, and the Ayatollah.

Two Back
Hard-line fundamentalists, however, concede nothing. They oppose changes to the marriage law. Googoosh, whose real name is Faegheh Atashin, enrages them. They still consider her decadent. They are furious she was given permission to leave and perform. One can imagine how she would be received if she were to return home, especially given the content of her new songs.

There is no progress for lesbian, gay, and transgender people in Iran, who still face the death penalty under Islamic law. The good news is that outside the country, Iranian queers have been quietly organizing. Homan, the first Iranian lesbian and gay organization was founded in Sweden in 1991 to support Iranian lesbian and gay human rights, and now has several chapters across the U.S. and Europe.

Newspapers continue to be heavily censored, though there is public support for a freer press. Several reformist candidates won parliamentary elections in February for their promises to overturn restrictive press and social laws.

The hard-line judiciary doesn't consider public opinion a plus. They've shut down more than twenty reformist newspapers since April. In fact, the charge against the newspaper Bahar, recently closed, was that it was "disturbing public opinion."

iranian protestersReformist legislators who criticized the Ayatollah's intervention in the free press bill, have been accused of treason by hundreds of hard-line protesters demanding the deputies' expulsion. The protesters also say they are willing to martyr themselves for the Ayatollah, though he doesn't seem to need their help.

Allies in Oil
In an interesting twist, President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela arrived in Tehran late Wednesday, ostensibly as part of a Middle East tour designed to drum up support for a summit of OPEC in Caracas on September 27.

His tour, including a calculated visit to the pariah Iraq, is also a novel nose-thumbing show of independence directed towards Washington. Until the coup-leader turned politician's election, Venezuela could be counted on as an OPEC scab, representing U.S. interests, much like Iran prior to the revolution.

Since Chavez' election, and increasingly since his tour, Washington has issued veiled threats on the "who is not with us is against us" theme. This attitude, as paternalistic and simple-minded as the Ayatollah's fundamentalist priests, can be counted on to push Chavez right into their American-hating arms.

Related links:

For the CIA Factbook: Iran

For the New York Times special section on Iran (requires free registration).

For Homan a human rights group which defends the rights of Iranian Gays and Lesbians.

For Complete Coverage Asia

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