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Azadeh Fatehrad, artist
Departure Series – 1, 2015, Azadeh Fatehrad. C-Type matt print on fuji crystal archive photographic paper. 70 x 104 cm

Three women artists rewriting the troubled history of feminism in Iran

We speak to Azadeh Fatehrad, Rana Javadi, and Maryam Tafakory about the complicated history of women’s rights in Iran and how they use their work to address it

Given the socio-political and cultural restrictions in Iran, feminism is not a topic for open discussion within the country’s history. It has been a difficult subject for centuries regardless of governmental power, while in the west, the representation of Iranian women is often simplified and misunderstood. Despite this, Iran has a long history of consciousness of the role of women in society. Women’s rights organisations have been present since the beginning of the 20th century: Sediqeh Dowlatabadi’s Women’s Association of Iran was established in 1911, and the bi-weekly magazine Zaban-e Zanan (Women’s Voice) founded in 1919, which she edited, was one of a number of female-run publications advocating for women’s education and equality. During the 1970s, after many years of challenges, the Women’s Organisation in Iran eventually succeeded in winning equal rights for women in marriage and divorce, as well as legalising abortion and equal pay for work (abortion was not legalised nationwide in the United States until 1973). However, the grassroots organisations could not establish those rights within all classes of society, even though it was considered a new social code for all women of Iran. That said, much of this history about Iranian women’s rights is not acknowledged today in Iran.

“How women’s history is being represented is not accurate... I want to show how else we can look at history today... by providing a new viewpoint that is in-between those previously established” – Azadeh Fatehrad

In an exhibition that has just opened at London’s Danielle Arnaud gallery, Iranian-born, London-based artist Azadeh Fatehrad (born 1981) is exploring the history of the feminist movement in Iran through a series of multimedia installations. “What I have filmed was removed from history books when I grew up in Iran,” explains Fatehrad, adding that her work aims “to provide the viewer with the right context and the full picture”. She continues: “This is what happened to the history of feminism and I try to avoid labelling otherwise or celebrating one government over another, both Pahlavi or Islamic republic rule of conducts have been of violation towards women.” From a departure point of how the Pahlavi Dynasty (1925 – 1979) and the Islamic Revolution (1978 – 1979) have altered the way that female artists in and outside of Iran have addressed the notion of femininity, we spoke to Fatehrad as well as two other Iranian women artists based both inside – Rana Javadi – and outside of Iran – Maryam Tafakory – about how their work tackles the status of womanhood within an Iranian context.

The lead image of Fatehrad’s exhibition – titled “The Echo of Your Departures” – shows the back of what we can assume to be a young woman in Iran today, dressed in modest black clothing, with soft waves of brown hair flowing out of her scarf. She is looking out across Tehran. The image seems hopeful, full of possibility. “My whole project was about finding myself, being a woman of Iran in Britain,” says Fatehrad. “How women’s history is being represented is not accurate. It usually falls into dichotomies of divided bad/good categories. I want to show how else we can look at history today and what else can be viewed by providing a new viewpoint that is in-between those previously established.”

Following the Iranian Revolution of February 1979 – when Iran replaced an authoritarian monarchy with a theocratic republic, resulting in a death toll ranging from 2,000 to several thousand – women’s status in Iran changed dramatically. Family planning laws were abolished and a mandatory dress code was ordered, calling for all women to wear the hijab (modest clothing of veil and chador) at all times. Maryam Tafakory (born 1987), an Iranian-born, film-based artist working in London explains that her body is forbidden for being female and that her work is subject to self-censorship. Her films negotiate between factual and fictional in fractured narratives that draw on the notion of “personal as political”. She uses abstracted, textual, and symbolic motifs, analysing how they are represented on-screen. And, despite how it may be received, she still makes work in Iran. “I often perform in sites where I’m forbidden to enter and feel most vulnerable, in danger or in fear,” she says. “My filmic work, similar to my own self and body, is constantly in this perpetual in-between-ness, where neither of us is able to depart from Iran, nor can ever arrive in the UK.” In Absent Wound (2018), Tafakory presents the visual voice of a woman resisting exclusion. Recorded within a Zoorkhuneh – an ancient Persian strength training room full of men – a woman’s voice is superimposed in text and hums, yet the viewer never sees her. In the Zoorkhuneh, men push their bodies to their limits, and within the film, Tafakory shows blood around the feet of the unseen woman, a monthly reminder of the view that the female body’s only purpose is for reproduction – however the blood here is employed as a way to resist that reading. The work depicts the dichotomy between two separate spaces, yet shares a sense of coming to terms with corporeality and pain.

This dichotomy – the display of women that are pulled towards and away from Iran and its attitudes towards women – is also expressed in the work of Iranian-born and based artist Rana Javadi (born 1953). Having lived through the Revolution, Javadi takes objects and images from history and combines them into photographic collages. Within the series Once Upon a Time (2005), photographs of women, poems, and dried flowers are pictured together, evoking nostalgia for what Javadi describes as “the years that got wasted in the socially turbulent years”. She explains that she was not given permission to photograph war, so she started to construct photos instead of taking them. She uses images from archives, as she feels more connected to the past rather than the chaotic uncertainty of the present time. “Time and distance provide a new perspective,” she says. “I wanted to reflect on a certain time in my life through the prism of this new light so that my memories break away and live on in this new context.”

“My filmic work, similar to my own self and body, is constantly in this perpetual in-between-ness, where neither of us is able to depart from Iran, nor can ever arrive in the UK” – Maryam Tafakory

The Islamic Revolution’s impact on women is often misunderstood and misrepresented in the west. Within Fatehrad’s, Javadi’s, and Tafakory’s work, each artist illustrates a multifaceted relationship with Iran’s idea of what a woman should be, how she should act, and what she would look like. The idea that women are totally subservient to men is not completely true. During the Revolution, women were among those rising up against the monarchy, some wore the veil as a symbol of resistance to the Shah, while others used them to conceal leaflets and weapons. Since the Revolution and the shift on how women should act in public, women are also working to better their status within Iranian society. “It’s not welcomed to consider feminist and women’s rights activities,” explains Fatehrad. “But there are different sorts of women’s rights. Covering is not a good thing when enforced, but actually, it empowered a lot of women to go to work to become major figures in politics and society since 1979. Every major politician has a woman on board to investigate women’s issues. So there is no dichotomy as such, it has its own scale. There is no bad and good, there is only in between today if we just try to see the full picture.” Part of Fatehrad’s films include interviews with feminists – including Shahin Nawai who created the National Unity of Women’s Associations during the 1979 uprising – asking these women why, in most cases, they were forced to flee Iran. “When you do research you realise OK, it also has the other side, it’s good to refer to it at least”, explains Fatehrad, “So we give the audience both sides, they can decide and think about how to judge (the situation). Both sides can be looked at.”

The female body and the concept of feminism is not something to be celebrated within Iran, and it is not understood outside it, but these artists are offering a new way of looking, rather than a big umbrella of misrepresented news information. “There are many histories of a place,” says Fatehrad. “But as artists, we have tried to shed light on a narrative which is intertwined by personal experiences and curiosities to introduce new ways of looking at feminist history in Iran.”