I held my first photo exhibition in late 2017, a few months after returning from Mosul, Iraq, where I had documented the operation to liberate the city from Islamic State. From the first moments of the event, I felt gloomy as my family cast concerned looks at me while the press took pictures of my hair freely protruding from my scarf and clothes – a deliberate rebellion on my part against Iran’s conservative traditions and beliefs.
I suddenly experienced a flashback to all the ways in which I had been oppressed as a woman during my life. When I turned six, they pulled me out of my games with the boys in the neighbourhood. When I turned seven, they covered my head with the ugliest scarf in the world, which looked like a burlap sack, and sent me to school where, even though it was staffed solely by women, no one was allowed to remove the scarf.
Knowing my stubbornness, my mother tried to keep a scarf on my head by choosing a sky-blue one decorated with flowers and ribbons, something different from the black scarfs of others. I, however, found some release by ripping the scarf from under my chin, allowing me to breathe more freely. Although I had the best marks at school, my disobedience towards the restrictive rules meant that I was never encouraged academically. Every day, I wished I had been born a boy.
When I turned nine, I was close to the age of puberty and it was time to observe religious obligations. I was taught that if a man saw my body, it was me who would be burned in hell, where I would be hung by each strand of hair that had been visible. After weeks fearing being hung in hell, with my childish logic I found a solution in rebellion, reasoning that being hung from a bunch of hair would be less painful than from a strand. I ripped my scarf some more.
The more I matured and the more feminine I appeared, the heavier the burden of sins became. I started to hunch under this burden, to avoid the sin of seducing men with my growing breasts.
The final straw came when I was 14 and the authorities of the top-rated school that I was attending made me wear a chador, a big black cloth that covered my whole body except for my face. It led to a long depression, one that lasted 10 years. With the help of a therapist, I finally found the most important cause was the chador, that big black shroud.
I decided to wear a loose hijab and prepared myself for the price I would have to pay. I would lose the financial and emotional support of my wealthy community, which only passively respected women’s rights. I was aware of the consequences in a country where the hijab is legally obligatory and on every corner the morality police hunt women who don’t properly hide their female bodies, and arrest them using a snare pole. I would have no chance of being hired officially and permanently. Even so, I decided to drop out of studying physics and restart my career as a freelance journalist and photographer.
That night at my exhibition, I was again reminded of the wounds that I had thought were healed, wounds shared by women in neighbouring countries whose photographs I had taken. The deep wounds of the Yazidi and Iraqi women whose bodies became a battlefield and who were forced to become sex slaves, the women of Afghanistan who ran away to avoid being sold by their brothers and fathers to sex trafficking agents.
My struggle against the norms of the Islamic republic meant that my passport was confiscated for years and I became a prisoner in my country and society – and in my female body. That was until I felt freedom, marching in Tehran with other women, taking off our scarves and waving them while chanting: “We will kill those who killed our sister!” Mahsa Amini dying in custody after being arrested by the morality police was our threshold. We stood shoulder to shoulder, wound to wound, remembering every experience of being humiliated by an Islamic patriarchal system. I still can’t believe that I witnessed this historic moment: we have come a long way from the first time a woman was stoned to death for taking off her burqa.
There have been feminist movements in Iran before, particularly in the 2000s, but opposition to the hijab among even middle-class parents was rare, as my own experience showed. The demands of female activists were always to change legal discrimination and end domestic violence, “honour” killings and child marriage.
This new generation of educated daughters know that they have to establish ownership of their bodies in order to gain other rights. They are fighting in the streets with the support of their mainly young parents, chanting just three words: women, life, freedom. My deepest hope is that this generation will liberate themselves in a way that mine tried hard to in many ways – and could not.
Maryam Mazrooei is a war photographer and journalist
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