|My mission is to create a text which captures the knowledge I have acquired. This mission is incidental to the task I set out for myself some years ago: to carve a space for the 'personal' in the discourse about and by Iranian women on the gender struggles in Iran prior to, during and after the 1979 Revolution. This had to be a space where the voice could be heard in the intimacy of the 'private' addressing issues that are 'public' because they affect the conditions of our lives. I have approached this task as an artist, and I wish my work to be viewed as art because I have no expertise in the social sciences and, as a practitioner with a particular past, I am distrustful of the paradigms of and boundaries around knowledge, its acquisition and its language in the Western, still male-dominated academic environment. By default, I find myself in the 'margins', still the space for the post-colonial and the feminist. But my relations to these two are ambivalent, for I am also critical of both for their exclusivist histories and representational practices that, in their own time, have suppressed, or at best ignored, the voices of The Other to the Other: Spread across boundaries of race, class, nationality, culture and sexual orientation, we face the challenges of defining our subjectivities and reconstructing our histories in perpetual defiance of the established power institutions and their intrinsic hierarchies. My accomplishment should be the creation of documents that reveal my localized and specific experiences of domination and resistance, as I commit them to memory, as they shape my subjectivity.|
|Although feminist reconstructions of history place women and their activism on the main stage of the revolutionary movements in Iran, the revolutionary movements in Iran, defined and led by men, have consistently relegated women to the shadows, behind the curtains. In Iran, like in most countries in the region, policy reforms toward improving women's conditions of life and legalizing their participation in the political domain came about incrementally as part of modernization schemes devised by governments that, in their despotic rule, had failed Iranians in many other ways.
During the 1978-79 revolutionary period in Iran, in one of the most significant popular uprisings of this century, millions of women took to the streets, along with men, to protest the oppressive social, economic and cultural policies of Mohammad Reza Shah's state. Facing the best equipped-army in the region with little more than their massive numbers, they succeeded in overthrowing the Pahlavi monarchy.
There is no consensus among the many participating factions, or even among academic experts, on what exactly to call this revolution. Different voices from different ideological perspectives define the Revolution as anti-imperialist, populist, authentically Islamic, originally secular, progressive, fundamentalist or varying combinations of these in various degrees of intensity. In fact, nobody can tell in all certainty why the Iranians revolted or when exactly the Revolution started. Did it start on January 9th, 1978, when the ShahÕs police opened fire onto a crowd of demonstrators in Qom, the religious capital of Iran, leaving twenty dead and three hundred injured? Did Shah plant the seeds of the revolution in 1963 with his White Revolution which displaced a large number of peasants and caused an uproar among the ulama who were against many of his modernization schemes, particularly the right to vote for women and the land reform? Did the RevolutionÕs roots reach further back: To the 1951-53 Oil Nationalization Movement which failed because of a CIA-devised coup d'état? Or, earlier yet, to the 1905-1911 Constitutional Revolution which established Iran's first parliament, aiming to curb the monarchyÕs monopoly of power? Or, even earlier, to the 1891-92 nation-wide protest and boycott that, originating in anti-colonial sentiments, succeeded in forcing the Qajar shah to revoke a British subjectÕs tobacco monopoly in Iran, and which brought forth the ulama as political leaders?
What is certain is that in the process of the revolution, the fundamentalist Islamic faction, led by the exiled cleric Rooh'Alah Khomeini, succeeded in taking hold of the leadership of the spontaneous and self-directed uprising.
The regime that came to power in 1979 revoked many of the individual, social and political rights that women had gained over the years not only through political activism but, most importantly, by our sheer audacity and will to be present in the 'public', a space guarded by religion and culture as the domain of men. Although Khomeini repeatedly praised women for their courageous participation in the revolution, the best role he could see for them was to be good Moslem mothers raising good Moslem children in a truly Islamic society. This was not merely political rhetoric. Through reinstitution of Shari'a, the Islamic legal system, within a short time after the Revolution we lost the right to divorce and to keep custody of our children, the right to hold office in the judiciary and much of the political systems and even basic individual rights such as the right to determine our own future or choose our clothes.
While on March 8th, 1979 (less than a month after the revolutionary take-over) women staged one of the first public demonstrations against the new oppressive rules and faced one of the first instances of mob attacks - which were to become an effective weapon in the campaign against all dissenting voices - the male-dominated political opposition in Iran, mostly on the left, abandoned us in the struggle for our specific rights on the premises that gender equality could only be defined as a by-product of socialist and/or democratic systems, and that focusing on women's rights at that moment was secondary and even harmful to the class struggle and to the 'larger' struggle for democracy. Soon, the regime obliterated all opposition with a similar logic. The war with Iraq created the right environment: The Sacred War demanded Islamic Unity. Armed with holy words and deadly weapons, the authorities effectively eliminated organized dissent by killing thousands of political activists (women and men), imprisoning thousands more, and forcing millions of Iranians to leave their country to save their lives.
|Twenty years later, I accidentally found out about Michel Foucault's journalistic activities at the time of the Iranian Revolution. At the height of the street demonstrations and massacres, he made two consecutive trips to Iran on commission by the Italian daily, Corriere dela sera, and sent back a number of dispatches in which he not only reported his observations but also grappled with fundamental questions risen about the increasingly Islamic tone and leadership of the revolution. He came under heavy criticism by the European Left who were distrustful of Islam as a political force. But he argued that perhaps the world was watching the rebirth of a "political spirituality", something that Christendom had forgotten for centuries. Later, in an interview with two other journalists who were also in Iran during the revolution, he insisted that Iranians' uprising was not merely to change a government, though that had become the singular aim of the movement, but to "radically change their own subjectivity". He went to visit Khomeini several times when the latter was in Neauphles-le-Chateau, near Paris. It is reported that in the return trip from one of these visits, he said to his companions "how very impressed he had been ... to see that wearing the veil was a political gesture: women who were not in the habit of wearing it insisted on putting it on to participate in demonstrations".|
|I participated in the street demonstrations in 1978-79, and, like many other women, resisted wearing the veil in spite of the threats and the harassment. True, there were many women who voluntarily took up some form of veiling, as a gesture of solidarity or because of a new-found belief in Islam as a political religion. But I can remember having been subjected to, witnessed and heard about, as far back as 1976, many instances of verbal and physical attack on unveiled women, some quite similar to what we see today in Algeria: Acid throwings and beatings all. Persuasion was in full force by the power which was gradually shaping around Islam not just as a religion or an ideology but as a political agenda.
Since the beginning of his campaign against the Shah in 1961, Khomeini had repeatedly spoken against women's unveiling and their right to vote. The unveiling became national law in 1936 by Shah's father as part of his westernization schemes in Iran. Women's enfranchisement was one of the reforms brought by Shah's White Revolution.
But veiling, seen in its historical context, had to mean more than a symbolic act of protest. Throughout the centuries, the veil has been an effective tool of male domination over women's bodies and lives.
Foucault was intoxicated, like my seventeen-year-old self, by the daily manifestations of the "collective will of a people" on the streets of Iran where we faced Shah's brutal army with bare hands. But if I can't blame him for his fervour, I can at least question this: Whose subjectivity was undergoing change and by what means?
|ShiftingShadowSolitude is the fictional auto/biographies of three Iranian women presented in the form of an interactive hypermedia narrative programme (delivered on cd-rom). Drawing on private and public archives, historical accounts and personal memories, the narrative employs the processes of remembering, recovering, reshaping and retelling of women's subjectivity as a feminist tale. It investigates, from the converging points of view of three women who live (and die) in Canada, the experiences of exile in the context of the 1979 Iranian Revolution and its aftermath. The narrative integrates written and spoken words, photographs, video and sound to create a media-rich, layered text which unfolds in 3 interlocking stories:
Shortly after her refugee hearing, Mina, a 29-year-old Iranian, is accidentally pushed to her death under a subway train by a stranger (Madman) when he grabs her bag. It is through the refugee claim documents in her bag, which is found later, that we find out about her life, including her political activism during and after the Revolution, her arrest and subsequent imprisonment, her years in the Islamic government's prisons, her forced marriage after her release, her escape from Iran and her arrival in Canada.
Writing in her diary, Goli, a 33-year-old exiled artist, contemplates abortion and suicide after the breakup of an unhappy relationship. As we read her diary, we find her drawing parallels between her own experiences and the life of her childhood friend, Mina.
In a letter to a friend, Bita, a woman on her deathbed, ponders the meaning of her life as she recounts a dream and, in the process, reveals her connections to Mina and Goli.
Each story consists of 36 segments (screens), organized in 9 circles, each plotting 4 corners of a square. Thematically, the circles are: Openings, Shadows, Journeys, Memories, Cries, Pauses, Whispers, Silences and Revelations. The four corners of the squares correspond to the knowledge paradigm Knower-Knowing-Known-Unknown.
The governing structure of the narrative is a harmonic growth diagram constructed based on a 12-point star inspired by Islamic patterns. The programme starts from the peripheries with multiple narrative paths converging toward the center of the pattern where the truth about the women lies, waiting to be discovered by the interactor (reader/viewer). The diagram reveals the links between different spaces (screens) of the narrative and acts as the map of the environment. The programme traces the interactorÕs path on this map, which is accessible at all times, to allow the interactor to locate herself in the environment. If personalized, the programme can remember the interactorÕs last place for reading/viewing in multiple sessions.
|In spite of highly tragic setbacks, Iranian women have continued to fight for their rights and have been successful in redefining the agenda for political change to include gender equality. Ironically, nowadays everybody who is in need of political fame or legitimacy, either within the system or in opposition, seems to have converted to some form of feminism.|