When a naqqal takes his short cane (choobdast) and maneuvers the stage singing and declaiming, his re-enactment of the heroes and champions of the Persian folklore mesmerizes the audience. Although the minimalist setting and the audience’s familiarity with the stories may suggest otherwise, a naqqal’s mastery of movement and vocal changes blurs the boundaries of fiction and reality, and takes the viewers to the world of myth.
However, when the naqqal is a woman, her breath-taking performance of heroines of Shahnameh shocks the community and redefines the Islamic stage rules.
There is no doubt that naqqali empowers the Naqqal for a variety of reasons: 1) being a solo-performance, naqqali requires the naqqal to perform a variety of male and female characters, and thus physical and vocal adeptness is necessary, 2) the location of the performance, a street or a coffeehouse as opposed to a theatre building (in traditional settings) requires a vast knowledge of the community and its cultural interests, as well as a high ability for improvisation to meet the audience’s requests, 3) getting the audience’s attention and sustaining their interest in the performance requires the naqqal to engage the viewers through eye-contact, addressing individuals among the audience, or making references to relevant social issues.
Investigating the characteristics of naqqali sheds light on the masculinity of this art form in a culture with strong religious roots, regardless of the state’s policies towards religion at any given time. Therefore, it seems only natural that a theocratic government, such as that of the Islamic Republic of Iran, would set more restrictions on female public performance. It is true that the Islamic government has never prohibited actresses from appearing on stage and yet, it has disallowed women’s singing or dancing in public. Indeed through censoring the details of the productions, the performative arts’ boundaries have been redefined.
It is in this social context that the appearance of young women naqqals on public stages in Iran seems revolutionary. The scarcity of female naqqals throughout history, and their emergence within the past decade, is the topic of my discussion. The media has called Fatemeh Habibi Zad (also known as Gordafarid) the first female naqqal in Iranian history, or at least in Iran after the revolution. In this paper, I will reflect on Habibi Zad’s fascinating experience as a naqqal, and the audience’s reception of her work. But more so, I will analyze her claiming power and identity in a culture that has stigmatized female self-expression and autonomy, and the ways in which naqqali has been rendered into an opportunity for women, within the boundaries of religion and cultural taboos.