The ambiguous frame : Iranian women's death images within the Islamic Republic's visuality
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Many photographs of women published in the Iranian press during the Iran-Iraq War emphasized their roles as supportive and mourning mothers and sisters. By contrast, the often gruesome images that depicted women’s deaths in the war proved more difficult to categorize. The difficulty reflected ambivalence towards attaching the label of shahid, or martyr, to dead women’s images. These photographs, whether gruesomely depicting their bodies or portraits taken prior to death, oscillated between evoking shahadat (martyrdom), consistently applied to men, and depicting their deaths merely as national tragedy. The ambiguous approach to gendered depictions of martyrdom reflected attempts by the Iranian press to negotiate women’s roles during the war in newspaper photographs from the newly-established Islamic Republic. However, in the context of the 2009 Green Movement, Neda Agha-Soltan’s widely viewed death revealed a change in the ambiguity of women’s possible martyr status. In this project, I trace the depictions of women as possible martyrs during the Iran-Iraq War and pose it against the visual experiences during the Green Movement. I argue that while earlier representations reflected tenuousness and ambiguity on the part of Iranian periodicals, such as Ettela’at, Jomhuri-e eslami, and Imposed War, as they sought to grapple with the turmoil of war and a still emergent political system, the Iranian press’s clear denial of female martyrdom during the Green Movement side-by-side with reproductions of Agha-Soltan’s death images reflected a shift in the application of shahid. Although the Iranian press rejected her shahid status, agencies like Fars News attached photographs from Neda’s death video to articles thereby presenting an unclear message about Agha-Soltan’s potential for shahadat. This complicated viewing along with the multitude of examples of her “death” images made her agency in the frame possible, unlike women during the war. Agha-Soltan’s death images presented a possible shift in ownership of shahadat from the state-sponsored press’s hands to that of the people. Thus while the official press had solidified its approach to (not) applying the label of martyr to women, it did so at a moment in which it had lost its monopoly over the declaration and depiction of martyrdom.