Photo Of The Day

© Hengameh Golestan. Who speaks up for such women now? No one. But who speaks up for their oppressors? Many, many people.

© Hengameh Golestan.
Who speaks up for such women now? No one. But who speaks up for their oppressors? Many, many people.

The Day 100,000 Iranian Women Protested The Headscarf

Who spoke up for these women? No-one. Where are they now?

Those who are still alive are all wearing the hijab, unless they were able to escape from Iran.

Who speaks up for such women now? 

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 said. She describes this kind of historical record as “inaccessible” in Iran.

Golestan, now 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.”

The spontaneous uprising of both women and men was an effort “to protect the achievements of women’s right in the [preceding] 70 years of Iranian history.

Golestan says the black and white images were shot across several days of protests, beginning on International Women’s Day. She would like to emphasize that the demonstrations were in favour of women’s rights — not against religion.

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.

© Hengameh Golestan

© Hengameh Golestan

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.

It wasn’t a protest against religion or beliefs, in fact many religious women joined the protest, this was strictly about women’s rights, it was all about having the option. Despite these demonstrations, the law remained, and newspapers declined to publish Golestan’s pictures.

“In the days before selfies, Photoshop and citizen journalism, photos were vital, a visual document that might otherwise not be seen.

“For me, taking a picture was a way to document events that were happening around me, no matter what my opinion was of the event, the camera was still objective at that point, it was just recording the truth.”

Her photographs from the protests, have still never been shown in Iran.

Hengameh took her first images aged 18, and for a brief time attended photography school in England, but learnt most about taking pictures from working as her husband’s assistant. Hengameh was married to the award-winning Iranian photojournalist Kaveh Golestan, who died while on assignment in Iraqi Kurdistan, in 2003.

© Hengameh Golestan

© Hengameh Golestan

“To say that working with Kaveh was inspiring would be an understatement,” she says. “He was always critiquing my work and offering advice to help me improve. Technically and also spiritually I got everything from him.”

Hengameh liked to photograph everyday life in her home city of Tehran, in particular the lives of women and children, and quiet, often mundane domestic details. But in 1979, when she was 27, revolution came. In January, following two years of demonstrations, the last Persian monarch – the Shah – left Iran for exile. In February, Ayatollah Khomeini returned to the city, bringing about the final collapse of the royal reign and a new Islamic Republic.

“It was the best time of my life,” says Golestan. “I was in the streets from morning until night as something was always happening. Every day was so unpredictable. The mood was one of anticipation and excitement, and a bit of fear. We were actively taking part in shaping our future through actions rather than words and that felt amazing.”

So when more than 100,000 women gathered on the streets of the Iranian capital to protest against the new Islamic government’s compulsory hijab ruling, that meant that women would henceforth be required to wear a headscarf when away from home. Sensing the importance of the occasion, Golestan decided to attend as a photographer rather than a protester. At the time, there were few documentary photographers in Tehran. “People were not really familiar with that type of journalism,” says Golestan. “At demonstrations…there were not enough of us [photographers] to be noticed….But taking pictures in the crowd was not easy, most of the time I was running and hiding from the government officials who did not want images to be taken. It was a solo undertaking, the fact that you would have to constantly run and hide made it impossible to go in as a team.”

© Hengameh Golestan

© Hengameh Golestan

“People in Iran were very politically charged at this point in time [in 1979]” says Golestan. “This demonstration was, for us, the women, a continuation of the revolution. We were sure that we as the people could get what we wanted, although we were disappointed in the end. But Iranian women are very strong and resilient. We took it in our stride.”

Golestan has lived in London for just over 30 years, having moved to the UK in 1984 with her husband and son.

When hundreds of thousands, maybe even over a million, people gather to protest something superimposed onto them you got to feel pretty sad. What would we do if we were stuck in the same situation with half of the country supporting pure savagery and the other half opposing it?

The Telegraph


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