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Words as Weapons: Disclosing the Power of Poetry and Art in Shirin Neshat’s Artwork

Guardians of Revolution
Figure 1, Shirin Neshat, Guardians of Revolution, 1995

How does art help a subject who has been the victim of violent attacks and state subjugation? Does it become an act of pleasure? Or a tool for self-narration? The work of Shirin Neshat who is an Iranian visual artist bring out a way through which art becomes a medium of resisting radicalization and violent ideology. Through her artworks, Neshat posits the power of artworks in bestowing agency to Iranian women in achieving self-autonomy. Using women’s unprecedented presence in Iranian literature with the frames of her art, Neshat voices the desire of several women which was never acknowledged in the violent regimes of male-heterosexual Iranian culture.

In the words of Neshat herself, poetry in Iran turns out to be a weapon against the unwavering ideology of the state. The metaphorical power of language gives way to expression, which otherwise is prohibited by the state power. In such a politically charged environment, poetry itself becomes a political statement because people accustom themselves to read between the lines (Neshat, 2002, p.622). The “Women of Allah” series also destabilizes the velocity of power by using words as weapons. Neshat purposely uses the poetry of two prominent female Iranian poets and inscribes their feminist voice on the women’s bodies, which gives voice to the still woman in the portrait. It is a manifesto that records the journey of these women who became incredibly rebellious and unpredictable in a society where women are expected to stay within the conformed ways of living . Their sense of freedom comes from embracing the social codes and by simultaneously subverting them. Figure 1. Eloquently shows the response of a violent act through the verses of poetry. The presence of gun with the poetry illustrates how women in Iran has subverted the culture of guns and gallantry through words and transgression. This dissidence is carved through the power of literature, which also creates solidarity with other women. Neshat’s women are imbued with political consciousness by making them articulate the enchanting lyrics of writers like Forugh Farrokhzad and Tahereh Saffarzadeh who are important women poets of Iran. These writers give eloquent voice to Neshat’s art which does not belong to the culture taken over by men in power seeking bloodshed and carnage.

Allegiance with Wakefulness
Figure 2, Shirin Neshat, Allegiance with Wakefulness, 1994

The above picture uses Tahereh Saffarzadeh’s poem “Allegiance with Wakefulness” as a mouthpiece for exalting the ardour and bravery of women who have been martyred. Through the theme of martyrdom, Neshat strives to re-create the lost female self in the grandeur of martyrdom usually exalted by male nationalists. To contest this, Saffarzadeh remembers the lives of women who have lost their lives in this grandeur of killing. In the poem “ Allegiance with Wakefulness”, she writes:
O, you martyr,
hold my hands
With your hands
Cut from earthly means
Hold my hands,
I am your poet.
With an inflicted body.
I’ve come to be with you
and on the promised day,
We shall rise again.

Allegiance with Wakefulness
Figure 3, Shirin Neshat, United, 1996

The second daunting task that Neshat takes up is by using the calligraphic verses of Forough Farrokhzad, who is considered to be one of the most audacious and transgressive writers in Iran’s 20th century. The poetry of Farrokhzad eloquently exemplifies the dictum “personal is political” and therefore, Neshat uses her verses to bring out the importance of women’s peronal narratives which conveys the untold stories of subjugation Neshat argues:
“Since a woman represents the domestic, personal domain, she carries with her an individuality disruptive to the social order; therefore, as she crosses into the public space she conforms by wearing the chador, removing all signs of sexuality and individuality” (Neshat, 1999, p.2)

Farrokhzad’s poetry also speaks of the imprisoning patriarchal ideals of womanhood that suffocate the individuality of a woman.The above picture “United” also brings this inextricable entanglement of personal and political to light. These verses are from Forough Farrokhzad’s poem, “I Feel Sorry for the Garden.” Reproduced in the original Persian on each of the subject’s fivefingers, the poem begins:
No one’s thinking about the flowers
No one’s thinking about the fish
No one wants to believe the garden’s dying
That its heart has grown swollen under the sun
That its mind is being drained of green memories
That its senses lie huddled and rotting in a corner
(Darznik, p.109)

There is a deliberate erasure of subject’s face and only her mouth is visible. Her dried lips are slightly open, which creates an impression that she has been arrested on the threshold of speech (Dabashi, 2001). The flowers, which traditionally represent the feminine delicateness, acquire a symbolic representation of dying women’s civilization as they are unable to cope up with the rise of violence and fascism. There is an attempt by Neshat to let her viewers ponder along with the woman in the frame that who is going to save this dying garden? Does our unconscious acceptance of this vicious culture signify that our senses have been “huddled” and starting to rot in a corner?

There are no answers given but Neshat just presents inconvenient truths and inspires revolutions by using words as weapons. The power of Neshat’s art does not restrict itself to the walls of galleries but it strikes its viewers to their very end. On this note, it is significant to state the importance of confronting the world created by artists like Neshat as they shape the political narratives of a culture which is riddled in blood and oppression of the “other”. In such a culture, as Neshat comments:
“Art is our weapon and culture is a form of resistance” (Neshat, 2006)

  1. Dabashi, Hamid. (2001): Close Up: Iranian Cinema, Past, Present, and Future, Verso, London
  2. Horsburgh, Susan. (2000): "The Great Divide: An Interview with Shirin Neshat," Time 56, no. 9.
  3. Neshat, Shirin. (1999): Interview with Octavio Zaya, Interview
  4. Neshat, Shirin. (2002): Interview with David Shapiro, Art krush,
  5. Neshat, Shirin. (2000): Where Madness is the Greatest Freedom," interview with Adrian Dannatt, The Art Newspaper 12, p.76.
  6. Sheybani. S. (1999): “Women Of Allah: A Conversation With Shirin Neshat,” Michigan Quarterly Review, spring, p. 207

When Lips Speak Together: Understanding the Role of Civil Society in Countering Violent Extremism

"Violence brings only temporary victories; violence, by creating many more social problems than it solves, never brings permanent peace."

The above quote by Martin Luther King posits a strong need for countering violence. Contemporary peace research is fervently exploring the various ways civil society is playing an important role in countering violent radicalisation. However, people involved in the process have faced severe backlash for their quest for peace. For example, women’s pacifist activism is often dismissed as their inherent need for peace linked to their biological affiliation as mothers. Men, on the other hand, are feminized and seen as “less masculine” because of their choice to counter violence. This article will discuss examples of some successful civil society activism headed by men and women which elucidate how their activism against radical violence has also shaped them as educators, activists and policy shapers.

turn to love image Source: A Muslim woman holds a placard near the scene of the recent attack at London Bridge and Borough Market in London. Photograph: Stefan Wermuth/Reuters

The organization “Mothers for Life” is at the forefront as a strong global network of mothers who themselves have been a victim of violent jihadist radicalisation of their children. With the help of “The German Institute on Radicalisation and De-radicalisation Studies” in Berlin, this network emerged where women raised awareness about the importance of counter narratives against jihadist radicalization. Behind this endeavour, there was also an attempt to raise a counter movement where the victimized mothers could help in de-escalating the radicalization of violence.

While “Mothers for Life” used maternal imagery in voicing their dissent, “Women and Extremism (WaE)” was launched for political purposes by “The Institute for Strategic Dialogue” (does this have a place – you mention Berlin above) to study the counteractive aspects of women and extremism. The “Women and Extremism” initiative aimed to collaborate with academics and activists for understanding the complexity behind the presence of women within violent extremist organisations. Along with that it also works to stop the further radicalization of women and young people from being susceptible to radicalisation.

white ribbon campaign Source: White Ribbon Campaign

Material elsewhere in the Genderhub has revealed the linkages between some constructions of masculinity and the perpetration of violence, from the personal to the political. There are many civil society initiatives that aim to break the links between masculinity and violence, three of which are listed here.

A well-known example of men’s activism against violence is of a campaign called “The White Ribbon Campaign” which is a global movement of men and boys against the rampant increase of violence against women. It generated awareness about the ways through which violence is unleashed on women and also uses a white ribbon as the sign of commitment to never commit violence against women. This campaign has now been over fifty countries with an aim to promote gender equality and prevent radicalization of violence.

“The Young Men’s Clubs Against Violence (YMCAV)” is another “gender-transformative group education project” which focuses on reducing street violence by counselling 10- to 19-year-old boys who are radicalized to perform violence for vested interests . This project has been effective in reducing violence prone behaviour and also fostered gender-equitable attitudes among young men. Both these indicators have overall created an environment which blocks young men from engaging in violence sponsored activities. Another important achievement of this movement has also been in redefining masculinity and what it means to be a MAN. Apart from formal endeavours, there has also been grassroots initiated movements where men have been the forerunners in stopping violence. Sonke Gender Justice, an organization in South Africa testifies to this approach by highlighting how some fathers are working to create healthy family dynamics which could propose a gender equal relationships in the family. Its “Men Care Global Fatherhood Campaign” engages men as caregivers and as fathers and includes 250,000 individuals.

white ribbon campaign Source : Members of Parents For Peace gathered in Washington recently for its annual summit.
Hannah Allam/NPR

From the above examples, it is well exemplified that local and grassroots initiates have played an indispensable role in breaking the links between masculinity and violence and in combating radical violence more specifically. These initiatives have success due to their power of community action and realistic prevention plans. Because of their local approach and a strong relationship with the community they are able to make allies and address security concerns to external organizations. Therefore, an alliance between the grassroots community and governmental organizations is a strong way to optimize prevention of radical violence by a strategic focus on youth engagement, gender programs and education oriented towards de-radicalization.

  1. Barsa, Michelle, U.S. Approaches to Countering Violent Extremism Must PrioritizeWomen, New America (2015). Available at:
  2. Barnes, 2017. Countering violent extremism: contemporary research and its challenges. In: L. E. Sayed & J. Barnes, eds. Contemporary P/CVE Research and Practice. s.l.:Hedayah and Edith Cowan University, pp. 7-18.
  3. Centre for Gender and Peacebuilding, 2015. Charting a New Course: Thought for Action Kit. Women Preventing Violent Extremism. pp. 30.
  4. Chowdhury Fink, Naureen, Zeiger, Sara and Bhulai, Rafia eds. (2016), A Man’s World? Exploring the Roles of Women in Countering Terrorism and Violent Extremism, Hedayah and The Global Center on Cooperative Security, p. 155.
  5. Coomarasway, Radhika (2015). A Global Study on the Implementation of United Nations Security Council resolution 1325, United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women. Available at:
  6. Idris, Iffat and Abdelaziz, Ayat (2017), Women and countering violent extremism, GSDRC Heldesk Research Report, University of Birmingham, p 7.
  7. Innes, M., Roberts, C. and Lowe, T. (2017). A Disruptive Influence? “Prevent-ing” Problems and Countering Violent Extremism Policy in Practice. Law & Society Review, 51(2), pp.252–281.
  8. Mothers for Life.. About the Mothers for Life Network. [online] Available at: [Accessed 12 Apr. 2020].
  9. Powers Solutions to Extremism and Polarisation. Women and Extremism (WaE).[online] Available at: [Accessed 12 Apr. 2020].
  10. RAN (2015), The role of gender in violent extremism, RAN Issue Paper 4 December 2015; Global Counterterrorism Forum – GCTF (2016), Good practices on women and countering violent extremism, 29 March 2016, p 5.