Talk at Cambridge University

25th April 2016

One could guess there was a time in the history, when men and women had no idea about the meaning of equality or inequality, in gender or beyond. That must have been a better times.
 In the history of civilization, when gender inequality was sensed, felt and recognized by some people, the groups, fronts and movements began to take hold. They tried to go back to the point when thing went wrong, and upon the wrong notions written or unwritten laws were imposed. The Movement wanted to re-think, and if possible, re-write those laws regarding gender inequality.
 In the history of ancient Iran, one single period in which women gained almost equal rights in participating in socio-political activities of their time was during the Achaemenid Empire. The artefacts remained from this period prove such argument.
 One example, among many others, is a petroglyph in Persepolis, depicting a woman riding a chariot, standing in a position above the wheel, hence being represented as the wheel of life.
 If, in a historical context, that was one of the heights of a society progressively acknowledging the role of the women, the lowest could be in the Iran of the 80s, after the Revolution and the start of the war with Iraq. During this time, women’s activities for gaining the rights entered a hiatus. That slowing down of the movement, due to the pressure from the regime, was justified by the need for unity during a bloody war. There was no time for “petty matters” and the nation’s future was at stake.
 It happened that I became aware of my body and her changes during the same years as the war was on, when foreign or pop music was banned, there was no Internet or virtual world to escape to or a Facebook to seek a temporary refuge in. The soundtrack of my life was the traditional shiia mourning songs (no-heh) and revolutionary songs played around clock on radio and TV. These propaganda sounds were meant to make the youth emotional and boost their sense of Islamic nationalism. In another word, to prepare them for the war and encourage them to go to front and be ready for martyrdom. In this atmosphere, the meaning of sexuality, wrapped in concepts of Islamic modesty, were taught to us in the classroom and in the society.My body, as it was growing and taking shape, was filled with memories of the war, chanting and the vision of dead bodies of the martyrs. A surrealist space, filled with darkness, which brought fear and terror.The changes in my hormones and body form was intertwined with bodies of the martyrs whose pictures were hanged from the walls, accompanied with a soundtrack of war, loss of family and friends and the nightly bombings of Tehran.When I was diagnosed with breast cancer and eventually lost my breasts, it was during President Khatami’s when women were slowly getting back on their feet and the talk of gender equality had gained a new momentum. There were new women on the scene, strong and intellectual.But when women seemed more optimistic than before, my illness took me back to the darker days of war. In a sense, I never recovered from the war and the loss. As if the nourishment of my body had stopped in that time or couldn’t continue without the sound of war, chanting, and mourning. I started documenting my body, trying to know her better. But then Ahmadinejad was elected and the space for women again became tight and airless. I was in London when I realized I couldn’t go back to Iran. The hardline media had started a campaign against e and my artworks by calling me a lesbian who is HIV positive, as if the two are the same thing. Again and again, for rejecting a woman and her world, they had used gender and sexuality, and blocking my way back home with the argument that I was slipped from Islamic tradition regarding how a woman should be, act, and live. Reading this text reminded me of Judith Butler’s  idea of sexuality as a frame which is defined by each society differently by attributing different roles to its men When outside Iran, I put together these photographs and films, to be accompanied by the voice of Ahangaran, a religious singer, singing summons and revolutionary songs about martyrdom. And named it IN MY COUNTRY MEN HAVE BREASTS. I was looking for an unsettling effect, to create confusion in my audience regarding gender stereotypes. My body has served as a metaphor. The issues I’ve faced because of my body, in that particular geographical place I was born in, were mainly because there was THE definition of the body given by the religion. That contradicted my personal feelings and they way I understood my own body. That definition had nothing to do with the realities of my body, of a human being. And then came a time when women who had religious thoughts, tried to achieve a feminist reading of Islam, believing that the religion has given equal rights to men and women. These Islamic feminists have proved to be effective to a certain extent – they have even entered the parliament. But However, I’m not sure if the gender equality can be proven or achieved through religion, not only in Iran but anywhere in this world.