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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And Iranian musicians and artists have been fleeing their homeland in search of creative freedom. Some have gone just across the border to the more open Kurdistan region of northern Iraq. As Roxana Saberi reports, one Iranian singer made an exceptionally difficult decision - to be free as a musician, she chose to leave her young children behind.

HANI: (Foreign language spoken)

(APPLAUSE)

ROXANA SABERI, BYLINE: She calls herself Hani. She's petite, around five-foot-two, with long, brown hair that bounces when she prances across a stage at Kurdistan TV.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLAPPING AND MUSIC)

SABERI: But her voice, as she performs for this studio audience, is powerful.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

HANI: (Singing in foreign language)

SABERI: Growing up in Iran, Hani learned to sing traditional Iranian music. Eventually, she formed a group with other Iranian women and they started singing in shows. Iran's Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance allowed them to perform only on one condition:

HANI: (Through Translator) Every time we did our work, it was only for women. We didn't even have permission to take pictures, to take photos to keep for ourselves.

SABERI: In the Islamic Republic, a woman usually is not allowed to sing solos in public, unless she performs for an all-female audience and is accompanied by an all-female band. Strict rules are in place for women singing to mixed-gender audiences. The reason, some conservative Muslims say, is that a woman's voice can arouse improper sexual thoughts in men.

HANI: (Through Translator) For our people, it wasn't tolerable for a woman to sing. And when the most beautiful things - melodies and songs - are prohibited in a country, this means beauty is prohibited there.

SABERI: So in 2004, Hani fled her homeland, with one small suitcase and many big dreams. She flew to Germany and never returned.

HANI: (Through Translator) After three months in Germany, I performed on TV and then I took part in a lot of international music festivals.

SABERI: Now she has moved to Kurdistan, the semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

SABERI: Most people here are ethnic Kurds, like Hani, who sings in Kurdish. From here, it's only a three-hour drive to the Iranian border.

HANI: (Singing in foreign language)

SABERI: But on this side of the border, Hani feels free to make music about earthly love and freedom, subjects typically scorned by Iran's Islamic regime.

IBRAHIM SALIH: Not just Hani, many of Kurdish songers(ph), maybe Kurdish artists not just from Iran. It's from Iran, from Syria, from Turkey, and they coming to here. They participate in programs.

SABERI: Ibrahim Salih is a manager at Kurdistan TV.

SALIH: Anybody want to come and sing, OK, you're welcome. Want to make concert? OK, you're welcome, we have not a problem.

SABERI: Still, Hani found some resistance to her style here.

(SOUNDBITE OF A CALL TO PRAYER)

SABERI: A few years ago, she was a judge on the show "Superstar," the local version of "American Idol." She says her candor shocked some viewers.

HANI: (Through Translator) They'd never seen a woman on TV tell a man, you don't have a voice, get out. They used to write, she should leave Iraq, have her head cut off, she's bad for our culture. But later they'd say, no, she's only being honest. The others are telling lies.

SABERI: Hani says she feels safe here in northern Iraq, an area known for stability and security. But she still has plenty of fans back home in Iran. She says she doesn't regret her decision to leave her native land. But when asked what she left behind there, her eyes grow teary

HANI: (Through Translator) I left behind my two children. My love for music wasn't letting me live calmly as a mother and in my own family. There was something bigger on my mind - not that I just be a mother of two kids, but something much, much bigger.

SABERI: Now that her children are older, she says, they understand.

HANI: (Through Translator) They realize that if their mother left them alone, it wasn't because of them, but because she had a duty to share a message through her music and lyrics. I'm just at the start of this path.

SABERI: Hani hopes her latest song takes her farther down that path. She says it's about a woman who doesn't give up her struggle to be beautiful when beauty is banned.

For NPR News, I'm Roxana Saberi, in Erbil, Iraq.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

HANI: (Singing in foreign language)

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION.

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