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"Silence." M-Lady series, Photographs, Azadeh Fatehrad, 2015, Tehran.

From the archives

Exhibition explores the life and work of “the founding mother of Iranian feminism”

By Pip Cummings on February 8, 2016

A new exhibition in Amsterdam is examining the emergence of the women’s movement in Iran at the beginning of the 20th century. Curated by London-based artist and researcher, Azadeh Fatehrad, the project is spun off the personal archive of activist and journalist Sadique Dowlatabadi, often referred to as “the first founding mother of the Iranian feminist movement.”

Dowlatabadi, who died in 1961, aged 80, published the first women’s journal in Iran in 1919, titled Zaban-e Zanan (Women’s Voice) and was also an education advocate, establishing schools specifically for girls, in a bid to improve literary and as a means of consciousness raising. “Increased education later made Iranian women even more aware of their legitimate rights and gave them additional strength for a more vigorous national struggle,” Fatehrad told Women in the World via email, on the eve of the show’s Sunday opening.

For the past five years, Fatehrad has been working with the Dowlatabadi archive, held at the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam, as she completes her PhD on the Iranian feminist movement, at the Royal College of the Arts in London. Zaban-e-Zanan was the “first publication written by women about women for women’s interests,” she explained. Unyielding in its criticism of government policy and outspoken on the subject of women’s rights, the magazine was, eventually and inevitably, censored.

(from the book "Iranian women in Mashrouteh movement," by Abdolhossein Nahid)
An undated photo shows Iranian feminist activist and journalist Sadique Dowlatabadi.

Undeterred, Dowlatabadi was also the first woman to publicly abandon the veil, according to Fatehrad, ahead of a ban introduced in 1936 by modernizing monarch, Reza Shah. Even beyond the grave, Dowlatabadi was uncompromising, including in her will a stern warning: “I will never forgive women who visit my grave veiled.”

Fatehrad’s exhibition looks at three phases of Iran’s women’s movement, with the greatest emphasis on the period in which Dowlatabadi played a key role — up to and after the Unveiling Act of 1936. Other sections focus on the 1979 revolution and the ensuing reintroduction of the veil, as well as the position of women in contemporary Iran. “It is important for me the audience get to know about the beginning of the feminist movement in Iran, and those notable few women who – like Sadique Dowlatabadi – paved the ground for the establishment of female activists,” Fatehrad said, of her motivation for mounting the show. The modern women’s movement “is a continuation in a different level, direction and form,” she added.

As well as items of Dowlatabadi’s, Fatehrad has included her own photography and video works, representing her reflections on the archive. The Amsterdam archive is one of three about the Iran women’s movement that Fatehrad has been exploring — the others being in Tehran and Frankfurt. “It’s quite a common practice today in artistic production, where an artist comes across found images or documents or archival material and they begin to respond to that in the creative field,” she said, in a video posted by socio-political space Framer Framed, who are hosting the exhibition and an associated public program of lectures.

Iran’s Women’s Movement: On the Archive of Sadiqe Dowlatabadi, by artist and curator Azadeh Fatehrad, is at Amsterdam’s Framer Framed, until March 8, 2016.


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