In Rebellious Silence, the central figure’s portrait is bisected along a vertical seam created by the long barrel of a rifle. Presumably the rifle is clasped in her hands near her lap, but the image is cropped so that the gun rises perpendicular to the lower edge of the photo and grazes her face at the lips, nose, and forehead. The woman’s eyes stare intensely towards the viewer from both sides of this divide.
Shirin Neshat’s photographic series Women of Allah examines the complexities of women’s identities in the midst of a changing cultural landscape in the Middle East—both through the lens of Western representations of Muslim women, and through the more intimate subject of personal and religious conviction.
While the composition—defined by the hard edge of her black chador against the bright white background—appears sparse, measured and symmetrical, the split created by the weapon implies a more violent rupture or psychic fragmentation. A single subject, it suggests, might be host to internal contradictions alongside binaries such as tradition and modernity, East and West, beauty and violence. In the artist’s own words, “every image, every woman’s submissive gaze, suggests a far more complex and paradoxical reality behind the surface.” 
The Women of Allah series confronts this “paradoxical reality” through a haunting suite of black-and-white images. Each contains a set of four symbols that are associated with Western representations of the Muslim world: the veil, the gun, the text and the gaze. While these symbols have taken on a particular charge since 9/11, the series was created earlier and reflects changes that have taken place in the region since 1979, the year of the Islamic Revolution in Iran.
Iran had been ruled by the Shah (Mohammad Reza Pahlavi), who took power in 1941 during the Second World War and reigned as King until 1979, when the Persian monarchy was overthrown by revolutionaries. His dictatorship was known for the violent repression of political and religious freedom, but also for its modernization of the country along Western cultural models. Post-war Iran was an ally of Britain and the United States, and was markedly progressive with regards to women’s rights. The Shah’s regime, however, steadily grew more restrictive, and revolutionaries eventually rose to abolish the monarchy in favor of a conservative religious government headed by Ayatollah Khomeini.
Shirin Neshat was born in 1957 in the town of Qazvin. In line with the Shah’s expansion of women’s rights, her father prioritized his daughters’ access to education, and the young artist attended a Catholic school where she learned about both Western and Iranian intellectual and cultural history. She left, however, in the mid-1970s, pursuing her studies in California as the environment in Iran grew increasingly hostile. It would be seventeen years before she returned to her homeland. When she did, she confronted a society that was completely opposed to the one that she had grown up in.
One of the most visible signs of cultural change in Iran has been the requirement for all women to wear the veil in public. While many Muslim women find this practice empowering and affirmative of their religious identities, the veil has been coded in Western eyes as a sign of Islam’s oppression of women. This opposition is made more clear, perhaps, when one considers the simultaneity of the Islamic Revolution with women’s liberation movements in the U.S. and Europe, both developing throughout the 1970s. Neshat decided to explore this fraught symbol in her art as a way to reconcile her own conflicting feelings. In Women of Allah, initiated shortly after her return to Iran in 1991, the veil functions as both a symbol of freedom and of repression.
The veil and the gaze
The veil is intended to protect women’s bodies from becoming the sexualized object of the male gaze, but it also protects women from being seen at all. The “gaze” in this context becomes a charged signifier of sexuality, sin, shame, and power. Neshat is cognizant of feminist theories that explain how the “male gaze” is normalized in visual and popular culture: Women’s bodies are commonly paraded as objects of desire in advertising and film, available to be looked at without consequence. Many feminist artists have used the action of “gazing back” as a means to free the female body from this objectification. The gaze, here, might also reflect exotic fantasies of the East. In Orientalist painting of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, for instance, Eastern women are often depicted nude, surrounded by richly colored and patterned textiles and decorations; women are envisaged amongst other beautiful objects that can be possessed. In Neshat’s images, women return the gaze, breaking free from centuries of subservience to male or European desire.
Most of the subjects in the series are photographed holding a gun, sometimes passively, as in Rebellious Silence, and sometimes threateningly, with the muzzle pointed directly towards the camera lens. With the complex ideas of the “gaze” in mind, we might reflect on the double meaning of the word “shoot,” and consider that the camera—especially during the colonial era—was used to violate women’s bodies. The gun, aside from its obvious references to control, also represents religious martyrdom, a subject about which the artist feels ambivalently, as an outsider to Iranian revolutionary culture.
The contradictions between piety and violence, empowerment and suppression, are most prevalent in the use of calligraphic text that is applied to each photograph. Western viewers who do not read Farsi may understand the calligraphy as an aesthetic signifier, a reference to the importance of text in the long history of Islamic art. Yet, most of the texts are transcriptions of poetry and other writings by women, which express multiple viewpoints and date both before and after the Revolution. Some of the texts that Neshat has chosen are feminist in nature. However, in Rebellious Silence, the script that runs across the artist’s face is from Tahereh Saffarzadeh’s poem “Allegiance with Wakefulness” which honors the conviction and bravery of martyrdom. Reflecting the paradoxical nature of each of these themes, histories and discourses, the photograph is both melancholic and powerful—invoking the quiet and intense beauty for which Neshat’s work has become known.
As an outspoken, feminist and progressive artist, Neshat is aware that it would be dangerous to show her work in conservative modern-day Iran, and she has been living in exile in the United States since the 1990s. For audiences in the West, the “Women of Allah” series has allowed a more nuanced contemplation of common stereotypes and assumptions about Muslim women, and serves to challenge the suppression of female voices in any community. Shirin Neshat, “Artist Statement,” Signs Journal (accessed July 2015)