The day 100,000 Iranian women protested the head scarf
A seldom-seen collection of photographs, shot in Tehran in 1979, is challenging perceptions of the feminist movement in Iran
When 34-year-old photographer Azadeh Fatehrad first laid eyes on an image by Hengameh Golestan, of women protesting in the streets of Tehran in 1979, she was struck immediately — it was unlike anything she had seen before.
Born in 1981 in Iran, Fatehrad had learned in school that women made a smooth transition to Islamic rules imposed after the 1979 Revolution — in particular adopting a compulsory dress code, the hijab. But Golestan’s image told a different story: thousands of women in the street, protesting the announcement that the headwear would be mandatory.
“I couldn’t believe that photo was taken in Iran — I was completely surprised,” Fatehrad tells Women in the World by email. She describes this kind of historical record as “inaccessible” in Iran.
Golestan, 64, a pioneer of Iranian photojournalism, remembers the day of the protest well. “The atmosphere was very joyful,” she recalls, on the phone from London, where she has lived for three decades. “Women went on strike that day, because the night before they had announced in the papers that women should wear scarves when they went to work. So nobody went to work, they all went on strike, came to the streets and from early morning they began to march from the Tehran University.”
The date was March 8, International Women’s Day, and the image shows women from all walks of life — nurses, students, mothers — marching, smiling, arms raised in protest. More than 100,000 of them. At the time, Golestan recalls, Iranian people were very “politically charged” and believed change could be effected by demonstrating in the streets. “This time they were disappointed,” she says. “From the next day everybody had to wear the scarf.”
Golestan’s extraordinary black-and-white documentary photographs are currently on exhibition at The Showroom in London, in a show titled “Witness 1979”. The majority of the images she captured that day have never been exhibited or published before. Fatehrad is a co-curator of the show, and hopes to open a dialogue and challenge perceptions of Iran’s history and present. “I believe it is important to see the whole picture of the feminist movement in Iran, which began in 1909 after Constitutional Revolution and has developed over the years,” says Fatehrad.
The spontaneous uprising of both women and men on March 8, 1979, was an effort “to protect the achievements of women’s right in the [preceding] 70 years of Iranian history,” she adds.
Fatehrad’s “astonishing” first encounter with the passionate protest scene took place at a London book launch in 2009, for German artist Sandra Schäfer. Flicking through Schafer’s book, Kabul/Tehran 1979ff: Film Landscapes, Cities under Stress and Migration, Fatehrad says she was “instantly fascinated”. Golestan, it turned out, was at the event also and a friendship was struck between the women.
Golestan says the black and white images seen at Showroom were shot across several days of protests, beginning on International Women’s Day. She is eager to emphasize that the demonstrations were in favor of women’s rights — not against religion. “In fact many religious women joined us, as you can see in the pictures,” she points out.
In addition to the image that initially captivated Fatehrad, other pictures show protesters sheltering under umbrellas from the snow; a woman with her hands raised up joyously and defiantly (“everyone was so cheerful, clapping and saying ‘we are very strong’”) and a man and woman, side by side on the roof of a bus and surrounded by an enormous crowd. Golestan says the woman was a television actress and the man a mullah, attempting to keep the peace as tempers began to fray among the demonstrators.
Another photograph shows the vast number of people who took to the streets, with thousands of women blocking the road, as far as the eye can see. “That is when the women were sitting in the middle of the road and protesting, and around them there were a lot of students and their husbands who were supporting them,” says Golestan.
To engage the community, the gallery decided to display the photographs at life-size on its outside walls. The huge undertaking required the negatives to be processed in a drum scanner, and printed in three separate strips before being pasted together like billboard displays. “It was a challenging process,” says Fatehrad, “but at the end the historical images are displayed as large as real life — strong and present.”
At Golestan’s suggestion, the negatives’ sprocket holes and branding — “Kodak Film” — have been left visible, as an homage to the pre-digital photographic methods of her early working life.
Golestan met her husband, the award-winning photojournalist Kaveh Golestan, when she was just 18 and he was 19. Working as his assistant, she became aware she had an ease of access to women and children that he did not, and she began to utilize that to her advantage. “I love people and I found photography is a very good way to become close to people — to their feelings and everything,” she says, explaining her pleasure in the medium. “As soon as you show an interest, to take some pictures of someone, they open up to you and lots of things come out. And I like that, to be intimate with people. Photography is a very good way of doing it.”
In addition to being a woman, being small helps, she says, with a warm laugh. At around five-foot one, Golestan found her diminutive frame especially useful during the protest era. “That is actually the same thing with both me and my husband — we are both very small — and we thought that’s the perfect size for a photographer,” she reminisces. “When you see some tall American photographers, you can see them for miles, but for us you can just run away and fade in the crowd.”
Nevertheless, their occupation carried many risks and in 1984 the couple decided to relocate to London, with their infant son Mehrak, and travel to Iran for work as needed. In 1991, Kaveh – who had by then switched to cinematography — made a documentary for Britain’s Channel Four about media censorship in Iran, Recording the Truth. The 27-minute film resulted in Kaveh’s being banned from working in Iran by the authorities, and placed under house arrest for two years. Hengameh traveled back and forth from London with their young son to visit him.
After his release, Kaveh worked as a cameraman, excited by the possibility of utilizing satellite broadcasts to continue to document life in Iran and by 1999 he had joined the BBC’s Tehran bureau.
Kaveh died in 2003 at the age of 53. “After his death, I suddenly felt that I should take care of all his work and archives … especially when I found that some of his videotapes, negatives and slides were deteriorating,” says Golestan.
She is not planning to create any new photographic series now, devoting herself instead to restoring and preserving the archive and publishing as many images as possible – Kaveh’s and her own – in book form. “That period we were working in is really historical and important,” she says. “So I think I will dedicate the rest of my life to looking after our archives.”
With time to sort through Kaveh’s work, she is often surprised by images she has never seen before. “We were just looking at negatives, making a contact sheet, selecting something and sending it somewhere,” she says, describing the pace of their days as sought-after photojournalists.
Mehrak, 31, did not follow his parents into photography but shares their artistry and sense of social justice, as well as their desire to document the lives of ordinary people. He is a rapper – stage name, Reveal – and is currently completing a Masters degree in music ethnology, writing about hip-hop. “He is very interested in our work, but he says we are the visuals and he is the audio,” says Golestan, with undisguised pride. “It’s the same thing, actually, the social issues. All the things he’s talking about – youngsters and why they go on riots – [the same subjects] but in a different medium.”
Kaveh’s life ended instantly when he stepped on a landmine while on assignment for the BBC in northern Iraq. I ask Golestan if she thinks this was too high a price to pay — if Kaveh’s death shook her commitment to documentary photography.
“We had an understanding between each other — I mean me, my husband and my son — that that is our job and we have to do it, no matter what happens, you know? And we always followed that,” she says.
“Even in his last trip to Iraq, when he got killed, before going he asked me: ‘Are you sure that I should go? What shall I do? It’s going to be really dangerous,’ and I said ‘Just follow your feeling. If you think you should go you should go.’
Bearing witness to the lives of others is a responsibility, insists Golestan. “You do take a risk,” she admits. “But you always hope that you’re lucky.”
“Hengameh Golestan: Witness 1979” is on at The Showroom, London, until September 27.