When the pen is mightier than the sword: Supporting Iran's feminist uprising through art

The Iranians supporting the feminist uprising through art
6 min read
18 October, 2022

As protests sweep across Iran for more than four weeks, Iranian artists are finding inspiration to create work in support of the women-led movement.

When Iranian women started to rise up following the shocking death of 22-year-old Jina (Mahsa) Amini in custody, Forouzan Safari, a Los Angeles-based animator and illustrator, rejoiced in seeing her countryfolk protest against her country's strict hijab rules.

“We’ve been waiting for this for a long time,” the digital artist told The New Arab. “A couple of years ago, I was drawing images of Iran imagining a free, democratic nation where women were free to wear (or not) the headscarf,” hinting that both Iranian men and women had rebelled against their clerical leaders many times in the past but had been crushed each time.

"Using art to bring attention to the Iranian people’s struggle for freedom is fundamental as it keeps the conversation going and allows ideas to be exchanged"

When Forouzan draws about Iranian society, she wishes to counter widespread perceptions that the Iranian people and the clerical establishment are on the same page

After moving to the US nine years ago after a long ordeal to leave Iran, Forouzan has since established herself as a prominent digital creator, with her main inspirations sourced from Iranian social media.

One of her creations is dedicated to Minoo Majidi, who was shot by security forces during a protest on 20 September in the Kurdish city of Kermanshah in north-western Iran.

Readapting a striking image that has gone viral on Iranian social media channels, it shows one of Majidi's daughters standing on Azadi (Freedom) Square, in Tehran, unveiled and holding in both hands the long locks of hair she cut from her head, dressed in black with a white scarf around her neck.  

The Iranians supporting the uprising through art
Forouzan Safari's artistic tribute to Mahsa Amini [photo credit: Forouzan Safari]

Two days after Amini’s death, Forouzan paid tribute to the young Kurdish woman in a picture which was altered so to show the girl holding a bottle of water with her eyes closed and her body burning to represent the last moments of her life.

Well before protests hit Iran last month, Safari was picturing her fellow citizens, especially females, revolting against the Islamic Republic regime.

In one piece Forouzan drew women bareheaded, in black bodysuits, standing in front of Tehran’s iconic Azadi Tower – associated with freedom from the regime after the 1979 revolution. Her wish was to see someday Iranian women out in public raising their voices.

“This is happening today," the artist said. “It’s so heart-warming to see my dreams being materialised."

For Forouzan, using art to bring attention to the Iranian people’s struggle for freedom is fundamental as it keeps the conversation going and allows ideas to be exchanged. “This revolution is really powerful. We artists naturally got inspired and keep creating,” the animator added. “We can produce so much more now thanks to the digital age we live in.”

Demonstrations across Iran have raged for a month since Mahsa died after being detained by Iran’s “morality police” for not wearing the mandatory headscarf properly. The ongoing wave of anger has seen women at the forefront taking off and burning their hijabs, cutting their hair, and shouting slogans against the regime in an act of unprecedented defiance.

These weeks of unrest have seen a flow of protest art coming out of Iran and by Iranian artists in the diaspora.

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Touraj Saberivand, a design strategist who runs his own company in Tehran, was prompted by the tragic incident to put his skills to work. He has made use of images from Persian book paintings to blend traditional images with contemporary visuals, inviting viewers to reflect on Iran’s history. 

Pointing to his work, Touraj explained that one sketch, made in the first week of protests, uses a viral news image of a masked woman protester on top of a car during one rally in Tehran, with her hair uncovered, raising one hand in the peace sign and the other displaying a stick that holds her headscarf set on fire, surrounded by images of demons from old texts.

In another sketch, a small broken mirror appears in the middle reflecting ancient images of Persian warriors holding spears who are positioned all around.

Touraj Saberivand
Touraj Saberivand's artwork features ancient Persian portraits [photo credit: Touraj Saberivand]

Depicting women and men in his artworks, he noted that the main message to take away is that “the movement” matters. “This is an important moment in the history of feminism with men and women fighting together for women's liberation,” the graphic designer told The New Arab.

Earlier in July, he posted online a portrayal representing Vida Movahed, known as “The Girl of Enghelab Street”, who, in December 2017, stood on an electricity box in the centre of Tehran without a veil.

Photos of the young woman ​holding out her white scarf to a stick in protest of Iran’s compulsory hijab law went around the world then. The piece illustrates Movahed in her well-known pose, surrounded by Persian horsemen knights carrying swords, bows and arrows.

"Art should trigger people’s minds and raise questions,” Saberivand argued. His sketch of Vida Movahed came out at a time of increasing pressure over hijab compliance from Iranian authorities and much discussion generated by women’s rights campaigners and social-network activists.

“Artists are playing a vital role in the current uprisings," he said.

Zan, Zindagi, Azadi by Rahnama
'Zan, Zindagi, Azadi' by Rashid Rahnama [photo credit: Rashid Rahnama]

Despite the Iranian government’s widespread Internet blackouts and frequent blocking of social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, a number of artists inside the country have been able to stay digitally active by using VPN connections and continue to support the protest movement by sharing their pieces, even anonymously.

Many of them have turned to existing symbols of protest and freedom to express their solidarity.

Iran-based graphic designer Rashid Rahnama created a digital piece inspired by the protest slogan in Persian “Zan, Zindagi, Azadi” (or “Woman, life, freedom”) with hair filing the letters and in the background to send the message that women have the right to choose to cover their hair or not.

He also produced a graphic with the statement “All women have the right to be free” before the uprising, which he posted on Instagram after the street rallies began.

“As artists, we are creating work in solidarity with our people to keep the movement alive,” the graphic designer told The New Arab.

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Following the police crackdown on protesting students at Sharif University two weeks ago, Iranian theatre director Bahrām Beyzāêi wrote a poem supporting the student rally.

Rahnama took one of the poem’s verses, translating to “Iran’s mother has risen. She asked to get her country back from the demons” and turned it into a typographic post which he then shared on his Instagram account. “I’m using my art as a tool to show the world what’s going on.”

The artist also recently posted a graphic made from a line from a song by popular Iranian singer Dariush which translates to: “We have not lived how we want so we are not afraid of dying anymore.”

The Iranians’ artistic production in the past month has witnessed an abundance of protest artworks.

Among them, an anonymous artist turned several public fountains across Tehran red, last week to reflect the Iranian regime’s crackdown on the demonstrators.

Bahadur Hadizadeh created an animation of Tehran’s Azadi Tower adorned by dark hair blowing in the wind, in solidarity with Iranian women.

Meanwhile, New York-based prominent artist Shirin Neshat unveiled a digital art piece in London’s Piccadilly Circus and Los Angeles’ West Hollywood, highlighting Iran's deteriorating human rights situation.

Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis.

Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec