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In Iran, no men allowed at women's music fest

A folk festival in Tehran gives female performers a rare forum, but critics see it as a superficial step toward giving women an equal hearing

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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.

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