rebellious-silenceContemporary artist Shirin Neshat utilizes her complex relationship with her religion and culture in order to create photographs, motion pictures, and music, that pays tribute to her resentment of the clichéd image of Muslim women. Her motive is not to justify the Muslim culture in order to break down the stereotypical beliefs of the Westerners. Instead, she forces the audience to rethink what they believe, or have been conditioned by society to be the norm by conveying these idealized misconceptions.(Smith 60) Rebellious silence, a piece from the Women of Allah series illustrates the ways in which Neshat examines the complexities of women’s identities in the Middle East through the lens of Western representations of Muslim women.

Shirin Neshat was born in 1957, Qazvin, Iran, but she came to the United States at the age of seventeen, just a few years before the Iranian revolution. She studied painting at the University of California at Berkeley. After earning her masters in Fine Arts, she moved to New York and began working at Storefront, a non-profit art and architecture gallery in Soho. Though trained as a painter, Neshat chose photography because she felt that her subject matter required a sense of realism. She was fascinated by photojournalism and she believed the Women of Allah series required an authentic feeling not possible with painting. –(Dannawi 19).

Rebellious Silence is a photograph that portrays a woman in a traditional chador along with the barrel of a rifle that bisects a vertical seam on the image. The inscribed Farsi poem on her face acts as a niqab. The niqab is a veil that covers the woman’s face, leaving a small opening for the eyes. The poem serves as a declaration of the woman’s beliefs, referencing the mandatory law to wear the veil in public during the Iran revolutionary war, while her determined gaze honors the bravery and conviction of Muslim women who were militarized in the war. –(Dannawi 23).

Prior to the revolution, Iran had been ruled by the Shah (Mohammad Reza Pahlavi), who took power in 1941 during the Second World War. His dictatorship was known for the violent repression of political and religious freedom, but also for its modernization of the country along Western cultural models. He reigned until 1979, when the Persian monarchy was overthrown by revolutionaries who disliked the repressive nature of his regime and disapproved of the socioeconomic benefits of certain classes at the expense of others. His oppressive regime eventually led to his overthrow directed by specific Islamic leaders such as the prominent Ayatollah Khomeini (Ghasemi).

Khomeini’s outspoken opposition to the pro-Western regime of the Shah raised his status as national hero for the people of Iran. Khomeini enforced the beliefs of the Muslims throughout the country, leaving little to no space between government and religion. As a result, every single Iranian woman, including those who once wore miniskirts and danced along to the latest songs originating from the Westerners, were forbidden from leaving their homes unless they had the “chador” draped on them. (Ayatollah). This implies that even though the goal of the revolution was to overthrow an oppressive ruler, Iran once again became a country that was under the dictatorship of a Shah.

The Women of Allah series was created soon after the artist’s first visit to Iran, since her emigration to the US ten years earlier. The series questions the role of Muslim Women and the female body in relation to the violence they encountered throughout the revolution. Neshat uses specific iconography ideas such as the veil, text, guns, and the hardened gaze to suggest contradictory ideas such as repression, submission, resistance and aggression. (Smith 61). She also explores various philosophical and ideological aspects of the revolution including the concept of “martyrdom,” which had become most popular in Iran since the removal of the shah. (Dabashi 75) At heart, each image conceptually and visually proposes the paradoxical reality of how ideas about religion, violence, and politics intersect in Islamic practice; and how a typical martyr seems to stand close to the borders of love, devotion, faith, and self-sacrifice, on the one hand, and hate, cruelty, violence and ultimately death on the other. The most recognizable icon adopted by Neshat is the veil.

The powerful distorted image of the veiled woman has been deeply ingrained in the Western mind. As the most defining feature of the Islamic world. The niqab or veil, has become a symbol of repression to Westerners. Yet, Neshat incorporates it into her work in order to demonstrate her culture through her photographs. She stated in an interview, “you can study the culture by studying the women: the way they dress, the way their own society changes, the way they have to wear the chador. (Dannawi 22)

The veiled or chador-clad women in Neshat’s photographs are about Iranian women in relation to the revolution, and how the revolution not only changed society, but affected women’s behavior. The veil conceals the visible body, yet it also reveals the many facets of a Muslim Iranian woman, such as the gaze. Neshat chose to depict her women this way because she challenges those preconceived views by juxtaposing the women with guns evoking a sense of power and confidence. (Dannawi 22). Thus, the woman represents the ability for women to control their own lives, outside of the Western intervention.

The hardened gaze in Rebellious Silence has become a charged signifier of power and authority. Women’s bodies are commonly paraded as objects of desire in advertising, and film, available to be looked at without consequence. Many feminist artists including Neshat have used the action of “gazing back” as a means to free the female body from this objectification. The gaze, here, might also reflect exotic fantasies of the East. In Orientalist painting (eighteenth and nineteenth century), Eastern women are often depicted nude, surrounded by richly colored and patterned textiles and decorations; women are envisaged amongst other beautiful objects that can be possessed. In Neshat’s images, women return the gaze, breaking free from centuries of subservience to male or European desire.(Dannawi 23)

Another icon that Neshat uses in her photographs is the “text”. Throughout the Women of Allah series, Shirin Neshat employs the use of direct calligraphic text on her photographs to create a pure, sensual visual presence and a material ornament that indicates meaning. Westerners who do not read Farsi may understand the calligraphy as an aesthetic signifier, a reference to the importance of text in the long history of Islamic art. (Dabashi 78) Yet, most of the texts are transcriptions of poetry and other writings by women who expressed multiple viewpoints and date both before and after the Revolution. “The written text is the voice of the photograph,” Neshat says, “It breaks the silence of the still woman in the portrait”. (Dabashi 78) Some of the texts that Neshat chose are feminist in nature. However, in Rebellious Silence, the script that runs across the artist’s face is from Tahereh Saffarzadeh’s poem “Allegiance with Wakefulness.” The excerpt below illustrates how Neshat honors the conviction and bravery of martyrdom.

O, you martyr,

hold my hands

With your hands

Cut from earthly means

Hold my hands,

I am your poet.

With an inflicted body.

I’ve come to be with you

and on the promised day,

We shall rise again.

(Babaie 52)

Even though Neshat’s goal in these series is to deconstruct Western perceptions of Islamic women, she represents her characters as the generic Muslim woman. It is challenging,-especially for the Western observer whose image of the Muslim world is generally based not on experience, but on media clichés. Neshat does not replace existing stereotypes with more “accurate” representations; instead, she uncovers the multiplicity of possible meanings embedded in her work. (Dannawi 19)

Neshat has become a role model not only for Muslim young girls but also others around the world who feel the need to defend their culture and religion. As an outspoken feminist and progressive artist, Neshat is aware that it would be dangerous to show her work in conservative modern-day Iran, and she has been living in exile in the United States since the 1990s. For audiences in the West, the Women of Allah series has allowed a more nuanced contemplation of common stereotypes and assumptions about Muslim women, and serves to challenge the suppression of female voices in any community.(Smith 67)


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