Speechless by Shirin Neshat

Shirin Neshat

Speechless, 1996, Gelatin silver print and ink, 167.64 x 133.35 cm, Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Purchased with funds provided by Jamie McCourt through the 2012 Collectors Committee , M.2012.60, © Shirin Neshat, courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels

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Louder than Words

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
Sam Wells

There is lively public discourse in the West about the rights or appropriateness of Muslim women wearing veils, including the hijab, chador, niqab, and burka. The pretext of this debate is sometimes the liberation of women (though some Muslim women argue veils are liberating), or the fear of something hidden underneath; in reality, the reasons are harder to pin down, and may include the feeling that one’s own values or culture are under threat or attack.

This photograph by Iranian artist Shirin Neshat is part of a series of black-and-white images of chador-clad women (full body cloak revealing eyes or face) called ‘Women of Allah’ (1993–97). In many either a model or the artist herself poses with a gun. Each photograph is covered with handwritten text, here the words of Iranian poet Tahereh Saffarzadeh in which she addresses her brothers in the Revolution, asking if she can participate:

O, you martyr
hold my hands …
I am your poet …
I have come to be with you
and on the promised day
we shall rise again.

The woman portrayed here, though serious, perhaps melancholic, appears in no way disempowered. Where we expect an earring, we see a weapon, toying with the relationship between beauty and power. Meanwhile she is not preparing for martyrdom—not readying herself to die. She is ready to kill, or at least to protect herself.

Might we imagine this woman as a kind of modern-day Deborah? Readings of Judges 4–5 often downplay Deborah’s military role and assign it to Barak (even though he refuses to go alone, and she explicitly agrees to accompany him; 4:8–9).

Likewise Jael is cast as a wily seductress or a plucky underdog. Interpreters can struggle to see Jael as a protagonist, who in her own way, (with parallels to Ehud as assassin in Judges 3 and Deborah as judge in Judges 4–5), is advancing righteousness and justice.

This photograph encourages us to ask, why is this woman’s potential violence more troubling than Jabin oppressing Israel for twenty years and victorious soldiers exploiting women from time immemorial? If we see sadness in her face, perhaps it reflects her conclusion that there will never be a satisfactory answer.

 

References

Komaroff, Linda. 2015. ‘Intentionality and Interpretations: Shirin Neshat’s Speechless, 2 November 2015’, www.unframed.lacma.org, available at https://unframed.lacma.org/2015/11/02/intentionality-and-interpretations-shirin-neshat%E2%80%99s-speechless [accessed 29 January 2019]