Shirin Neshat’s Women of Allah series explores the lines between religion, gender, and politics through a series of portrait photographs depicting presumably Muslim women, Arabic script, and guns. This photo, which comes from the series, is no exception. The audience is immediately confronted by the figure, who calmly yet confidently stares directly back at the viewer; it is obvious that the compositional focal point of this work is the figure’s eyes. The eyes, while feminine and heavily adorned with makeup, do not seem to sexualize the figure. As one radiates outward from the eyes, the viewer begins to notice Persian script scrawled across the figure’s face. This detail, seemingly added by hand after the initial photograph was taken, contains further allusions to Neshat’s conceptual framework. The text is derived from old Persian poetry describing ideas such as femininity and martyrdom. It is clear, however, that the majority of Neshat’s American, English-speaking audience would not be able to read the script or comprehend its meaning. It is likely that most of her audience would assume the text held a religious connotation, though, given that the figure is dressed in the veil and the work is established as religious in the title. As a result, the text serves as a symbol of religion and its practice for those who do not read Arabic and as a rich conceptual detail for those who might. The way in which the text is inked over her face is also significant in that it gives the illusion that the text is tattooed over the figure’s face. By associating this female Muslim figure with tattooing, a certain strength of character is implied, making her seem strong and quietly aggressive.
As one continues outward from the face, the next thing the viewer notices is the veil that the figure is wearing. The chador is very meticulously used in this context. Muslim women are often stereotypically portrayed wearing some sort of veil; it can either make them seem weak and helpless, or it can make them seem overly mysterious and sexualize them in the process. In this photograph, however, Neshat is able to accomplish something quite different. The black veil, which provides stark contrast with the pale, text-covered face of the figure, does not cover her face completely; this allows her facial expression to communicate her strength and conviction instead of diluting it. The veil also does not give the figure’s body detail in shape or sexual allure. Instead, it provides just enough definition to define her body and then obscures the rest of her form.
The last thing that the viewer notices– or perhaps the second, as it stands at the front of the photograph, making it the closest object to the audience in the photo– is the gun that bilaterally dissects the figure’s face and carries the viewer vertically through the image. Visually, the shiny metal of the gun contrasts with the figure’s face in color and in texture. It also blends downward below the face into the veil, obscuring it within the fabric. Symbolically, the gun is representative of strength and violence; it most definitely gives the photo an aggressive quality that, when paired with the direct expression of the figure and the “tattooed” text across her face, make the photo seem angry and militant.
All of these factors collectively serve a greater conceptual purpose. They need to work together in order to highlight the ideological conversation Neshat wants to have in the piece. It is obvious that Neshat is engaging these details in a commentary about Islam. On one hand, the gender of the figure (female), the intellectual allusions behind the Persian script, and the reference to veiling make this piece about the gendering of women in Islam. Because women are so often portrayed as either helpless or overly sexual as a result of the veil, Neshat makes a conscious effort to break away from these stereotypes, making it known that she feels that Muslim women are strong, intelligent, dedicated, and confident. This is only further emphasized by the presence of the gun, a reference to women’s vital role in the fight centered around the Islamic State. At the same time that the gun gives the gender and character of the figure some strength, it also carries its own aggression that is notable for referencing and critiquing militarization and the politicization of Islam, an issue Neshat talks about in many of her works. The gun additionally seems to reference stereotypes that came about in the eighties and nineties as a result of the wars in Iran. Many non-Muslim individuals outside of Iran, especially in America, seemed even at that time to jump to the conclusion that the gun was a reference to terrorism and radical religious violence. Neshat was highly aware of this reaction and exploited it in her photo. By presenting elements that have such significant multiple meanings, she is able to engage her audience in a way that sparks conversations about the line between religion and politics, militarization and intimidation, and gender as it exists in Islam today.