No Land’s Song: Celebrating the Iranian female voice

No Land’s Song: Celebrating the Iranian female voice

No Land’s Song: Celebrating the Iranian female voice

In his latest film No Land’s Song, Ayat Najafi follows his sister’s footsteps as she addresses the Iranian oppression of female voice.

Sarah Najafi is one of many female artists to challenge the barriers of censorship in Iran. Since the revolution in 1979, women have not been allowed to sing solo in front of a male audience. The female voice, softer and more sensual, is believed to trigger inappropriate sentiments. Women singers, as a consequence, are relegated to second tier. Their performance, unofficial and constrained, is incomplete.

But three years ago in Tehran, Sarah decided she wanted to reignite the Iranian female voice. She came up with the bold idea to organise an all-female concert, showcasing not only Iranian but also French female singers.

The film takes us through Sarah’s three-year battle against censorship, following her encounters with the Iranian Ministry of Culture, religious academics, but also local inhabitants. And as the camera pays tribute to pre-revolutionary female singers, one soon realises the musical power of the Iranian female voice. From Iranian classics to Sarah’s own compositions, the songs performed by the ensemble are powerful; the voices heart-breaking. And when Sarah walks back on the footsteps of 1920’s singer Qamar (who sang without a hijab for the first time), her emotion is certainly felt.

Beyond narrating the lives of women singers, No Land’s Song unveils the contradictions of a society.  On the one hand, local inhabitants seem to silently condemn censorship. But their fear of local authorities makes their life a constant negotiation, between the publicly allowed and the privately accepted. At the other end of the spectrum, the religious establishment seems to struggle to justify censorship: when Sarah seeks answers from a religious academic, his response – lacking any reference to Koran - appears so absurd one is tempted to laugh.

Meanwhile, Sarah’s multiple visits to the Ministry of Culture reveal the absurdities of Iranian bureaucracy - In the course of two years, Sarah’s application is rejected many times without clear reasons. And when Sarah seeks answers, she is more than encouraged to give up. But after three years of endless negotiations, and thanks to a more favourable political climate, the Ministry finally gives its approval.

No Land’s Song is powerfully emotional, also because the documentary is filmed by an Iranian, for an Iranian audience. But the presence of French singers introduces an interesting ‘western’ contrast, which highlights the film’s message even more. In one of the most powerful scenes of the film, French singer Jeanne Cheral realises how much trouble her own presence in Tehran is causing. And, as the Ministry of Culture threatens once more to cancel the concert, her humorous yet powerfully sad words resonate in the room.

‘I am sorry to see that women cause such problems; that women are such a problem all over the world. We should eradicate them’.  

Her words resonated in the audience of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, as we were watching the documentary for the first time. 


Sarah’s concert was eventually made possible by the election of a more moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, in 2013. But since No Land’s Song was filmed, the situation has not improved for women singers in Iran. Sadly, it has even become worse.


Lucile Stengel comes from Paris and currently lives in London, where she pursues a career in cultural insight. In her spare time, she is a media officer at Lensational, a non-profit aiming to empowering women through photography. Her experience with Lensational has given her a broad understanding of women empowerment issues in the developing world, and a passion for writing about social change. In addition to writing for Her Culture, Lucile is a writer contributor at Just A Platform, a collaborative newspaper based in London. 


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