Images are driving the Western response to the Iranian elections and, with reporting opportunities strictly limited in Iran, images carry the narrative. For a variety of reasons, many of them are focusing on young, attractive women. Here, Latoya Peterson wonders about complexities hidden behind the emerging icons.
Images are driving the Western response to the Iranian elections. The media, hampered in their ability to report from the ground, has elected to go with citizen videos and photographs of the rising civil unrest. One early narrative that emerged, before the demonstrations against the results of the election, was of a beautiful Iranian woman, in modern clothes, wearing a loose headscarf and casting her vote.
We can’t predict the image that will eventually represent the Iranian elections as the situation grows more serious each day. The original iconography of painted hands—with green representing the regime’s chief challenger Mir-Hossein Mousavi—has given way to palms painted red, to commemorate those who are dying. A video is circulating of a woman known as “Neda,” who was killed during the protests and is becoming a symbol for the protestors who feel betrayed by their government. One site proclaims, “We Are All Neda.”
However, the pre-protest narrative needs a bit more analysis. One of the most recognizable photographs was shot by Atta Kanare for Getty Images. A young woman stands facing the camera, a stern expression on her face and lips painted peach. A trendy pink and purple headscarf and sunglasses complete the look and she stares directly at the lens, holding up her ink-stained index finger to prove she voted. Some journalists and bloggers have noticed that this and other photographs taken before the election results were announced, of proud young women lining up to cast their ballots, seem to focus on the beauty of the women engaged in political action, and this trend has continued in documenting the protests. In the midst of scenes of chaos, smoky streets, and anger, small symbols of beauty continue to emerge—a hand with manicured red fingernails clutching a pamphlet, or a bright yellow headscarf framing a waterfall of chestnut hair.
Sex sells, but so does beauty, compelling even those who are disinterested in politics and current events to pay attention, if for no other reason to find out why the alluring girl in the photo has painted palms while she flashes a peace sign. Advertising agencies understand that attractiveness draws people in, forcing them to pay attention. In addition, photographers are known for working toward a poignant, beautiful, and memorable picture, so their focus on beauty should come as no surprise. However, is the narrative around what’s happening in Iran becoming dominated by the idea of what is beautiful?
Megan Carpentier, writing for Jezebel, makes a note of the discussion of “pretty” around the issue, saying “when you see a woman with a tunic above her knees, red fingernails, an extremely loose headscarf and a protest sign, try to look beyond the ‘pretty.’ Those things are also a symbol of what an Ahmadinejad regime would deny (and, in some cases, has denied) her the right to be.”
Mimi, one of the bloggers at Threadbared, a site that discusses politics and fashion, argues for a broader analysis. In a post titled “You Say You Want a Revolution in a Loose Headscarf,” Mimi writes:
In this moment of civil unrest, we are meant to understand these sartorial and somatic signs—the looseness of the scarf and the amount of hair she shows, but also the French manicure displayed by her v-sign or raised fist, her plucked eyebrows arching above Gucci sunglasses or baklava mask—as cultivated political acts that manifest a defiant desire for Western-style democracy. But this shorthand is too simplistic, too easy.
While the politics of beauty practices has been a feminist mainstay around the globe, when employed while discussing the situation in Tehran, it distracts from understanding the actual issues at play. Often times, Western feminists become infatuated with the symbolic nature of veiling, and fail to listen to women discussing what they are actually fighting for.
In this case, it was not just the fact that the votes in Iran may well have been rigged—the regime hand selects the candidates anyway, meaning that only a small portion of those who wish to run for election will ever find themselves on the ballot. As a result, many Iranian citizens often do not vote, feeling that they are encouraging a farcical democracy. This particular election, however, brought remarkable voter turnout as the women of Iran made a decision to take their dissatisfaction to the ballot boxes. In an earlier piece for Jezebel, Carpentier lays out “10 Reasons Why You Should Be Following the Iranian Elections,” parsing out the key themes that are fueling the political fires. Most of them trace back to women’s rights. Women’s rights activists have been jailed for protesting the changes the Ahmadinejad administration ushered in, including allowing the growth of employment discrimination, legislation that attacks women’s financial freedom and renaming the Center for Women’s Participation as the Center for Women and Families (and the goal of the newly named agency would be to promote women returning to more traditional roles).
Our feminist conversations on politics in the region should not immediately default to veiling and other style issues. While the freedom to express oneself through clothing is important, it pales in comparison to the economic conditions and limited opportunities for advancement that are sparking the demonstrators. The new generation in Iran is young and educated, but stuck in a perpetual adolescence as they can’t find jobs and can no longer afford an apartment. Even steadily employed young couples are unable to qualify for apartments and are postponing their dreams of marriage and family until well into their 30s. While the economic climate is disastrous for young couples, it is harder still on single women, who may be forced to find a partner in order to be financially stable.
The visual narrative may emphasize clothing and beauty, but we should not be so distracted by images that we miss the message underneath the make-up.
A certified media junkie, Latoya Peterson provides a hip-hop feminist and anti-racist view on pop culture with a special focus on video games, anime, American comics, manga, magazines, film, television, and music. She has written for The American Prospect, Bitch Magazine, Clutch Magazine, the Women’s Review of Books, Jezebel, Slate’s Double X, and the Guardian. Her essay, “The Not Rape Epidemic,” was published in the anthology Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape (Seal Press, 2008). This article was previously published at the Women’s Media Center.