Untitled (Witness ’79)

Azadeh Fatehrad

Online / 09.08.2018
Print

Hengameh Golestan, Untitled (Witness ’79 series), photograph, 1979, courtesy the artist and Archaeology of the Final Decade, London

Hengameh Golestan, Untitled (Witness ’79 series), photograph, 1979, courtesy the artist and Archaeology of the Final Decade, London

Hengameh Golestan, Untitled (Witness ’79 series), photograph, 1979, courtesy the artist and Archaeology of the Final Decade, London

Hengameh Golestan, Untitled (Witness ’79 series), photograph, 1979, courtesy the artist and Archaeology of the Final Decade, London

Hengameh Golestan, Untitled (Witness ’79 series), photograph, 1979, courtesy the artist and Archaeology of the Final Decade, London

Pratique, Politique et Psychanalyse, Mouvement de Libération des Femmes Iraniennes – Année Zéro (Iranian Women’s Liberation Movement in the Year Zero), 16mm film, 1979

For every image of the past
that is not recognised by the present
as one of its own concerns
threatens to disappear irretrievably.
– Walter Benjamin1

My grandmother used to sew veils by hand. She would measure, cut and tailor her own veil, and sometimes also my mother’s veil. I remember this clearly. When she bought a new piece of fabric, she would say, with an excited smile, ‘This is going to be for the New Year’ and, a few days later, we would find her in the process of making her New Year veil. She would work slowly, but steadily. First of all, a square piece of blue fabric would be laid out on the floor to define her work space – clean and tidy. Then she would unroll the whole five metres of the new black fabric and try to find the beginning and the end of the piece. This was the most chaotic stage as folds and layers of black fabric would pile up on top of each other.

My grandmother would take hold of the top and bottom edges of the fabric and carefully align them, before folding the material many times into a square. This was the moment when she would make her final fold, superposing one corner onto the opposite one to make a triangular shape out of the square. This process seemed to require a great deal of concentration. It was not easy for her to do all this by herself, but she would be enjoying herself so much that no-one would dare to intervene unless specifically asked to help.

At this stage, my grandmother would cut a curve at the bottom of the triangular fold. I remember how expertly she would cut this curve. Now the moment had arrived when someone needed to put the cut-out fabric on their head so that my grandmother could make the appropriate adjustment. Usually, this would be my mother’s cue to join the process and stand on a stool wearing the unfinished veil. My grandmother would have her scissors ready next to the stool. My mother would gently place the unfinished veil on her head. Sleek black oil – this is how I saw the smooth and gentle dropping of the silky fabric onto her head. The fabric would espouse her body so gracefully that I was always envious of its embrace. This was the most beautiful fall of fabric that I remember seeing.

We are here for freedom. We are as many men as women. With or without the veil, we fight for freedom, for us and for the people.

The fifty photographs of the series Untitled (Witness ’79), taken by Iranian photojournalist Hengameh Golestan, capture the lost history of six days of demonstration, a revolt within the 1979 Iranian revolution and overthrow of the Pahlavi dynasty. Taken on the morning of the 8th of March 1979, the images document the tens of thousands of men and women marching on the streets of Tehran against the new regime’s bid to effectively turn Iran into an Islamic state and, more specifically, in resistance to Ruhollah Khomeini’s attempt to reinforce a compulsory dress code – the hijab.2

Despite its scale, this demonstration is absent from history books in Iran. The march did receive extensive international coverage with F Magazine and Charlie Hebdo in France, I’Untia Newspaper in Italy and The Economist in the UK, however the national media largely ignored the momentous event. Documentation on 16mm film was captured by the French journalist group Pratique, Politique et Psychanalyse (comprising Michelle Muller, Sylvina Boissonnas, Claudine Mulard and Sylviane Rey) and led to the joint production of a 12-minute short entitled Mouvement de Libération des Femmes Iraniennes – Année Zéro (Iranian Women’s Liberation Movement in the Year Zero, 1979). Including interviews with the demonstrators, the opening titles state ‘This film was made by Iranian women and members of the women’s liberation movement who thought, lived and directed it in March 1979’.3

At the time of these protests, the American feminist author Kate Millett was in Iran attending a conference at Tehran University for International Women’s Day. In an interview with members of the Pratique, Politique et Psychanalyse group, Millett noted ‘I never before saw women, who organized themselves so fast and so numerously.’ The narrative of the short film goes on to proclaim that ‘on the 13th of March, Khomeini revoked the decree forcing women to wear a veil’, saying that it had merely been intended as a ‘suggestion’ or ‘recommendation’. This, however, was not the end of the protest. More than 10,000 women and men gathered in the streets of Tehran to call for equality, the right for women to work and the freedom to assemble. The film concludes that ‘no revolution will endure without women’s liberation’.

Looking at the content of the video more closely, journalists are seen and heard asking participants the reason that they are out on the streets. One woman responds passionately: ‘We are here for freedom. We are as many men as women. With or without the veil, we fight for freedom, for us and for the people.’ Another young woman, a student at Tehran University, talks about trying to do something before it is too late: ‘We are protesting for our rights on equality and freedom… We need to protest now and voice our demands before the constitution is written. Otherwise, they will not make any allowances for women after the law has been passed. We are not protesting against the veil only, but for all these other issues connected to forcibly veiling someone, which we believe are much more important than just the act of veiling itself.’ An old woman in a patterned veil explains: ‘I have been wearing the chador for years now for my own personal reasons. I’m not here to try to stop wearing the chador; rather I’m the mother of six daughters and I’m protesting because I don’t want them to be forced to wear the chador if they don’t want to. I’m here to defend my daughters from the enforcement of the chador by men.’ Many of those who took part in the protest, regardless of their own practices, wanted to maintain the right to choose for others and for future generations.

The act of covering has been introduced and repealed many times throughout Iran’s history. In 1936, Reza Shah Pahlavi introduced the decree Kashf-e hijab – a ban on the hijab (headscarf) and chador (veil) as part of his secularising project.4 The word ḥijāb in the Quran refers to women’s dress code, as well as a spatial partition or curtain that conceals the view. In Farsi, poshesh (clothing) derives from the verb pushidan, meaning to cover up or conceal from view, whereas the English term ‘dress’ refers, among other things, to decorate or adorn. The Persian word chador derives from chadir, which in modern Turkish, as Çagla Hadimioglu notes, means ‘tent’.5 With this in mind, the chador can be seen as nomadic, facilitating a woman’s movement, enabling her to occupy a private space while walking in public. Following the Shah’s decree, any woman found covered in public was to be forcibly uncovered. As a result, the Unveiling Act (1936) ultimately ensured that women who had spent their entire lives wearing the veil would remain in the private confines of their homes since, for them, walking the street unveiled was tantamount to walking the street naked.6 Despite the level of force surrounding the Act, the dominant feminist response at the time was celebratory. It was seen as such an important milestone that Reza Shah made the 7th of January ‘National Women’s Day’, replacing the 8th of March ‘International Women’s Day’ and seeking to modernise the country by destroying the boundaries between the andaroni (the private and inner domain) and the bironi (the public and outer domain). Subsequently it was unveiled women who symbolised the secular and westernised regime. The Act exposed women to life outside the home, visiting shops, entering schools, joining the workforce and generally living a public life in the same way as men.

In 1979, following the announcement of a compulsory dress-code by Khomeini, women ‘wrapped in a black chador’ became icons of the Islamic Revolution. After the Revolution, women could not ‘wear obvious colours, make-up, perfume, or anything that might attract the attention of the Basij or “moral police”’.7 The Islamic Revolution called for the foundation of an Islamic state based on Islamic principles and the upholding of Islamic law. It imposed the veiling of women as a visible symbol of that commitment. In Muslim families, girls are considered adults from the age of nine. Thus, after a formal ceremony in the mosque called a task (Jashn-e Taklif), they need to start covering their body and hair by wearing the veil and/or a long tunic and loose pair of trousers whenever they are in public or in the presence of men who are not family members or relatives.

The uprising in 1979 resisted the possibility that the “hidden curtains” would once again be drawn and women would become invisible, and Golestan’s photographs secure this act of resistance in Iranian feminist history.

It is necessary to understand how much women had struggled before the Iranian Revolution to, in turn, understand why resistance to a compulsory dress code in 1979 represented a fight for knowledge and independence. Prior to the 1906 Constitutional Revolution (1906–11), women were generally not educated in Iran and were confined to the home, rarely venturing out. If a woman did need to go outside for a particular reason, she would have to cover herself from head to toe with a heavy veil. Thus, women were essentially hidden in their own home or, in the case of concubines, the harem. For many women, there was little opportunity to socialise or gather apart from on the rare occasions when they could meet in mosques, at baths or at times of religious mourning, or within their neighbourhoods in the small alleys between their houses. With representative government, educational reform, and modernisation chief among the objectives of the Constitutionalists, a group of educated and enlightened women played a strong role in terms of the schools and societies they founded, the articles they wrote and the journals they published.8 The uprising in 1979 resisted the possibility that the ‘hidden curtains’ would once again be drawn and women would become invisible, and Golestan’s photographs secure this act of resistance in Iranian feminist history. Two decades later, colourful and vibrant hijabs became the symbol of a new era of progress and reform in the Islamic Republic, upheld during Mohammad Khatami’s reformist presidency (1997–2005). Apart from this fairly brief period, since 1979, Iran has been ruled by Islamic fundamentalist Shi’ism. The hijab, the primary signifier of the Muslim faith in the field of visibilities, has become an accessory, something that can be added to and which complements an outfit as a form of aesthetic resistance. Women of today’s Iran continue to publicly express their resistance, appropriating the object of oppression and turning it into an object of aesthetic pleasure – tight garment, colourful scarf, short trousers, loose shawl showing their hair beneath.9

Now, on the streets of Tehran, one can see the Islamic urban landscape embodying different degrees of Islam through women’s dress code. There is an increasing mix of veiled women in black walking alongside women wearing brightly-coloured garments and headscarves and heavy make-up. The black veils can be seen as the pure representation of the Islamic state, whereas the colourful headscarves, garments and make-up are an indication of the processes of re-interpretation and appropriation of their dress codes.

Footnotes
  1. Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt, Illuminations: Theses on the Philosophy of History (trans. Harry Zohn), New York: Schocken Books, 1969, pp.263–66.

  2. See Haideh Daragahi and Nina Witoszek ‘Anti-Totalitarian Feminism? Civic Resistance in Iran’, in Civil Society in the Age of Monitory Democracy, Studies on Civil Society (ed. Lars Trägårdh, Nina Witoszek and Bron Taylor), Oxford: Berghahn Books 2013, pp.231–254.

  3. See fig.6, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ulJwXHji6f4 (last accessed 10 July 2018).

  4. See Ali Razi, The Complete History of Iran (Tarih‐I-Mofassal‐I-Iran), Tehran: Eghbal and Shorakae Publication, 1956, pp.659–664.

  5. Çagla Hadimioglu, ‘Black Tents’, TEXT, 2010, http://www.text-revue.net/revue/heft-8/black-tents/text (last accessed 10 July 2018).

  6. Badr ol-Moluk Bamdad and Nasrin Rahimieh, From Darkness into Light: Women’s Emancipation in Iran, California: Mazda Publications, 2013, pp.7–23.

  7. Ayatullah Morteza Motahhari, The Problem of the Hijab, Tehran: Basir Publications, 1986, p.29.

  8. See for example, Taj al-Saltana Crowning Anguish: Memoirs of a Persian Princess from the Harem to Modernity 1884–1914 (ed. Abbas Amanat; trans Anna Vanzan and Amin Neshati), Washington DC: Mage Publishers, 1993, p.200.

  9. Jennifer Craik, Fashion: The Key Concepts, Oxford: Berg, 2009, p.42.