Words as Weapons

Disclosing the Power of Poetry and Art in Shirin Neshat’s Artwork

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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.

Vivamus vehicula purus sit amet est blandit, eu feugiater metus lacinia.

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.

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