A culture of resistance: Iranian women's revolution is a fine art

Recent protests sparked by the murder of Mahsa Amini demonstrate the power of Iranian women and their long legacy of combatting oppression

Recent protests sparked by the murder of Mahsa Amini demonstrate the power of Iranian women and their long legacy of combatting oppression
Eduardo Ramon
Recent protests sparked by the murder of Mahsa Amini demonstrate the power of Iranian women and their long legacy of combatting oppression

A culture of resistance: Iranian women's revolution is a fine art

The Iranian women's revolution against the mullahs' regime signals something new and different and is sparking the interest of observers.

The revolution which spontaneously erupted without a leader is the cumulative effect of years — if not decades — of grievances, marking a tectonic shift in the rhetoric and manner of expressing dissent in Iran.

Nationwide protests saw the emergence of a new player that has organically imposed itself on the scene, poured into streets, seeped into homes, and even served as spokesperson. In short, this new player represents a new chapter in the country’s history and can only be perceived as a pure work of art which transcends politics, sociology, and economics to directly make the impossible possible.

Women's access to the public sphere in Iran was utterly intolerable because it challenged all rules and sense. It was regarded as utter madness and out of bounds by all structures of society and its powers. 

The trinity of ‘women, life, freedom,’ voiced by the protesting youth, is far from a tactic in politics; it rejects any attempt at negotiation and disregards promises, for it targets the impossible and aims to make it possible. This art is powerful.

The lethal force approach adopted to crack down on widespread protests leaves no room for calculations. Protesting against a regime starts from the endpoint, meaning that Iranian women have looked beyond the killing and torture, put the mullahs’ world and culture behind them, and have their eyes set on the future.

Protesting against a regime starts from the endpoint, meaning that Iranian women have looked beyond the killing and torture, put the mullahs' world and culture behind them, and have their eyes set on the future. 

The foundational discourse for this future was made by generations of Iranian women intellectuals from the pre-mullah era. In the Pahlavi era, alleged 'liberalist' forces attempted to extend the powers of the military while restricting public freedoms by granting the people minimal social freedom — but it came at a cost:  the suppression of cultural and political freedoms.  

This deceptive trick benefited from conservatist currents which advocated against the presence of women in the public and private spheres and made cultural expression a cost that many could not bear. 

Decades of oppression, from the time of the Shah to the Vilayet al Faqih, have contributed to Iranian women's rich and unique cultural tapestry — one that turned them into leaders of singing, art, poetry and cinema across the globe.  

This culminated in the spectacle of death for the sake of freedom, which was perpetuated by the brutal killing of Mahsa Amini who became the cultural personification of the idea of choosing death over oppression.  

A woman holds up a sign depicting a picture of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, an Iranian woman who died in the custody of Iranian authorities, during a solidarity demonstration in Syria's northeastern city of Hasakeh on September 25.

Mahsa's death has been so moving and symbolic, that the mere mention of her name, or the raising of her photo, unleashes such raw emotion and conviction that even her murderers find frightening. 

Recent inspiring events sparked by Mahsa's killing demonstrate the power of Iranian women. The rest of this article highlights a handful of exceptional Iranian women who have contributed to the country's rich cultural tapestry and served as role models for younger generations to aspire to. 

Forugh Farrokhzad (1934-1967): The 'Everyday' as a Revolutionary Discovery 

Just as workers did not exist before Marx, the days of Iranians did not exist before the poetry of Forugh Farrokhzad and were certainly not the same after her. In other words, the foundation of things leads to their existence, and any existence that is not structurally founded in semantics and lacks a specified definition is as good as non-existent. 

Farrokhzad did not found the days of the Iranians with a cold theory, but she rather made those days visible, clear, and highlighted by dint of a captivating, solid, and transparent simplicity. She invited Iranians to compose such a simplicity, alerted them to its existence, and encouraged them to defend it as if it was their headlines, their biography, and their faces.  

She drew it for them with seductive clarity. She made the personal public and the public personal and unleashed the body into the space of Iranian life besieged by militarism and patriarchy. She promoted the values of fun, pleasure, and sarcasm, and inserted them into everything. 

She did not overlook cruelty, instead, she made it softer and gave it a voice. She used it to fight the silence imposed on Iranians, in general, and women, in particular. 

By defending the poetics of meaning, she built a world where words can only gain legitimacy under the shadows of a cause, and she chose the 'everyday' as the collector of all the causes that she defended in everything she wrote. 

The titles of her four poetry collections issued during her captive-like life, The Wall, Disobedience, Rebirth, and Let Us Believe in the Beginning of the Cold Season, issued after her death in a car accident, reveal that she was keen on portraying private feelings and emotions as a biography of the country, which was inspired by her concerns and personal life.  

She said in an interview, "I believe in being a poet at all times. To be a poet is to be human." 

I believe in being a poet at all times. To be a poet is to be human. 

Iranian poet Forugh Farrokhzad

The impact that she left behind is profound as she succeeded in transforming love, desires, feelings, and body affairs into public discourse, and incorporating them into the everyday culture in a language that avoids the unwanted burden of too many poetic images, rhetoric, and embellishments and goes straight to the point. 

An excerpt from the poem Someone Who Is Not Like Anyone: 

I had a dream that someone is coming. 

I've dreamt of a red star, 

and my eyelids keep twitching 

and my shoes keep snapping to attention 

and may I go blind 

if I'm lying. 

I've dreamt of that red star 

when I wasn't asleep. 

Someone is coming, 

someone is coming 

someone better, 

how great it is to ride around the square, 
how great it is to sleep on the roof, 
how great going to Melli Park is, 
how good going to taste Pepsi is 
how wonderful Fardin's movies are, 
and how I like all good things. 
why doesn't my father 
who isn't this small 
and who doesn't get lost on the streets 
do something so that the person 
who has appeared in my dreams 
will speed up his arrival? 
And the people in the slaughter-house 
where even the earth in their gardens 
is bloody 
and even the water in their courtyard pools 
is bloody 
and even their shoe soles are bloody, 
why don't they do something? 
how lazy the winter sunshine is. 

I've swept the stairs to the roof 
and I've washed the windows too. 
How come father has to dream 
Only in his sleep? 

This celebration of the 'ordinary' revolutionised both Iran's cultural life and poetry. The poet became one of the most prominent pioneers of this trend that transformed into a cultural genre invading poetic writing everywhere. It even became the title of a phase of rupture with traditional structures, methods, and meanings. It was a push towards inspiring poetry from life, instead of transcending life. 

Poetry in Iran was no longer the discourse of an isolated self. Instead, each poem was an expression of oneself and reproduced itself through different places and people, making poetry a collective product. 

In all of her published conversations, Forugh defended the poetics of awareness, attention, and observation by examining places and becoming a part of events. She succeeded in creating for herself a female voice with an Iranian identity and features that did not echo the voices of well-known poets or copy their experiences, but rather she created a voice of her own.  

Simple actions like drinking Pepsi, watching a movie, walking, or sleeping on the roof became acts of rebellion, and disobedience aimed at discovering the city became a prelude to owning it. 

The wonder surrounding these ordinary actions turns them into usable miracles received with love and perceived as beautiful. It seems that 50 years after her death, she is saluting the revolutionary Iranian women who colour the human space to make everything possible. 

We see her inspiring her father and other demoralised people to fight for freedom and turn the dream into a continuous and active rejection. 

Her mission — as she reflected in her poetry and manifested in her life, biography, and legacy —was to sweep the stairs leading to the roof to make the ascent into the light possible. She even washed the windows to prepare Iran to receive that light. 

Googoosh (1950-present): The Desired Iran 

Iranian exiles flock to all the countries where iconic Iranian singer Googoosh holds her concerts for a glimpse of the Iran that they desire. Googoosh was presented as a cultural icon of Iran during her concert at Dubai Expo in early 2022 — an invitation that outraged Iranian authorities whose relentless efforts to prevent her appearance failed. 

Iran's pop diva Googoosh performs at the World Trade Center in Dubai 21 March 2001.

Born in 1950, Googoosh succeeded in showcasing Iran's cultural scene through singing. She was forced to give up singing for almost 20 years following the Islamic Revolution in Iran and until she left Iran in 2000. She was even imprisoned for a month. 

Googoosh once said in an interview that she had been sentenced to death, but her connections and status probably prevented the execution of the death penalty — a fate that many leading Iranian intellectuals and artists failed to escape. 

Her image engraved in the Iranian popular memory is unrivaled and her songs enjoy popularity in Iran and elsewhere. She is, perhaps, Iran's timeless icon with worldwide fame. The Iranian regime views Googoosh as a threat because she is internationally recognised, appreciated, and respected and is an icon that most Iranians admire.  

She paints the image of a country with a broad and rooted culture that is connected to, and interactive with, the world through the homeland and places she describes in her songs and the network of feelings she expresses.  

The general discourse of Googoosh's songs automatically raises the idea of directly or indirectly delegitimising the Iranian regime because this discourse describes and celebrates the essence of what that regime seeks to hide and ban, including places, feelings, and the body. In her songs, space embraces freedom. Its spacious and welcoming characteristics prevent it from ever becoming a crime scene. 

Conversely, the generalisation of 'ugliness' was imposing a culture of turning a blind eye and disabling senses, whereby avoidance and refraining from interaction became a general defensive mechanism that travels from the senses to the mind to stifle any desire for critical thinking or contemplating the world.  

Googoosh established a discourse that fights ugliness and promotes the idea of living life to the fullest. Murderers are frightened by those who defend the smallest and simplest details because they are well aware that acquiring these simple details would empower them. 

The meeting of lovers, a quest for beauty and hope, and an emphasis on the strength, charm, and energy of femininity dominate the general themes of Googoosh's songs. In 2018, she chose to directly confront the regime in "Forty Years" — a song she released with singer Siavash Ghomayshi, which speaks of the passing of 40 years since the Islamic Revolution, a nightmare that continues to haunt the Iranian people.  

In 2018, Googoosh chose to directly confront the regime in "Forty Years" — a song she released with singer Siavash Ghomayshi, which speaks of the passing of 40 years since the Islamic Revolution, a nightmare that continues to haunt the Iranian people. 

The song describes how people have changed after the revolution and children were taken away, "it is painful to see how they deprived you of your right and how your child is kidnapped from the alley before your eyes."  

Nonetheless, she believes that imprisoned people will eventually be released, and their freedom will be regained. This song foreshadowed protests that are exploding in every corner of Iran today. Googoosh even took part in these protests by giving them a voice and anthem. 

Samira Makhmalbaf (1980-present): Writing the Woman  

Iranian filmmakers have created a unique type of cinema in the face of the regime's intimidation and suppression tactics. This cinema is based on creating an extensive network of symbols and connotations, with minimum flashiness and technology. 

The protagonists of this cinema are people, places, and even animals that are depicted as the bearers of, and associated with, human destiny. 

Women in this cinema have played the role of the maker and founder through generations of Iranian directors and actresses who have succeeded in tearing down the walls of prohibition and reaching universality.  

Born in 1980, Samira Makhmalbaf enjoys a prominent status — particularly in this world of cinema. She succeeded in making films that benefit from all the experiences accumulated by Iranian cinema by developing them and introducing them to different contexts. 

Documentation in this cinema encompasses writing down women's biographies, defending their presence, and monitoring their influence and destinies. It represents the origin from which everything emanates and on which every meaning, function, or symbol relies. 

Iranian director Samira Makhmalbaf receives the San Sebastian International Film Festival's Special Jury Prize for her film "Asbe du-pa" (Two Legged Horse), on September 27, 2008.

In the cinema of Samira Makhmalbaf, scenes, texts, and technical and visual choices speak for women in Iran and the region, no matter how immersed they are in their surrealism, characterising her films as priceless documents that address history through art, enrich it, and highlight what is intended to disappear and dissipate to engrave it in our memory and shield us from oblivion. 

Her film At Five in the Afternoon borrows its title from a poem by the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca. The film was shot in Afghanistan after the Taliban was ousted from power. The director monitored a space that had become arid and imposed itself on existence and life. This arid or naked space constitutes a tragic and ironic contrast to the existing veil culture imposed by Taliban and continued after it. 

It also tells the story of the general wandering nature of people due to the lack of means of subsistence. The woman, represented by Nogreh, and her sister-in-law, who both live with Nogreh's father, go on a journey in search of any means to prevent their death from starvation and coldness. These conditions highlight the contradiction between the old and the new through traditional and modern education. 

In traditional education settings, girls learn the Quran in an atmosphere of tradition that imposes uniform dress and slippers.  

The atmosphere is different in modern education settings represented by the school that was depicted as a more progressive institution where Nogreh could wear women's shoes as a sign of a rite of passage from the era of indoctrination to the era of learning, and from the masculinity of traditional education to the femininity of the school that allows female students to answer this untraditional question: Who is the woman that you want to see as the president of the country? 

Nogreh and a few other female students dared to admit their desire to become presidents — one of whom was later killed in an explosion. Nogreh later met a young poet who encouraged her to pursue her dream of becoming president and displayed her printed pictures on the walls of destroyed and abandoned places, as a prelude to her upcoming election campaign. He convinced her to deliver a speech and gave her Lorca's poem "At Five in the Afternoon" to recite. 

The film revolves around Lorca's poem — which is mentioned at its start and end when destinies collide to reveal a woman pulling an exhausted horse and another carrying two empty jars on her shoulders while walking in the desert. 

While the scene is fraught with anger and exhaustion, the director refrains from showing the actor shouting — instead, forcing the audience to watch. She promotes the culture of staring into the eye of the storm and moving forward. She does not deny the pain and, instead, embraces it. 

The woman turns her back to the desert and wandering. She is exhausted and worn out and the jars she carries on her back are empty, but she refuses to let the desert be her destination and her path. It moves in the direction of another time and another destiny. Her movement generates space and meaning. 

Makhmalbaf said in an interview, "I think the Iranian woman is like a spring of water in the spring. The more you pressure her, the stronger she comes out."  

This phrase summarises the goals of her cinematic project and explains the mechanism of its movement. The woman in her films is a fighter. She believes that recording the story of this war is telling the story of women and the country. 

Mahsa Amini (2000-2022): The Soaring Icon 

The young woman, Mahsa Amini, was murdered by the 'morality' police for the only possible reason — that she was free. Yet, these forces failed to truly kill her because her death transformed Mahsa into a 'soaring icon' with an immortal legacy. Her murder triggered a wave of public anger and turned her into an Iranian Mona Lisa of sorts as her eyes point to, and reflect, the murderer.  

Her image became the most prominent artwork to come out of present-day Iran. Iranian fans at the World Cup matches in Qatar raised her picture, which bolstered and emboldened protests in Iran and generated a wave of solidarity. 

An Iran's supporter holds a football jersey reading the name of Mahsa Amini with another supporter holding a flag reading "Woman life freedom" as they attend the Qatar 2022 World Cup.

Mahsa Amini is the first figure to turn into a symbol of purity in Iran. She has become the icon of all icons — as if Iran was murdered live on air and the revolution exploded in every corner to bring her back to life. She was also embraced as a global symbol of the revolution against tyranny. Her supporters were able to create smart and powerful visuals, helping her story resonate with people from all over the world. 

Iranian women even made a flag using their chopped locks to protest the mandatory veil. This symobolised a declaration of a new state deriving its legitimacy from a world about to be born. The flag sparked a vibrant artistic debate as its movement when waved makes it appear alive.  

The same goes for the iconography of Mahsa, a woman who pushed all boundaries and exemplifies the nature of the Iranian woman who never ceases to create hope, art, and culture in her life — and even in her death. 

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