A recently released album of traditional Iranian music is turning into a new headache for the administration of President Hassan Rohani, who's accused by his hard-line opponents of being too liberal in his cultural and social policies.
The performance of a female singer in the album titled I Love You, Oh Ancient Land, which was released on January 27, is at the source of the controversy.
Hard-liners claim that the album includes solo female singing, which has been banned in Iran since the 1979 revolution and the establishment of the Islamic republic. Conservatives claim solo female singing spreads moral corruption.
Several clerics have reportedly criticized the album, including two senior ayatollahs from their base in the holy city of Qom.
Tabnak.ir reported earlier this week that Ayatollah Hossein Nouri Hamedani and Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi had spoken against the album in their religious classes.
"Singing [by women] should not become normal through any means, we will stop it," Nouri Hamedani was quoted as having said on February 4. Makarem Shirazi reportedly said: "The Culture Ministry tramples on religious values and there are complaints one after another against the ministry."
The controversy over the album is seen by analysts as part of a campaign hard-liners have waged against Rohani to prevent him from fulfilling his promises to relax cultural restrictions.
Officials from the Culture Ministry, which issued the permit for the album to be released, have denied claims that the album includes solo singing by a woman.
Culture Ministry spokesman Hossein Noushabadi said on January 30 that the version of the album that received a permit includes mixed singing. He said the album that was now being sold in the market will be reviewed by relevant authorities to make sure it does not include solo female singing.
Noushin Tafi, the main female singer in I Love You, Oh Ancient Land, told the Sharq daily that she performed on the album along with a male singer. "The talks about my solo singing are rumors," she said, while adding that she cooperated with singer Mohsen Karamati, whom she described as her maestro.
"There is always an issue with albums where women sing," Tafi said. "I'm not sure why there is [a problem] with my album. We went through all the legal processes, and the work is a duet."
Several lawmakers have said that the issue has reached the conservative-dominated parliament and that a decision will be made in the coming days.
The head of the parliament's Culture Committee, Ahmad Salek, said cases of solo singing by women and mixed singing were "very worrying." "The Culture Ministry should increase its supervision in this regard, it should pay greater attention to concerts and music albums that are released," he said.
Salek added that his committee will use all its tools to act against solo female singing, if proven.
The parliament last year questioned Culture Minister Ali Jannati over several issues, including solo female singing. Jannati was quoted in January 2014 as saying that he believed that the solo singing of women is permissible in some cases, including lullabies.
A Tehran-based journalist with a reformist daily told RFE/RL that hard-liners were increasingly creating tensions on the cultural scene to hurt Rohani. The journalist, who did not want to be named, said after the nuclear negotiations, the cultural sphere has become Rohani's "Achilles heel".
Rohani "has made many promises regarding culture, and he's managed to realize only a few of them. When concerts are canceled, musicians face problems, books don't get published, and so on, Rohani is being blamed and accused of being incompetent," the journalist said.
In recent months several concerts have been called off or canceled in a number of cities, including Shiraz and Bushehr, following pressure by hard-liners.
-- Golnaz Esfandiari