From Evin, with Love: Female Political Prisoners Fight for Their Voices Through Art

by    /  February 25, 2020  / Comments Off on From Evin, with Love: Female Political Prisoners Fight for Their Voices Through Art

By Aki Kabiri                                                                                                 

Evin Prison, located in Tehran, is one of the most brutal and inhumane prisons in the world, and Iran’s main house for political prisoners. It was given the nickname “Evin University,” thanks to a large number of intellectuals housed behind its walls. “From Evin, With Love,” an exhibition held in the Heilig-Geist-Spital in Nuremberg last September, has served as an innovative way for female political prisoners in Evin Prison to liberate their voices, showcasing 33 handmade objects, which they’ve crafted behind bars.

These pieces are not just everyday objects. A doll, for instance, was made by a mother deprived of her ability to see her children grow up. A patchwork mat, for example, is a talisman made by a woman far from the safety and security of her home — a reminder of a place she can only visit in her dreams. These artifacts are invitations to touch the sorrow and suffering that these imprisoned women face each day. These handicrafts help us to see the tedium of prison life or, more importantly, help us to see beyond it — to their hopeful message of peace, love, and justice.

The Exhibit’s Origins  

In an Islamic country under Sharia Law, simply being a woman — let alone a women’s rights activist — provides the authorities with enough excuse for injustice. This exhibition is part of a project seeking to depict the history of Iranian women’s movements in the context of the Iranian Women’s Movement Museum (IRWMM). 

The Iranian Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi first presented the idea of an Iranian Women’s Movement Museum while visiting the Merano Women’s Museum in Italy, where she was granted the title of “Godmother of International Network of Women’s Museums.” She was quoted saying, “The women are the ones who write the history of the world! There has to be a women’s museum in every country of this world.” According to the International Association of Women’s Museums, there are 22 women’s museums in the United States but only three in the Middle East — in Israel, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates.

Ebadi’s idea captured the imagination of Mansoureh Shojaee, a prominent Iranian women’s rights activist and scholar, who tried to make the museum a reality by organizing with a group of Iranian-women activists and artists. However, in 2010, only a year after the Green Movement in Iran, Shojaee was arrested in her house, sent to prison, and her documents were seized. Ultimately, after several years of effort, the Iranian Women’s Movement Museum was established outside of Iran. “From Evin, with Love,” curated by Shojaee, is one of its latest projects. 

The Artists and Their Stories

“From Evin, with Love” showcases pieces that send simple and clear messages to its audience. One such piece, by Narges Mohammadi, is shown below: a dove that has plucked the letter “a” from “War” as it flies toward the word “Peace,” which bears a gap where that letter “a” once stood. Her message is clear — we are tired of war, we want peace and democracy. Mohammadi is the mother of two children and an Iranian human rights activist. For her journalism, she was awarded the 2018 Andrei Sakharov Prize from the American Physical Society. According to Amnesty International, in September 2016, the Tehran Appeals Court upheld a 16-year prison sentence against Mohammadi for the charges of: membership in the Defenders of Human Rights Center, assembly and collusion against national security, and propaganda against the state. In a letter sent to the exhibition, she writes: “I am certain that the suffering of us imprisoned mothers and our children in this country will bear fruit. Peace, human rights, and security will be the harvest of the separations, yearnings, and longings, alongside our resistance and resilience.” 

Narges Mohammadi’s work


The woolen face with rainbow-colored hair pictured below was crocheted by Vida Movahed during her time in Evin. In protest of the compulsory hijab, Movahed removed her own and waved it on a stick on Enghelab Street in Tehran. She was arrested and jailed, which set off a wave of similar actions all over the country by other women who became known as the “Girls of Enghelab Street.” Women like Movahed risk their lives to reclaim control of their own bodies — to take back the indisputable right that has been stolen from them since the 1979 Revolution, which resulted in the collapse of the monarchy and the establishment of an Islamic republic. 

Vida Movahed’s work


A cardboard radio made by Nazanin Deyhimi, a literary translator and journalist, arrived at the exhibition two weeks after her death at the age of 29. Nazanin made this radio as a prop for Death and the Maiden, a play by Ariel Dorfman that she had wanted to perform with the other prisoners. Nazanin made this radio for the scene in which Paulina Salas, a former political prisoner who had been raped by her captor, recognizes the rapist’s voice and wants to record his confession. Accounts of sex crimes, including rape, sexual exploitation, and harassment, are common in Iranian prisons. 

Nazanin Deyhimi’s work


These objects tell the story of women’s resistance. As Parastou Forouhar, an Iranian artist and human rights activist, said at the exhibition’s opening: “In our autocratic country, many prisons have been built to oppress those seeking freedom, but this also turned out to be the space of learning resistance.” She went on to say that Evin Prison serves as a place in history to display not only injustice and cruelty, but also the history of resistance against this injustice. 

Every day, Middle Eastern women must seek new ways to obtain even the simplest of civil rights. This exhibition, supporting these women, helps to liberate them from the limits that have been placed on their voices and their rights. Although they are imprisoned, their works link them to each other and to us, allowing them to be seen as their messages come alive to the world.  As it travels through the cities of Europe, the exhibition will spread the messages and stories of the heroines of our time.  

Aki Kabiri, born in Iran, received her MA at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in Art History and Architecture, specializing in Islamic Art, with an interest in recent developments in Middle Eastern art practices. She is the co-author of the book Qajar Tiles (published in Iran in 2016) and her articles have appeared in the journals of Iran-Nameh and Honar-o-Mardom. She is also interested in human rights, particularly for women who have lost their rights due to injustice and all forms of discrimination.

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