Shirin Neshat: "She Who Tells a Story"

من معتقدم که ما لازم نیست به گسترش شکاف بین غرب و اسلام است. در عوض، ما نیاز به ایجاد گفت و شنود به تشویق تحمل و احترام.

I believe we don’t need to widen the divide between the West and Islam. Rather, we need to build dialogue to encourage tolerance and respect.
— شیرین نشاط Shirin Neshat
faith 1 neshat.jpg

Shirin Neshat: "She Who Tells a Story" November 7, 2013:

(“She Who Tells a Story” is an exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) : On Wednesday October 16, 2013 I was fortunate to attend a lecture with some of my Art History Students at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston entitled “Shirin Neshat: Through the Lens: The Life and Work of an Iranian Artist.” Currently some of Neshat’s work is on view as part of the exhibit “She Who Tells a Story.” For those lucky enough to live near Boston, it is well worth a visit. The meaning behind the phrase originates from the word rawiya (which is also the name of a collective of female photographers working in the Middle East.) Neshat shared her story with the audience, describing the “devastation of displacement in the Iranian conflict.” She first left her native Iran to attend school and said that her artistic project centers on personal narrative. Her desire to create Art has always, as she put it, been motivated by “an urgency to reconnect with Iran.”

تصویر  Portrait of an Artist in Exile: As a child, Neshat reports that her father always admired the west. Enrolled in a Catholic School in Tehran in her native Iran, Neshat shared that her father aspired for his children to have opportunity to seek higher education. For that reason, she left Iran for the first time to attend college in the United States. She is quoted as saying her Westernized father wanted his children to, "be an individual, to take risks, to learn, to see the world." In 1979, during her time in the U.S, the Iranian revolution began forever changing the country Neshat knew as a child. Over the next decade she moved from California, where she earned her B.A, M.A and M.F.A at UC Berkeley, to New York City where she met and married Kyong Park, a Korean curator. During the lecture, Neshat shared the process of how she tried and failed in various mediums to become an Artist.

Neshat said her return to Iran in 1990 was a culture shock, particularly the impact the national ideological changes had on her own family. “Color was taken away,” she explained and her once animated and joyous family “became melancholy.” Inspired by the “intersection of love and devotion for nation and violence,” Neshat produced “Women of Allah.”  Contributing to a longstanding traditional art form, Neshat inscribes Farsi (Persian) calligraphy over the images. The work is not text from the Qur’an, rather the poetry of Iranian female poets. Neshat explained that the poem often informs the images. By choosing to imprint the words of who have been silenced, Neshat aims to give voice to those forced (or in some cases who desire) to be uniform. The impulse to create Art stems from her status as an exiled “nomad” from Iran. At the lecture, Neshat shared that she continues to be both “devastated and displaced” by the Iranian conflict. When asked about the choice of subject matter in her Artwork, Neshat responded that there is no choice in engaging or not engaging in political issues when you are a citizen from a political divided country, the conflict she said comes to “define your life.”

تصویر The Story Told:

Neshat’s work stands on its own as a provocative struggle to assert human rights. Earlier work centers largely on gender codes largely exploring concepts behind images including:  the veil, the gaze, the gun and the text. Her current work explores the face of Iran and the power of emotion while exploring the history of Persia. The images are human and relay all the complexities, questions and conflicts that a struggle for national identity or religious ideology can bring. Over the past twenty years, Neshat has also worked in filmmaking as well. Her film, “Fervor” exemplifies Neshat’s ability to explore the reality of segregated life in Iran by ironically capturing the segregation present at mosques, a spiritual place intended to unite the country through faith. During the lecture, Neshat explained to the audience that Westerners very often see Islamic women dressed in the chādor veil and often misinterpret these women as submissive victims. The paradox is that these women sometimes volunteer and are active participants in the revolution to “protect and preserve the veil.” For this reason, Neshat’s critics often fault her for (in her own words), “romanticizing violence.” Included in the MFA Exhibit “She Who Tells a Story” are various forms of the veil are shared (I’ve included a graphic outlining the levels of veiling). Martyrdom in this culture is complex. “Love of nation and devotion intersects with violence,” Neshat explained discussing the reality behind the surface. The work intends to explore paradoxes such as submission versus agency and the resilience and collective strength of women during this tumultuous period in Iranian history.

Terms such as Mullahcracy (rule by Islamic religious leaders) are often used when considering current politics.  As I write today, Iran is all over the news in hopes to create a deal on its nuclear activity. It’s difficult to conceptualize anything other than conflict, destruction, violence and oppression in Iran. The story of Iran is too long to share here, but in short, Iran (formally Persia) is one of the oldest civilizations in the world. The Persians were amongst the first to use mathematics, geometry and astronomy. The sport of polo was born here! The influence from poets such as Rumi have inspired generations of writers and thinkers. In the early 20th century, Iranian women battled against a long standing rigid patriarchy. They were briefly successful until the revolution in 1979. Neshat’s life coincides with this turmoil and struggle. Neshat confirmed during her lecture that there is a deep-rooted distrust of the West. The Iranian Republic, it could be disputed, is neither Iranian nor a Republic. (Not to sound like Mike Meyer’s famed SNL Skit “Linda Richman”!) "She Who Tells a Story" narrates a visual story of women in various forms of veil. I've included an illustration below. In Neshat’s lifetime the censorship and laws placed to restrict women from rights is remarkable. I urge you to consider watching Neshat's TED lecture and look through some of the moments post-revolution highlighting the demise of women's rights in Iran. I have also included some resources well worth exploring. It was a pleasure listening to Shirin Neshat speak. Thank you for your courageous work, Ms. Neshat!

Being political is an integral part of being Iranian. Our lives are defined by politics.
— Shirin Neshat
 "I'm really interested in social justice, and if an artist has a certain power of being heard and voicing something important, it's right to do it. It could still be done in such a way that it's not aggressive or overly didactic. I'm trying to find that form."

"I'm really interested in social justice, and if an artist has a certain power of being heard and voicing something important, it's right to do it. It could still be done in such a way that it's not aggressive or overly didactic. I'm trying to find that form."

The words translated are as follows: justice, peace, war, love, freedom and fight. Everyone that sees an Arabic woman in the niqab makes their assumptions while rarely taking the time to learn about the culture. Every story has multiple sides. What story does my piece tell you? - Student 2013

"The three words written on my hand are : feminism, woman and rights. 'Feminism' and 'woman' go hand in hand. A woman in the Middle East wants the same rights as a man; specifically women want the same opportunities to pursue their education as men do. The problem are groups like the Taliban, for example, threaten women that if they should go to school, they would be killed. Student 2013

women of allah.jpg

I’ve included some noteworthy dates which are important in understanding the story behind the faces in Neshat’s work.

February 11, 1979: Ayatollah Knomeini and his followers took power. Khomeini announces that women cannot be judges & that women are to wear the hejab in the workplace. Two days later, thousands of women demonstrate in the streets of Tehran against the state’s Islamic gender policy and are violently disbanded at the hands of radical Islamic forces (Hezbollah “Party of God”)

March 29, 1979: Khomeini announces that beaches and sporting events will now be separated by gender and days later on April 1 the Islamic Republic of Iran is proclaimed.

December 1979: Constitutional reforms center on the laws of women including their rights with criteria of “conformity with Islamic law.”

May 1980: Former Minister of Culture, Farrokhrou Parsa is executed for being an outspoken supporter of women’s rights.


June 1980: Khomeini announces an “administrative revolution” requiring all women to wear the hejab to combat the “western consumer culture.”

September 22, 1980: The Iran-Iraq war begins

June 1981: Women’s Society of Islamic Revolution is organized to “raise women’s consciousness regarding their new roles as ‘authentic’ and ‘true’ Muslim women in Iran.”

September 1982: Gender segregation of educational institutions with the exception of universities in Iran.

1983: The Bill of Retributions or Qesas, assigns 74 lashes to women who fail to observe the veiling rules. Adultery cases involve death sentences.

Summer 1984: “Guardians of Orthodox Islamic Culture,” begins with the goal of consolidating Islamic Republic of Iran’s gender policies through enforcement and indoctrination of nonconformist women and underprivileged women are mobilized to form this patrol.

April 1985: Khomeini gives a speech calling women to participate in the Iran-Iraq war to defend their nation in one of the bloodiest wars in modern history.

July 1988: Under UN negotiations, Iran accepts ceasefire agreement with Iraq

April 1994: Majles passes a law allowing women to become legal consultants in family and administrative courts, but not judges.

March 1996: Fifth Majles election takes place. 179 women/2,751 men compete for 290 seats. 14 women are elected.

October 1996: The first public sports event with women athletes takes place.

1997: Iran’s poet Simin Behbahani is nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in Literature and Shirin Ebadi is awarded by the International Human Rights Organization in recognition for her organization under Human Rights Watch. Khatami wins a landslide victory with 65% of the female vote.

June 1997: A bill is passed permitting women to work part-time 6 hours and get paid for 8

October 1997: Khatami selects Zahra Shoja’I as his consultant on women’s issues and Mazaheri objects to Iran’s joining of the United Nations Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women claiming that it does not comply with the moral code of Islam or the Shari’a

November 1997: Women are allowed to Azadi stadium for the first time since the revolution to watch the Iranian soccer team compete against Australia.

February 1998: Bill passes in recognition to women’s familial responsibilities: 1.) women working fulltime may (with permission) work ¾ of the time and have it be considered full time. 2.) women working part-time are protected by law from losing maternity and other benefits. Majles passes civil code requiring a female legal consultant be present during all child custody cases.

April 1998: Amendments proposed to the Majles:

February 18, 2000: Election for the sixth Majles. 417 women/ 5,723 candidates

March 1, 2000: More than 600 female medical students from the all female University of Qom protest in front of the Ministry of Health in Tehran claiming they are deprived of proper medical training because there are not enough female doctors to teach them. They are told the University of Qom medical school has served “as an ideal example of an Islamic institution since it trains female doctors and all of their patients are women.”

March 8, 2000: There is a debate over the female representatives proper hejab.

April 23- June 1, 2000: Judicial branch shuts down 18 reformist publications and Khatami is re-elected

2002: Statistic women constitute 60% of university students

October 2003: Iranian lawyer, Shirin Ebadi is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts defending and promoting the rights of women, children and refugees becoming the first Muslim woman and first Iranian to receive the honor.

June 1, 2005: A coalition of religious and secularist women activists stage a sit in to protest the ban on women running for president.

June 9, 2005: Over a hundred young women attempt to challenge the state’s gender apartheid by gathering in front of the Azadi Stadium during an Iran vs. Bahrain soccer game and succeed in forcing their way in to watch the second half of the game.

June 12, 2005: A women’s rights activist rally is violently disrupted when they demand a revision on the ban on polygamy, equal rights for divorce, joint custody of children, equal rights in marriage and an increase in the minimum legal age of marriage from girls from 9 to 18.

September 25, 2005: Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance issues a directive limiting women’s work outside the home to daylight hours.

March 8, 2006: Women in an organized activist meeting on Women’s Day (the birthday of Mohammad’s daughter Fatima) are beaten.

May 2006: Zohreh Tabibzadeh Nouri is appointed head of Iranian Center for Women and Family Affairs and is quoted as saying “I see no reason to follow the unsuccessful Western model.”

June 12, 2009: Ahmadinejad is re-elected and rival candidates challenge the results causing mass protest.

June 20, 2009: Neda Agha-Soltan, a 26-year old protester is killed by the Basij. Her murder is captured and circulated around the world.



Since publishing this on my website an excellent book has been published:

"Shirin Nehsat: Facing History" Edited by Melissa Chiu and Melissa Ho. Hirshorn Museum of Sculpture and Garden. Smithsonian Books/Washington D.C 2015.

"My Sister, Guard Your Veil; M Brother; Guard Your Eyes: uncensored Iranian voices." Lila Azam Zanganeh, editor. Boston, Mass. Beacon Press, c.2006.

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. "She Who Tells a Story"

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Guggenheim Museum

Gladstone Gallery