How a photographer captured the essence of resistance
In 1979, after the fall of the Shah, a brutal and repressive Islamic regime took over the Iranian government. Under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini, the new government rolled back nearly five decades of progress made by women’s rights activists. Iran’s new theocracy imposed extreme moral codes that regulated the daily affairs of Iranian citizens, particularly women. Iranian women were rendered second class citizens, expelled from government positions and forced to cover from head to toe in the chador, a large piece of cloth hiding the entire body. To keep from losing public voice, Iranian women spontaneously took to the streets to collectively protest against the Sharia prescribed veiling. Their demonstrations were often besieged by the religious police who harassed and assaulted them.
This powerful snapshot— covertly taken amidst the chaos of the 1979 protest against the hijab ruling— was photographed by Iranian photojournalist Hengameh Golestan. It captures thousands of energized and resilient Iranian women, and their refusal to surrender their most basic rights. The new Islamic Republic tried to keep the world from witnessing these protests by detaining journalists— especially females.
The black and white photo effect makes this image look iconic, dramatic and timeless. It allows viewers to focus on the image as a whole and connect with the photo’s emotional state. The black and white contrast is also a matter of utility— Golestan was one of the few documentary photojournalists in Iran, and this picture was intended for printing in black and white newspapers. In this snapshot, the women have their clenched fists raised high, recalling the black power salute. Their facial expressions look quite varied. The image has a clear focus on the women in front who appear anxious and unsettled, some visibly angry, and a few seem puzzled. The photo’s high contrast in the front and muted tone in the back accentuates their facial expressions. Upon closer inspection, I notice a few men lining the protest— probably to shield the women from attacks. What strikes me the most is the sheer magnitude of protesters, which Golestan is able to bring to view by taking the photo from an elevated angle, making the march appear endless.
When I see this photo, I immediately sense two things: the acutely political nature of Iranian citizens, and the enormous importance this demonstration (among the many others that unfolded during the revolution) played in shaping the landscape of Iran. Rich or poor, veiled or unveiled, religious or secular women— and men— from all walks of life can be seen out in the thousands to demand political, religious and personal freedoms from their government. Iranian women are not just battling against the compulsory hijab; they are fighting against a despotic regime that is exploiting the hijab in a larger mission to exert control over a woman’s body, sexuality and life choices.
This photograph recalls memories of my experiences in Somalia when I was in middle school. Local armed Islamist groups, who maintained control of the area, routinely harassed, assaulted and even executed women and men who failed to strictly adhere to rigid dress codes and personal behaviors stipulated by their hardline interpretation of Islamic law. I was regularly chastised for wearing shorts slightly above my knees, reading Harry Potter—which was believed to encourage sorcery— and having musical ringtones on my cell phone. Whenever I ventured to the markets, there would be a gang of retrogressive Sunni Islamic proselytizers reprimanding young girls for not wearing a complete hijab and making sure men and women were segregated as much as possible.
When I came to the United States, I was shocked by the contrasts in culture. One of the many things that stood out was the stark difference in the attitude and discourse towards the hijab. In the US Muslim community, this piece of cloth is mainly regarded as a matter of personal choice. It symbolizes humility, privacy, freedom and sincere devotion. In Somalia, it is an entirely different situation. A woman’s perceived personal character is entirely dependent on how much she chooses to cover her body. The more layers of clothing, the more desirable she is to marry. In a sense, the hijab symbolizes a tyrannical purity culture— one propagated by Islamic regimes such as those in Iran and Saudi Arabia. In some majority Muslim countries, the hijab is closely tied to a woman’s virginity and honor. The governments of these countries do not have any interest in advancing the rights of women. Instead, they utilize sacred texts and traditions, with the hijab as their virtual banner, to systematically subjugate women and keep them completely shut in their homes.
Hengameh Golsetan’s photos have been rediscovered in recent years and are currently displayed in The Showroom, an art gallery in London that showcases contemporary works as part of their Communal Knowledge program. The exhibit also serves to start a larger dialogue surrounding gender, protest and representation.The Showroom has an entire exhibition featuring Golsetan’s photographs of Iran during the revolution era, which are banned in her home country.
Today, women in Iran are still required to wear a hijab in public, and refusing to comply could invite criminal punishments, even vigilante attacks. With the advent of social media, Iranian women are taking their protest to the Internet as a way to bring their plight to the attention of the global community, especially western feminists who often ignore gender issues in majority Muslim countries. Journalist Masih Alinejad created a Facebook page called “My Stealthy Freedom” that features photos and videos of Iranian women risking their lives by removing their hijab in public. Similar campaigns have started in Saudi Arabia.
These courageous women are exercising their individual rights against repressive Islamic regimes who have taken this simple piece of cloth— which should solely be a woman’s choice— and utilized it as an instrument to control every aspect of a woman’s life. From the Taliban to Al-Shabaab, Islamic regimes all over the world have effectively rendered the hijab from a matter of personal choice to a political tool, and that is precisely what this photograph of Iranian women protesting the compulsory hijab ruling represents.
Mahad Olad is a second-year Politics major whose mission to drop truth continues. You can reach them at email@example.com.