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Western art institutes and the representation of Iranian women.

  • Feb 27 2024
  • Katayoon Barzegar, Pegah Pasalar and Niloufar Nematollahi
    Katayoon Barzegar (Tehran, 1990) is a visual artist currently based in the Netherlands. Through bodily interactions with objects and spatial interventions, Barzegar’s practice investigates the effects of power regimes on individual bodies. Barzegar holds a bachelor’s degree in sculpture from Tehran University, an MA in Artistic Research from Alzahra University, Tehran, and a Master of Fine Arts from HKU Utrecht.

    Pegah Pasalar (Tehran, 1992) is an interdisciplinary artist, filmmaker, and film editor currently based in Brooklyn. Their autoethnographic practice encompasses video, installation, and film and explores themes including identity convulsion, cultural memory, fragmentation, temporality, and displacement. Pasalar Pasalar holds a Master of Fine Arts from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and is the recipient of City of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs grant, the 3ARTS’ Make a Wave grant, and the New Artist Society grant.

    Niloufar Nematollahi (Esfahan, 1998) is a writer and artist. With a background in visual arts as well as Middle Eastern studies, International Relations, and Cultural Analysis, she has conducted research on the literary genre of Persian oil fiction and the politics of electronic dance music in Tehran. Her current research predominantly revolves around feminist conceptualizations of contemporary labor politics in Iran and the broader region. Nematollahi is an editor at Jacobin Netherlands.

This essay was first published on Another Screen in December 2022 during the early months of the Woman, Life, Freedom uprising in Iran, in response to several Western art institutions’ attempts at solidarity that only reinforced oppressive representations of Iranian women. [1] One such attempt took place On October 29, 2022, when at the entrance of the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin at which was hung a banner depicting a 1993 self-portrait of visual artist Shirin Neshat onto which the slogan Woman, Life, Freedom had been superimposed. Called “Unveiling”, this self-portrait belongs to Women of Allah, a series of black-and-white photographs Neshat made between 1993 and 1997. The event prompted a group of protestors to stand in front of the museum holding a sign addressing the museum’s director: “Hey Mr. Biesenbach, stop capitalising on the struggle of people in Iran!”. 

For the authors of this essay, who identify as part of a community of artists in the Iranian diaspora, this event exposed the need for overdue conversations about gendered representations that have been challenged by artists and by protestors on the ground, during and before the Woman, Life, Freedom Uprising. In this essay, we look closer at Neshat’s practice to point to the broader discourses in which her imagery functions. These discourses include the intersections of orientalism, Western institutional dominance, and the Islamic Republic’s visual rhetoric. Today, as the circulation of the imagery we set out to critique persists, we revisit the original essay to include the works of visual artists Parastou Forouhar and Chupan Mehraneh Atashi as embodied counter-representations of gender, life, death, and resistance in Iran, and of Iranians in exile.

At the beginning of the uprising, we did not have the language to describe what we were witnessing on our screens. Protests rapidly transformed into a movement, then an uprising, manifestations of a desire for revolution: something we had wanted for years, and sometimes expressed through silence, and at other times by crying out against an oppressive regime. Without suitable language, and given that we were not in Iran, we could only navigate the uprising via the bodies depicted in the images emerging from it. The bodies we witnessed on the streets and, at times, desperately desired to become: standing, running, lying dead, dancing, and setting fire to their mandatory veils chanting “Jin, Jiyan, Azadi – Zan, Zendegi, Azadi.” [2]

The images emerging from Iran starkly contrasted dominant representations of Iranian women in the West. It took some days for the world to adjust to this new image of women burning the symbol of their oppression. And, even when they were seen, these women continued to be erased and appropriated. Supposedly progressive white feminists remained silent for an extended period, to make sure that expressing solidarity with protestors in Iran could not be interpreted as Islamophobia, while right-wing political parties and conservative media took the act of veil-burning out of context, appropriating gendered struggles in Iran for their own racist and Islamophobic agendas. 

The uprising continued, and expressing solidarity by sharing images of protesters, in particular women protestors, soon became a trend. Major art institutions in the West took to expressing solidarity, too, but instead of paying attention to the images that emerged from the protests themselves, a number of them - such as the Neue Nationalgalerie - decided to reproduce photographs by Shirin Neshat. 

Born in Qazvin, Iran, and based in New York, Neshat is a visual artist whose practice consists of staged photographs, and experimental and narrative films that revolve around images of Iranian women. For decades, Western art institutions have positioned Neshat as the epitome of Iranian artists, and the women she depicts as the only representation of Iranian women. She is represented by Gladstone Gallery, and Goodman Gallery, and has held solo exhibitions at art institutions including the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1998) and the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (2006).

In October 2022, The Cultural Institute of Radical Contemporary Art (CIRCA) displayed a photograph, “Moon Song”, which Neshat took in 1995, on the digital billboard in London’s Piccadilly Circus as a gesture of solidarity with the protestors in Iran. The photograph shows the artist’s open palms – one is decorated with pseudo-arabesque calligraphy, the other with paisley, an ancient Persian symbol, she is holding two bullets as if to reveal a truth. The words “Woman, Life, Freedom”, in English and Persian, have been superimposed onto the image for the occasion.

This image, like the self-portrait displayed in front of the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, is part of the Neshat’s series Women of Allah. We were introduced to Women of Allah for the first time when internet access became available in urban centers in Iran in the mid-2000s. Later, as art school students in Iran, we were mostly united in our disconnection from Neshat and the women she depicted, who were nothing like the Iranian women we knew. Was this woman part of the Islamic Republic’s military forces, with her gun and black chador? Was she the mother of martyrs from the Iran-Iraq war? Was she, with her thick black eyeliner and heavy jewelry, supposed to represent the region we were taught to refer to as “the Middle East”? Who are the Women of Allah? 

Neshat’s Women of Allah includes self-portraits and portraits of other women in black chadors holding either guns or flowers in their hands; women whose hands and feet - the only parts of their body permitted to be visible by the Islamic Republic - are decorated in either Arabic or Persian calligraphy. To a Western audience, the calligraphy is illegible and serves a purely decorative and exoticizing function that nevertheless refers to a specific geography. To a Persian-speaking audience familiar with the context of Iran, the combination of Arabic Koranic verses and poems by women poets, such as Forough Farokhzad, is a contradiction. Farokhzad’s poetry is marked by an anti-patriarchal undertone, and the absence of any distinct religious, or more specifically “Islamic” motives. It is unclear whether Neshat is constructing a connection or a disjunction between Farokhzad’s poetry and the Koran, so the choice appears to be solely aesthetic rather than conceptual.

This choice is further complicated by Neshat’s juxtaposing of Farokhzad’s work against that of Tahereh Saffarzadeh. Saffarzadeh is one of the few women poets whose works are presented and celebrated in primary school books for their praise of the Islamic faith, her support of the Islamic Republic, and her poetry’s lack of explicit political and social critique. Was Neshat’s choice of these two poets’ works solely made on the basis that both poets identify as women?

Neshat created Women of Allah after returning to New York from her first trip to Iran since she left the country in 1975. [3] During this first and only visit in 1990, Neshat was shocked to find her country out of sync with the memories she held from before the 1979 Revolution, a revolution that led to the establishment of the Islamic Republic, and the legislation of mandatory hijab. This legislation led to the construction of a new image of the Iranian women: a woman covered from head to toe in a black chador. Upon her visit, Neshat was first confronted with this new image of the Iranian woman. An image that left Neshat in obsessive fascination bordering on fetishization, as evidenced by the abundance of similar imagery she has produced since that trip. [4]

In Neshat’s imagery, the passiveness of women towards the compulsory veil as a concrete form of regime oppression is expressed through an orientalist eroticization of the veil: the figure hides defeated and passive, yet playfully behind the veil as she taps into the patriarchal colonial fantasy of unveiling the colonized woman. A fantasy that is materialized in colonial imagery such as in the French photographer Marc Garanger’s depiction of Algerian women in the 1960s. Despite the historical differences between Neshat’s women and those depicted with rage in their eyes by Garanger both images are marked by inherently colonial visual motifs.

Women of Allah not only taps into colonial dreams of unveiling the “oppressed, colonised Muslim woman”, but also painfully resembles the image of the Iranian woman as constructed by the Islamic Republic in its early years. Women of Allah reproduces the Islamic Republic’s propaganda of the 1990s, a decade marked by the state’s attempts at solidifying its political discourse following the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988, on which the regime drew to glorify martyrdom and symbols of armed resistance as the essence of Shi’a Islam and, thus, the regime’s political ideology.

While state propaganda in this period is historically situated, Neshat’s staged photographs grant a timeless quality to the aesthetics the artist draws from. This timeless quality is intensified through the reproduction of Women of Allah on large scale-banners following the Woman, Life, Freedom Uprising more than 20 years later. In Neshat’s quest for the erasure of time, she deprives her supposed subjects of the right to evolve in representation, trapping them in a regime-centering ideology that occasionally allows women to appear with arms, but which always makes sure that all body parts except for their face and hands remain covered under a black chador.

The chador holds a core place in the Islamic Republic’s political discourse and the position women occupy within that discourse. The regime’s obsession with the chador is manifested in discursive means, such as propaganda, that have material impacts on those living under the Islamic Republic’s rule. In school books, on national television, and banners in public spaces, the chador is depicted as a shell protecting a pearl - women’s dignity - from men’s penetrative gazes. In the collective mind, the figure of the woman with a black chador and a gun represents the Morality Police and the policing of our bodies. Whenever we refused to adhere to the Islamic Republic’s dress codes and compulsory veiling in the public space we were met by the violence of female Morality Police officers in chadors. 


fig. 1


Iranian artists have picked up the chador as a visual element and theme, challenging this garment’s politics. One of them is Parastou Forouhar, who challenges this symbol of regime control over women’s bodies, playfully taking away its almost mythical power by approaching the black fabric with disarming humor. A kind of humor is embodied by her usage of banal objects such as office chairs and kitsch plastic objects such as balloons and swan pedal boats. Forouhar not only challenges the status granted to this veil but also the gender binary on which that status is based. 


fig. 2


The photo series Blind Spot (2001), depicts a figure almost fully covered with a chador, whose position changes slightly in each photograph. The only skin Forouhar’s images show is the back of the figure's hands and their shaven head. The figure’s face remains covered at all times refusing assumptions about their gender, thus, subverting the conventional association of the chador with those bodies the Islamic Republic perceives as female. These subversions, alongside the figure’s playful gestures, question gender by engaging audiences with the body made invisible underneath the chador. 


fig. 3


The seemingly simple, yet inherently political, question of whose body and which parts of this body the Islamic Republic aims to cover is the driving force behind Forouhar’s photographic practice. In Friday (2003), a large four-part photograph, the hands, one of the only not forbidden body parts, resemble the contours of the most forbidden body part: the vagina. The vaginal form appears from underneath the patterned black chador as a piece of flesh simultaneously holding and swallowing the fabric. “Friday” does not reproduce the symbols that, according to the Islamic Republic, “make the Iranian woman” but uses them to bring shapes the regime deems “immoral” onto the screen. 


fig. 4


Chupan Mehraneh Atashi [5] is another example of an artist whose photographic practice challenges gendered representations. In the series zourkhaneh (bodiless, I) (2004), Atashi takes to the zourkhaneh, a place where traditionally men gather to perform an ancient form of martial arts. Atashi became intrigued by this space after hearing that “in the zourkhaneh, women’s breath is haram.” [6] It took Atashi over a year to gain access to this space. When they finally entered, Atashi decided to bring the zourkhaneh’s mirror down into the ring so that they could take a self-portrait in the ring among the zourkhaneh men. Women are traditionally not allowed into the zourkhaneh ring. 

In this image, Atashi depicts themself in the corner of the frame, apart from the other figures: men standing against the frame’s edges, as far as possible from the photographer, and other men whose images hang above the photographer’s head. The images that hang above Atashi’s head depict the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leaders, Shi’a imams, and figures from Persian mythology. These men’s victorious narratives constitute the identity of the zourkhaneh as a masculine space. Through their presence in the zourkhaneh in mandatory hijab, the state’s marker of Atashi’s femininity, the photographer positions the feminine figure in opposition to the heroic masculine history embodied by the men whose images hang on the zourkhaneh’s walls. A visual history of which the images of Islamic Republic leaders are part. 


fig. 5


After  “zourkhaneh (bodiless, I)”, Atashi continued to capture their presence in hostile spaces in Tehran’s Self-portraits (2008-2010). Atashi began capturing themself walking in a rapidly changing city filled with images and statues of men. One year after starting “Tehran’s Self-portraits”, the uprising known as the 2009 Green Movement began, and Atashi’s walks became tangled in the fabric of an emerging collective revolutionary desire. “Tehran’s Self-portraits” captures the dynamic process of banal daily walks transforming into revolutionary momentum. 


fig. 6


Atashi’s photos of Tehran’s streets center on the artist’s face, but they do not only depict the photographer: they depict Atshi as a figure that stands at a short distance from the marching crowds. On the streets, Atashi does not seek decorative aesthetics; they instead search for a self that always stands in relation to those who surround them, and those who change: bodies that are continuously opposing and negotiating with power and its changing forms of oppression, from obligatory dress codes to tear gas. 


fig. 7


While Atashi captured the emerging movement, the city’s surveillance cameras caught Atashi. Subsequently, they were brutally arrested and imprisoned for the crime of recording their presence on the streets. During Atashi’s imprisonment, their investigator stated that Atashi would only be allowed to continue photographing if they agreed to refrain from depicting themself and encouraged them to depict flowers instead. Flowers that the authorities use to erase the faces of those the regime marks as women. The Islamic Republic chose to punish Atashi through erasure, and by denying them the right to representation on their terms. 


fig. 8


Forouhar and Atashi’s figures are not submissive to power; instead, they stare power in the eyes and laugh furiously and disarmingly. It is a laughter we are familiar with as resistance in the face of death and the absurdities and banalities of violence. Their practices have emerged, grown, and changed in parallel to their embodied experiences of their refusals to compromise with power. Forouhar and Atashi’s artistic practices capture these artists’ attempts not only at navigating the construction of gender in power but also embody lineages of refusals that go beyond their acts of resistance. The lineages embodied in their practices exceed these artists’ selves because they draw on specific elements shaping collective memories of resistance: in Atashi’s practice, the zourkhaneh, the streets of Tehran, and the Green Uprising are concrete spaces and movements and belong to the collective memory.

Forouhar’s practice offers an alternative, and deeply personal, narrative of the 1988-1989 Chain Murders, a series of brutal murders and disappearances of intellectuals who had criticized the Islamic Republic, of which both of Forouhar’s parents were victims. After her parents’ brutal murders, Forouhar has persisted in returning each year for her parents’ anniversary organizing gatherings and creating archives and video pieces “against forgetting”.

In an interview responding to criticism of her lack of embodied experience regarding the themes she foregrounds in her practice, Neshat discusses the difficulties of migrating from Iran at a young age. [7] She speaks of a generation whose second home became their only home, as they witnessed Iran go through drastic changes and continued to seek their Iranian roots while abroad in the West. In this same interview, Neshat also states that her practice is deeply personal given that the women in her images represent herself. However, in Women of Allah we don’t encounter a personal representation, but an imagined woman with whom Neshat desperately desires to identify. Indeed, the lack of embodied experience of the themes she portrays fuels the complicity in replicating exotic imagery and the questions of identification with a Westernized representation of Iranian’s women struggles.

Neshat’s imagery fabricates proximity to a brutal reality she has never lived. In her most recent film The Fury (2023), exhibited at Gladstone Gallery and the Tribeca Film Festival, we see a naked woman, seemingly bruised and possibly tortured, lying on the floor of a warehouse, likely symbolizing an Islamic Republic prison. She is surrounded by men in army uniforms, representing Neshat’s imagination of the Islamic Republic’s authorities. Political prisoners and ex-political prisoners in Iran employ carefully tailored language to foreground their agency and resistance. In The Fury, however, the struggle that preceded this political prisoner’s arrest is unclear, and her suffering is made into a spectacle. Neshat seems to persist in disempowering women political prisoners by fabricating a highly stylised image of authorities looking down on a bruised woman. Such a portrayal reinforces the patriarchal gaze that the Islamic Republic has long sought to instill in our minds. The work is showcased at a blue-chip gallery in New York City, reminding us of how the visual regime of gendered and racialised oppression extends beyond the borders of Iran.

As an artwork, The Fury decontextualises and reproduces violence, capitalising on the pain of others. A pain the artist first imagines and then represents drawing on a kind of imagery the capitalist art market consumes easily and eagerly: a stylistically pleasing image of a racialised woman, defeated and oppressed. The commodification of the pain of others has a long history, and so does the commodification of political movements. It is a capitalist tool to empty politics of their context and meaning, allowing them to be recuperated back into the system.

Returning to these art institutions’ reproduction of Neshat’s Women of Allah alongside the Persian translation of the Kurdish slogan Jin, Jiyan, Azadi, the art markets’ complicity in the commodification of political movements, once again, becomes visible. When attached to a giant billboard of an image that did not emerge from the same struggle without further explanation the inherently anti-capitalist meaning of the slogan Jin, Jiyan, Azadi, which finds its roots in the Kurdish Women’s Movement is erased. The sociologist Dilar Dirik articulated this beautifully at the International Women’s Conference in Berlin, saying:

At the same time as we see a rise in women's liberation struggles, we see how liberalism is imposed on women's struggles as the safest and most viable option for equality and change. We see today that radical revolutionary slogans and symbols increasingly become commodified, mass-produced, emptied of their meaning, and sold back in plastic to the same people who gave their lives creating these values. [8]

Under the conditions of liberalism, even though the commodification of a specific political aesthetic might not directly result in increased capital for either the artist or the institution, the performance of progressive politics is no doubt beneficial for both parties’ accumulation of cultural capital. The art institutions foregrounding Neshat’s imagery in light of the Woman, Life, Freedom Uprising accumulate cultural capital by reproducing stereotypes familiar to the Western gaze while adding progressive slogans onto these aesthetics. They rebrand these stereotypes according to the demands of a market whose survival is contingent on remaining in sync with a shifting political landscape.

While Neshat’s depiction of so-called “Iranian women” hasn’t changed since the nineties, how marginalized bodies represent themselves in Iran has been transformed by artists such as Foruhar and Atashi, and by women in Iranon Tiktok, Instagram, and Twitter. On these platforms we have seen queer couples kissing on the main squares of Iranian cities; girls standing in the streets with faces covered and bodies exposed to show the words Zan, Zendegi, Azadi written in lipstick on their skin; and videos of women singing, dancing, and laughing loudly.

It is, however, crucial to understand that even the diverse and dynamic representations that emerged from the ground up during the Woman, Life, Freedom Uprising do not offer an image as rich as the communities and geography that exist under the rule of the Islamic Republic. This is especially true as the bulk of the photos that eventually do reach us are taken in either Tehran or other big urban centers. Those individuals who are located on the margins of the centralist state’s territory and political discourse, those whose ethnicity and gender differ from the male, Fars, Twelver Imam Shi’a figure that constitutes the core of not only the Islamic Republic but also the mainstream and right-wing opposition against that regime, and those whose identity the state weaponises to surveil them are excluded from representation, and, more importantly, they are denied from the right to represent themselves and their struggles. This mechanism of exclusion not only occupies the core of the Islamic Republic and the mainstream opposition but also shapes the dominant centralist mindset of the Fars urban middle and upper classes. 

Despite the exclusion of gendered and racialised bodies from self-representation, we still have been confronted with voices and images from the margins, for example, images of Baluch women holding banners saying “Baluch women don’t accept oppression” have emerged from Sistan and Balochistan province in Iran. We not only saw images of these marginalised bodies’ resistance, but also read their words when collectives such as Desgoharan began issuing statements navigating the specific intersections of being assigned female at birth and being assigned ethnically Baluch under the rule of centralist gender apartheid. These examples point to the diversity of representation that the Islamic Republic as well as Persian-speaking mainstream media, the mainstream and right-wing opposition, and Western art institutions do not foreground. 

The realm of visual art, not only in the West but also in Tehran, reflects this pattern of exclusion, as the artworks exhibited in the galleries of Tehran, or those known and represented by Western institutions as being “from Iran”, in reality, only represent a minor fraction of the geography referred to as such. Most of these artworks, thus, represent embodied experiences that are specific to certain segments of society and do not account for the lack of representations of marginalised and racialised Baluch, Kurd, Lur, Arab, Afghanistani, etc. individuals. This lack of representation is intersectional. It is not only a matter of race but also class and gender. For example, in the visual arts, representations of middle-class Fars women are more visible than that of working-class racialised women who do not have access to urban centers, and their art markets, and therefore are denied the right to represent themselves through their art. At times, however, these racialised and gendered bodies do become the subject of artistic production. In these cases, they are represented by a third party and are strictly as the victims of power. 

Moreover, Neshat and Western art institutions’ appropriation of the slogan Woman, Life, Freedom is only one form of capitalising on this chant and the struggle it embodies. We can not ignore that this Kurdish chants’ initial translation into Persian, and its subsequent overrepresentation by a vast range of political fractions within the opposition to the Islamic Republic, has also amounted to appropriation and the erasure of the Kurdish struggle from the revolutionary opposition against the state.



This essay was edited by Ash Kilmartin and Nastaran Saremy. Parts of the first draft were written in collaboration with Saina Salarian as part of an event called Images of Resistance which took place in the art space Availabe and the Rat in Rotterdam, in November 2022. 



    [1] The first version of this essay was published on under the title “The Commodification of Jin, Jiyan, Azadi by Western art institutions” as a part of the program Films from Iran for Iran. 

    [2] The notion of desiring to become the images of protestors that emerged from the ground in Iran is inspired by L’s essay “Women Reflected in Their Own History”:



    [5] Today, Chupan Mehraneh Atashi uses the pronouns they/them. All pronouns in previous writings and works should be understood accordingly.

    [6] This was told by Atashi to the essay’s authors.





    Cover: Protest against Shirin Neshat’s intervention at the Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin, October 2022. Source: social media.

    fig. 1: State propaganda image saying “In the supreme leader’s words hijab is a shell holding a pearl”. Source: the authors’ shared archive.

    fig. 2: Parastou Forouhar, Swanrider, 2004. © and Courtesy of the artist

    fig. 3: Parastou Forouhar, Blind Spot, 2001. © and Courtesy of the artist.

    fig. 4: Parastou Forouhar, Friday, 2003. © and Courtesy of the artist.

    fig. 5: Chupan Mehraneh Atashi, Zourkhaneh (bodiless, I), 2004. © and Courtesy of the artist.

    fig. 6: Chupan Mehraneh Atashi, Tehran's Self-portraits, 2008-2010. © and Courtesy of the artist.

    fig. 7: Chupan Mehraneh Atashi, Tehran's Self-portraits, 2008-2010. © and Courtesy of the artist.

    fig. 8: State propaganda image saying hijab.



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