Almost all of the news that we hear and see about Iran surrounds politics, nuclear ambitions, sanctions, military action, threats of aggression, etc. But, we rarely get a glimpse of the ordinary people of Iran, especially the women, who are not part of the chaos of the government regime. Enter Iranian born photographer Kiana Hayeri, a young woman determined to use her camera to give the Western world a glimpse of a side of Iran that the media does not cover. In 2010, at age 22, she embarked on a two year photography project designed to unveil – figuratively and literally – the dual lives of a new generation of young Iranian women as they try to live within their country’s restrictive morality laws, while taking daily risks to push back against them. She calls her work Your Veil is a Battleground.
Having lived in Canada since age 17, Kiana returned to Iran in 2010 to document the lives of many young women who are expected to behave and dress modestly in public by covering their hair, arms and legs. But behind closed doors, these women act very much like Westerners. As Kiana explains on her site, “This project explores the daily lives of those who challenge and take risks to put on a bit more make-up, wear more colorful clothing, reveal bare arms, push their head scarves farther back.”
On the surface, the Your Veil is a Battleground images capture everyday life scenes – dating, studying ballet, hanging out with friends – which, by our standards, are and should be the norm for young people. However, Kiana’s photos reveal a deeper and darker truth. In Iran, these same activities are measured on much harsher, relatively inconceivable, scale. She shows men and women in a car together, which invites extra scrutiny by Iran’s morality police; there is a woman preparing to play paintball, a sport forbidden to women in Iran; a group of young Iranian women are seen escaping the evening heat with a dip in the Caspian Sea, though women are not allowed to swim in public (even fully clothed); she photographed another woman readying herself to go out as she applies bold make-up, which is another concern of the morality police.
Kiana offers addition insight into the realities young women face in Iran, “With more than seventy-five percent of the population under the age of thirty-five, Iran remains one of the youngest, and most Western-seeking countries in the Middle East, yet women are still forced to wear the hijab in public spaces. As many young Iranians try to gain more freedom in the way they dress or interact with the opposite sex, they can face fines, imprisonment and potential lashing.”
Under the threat of those levels of punishment, Kiana told the New York Times last week what she thinks is fueling these young women’s determination to bravely go against the grain, “Everything that is banned by the government is being practiced, but behind closed doors,” said Ms. Hayeri, 24. “I think that my generation is exposed to the West through satellite and Internet so much that they don’t let the restrictions stop them.”
On Tuesday, May 29, Kiana released Phase Two of the previous Your Veil is a Battleground project. This second installment includes diptych portraits of young Iranian women she photographed with and without clothes or make-up. Her goal was to explore how these young women use fashion and make-up to push cultural boundaries. Especially important to the project was capturing the different ways they choose to wear the hijab in terms of color and fabric as those choices are empowering personal statements.
Kiana’s Phase Two project description explains, “While the Iranian culture is all about the image one represents of herself, these brave young women agreed, not only to undress and strip off the veil, the hijab, but also remove the veil, the make-up for her camera.”