‘Something in me sparked’: the Iranian women using art to protest | Graphic design

The Azadi (“Freedom”) tower is one of Tehran’s most recognisable 20th-century landmarks. Built under the reign of the last Shah of Iran, it was finished in 1971 and named Shahyad Tower (Shah Memorial Tower). Following the 1979 revolution, associations with royalty were swiftly removed. Now, it’s being associated with freedom from the very regime which renamed it.

The Iranian graphic designer Jalz has drawn on the tower for one of his designs in support of the recent protest movement. “This is the sole image of Iran’s freedom,” argues Jalz. Combining an image of the tower with Matisse’s dancers and the “women, life, freedom” protest slogan which is so central to the movement, he wanted to complete the sense of freedom for the female body.

Touraj Saberivand uses images from traditional Persian book painting to address the crisis.
Touraj Saberivand uses images from traditional Persian book painting to address the crisis. Photograph: Touraj Saberivand

Jalz’s work comes in response to a wave of protests across Iran in the wake of the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who died in hospital on 16 September having been arrested, and reportedly beaten, by Iran’s so-called “morality police” for flouting the country’s misogynistic dress laws. Since then, the protests have spread across Iran, calling for women’s rights and, increasingly, the end of the regime. In tandem with the protests on the ground, photographs and videos have flooded the internet, with the hashtag of Mahsa’s name in Persian becoming one of the most used in Twitter’s history.

At the forefront of the movement are Iran’s Gen Z, who are tech-savvy and hungry for change. But in the days that followed the start of the protests, the government blocked access to WhatsApp and Instagram and continues to limit access to the internet. Some inside the country are still able to access Instagram using VPN connections or the Tor anonymity network, but it has currently fallen largely to Iranians in the diaspora to keep the movement’s message of freedom and rights for women alive on Instagram.

Ghazal Foroutan’s revolutionary Rosie the Riveter.
Ghazal Foroutan’s revolutionary Rosie the Riveter. Photograph: Ghazal Foroutan

Iranian artists around the world quickly began to respond to and support the movement. Many of them are looking to existing symbols of protest and freedom to express their solidarity. Some common themes are the red, green and white of the Iranian flag; Iran depicted as a woman; the tulip representing the blood of martyrs; and slogans depicted in traditional calligraphic styles. Touraj Saberivand has used elements from some of the masterpieces of Persian book painting to meld a sense of Iran’s history with current events.

He uses the now famous news image of a woman standing on a car bonnet, her face obscured by a mask but her hair uncovered, one hand raised in the peace sign. In the other, she brandishes a stick holding her burning headscarf as if she is keeping a circle of demons at bay. Discussing his work, Saberivand quoted the well-known line from the 13th-century Persian poet Sa’di Shirazi: “If one member is afflicted with pain, other members uneasy will remain”. He sees the young generation on the streets putting this value into practice, with men and women out on the street together.

The main slogan of the movement, the Persian “zan, zendegi, azadi”, or “women, life, freedom”, is a translation of a common Kurdish protest cry. Multidisciplinary artist Sahar Ghorishi wanted to draw attention to the centrality of women in this movement, but also to express Mahsa Amini’s Kurdish ethnicity. In addition to using elements of the Kurdish flag, Ghorisi – who has Kurdish heritage but now lives in New York – calls Amini by her Kurdish name, Zhina.

Sahar Ghorishi draws attention to the centrality of women to the movement.
Sahar Ghorishi draws attention to the centrality of women to the movement. Photograph: Sahar Ghorishi

While these artists have turned to existing symbols with Iranian visual culture, others have turned outward. “I was seeing all the things people were posting and something in me sparked. I knew I had to be a part of it,” says Ghazal Foroutan, a graphic designer based in the US. Foroutan adapted the famous 1940s image of Rosie the Riveter, this time depicting her with her headscarf in her hand, proudly showing off her “no to compulsory hijab” tattoo. Having posted her design on Instagram, Foroutan started receiving requests for the image file so that it could be printed, and it has now been used at protests around the world.

Mahdieh Farhadkiaei’s playing card design.
Mahdieh Farhadkiaei’s playing card design. Photograph: Mahdieh Farhadkiaei

Also employing a familiar visual register, artist Mahdieh Farhadkiaei adapted her usually provocative playing card designs to show a lone queen taking a pair of scissors to her hair – an image that went viral on Instagram, being especially shared by non-Iranians.

In Iranian culture, women have historically cut their hair off in mourning, and over the past week we have seen videos of women snipping their locks at the funerals of loved ones killed by security forces. The act has also become a symbol of bodily autonomy and resistance against the oppressive regime.

As the protests continue, along with the violent government crackdown, some artists are now calling for a general strike in solidarity. At the start of the movement, Amirhossein Darafsheh produced designs incorporating the stances of women facing the security forces. Now, his design in support of a general strike uses traditional typography and is being shared widely.

Meanwhile Atieh Sohrabi, an artist now based in New York, has created a number of animated designs, all with one thing in common – the evocative image of the wind blowing through a woman’s hair.

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Since moving to New York from Tehran, she has felt more able to produce the artistic work she wants to, with a focus on women, free from the regime’s censorship laws. While Sohrabi is watching what is going on in Iran with a sense of sadness, she remains optimistic. “There’s an energy which is bringing hope. We can’t predict where it’ll go but it’s definitely something new and I don’t think we can turn back. Whatever happens, there will be a change.”

Despite this uncertainty, Sahar Ghorishi urges other artists to keep the momentum up, saying, “it’s draining but we have to keep going”. She added: “If only Mahsa was here to see what she’s done.”