Googoosh, the myth
Decoding a popular phenomenon
May 17, 2001
From "Googoosh on tour: Decoding a popular Iranian Myth"
by Setareh Sabety, published in the winter 2001 issue of the Journal of the International Institute
of the University of Michigan. Sabety is a PhD candidate at Boston University,
researching the House of Uzes in France during the Wars of Religion.
This past July the Iranian pop diva Googoosh left Iran
for the first time in 21 years. She came to North America to sing again
after two decades of being silenced by the Islamic regime in Iran that prohibits
all non-religious singing by women. Her arrival with the tacit approval
of at least the more moderate faction of the government and her consequent
concert tour and new CD caused an uproar within the Iranian exile community
quite disproportionate to even her considerable popularity in pre-revolution
Never having been a great fan of this Iranian star, but having a great
interest in Iranian popular culture of the Pahlavi era, I attended her concert
in New York's Nassau Coliseum. The concert was more like a collective Roezeh-khani
(1), a tearful cleansing bash, sort of like an EST personal
growth meeting with 12,000 people crying all at once.
Witnessing the tears shed by the dentist from Connecticut, the taxi driver
from Queens, the teenager who left Iran when she was two and the grandmother
who still speaks no English, I asked myself what is it about Googoosh that
can unite us and define us at the same time? In other words how has she
become a myth? Female pop singers in Iran are a relatively new phenomena.
Public singing by women emerged from the tradition of
Roezeh-khani which, with the constitutional revolution of 1906 and the lifting
of the veil by Reza Shah, evolved into more open and public performances
of classical singing by women. The genre of classical music that was traditionally
performed by men emerged as a medium for women to perform without the veil
The pioneering women singers gained fame through the depth and breath
of their voice and the correct rendering of their songs, as well as the
fact that they were women with enough guts to perform in public. Female
classical singers were mostly respected because they could achieve musical
perfection within a male genre. Until fairly recently the best compliment
given to a female diva was that she could sing "like a man." (2)
Another musical genre was Iranian popular music, which
came out of the brothel and gained mass appeal, first through radio and
later, film. These songs were usually lewd to varying degrees and appealed
to a stratum of male society who had the "lutis" or Robin Hood
thugs at the top of their hierarchy.
The luti provided protection and charity for women, children and the
weak. They acquired an image of generosity and no-nonsense down-to-earthness
that turned the term "luti" into a broadly used adjective that
combined arak and prayer, violence and charity, homosexual behavior and
devotion to family with an ease whose comprehension needs a more nuanced
language to understand than our ever-dichotomizing, simplifying, scientific
modern day English.
This type of popular Iranian female singer was also praised in male terms
and was often described as a luti. Her generosity and valor (expressed through
actual acts of charity and the fearless sexual flaunting of her body) made
her one of the good thugs. In this way she could be in the company of men
and sing and dance in revealing clothes but never demean herself. By the
very crossing of gender lines in her behavior the luti/woman singer was
above the written and unwritten law of female behavior. (3)
Googoosh, whose real name is Faegheh Atashin, was very
different from both the classical and the Iranian popular singers that preceded
her. She was at once very Western and more modern than any female singer
before her was. Born in 1950, she started her career as a child star performing
with her acrobat father, who raised her after her parents divorced. She
won the hearts of her audiences by her ability to sing and dance and entertain.
She was a kind of Iranian Shirley Temple who grew up to become Madonna.
Googoosh had and still has an ability to adapt and change with time and
age. From early on she had a great talent for imitation. Early footage of
her as a child shows her dancing in the style of the "luti" with
the signature tilted hat and a fake moustache to boot! She also preformed
quite convincing imitations of Cossack, Indian, Spanish and Iranian tribal
This early career in doing imitations helped her greatly when she became
a full-fledged adult star and perfected the art of taking what is Western
or foreign and making it her own. Despite all the copying that went on,
Googoosh miraculously remained Googoosh both in sound and in look. With
the growing importance of television and the advent of glossy magazines,
her uncanny grasp of the importance of her image along with her ability
to co-opt Western music made Googoosh appealing to the masses.
Whereas before both the classical female singer and the vulgar cabaret
singer appealed mainly to men, Googoosh appealed also to the growing and
increasingly educated female audiences. She appealed most to the second-generation
be-hejab (without veil) women who had at least a high school education and
were entering the work force and public life in increasing numbers.
Her music was shamelessly pastiche and heavily synthesized and orchestrated.
She sang happy songs in the Italian pop style of the sixties (Khalvat)
and love songs in the style of French singer Mireille Mattiew and rock songs
in English (like Carol King's "Its too late"). She had what was
considered a modern sound and an extraordinary ability to accompany it with
Although she repeatedly and enthusiastically sang in other languages,
her big hits were all in a modern, simple but poetic Farsi that bestowed
a certain classiness to the female desire that she expressed. The orchestrated,
sythensized Western-style music and the modern poetry (shaer-e-nowe) along
with her gestures, which were at once bold and restrained, provided a new
language within which female sexuality and desire could be expressed without
fear of sinking into vulgarity.
Googoosh sang of women's desires and their longing in
a new musical genre that was different enough from tradition to be nonoffensive.
Of course, all of this was very much in line with the policies of the Pahlavi
regime vis-a-vis women. If the Islamic Republic used the veiling of women
as a symbol of its rejection of the West, the Pahlavi regime used the unveiling
and liberating of women as a symbol of its progress towards modernity and
its desire to be equal in stature to the Western nations. There was a growing
resentment, which eventually turned into revolutionary fervor, felt by women
who saw the doors of professional and social advancement closed to them
because they still wore the veil. (5)
Googoosh served the ancien regime well. She was always more about
fashion than revolution. She stood for the very limited but nevertheless
real freedom to wear what one wants, to do one's hair any way one wants,
to be unashamed of one's sexuality. After all, it was only some 20 years
before Googoosh was born that the veil had been lifted (in most cases forcibly)
by Reza Shah. It is not just coincidence that Googoosh's name became a household
term describing her immensely popular and ever imitated Twiggy/boyish haircut.
To cut your hair Googooshy in Iran meant to cut it short like a boy.
That haircut signified rather obviously the doing away with the very
raison d'etre of hejab (the arousing quality of female hair). It
also embodied a tomboy quality that connoted a certain freedom of movement
(similar to the tampon ads of the 70s in the U.S. that showed women riding
bare backed horses). Googoosh's body also represented a new ideal for women.
Svelte, with fewer curves than most Iranian women, her figure was considered
more chic because it fit better in French designer clothes. But it also
allowed for a mix of Persian and Western style dancing on stage that, while
daring and free moving, avoided being erotic.
Her nose, too, was small-like that of a farangi (foreigner), the
highest aesthetic compliment one can still give an Iranian woman. So even
her physique was considered modern and Western, terms that were inter-changeable
during those heady years that witnessed a rise in oil revenue equal to what
some regarded as the growing permissiveness in society.
A good way to see how the image of women changed in Iran during Googoosh's
career is to study her films. In her very first movie, "Feresheteh-ye-Farrari"
(Runaway Angel), Googoosh plays the neglected daughter of a rich and spoiled
mother who is an obsessive gambler, and a loving father who is an engineer.
The message is that women should stay with their husbands and their children
because without them they are lost to decadence.
Twenty-plus years later in "Dar Emtedad-e Shab" (At Night's
End), Googoosh plays a mature, fashionably dressed singer who falls in love
with a young high school-age boy. When she realizes that her lover is terminally
ill, she gives up everything in an ill-fated attempt to take him to the
West for medical help. Here she exhibits the old luti sense of generosity
but with a new sexual valor and independence.
If Googoosh was a great pop idol before the Revolution of '79, she has
now become an icon, a legend, a myth. Her North American tour, which is
being billed as "one historic performance" where she "sings
after 21 years," has attracted 10 -12 thousand people per performance.
The tickets range from 35 to 250 dollars. Most concerts sell out the highest
priced tickets first. A web-search of her name produces some 600-plus sites
devoted to her. "Googoosh.com," which was created by some of her
techy fans in the U.S. two years ago and has a large archive of fan letters begging
her to come to the West and perform, had over six million hits in August
In Iran her clandestinely disseminated films and tape are enjoying a
revival. For ex-patriot Iranians, who squirmed at image after image of angry,
bearded Iranians screaming "Death to America" on prime-time TV,
the Googoosh tour was a multiple blessing. It provided us with a new image
of ourselves. Now the world could see in pictures in the media, in reputable
publications such as the The New York Times, Le Monde and The
Washington Post, that another type of Iranian exists, one that is well
dressed and beautiful and successful. We can now say, "see we have
a star that 'can make it' in the American sense." We can reserve a
Compaq Center an MCI Center or a Nassau Coliseum and fill it with beautiful
dresses and well-coifed hairdos.
There is a great need to identify ourselves as "other" to those
Hezbollah mobs on the streets of Tehran. More importantly, the myth of Googoosh
has provided us with a positive view of our Westernized identity. We have
lost the guilt we felt about it after the revolution. Having successfully
co-opted what was considered "Western," we are no longer ashamed
In fact, what seemed like a naïve and blatant embrace of Western
fashions in the 70s has become a way to resist an oppressive regime. Men
wear ties and women wear lipstick as an act of defiance in Iran. In these
20 years a quiet "lipstick feminism" which Googoosh epitomizes
has stubbornly resisted the regime. The fact that going to the concert is
considered seditious by the hard-liners was not lost on most Iranians in
the audience. The loudest applause comes when she utters her desire to give
a concert, some day, in Iran.
The Googoosh myth is now more relevant than ever before. The right to
wear what one wants is quickly endowed with significance the minute someone
is arrested for doing so. Twenty-one years after the return of Khomeini
women can still be imprisoned and whipped if they disregard the strict Islamic
dress code. Women still cannot sing non-religious songs. Any act of listening
to a female singer is perhaps, more than ever in our history, a seditious
punishable act. Boys and girls can be arrested for even walking with a person
of the opposite sex who is not a close relative.
The biggest show of opposition to the Islamic regime has come from students
in Ira -- when they revolted in a show of support for the reform-promising
Khatami. When he refused to help the students who were beaten, killed or
imprisoned, he lost much of his support. It is almost as if the power-wielding
clerics are as oblivious to sitting on a time bomb as the Shah had been
before them. A government can no more de-Westernize by force than it can
Westernize by force.
These past two decades of silencing Googoosh have turned her into an
indigenous force. History has rendered her a powerful myth. If before she
signified a new Western identity, she now signifies an identity that exists
in our own past. It is as if we Iranians have devoured the West and digested
it. All that remains is a little aftertaste -- the rest is we. If Googoosh
in the seventies provided a way to oppose a husband or father now she has
become a way to oppose the regime.
1 -- Religious songs about Imam Hossien's martyrdom preformed in a unisex
gathering in which all attendee's are expected to mourn. Also see article by Peter Chelkowski
on this subject. to top
2 -- For a good essay on the history of female singing in Iran see Chahabi,
H.E. "Voices Unveiled: Women Singers in Iran" in Iran
and Beyond: Essays in Middle Eastern History in Honor of Nikki R.
Keddi, Mazda publishers, (2000): p151-166. to top
3 -- Chahabi discusses the generosity of Mahvash
(Ibid,p.161). He does not touch on what I consider equally important in
the luti paradigm: valor. Mahvash was considered to be daring. That along
with her generosity is what qualified her in popular view as a luti. to top
4 -- The fact that Iran never had any copyright laws helped and still
does, in the unabashed borrowing and in the illegal copying and disseminating
of music and video that helped Googoosh, then as now, to reach a large number
of people. to top
5 -- See Zan-e-Rouz, Tehran (1976): "do
nameh as dokhtaran chadori," in which two letters signed anonymously
complain about the magazine's constant effort to degrade the veiled woman.
I am grateful to Jahanshah Javid for pointing out this letter and much more
about Googoosh which appeared on his website, " Iranian.com".