She is probably Iran’s best-known artist, she is a photographer, opera director and filmmaker. Shirin Neshat has lived in exile for more than 45 years. She became famous with photos of veiled and armed women, which she wrote poetry about. Her latest work is the film Land of Dreams, which hits theaters on November 3rd. With the protest movement that has been going on in Iran for six weeks, Neshat has come painfully close to the homeland she thought she had lost. We spoke to her via video about the women-led freedom movement that brought together nearly 100,000 people from across Europe in a peaceful demonstration last week in Berlin – the culmination of what has been an astounding freedom struggle so far.
Ms. Neshat, your art has always been inspired by two things: your reverence for women and your connection to your home country. As you look back on the events of the past few weeks, has the courage and strength of the Persian women overwhelmed even you?
It’s true, whether in photography, film or video art, Iranian women have always piqued my curiosity. Generation after generation they needed strength and resilience because their backs were against the wall. Hence, they had to develop a high level of creativity, as talented writer Forough Farrokhzad, born into a time of upheaval, broke with convention and first made female lust a subject in literature. Or Shahrnush Parsipur, on whose book my film “Women Without Men” is based, she was first imprisoned, then locked up in a mental hospital until she was able to flee into exile, where she lived in poverty. My fascination with Iranian women is almost obsessive, I admire them for their creativity and imagination, which they had to develop under very complicated living conditions. These women became my idols.
Then you know this lion courage?
My experience with Iranian women has always contrasted with public perceptions that they are pitiable victims who are oppressed and have no voice. Yes, they are oppressed, I say then – but that doesn’t make them victims! Women in Iran have always fought, protested and rebelled. Not once have I portrayed a woman as a victim in my work, either in the “Women of Allah” picture cycle or in my films.
In London’s Piccadilly Circus, where the portrait of the late Queen was just hanging, an early work of yours could be seen as a tribute to the “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement: women’s hands, inscribed with Persian letters, in which there are cartridge cases.
My works have often dealt with how the female body has become a kind of theater of war since women in Iran became the target of religious and ideological rhetoric. Reza Shah, who wanted to modernize the country and turn it towards the West from the 1930s, forced women to take off the veil to demonstrate Iran’s progressiveness. After the Islamic Revolution in 1979, women were again forced to wear hijab as a symbol of Islamization. The battles of politics and religion have always been fought on women’s bodies. I was interested in how this affected women. In “Women of Allah” I gave space to women who did not want to submit to these rules, in “Women Without Men” I even let them become militant.
What goes through your mind when you see women without a headscarf, armed with nothing but their voice and courage, confronting the authorities on the streets of Iran?