The Broader Picture: Life in the Women's Room

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The Independent Culture
BY WESTERN standards, life for rural women in Iran is harsh. Poorly educated, barred from public life, they get married - to men chosen by their parents - in their early teens, become pregnant and stay that way, commonly having nine or 10 children. Families live in one room; privacy in the marital bed is achieved by drawing a curtain. Domestic labour begins at four o'clock in the morning, when the day's bread is baked.

The women pictured here with their hair immodestly uncovered, are breaking Islamic law. But according to Hengameh Golestan, who took these photographs in the villages surrounding Khomin (the birthplace of the late Ayatollah Khomeini) and a poor suburb of Tehran called Tah-darreh ('deep in a valley'), their life has changed little since the 1979 revolution, and they are far from oppressed. 'When I came here,' she tells me in a cafe in Sloane Square, 'I thought that English women had a lot of freedom. Little by little I changed my mind.'

Family life is very important in Iran: unmarried men cannot rent a house, or get a good job; they are not thought to be respectable. And women run the family. 'For example, if a husband doesn't support his wife and children, the woman can go to his boss and demand his salary. No English women have that authority] The mother tells the son who to marry, when to marry, when to have children. The men don't count at all. Sometimes I think Iranian women don't want to have freedom, because the men are their slaves.' Men can have several wives, if they can afford it, but they always have to get permission from the first wife. 'I have a picture of two women who live together very peacefully,' says Hengameh.

Unfortunately for Hengameh, who grew up in Tehran under the Shah and went to art college in Britain, it is now impossible for her to work as a photographer in Iran. The early days of the revolution were glory days for Hengameh and her husband, Kaveh, Iran's best-known photojournalist. Quickly, however, opportunities for women photographers became limited. In particular, the authorities didn't like her hand-coloured pictures of ordinary women, although they are hardly political. 'That's got to do with our religion: private life is something private and none of the husbands or the men likes them to be shown.'

At first she worked as Kaveh's assistant. 'I'd never say that I was a professional photographer,' says Hengameh. But, unable to get a permit to work as a freelance photographer, arrested for spying every time she tried to travel alone, she became frustrated. In 1985, the couple, with their two-year-old son, moved to Britain. Kaveh enjoyed some success - he photographed Margaret Thatcher for Time - but returned to work in Iran.

Since June 1992, however, he has been under house arrest and prevented from working as a photographer. The government has not made clear the reasons for its ongoing 'investigation' into his work but he lost his journalist's card after he made a Channel 4 documentary about press censorship in Iran. He is currently teaching in a university.

Hengameh's negatives are mostly stuck in Iran and she does very little work here. 'Whenever I think of doing something good, I'm always thinking of Iran, because I know those people, I know the women, I know their problems.' She is surprisingly unbitter about her country, which she is still free to visit. 'The people there are wonderful, the weather is wonderful, everything is so good . . . but you have to be a good Muslim to have a good job.'-

(Photographs omitted)