For the 12th consecutive day, protests sparked by the death of Mahsa (Zhina) Amini continue to rage across Iran. Amini, a Kurdish woman, died after being detained for three days by Iran’s “morality police,” who reportedly severely beat her for not wearing her government-mandated headscarf properly. Despite Iran’s brutal crackdown on dissent, protestors of all genders, ages, religions, ethnicities, and socioeconomic backgrounds continue to fight. Hundreds of videos of women burning their headscarves and cutting off their hair have spread swiftly across social media — and alongside them, Iranian and Kurdish artists are putting their skills to work to amplify their voices.
On Instagram, artist Jalz garnered thousands of likes by layering the dancing women from Henry Matisse’s “La danse” (1910) on top of Iran’s famed Freedom Square. “It is rare to dare to use collages of naked designs,” Jalz told Hyperallergic. The nude figures contrast sharply with the hair coverings and loose “manto” overcoats that women are required to wear. When read aloud, the Farsi typography blazoned above them is the Kurdish phrase “Jin – Jiyan – Azadi,” or “Woman, Life, Freedom,” a rallying cry heard in many of the protests.
Designer Asal Faraschi has also created digital posters of the “Woman, Life, Freedom” chant. “This is our new slogan, just like a mantra, a password,” they said. “In tribute to all brave Iranian women and those who are killed, like Mahsa Amini, and the ones might be killed on upcoming days and nights.”
Jalz writes that rather than protest graffiti and wheatpastes, “all work in Iran is digital. Our behavior is strictly controlled.” This is made immensely more difficult by the Iranian government’s widespread Internet blackouts. Many artists in Iran had difficulty sending messages and artwork for this story.
“I have lived and grown up in Iran and my whole life I’ve been witnessing this unfairness against women and human right violation by the regime,” wrote sculptor Kamran Sharif. Although he created his I am still living series of human hair and urethane pieces well before the current uprising, he has posted them again as their clear symbolism of trapped freedom and expression is more relevant than ever before.
Another poignant repost comes from celebrated artist Farah Ossouli, who shared a detail of her 2014 work “Fra Angelico and I.” The gouache painting, one of her contemporary takes on traditional miniatures from the Safavid period, comes from a series ominously titled Listen! Do you hear the darkness blowing. The imagery needs little explanation: The painful depiction of violence wrought by authorities against women and children arguably hits harder than Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica.”
The fight against government-ordered headscarves also encompasses people who do not identify as women. “To me, it’s very important to highlight that this fight is not only about women but also trans people who have been suffering the oppressive compulsory hijab laws in Iran,”said Nafas, a genderless and autistic illustrator. Homosexuality is heavily criminalized in Iran, which has laws that can even force LGBTQ+ people into unwanted gender transition surgeries.
“A lot of people think that it’s just (cis) women fighting on the streets although there are trans and non-binary people in the very front rows,” Nafas told Hyperallergic. “So there’s a lot of erasure happening at the moment and it’s important to make marginalized groups that are fighting this very same fight visible.”
Another often underrepresented struggle is the fight for Kurdish rights. “The slogan ‘Rise up for Iranian women,’ which is being spread in the media today, is incomplete in my opinion,” artist Zehra Doğan told Hyperallergic. “The death of a Kurdish woman paved the way for an unprecedented resistance in Iran.” Of the 76 accounted for deaths from police brutality, at least 17 have been from the Kurdish minority, including four children. While the foremost hashtag has repeated the name “Mahsa Amini” millions of times, Kurdish American artist and TikTokker @jiweenie expressed frustration that more people aren’t invoking her Kurdish name, “Zhina,” which would have been illegal for her to use since the Kurdish language is restricted in Iran. Kurdish people make up 10% of Iran’s population and have experienced relentless oppression under the Iranian government in recent years. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have reportedly killed at least nine people and wounded dozens of others in the neighboring Kurdish region of Iraq, accusing armed Kurdish people there of fueling the current protests within Iran’s borders.
Kurdish artist Zehra Doğan was recently taken into custody (and released on the same day) in Berlin after staging a performance that involved spreading henna, hair, and menstrual blood on the gates of the Iranian consulate. “Kurdish women in Iran are tortured both for their identity and because they are women … We are under our heads because of our identity and because we are women,” Doğan told Hyperallergic. “That’s why I practice my art with my hair and blood. I want to say ‘I am here,’ ‘we are here,’ with my femininity against the male state that oppresses women by holding them by their hair.”
Protestors are also demanding justice on a host of other issues, including widespread corruption and economic mismanagement, the governmental response to the pandemic, and US-led internationally imposed sanctions that have reportedly resulted in enormously detrimental effects on quality of life through a crumbling economy. As Iranians within the country battle on their home turf, many others find their own ways to fight from the diaspora around the world. “As an Iranian woman who had to immigrate to America I experienced the pain of diaspora and absence,” artist Forouzan Safari wrote in an email. “It is a strange feeling to see my home country Iran in pain and I’m not there to protest with my people.”
Some of her images evoke the power of Iranians fighting against their government’s armed forces. Others illustrate hope for a thriving, expressive, and harmonious Iran. “I like to use the power of images, universal cultural truths, and desire to evoke emotions and lead my audience on a path to freedom and peace.”
As Iranians both in Iran and abroad speak out, one demand from the global community is clear: Keep spreading the word and keep amplifying the fight. In the words of Goreshi: “ART IS A FORM OF EDUCATION AND SPREADING AWARENESS! Speak up! And never stop. Because I won’t.”