The Power of the Veil - Shirin Neshat's Iran

By Tenaglia, Susan | The World and I, December 2002 | Go to article overview

The Power of the Veil - Shirin Neshat's Iran


Tenaglia, Susan, The World and I


For twenty years, acclaimed visual artist Shirin Neshat has faithfully captured the plight of everyday women in her native Iran. It is a window that offers a troublesome view.

Iranian visual artist Shirin Neshat's series of arresting photographs and cinematic meditations on her native culture have rocked the international art world for the last ten years. The acclaimed artist's insight into the current, socio-political situation in Iran is illuminated by her returning there several times after studying art at Berkeley in the late 1970s. What she's discovered is a pervasive, political, and cultural revolution brought on by the ascendance of the Ayatollah Khomeini to power in 1979. Neshat has been especially interested in the profound effect of the Iranian revolution on its women in society, which is so different from her own life.

"I'm from an upper-middle-class background," Neshat explains, adding that she came to the United States because her father placed enormous importance on education. "He sent my sister and me, but my sister returned home and, unfortunately, shortly after that, the revolution broke out. I was separated from my family for years," she adds. "This was a very difficult time for me. It was difficult adjusting to a new culture."

Khomeini's coup began as a populist revolt against the repressive, autocratic policies of the shah but quickly developed into a religious revolution that imposed a strict Islamic way of life on all Iranians. The revolution would ultimately have a powerful impact on the direction Neshat's artwork took over the next twenty years. At seventeen, she, along with thousands of other Iranians, was an exile, cut off from her native country and family for the next decade. She became, in essence, a person of two cultures--never quite comfortable with Iran's rigid, Islamic culture nor with the social isolation inherent in America's modern one. Her estrangement offered her a unique perspective and allowed her to question, challenge, and ultimately deconstruct many of the preconceived ideas held by both worlds.

In 1990, Neshat returned to Iran and was shocked by the changes the revolution had brought to women. All around her, women were covered head to toe by chadors, the required dress of Khomeini's revolution. The government, dominated by a small group of Shiite clergymen, had imposed strict social policies, including segregating women and men in public places, banning television and radio, and enforcing strict dress codes. Now considered second-class citizens, women had lost fundamental rights in both the workplace and the home.

The trip unleashed a powerful creative drive in Neshat. "That trip realigned me to Iran. It also made me want to do art, something I had stopped doing since Berkeley," she says. After that trip, Neshat returned frequently to Iran, where what she saw directly affected her first book, Women of Allah. Back in New York, Neshat began to produce sensual and elegant, black-and-white photographs depicting herself and female friends dressed in dark chadors. Often, the women are shown holding guns. Farsi poetry, reproduced in elegant Arabic calligraphy, covers their faces, hands, and any other exposed body part. Those that are titled have names like Faceless, Offered Eyes, Rebellious Silence, and Seeking Martyrdom.

The black-and-white images are disarming. Some are simply close-ups of guns nestled between a woman's hands or feet. In Faceless, a woman points the barrel of a gun directly at the viewer. Speechless, one of the most striking, is a close-up of a woman's face with the barrel of a gun peering out from beneath her veil, exactly where an earring should be dangling. The viewer is often caught off guard by the women's powerful, haunting stares. Indeed, behind their veils they've become more dangerous than anyone could have ever imagined.

In Women of Allah, Neshat examines the radical changes the revolution wrought on Islamic women. …

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