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Special Features

Iranian Women you Should Know: Mahsa Vahdat

August 20, 2015
5 min read

Global and Iranian history are both closely intertwined with the lives and destinies of prominent figures. Every one of them has laid a brick on history’s wall, sometimes paying the price with their lives, men and women alike. Women have been especially influential in the past 200 years, writing much of contemporary Iranian history.

In Iran, women have increased public awareness about gender discrimination, raised the profile of and improved women’s rights, fought for literacy among women, and promoted the social status of women by counteracting religious pressures, participating in scientific projects, being involved in politics, influencing music, cinema... And so the list goes on.

This series aims to celebrate these renowned and respected Iranian women. They are women who represent the millions of women that influence their families and societies on a daily basis. Not all of the people profiled in the series are endorsed by IranWire, but their influence and impact cannot be overlooked. The articles are biographical stories that consider the lives of influential women in Iran.

IranWire readers are invited to send in suggestions for how we might expand the series. Contact IranWire via email ([email protected]), on Facebook, or by tweeting us.

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Mahsa Vahdat is a singer who lives in a country that bans women singers from performing in public. Despite this, she has persisted in her advocacy of free expression and has performed concerts in the West, sometimes singing Iranian melodies and poems along with Western musicians.

In June 2015, after she and her sister Marjan appeared on stage in London with a trio led by Scottish fiddler Duncan Chisholm, the newspaper the Guardian wrote: “This was an intriguing meeting of musicians from two very different cultures...They had only an hour to rehearse together, but their treatment of a rebellious love song by the 14th-century poet Hafez sounded both exquisite and unexpectedly contemporary...It’s those qualities that make the Vahdat sisters so special. They still live in Iran, despite their country’s interpretation of Islamic law, which bans women singers from public performances except to all-female audiences. But they can travel to sing outside the country, and this gently powerful performance showed why they have become ambassadors for Iranian culture.”

Mahsa Vahdat was born in October 1973 in Iran. Her musical style is inspired by Iranian classic and folk music but she gives it a contemporary expression. Her lyrics combine modern-day Iranian poetry and classical poets such as Rumi, Khayyam and Hafez.

She was 14 when started learning piano and the Iranian string instrument setar. She then studied singing with Pari Maleki and Mehdi Fallah. In 1993, she studied at the Tehran School of Fine Arts and completed a Bachelor’s degree in Music.

Vahdat has worked as a professional singer since 1995, despite the fact that her live performances are so restricted in Iran. She has performed at international festivals in Europe, the United States, Africa and Asia, including at Sacro Monte di Varallo, a fifteenth-century church in Italy.

Because of the Iranian diaspora’s enthusiasm for her work, Mahsa Vahdat can easily make a living outside the country, but she continues to live in Iran and teaches singing to women. She also introduces talented young singers to international festivals and is currently recording an album of music by Iranian women singers from Iran.  

She has recorded several albums, mostly with her sister Marjan, including Songs from a Persian Garden and, in 2015, Traces of an Old Vineyard. She has recorded two albums with American soul and blues singer Mighty Sam McClain, who died in June 2015.

In 2004, Mahsa and Marja Vahdat contributed an Iranian lullaby to Lullabies from the Axis of Evil, a collection of lullabies from mostly Middle Eastern countries produced by the Norwegian music producer Erik Hillestad as a reaction to President George W. Bush’s famous “Axis of Evil” speech. Mahsa Vahdat continued her cooperation with the Norwegian music producer and many of her albums and concerts have been the result of this cooperation.

Since 2007 she has been a representative of Freemuse, a Danish-based organization that advocates freedom of expression for musicians and composers. In 2010 she shared Freemuse Award with a Turkish singer.

“I hope the music scene in Iran eventually changes so that everybody will be able perform with no restrictions, with equal rights, and without asking for a permission from the cultural ministry,” she said in an interview. “ True Art comes from human’s most sincere emotions, and it should have all the freedom.”

In 2011 Mahsa and Marjan Vahdat won the Independent Music Award (IMA) for their album Twinkling of Hope.

“I always think that if I were to be born again, I would like to be a woman again and a singer again, even if conditions were even more difficult,” she told IranWire, talking about her decision to be a singer in the Islamic Republic. “I have always been happy to be a female singer. I am grateful for it and no obstacle can stop me from singing. On stage I feel absolutely free and I am grateful to music for having provided me with the possibility of experiencing a beautiful world. I am happy that the light of Iranian music is still shining, even in its darkest period.”


Also in the series:

50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Jinous Nemat Mahmoudi

50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Simin Behbahani

50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Forough Farrokhzad

50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Parvin Etesami

50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Farokhru Parsa

50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Jamileh Sadeghi

50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Fatemeh Daneshvar

50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Fatemeh Moghimi

50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Googoosh

50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Sima Bina

50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Tahereh Qurratu'l-Ayn

50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Farah Pahlavi

50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Pardis Sabeti


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