It’s a Tuesday night. You’re flipping through TV channels aimlessly, and you happen to come across the latest episode of Bravo’s reality show Shahs of Sunset, produced by reality-TV mogul Ryan Seacrest. If you’re not an Iranian-American, you might find yourself interested enough to watch, or you might not and continue flipping. If you are an Iranian-American, however, chances are you’ll switch the channel immediately, but not before cringing at the way the show portrays Iranian culture as exclusively materialistic and superficial. Shahs doesn’t do any favors for its female “stars,” especially; most, if not all of them, are depicted as shallow hedonists concerned with little more than bickering with each other at that night’s over-the-top party.
One of the many problems with Shahs of Sunset lies in the fact that viewers can inadvertently start seeing this small group of people as representatives for Iranian-Americans, and their Iranian counterparts, as a whole. The alternatives aren’t any better, either; the defacement of a Gap subway ad reveals that Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim are still equated with terrorists. So: what do you do when the two poles of your cultural spectrum are reduced to terrorist or hedonist?
You look towards people like Newsha Tavakolian. An Iranian-born photojournalist, Tavakolian works to reveal truths about a nation and a culture to a world all too ready to subscribe to existing stereotypes. Tavakolian first received critical attention for the photographs she captured of the 1999 student riots in Tehran, but went on to establish herself as an artist with series of photographs entitled Listen and The Day I Became a Woman. Two of the most striking images of Listen depict a woman, garbed in hijab (the mandatory veil that all women in Iran are required to wear in public), wearing red boxing gloves in one photograph and being buffeted by ocean waves in another. The Day I Became A Woman, whose images concern the Iranian rite of passage from girlhood into womanhood, document the “before” and “after” of this ceremony; in one image, the viewer sees a young girl dressed in a ballerina’s outfit, doll in hand, while the one that comes directly after depicts the same girl, garbed in hijab like her older counterpart, hands crossed across her chest.
The aesthetic and political power of these images lies in the looks on the faces of the photographs’ subjects. It’s not sadness nor despair the viewer sees in the eyes of Tavakolian’s women; rather, it’s defiance, in the sense that while their bodies might be veiled against their will, their identities as women can not be. The image of the woman standing amidst the ocean’s waves with a look of placid serenity draws attention to an emotional strength within her and suggests that, like a pillar, she cannot be shaken easily, not by the waves battering her body nor the vicissitudes of the Iranian regime’s attitude towards women. Likewise, Tavakolian’s young girl-woman in The Day I Became a Woman bears a confrontational gleam in her eyes post-metamorphosis, almost daring viewers to project their own images onto her and pity her for the childhood they think she has lost.
In a world inclined to view Muslim women as uneducated, repressed and victimized, Tavakolian’s artistry reveals a different side to the Iranian woman: one that paints her as strong, above all other things. After all, Iranian women are forces to be increasingly reckoned with, exerting more influence in the fields of politics, sciences and the arts in Iran than they ever have historically. The Iranian women of Tavakolian’s world are a far, far cry from their counterparts paraded around on Shahs of Sunset. Like the Iranian culture itself, they are complex, multifaceted, and definitely more than hedonists, terrorists, or victims of men, existing outside the brushstrokes of the pictures the rest of the world tries to paint.
Take that, Ryan.
Incidentally, the four photos mentioned in this article, from Listen and The Day I Became a Woman, are currently on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The exhibit will run until December 15th. For more information on this exhibit and others, visit lacma.org.
photograph: Newsha Tavakolian