A new book documents art and resistance in Iran

Woman Life Freedom offers a wide-ranging look at how people have used all kinds of creative means to make their voices heard

One year after the death of Jina Mahsa Amini at the hands of the ‘morality police’ in Iran comes a new book named after the movement that rose up in its wake.

Iranians – led by women and girls – poured out into the streets of cities across each and every province, echoed by satellite demonstrations around the world, as they chanted Zan Zendegi Azadi or Jin Jîyan Azadî, meaning Woman Life Freedom in Persian and Kurdish respectively.

Edited by Malu Halasa, a writer and editor specialising in Middle Eastern art and literature, the new book brings together insightful written accounts of the past year – and the pivotal events of long before – with a broad range of images showing how visual media helped to propagate messages of resistance.

Top: Woman Life Freedom by Mina M Jafari; Above: Women of Iran by Or Yogev
The Power of Women by Babak Safari

Social justice movements are often emblematised by evocative, symbolic imagery, and for Woman Life Freedom, the image of a woman removing the hijab – mandatory under Iranian law – became shorthand for the uprising.

In the book, the Iranian Women of Graphic Design (IWofGD) describe the image of cutting hair as “a worldwide symbol of protest against cruelty, injustice and anti-women laws”. The collective runs an extensive online resource making protest visuals – among others – readily available to the masses.

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The Persian Rosie by Ghazal Foroutan
Illustration by Jalz of the Azadi (Freedom) Tower with Matisse’s dancers and the protest slogan ‘Women, Life, Freedom’

The book covers mediums that have long provided a canvas for revolution, from posters to graffiti to performance. These examples appear alongside modern-day mechanisms like social media posts, which, according to the book, offer “new, nimble ways to subvert regime censors and internet morality police”. Halasa explains that this mix of tradition and modernity underpins “dissident art” in Iran, which “often blends centuries-old indigenous motifs with contemporary global memes”.

It also examines the various everyday means of expressing resistance: the rare women fashion designers recalibrating dress codes, or the group of mostly women who not only show their hair, but dye it in a spectrum of rainbow hues too.

As art historian Pamela Karimi answers in an enlightening Q&A, “the art of the Woman, Life, Freedom protests operates in informal, tangible and profound ways. Art has become an integral part of everyday life.”

Woman Life Freedom edited by Malu Halasa is published by Saqi Books; saqibooks.com