[on the politics of space & cultural interventions]

The plinth, and the performer

Saba Zavarei

Artist and researcher

The audience is gathered in Fordham Park, in South East London. I ask for participants to join me in reading out loud four different texts that I have printed out. Four people come forward, each taking on a piece of the performance text. I ask them, when it is their turn, to choose a plinth on which to climb in order to read the text to the audience, each time selecting a different plinth. We lead the audience through the park and as we perform the texts, each height turns into a plinth. At the same time, I ask the audience to go through a pdf file made accessible through the website with the images they are invited to look at while listening to us.


- How old are you Narges?

- I'm 32. I studied social science for my BA. I was supposed to start my MA in social science in January, but right now, I am a student at the 'prison' university!

- How did you get arrested?

- I was standing on top of the electricity box for like ten minutes. Then a couple of men arrived and they asked me to step down. I asked them who they were, because they were not in uniform. And they said they were police officers.

So I came down and they took me to the detention centre. I was there for half an hour and the judge told me about my bail and my crime and then they took me straight to the prison.

- What did the judge tell you there?

- He said if I say that I regret what I've done, they will reduce the bail and the level of the crime. I said I have done nothing to regret. He said what you have done is against the law, and I responded that I do not believe in this law. He asked again if I regret and I answered by no means. He sent me to the prison.

- Why did you decide to do it on a Monday?

- For me, Mondays are still the Green Mondays. Something I still remember and cherish from the Green Movement. A peaceful act of protest, with no violence.

What Vida Movahed did, was also very peaceful. I wanted to link these two acts to each other. What Vida did was so beautiful. I did not want it to die out. The judge told me over and over again that Vida is mad and that's why she did go on the electricity box to hold her scarf tied to a piece of stick in the first place.

I said I don't care about her condition. For me, what she has done, is the most beautiful act, is the most artistic form of activism and I do not want that to die out.

- Are you hopeful about the future?

- I am. Very much. Even if only two people have continued with the same protest, after me and Vida, that's enough for me! I told the judge that my problem is not the regime, what I want is my rights. And to choose what to wear and what not to, is my smallest right! I will fight for my other rights, once I do have the right to choose.

- Now that you are in prison, how do people there react?

- Here everyone is so supportive and tells me what a good job!! They all are excited about it! But to be honest, to me this is not something easy, that will change overnight.. it will take time. I wouldn't even say 10 years.. I would be pleased even if it does eventually change in the next 30 years! [1]


I've parked the car. I go to the ticket machine to get a parking ticket. On the corner of my eye I see a police van arriving. Slowly I raise my hands and reach for my scarf. Quickly I open the fold so it gets wider and covers my whole neck and hair. I see the van stopping. Next to it, a police car. I wonder what they will do now. They must be after something serious the way they stopped and left the car with such hurry. My heartbeat is racing. I check all my body. Nowhere the skin shows and the hair is fully covered now. I feel a bit relieved, thinking they must be after someone else. They come to me. I ask if there is anything wrong? The women officers don't care to respond. They ask me to get on the van. I am scared to death. I resist. They push me inside.

Inside is dark. One young girl is sitting at the back crying. Another woman is silent. I sit next to the crying girl and quietly tell her:

Don't cry, that's all they want!

- Crime?

The three of them talk to each other.

- Her trousers are short.

Another one whispers quietly in her ear:

- But her socks are thick. The skin doesn't show really!

I bring my leg up and put it on the table in front of them, to make it easier for them to decide whether my trousers are short enough to be a crime or my socks are too thick to make it a problem.

The first woman says loud and excited, as if she has discovered something very important:

- Wearing short trousers is a crime. No matter how thick the socks are!

They keep me at the detention centre until about 10 pm among other women who supposedly have not had proper hijab.

There are about another 200 women there. Of all ages, from all different backgrounds. Among them is a nurse who is crying because she is on call and her patients need her. A student weeps that she has the final exam at this institution and if she doesn't show up, she is going to fail. A woman of my mother's age, complains that she has to wait for her 17 year old son to come and take her home. No one is there to hear us except ourselves. We listen to each other, and we share the anger and frustration.

At around 10pm my dad arrives with proper clothes. A huge black scarf, and a long black robe. I wear them, sign a letter that declares I will never again repeat my bad hijab behaviour which damages the morals of the society. And leave.

It's 2004 and I am a student in Tehran. I do struggle with the forced dress code every single day.

- What was that about?

- I don't know dad. They said my trousers were too short.

- Ha. But that hasn't changed, I mean the robe is not long enough to cover that!

He seems very angry. Not with me obviously. I look at my legs. The trousers are the same length, the socks are the same. And the robe is obviously not long enough to cover anything. According to the genius woman at the detention centre, I am still doing a crime.

My legs are shaved under the trousers I remember. I shaved them yesterday. My boyfriend asked me to do so a week ago. He said it's disgusting to have hair on my legs. Apparently it turns him off.

They say it's wrong to not cover my legs in public space in front of stranger men. It turns them on.

I wonder if anyone else has any opinion on what I should or should not do to my legs!


8 January 1936

Pro-Western ruler Reza Shah issued a decree, banning all veils in order that "Westerners now won't laugh at us". To enforce this decree, police were ordered to physically remove the veil from any woman who wore it in public. Women were beaten, their headscarves and chadors torn off, and their homes forcibly searched. Until Reza Shah’s abdication in 1941, many women simply chose to not leave their houses in order to avoid such embarrassing confrontations, and some even ended their lives.

1941 – 1979

Official measures were relaxed under Reza Shah's successor, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and the wearing of a headscarf or chador was no longer an offence, but was still considered somehow an indicator of backwardness or of membership of the lower class.


After the 1979 revolution, the hijab gradually became compulsory. In 1979, Khomeini announced that women should observe Islamic dress code; his statement sparked demonstrations which were met by government assurances that the statement was only a recommendation. Hijab was subsequently made mandatory in government and public offices in 1980, and in 1983 it became mandatory for all women.

27 December 2017

Vida Movahed, later known as the Girl of Enghelab Street, stood in the crowd on a utility box in the Enghelab Street (Revolution Street) of Tehran, tied her hijab, a white headscarf to a stick, and waved it to the crowd as a flag. She was arrested on that day.

28 January 2018

Vida Movahed was released.

29 January 2018

Narges Hosseini protested by standing on the same utility box in the same way and got arrested.

1 February 2018

Police said they have arrested 29 women for taking their hijabs off.

15 February 2018

Azam Jangravi protested by standing on the same utility box in the same place and police aggressively took her down.

17 February 2018

Narges Hosseini and Azam Jangravi were released on bail.

21 February 2018

Shaparak Shajarizadeh was arrested protesting with a white scarf on a Wednesday. Eyewitnesses said that the police attacked her from behind and took her in custody.

On the same day photos shared on social media showed that the government was placing an inverted v-shaped iron structure on the utility boxes so as to inhibit anyone standing on top of the boxes.

22 February 2018

Maryam Shariatmadari was protesting compulsory hijab in the afternoon on a utility box; the police asked her to step down. The woman refused and questioned the police what her crime was. Then as she was violently ejected by the police, she was injured and her leg was broken. Shaparak Shajarizadeh was beaten up in custody. She was released later temporarily on bail.[2]


- How did it feel? How was doing the whole thing?

- From the moment I left home, till the moment I got to the plinth that I went on top of it, my heart was in my mouth! It was not just fear, of course I was scared, because I didn't know what was going to happen to me. But it was not just fear. It was excitement, and a lot of other mysterious feelings unknown to me until that moment. When I went on top of the plinth, and tied my scarf to the stick, as soon as I raised the stick, my heartbeat started racing.

- What gave you the courage to do that?

When Vida Movahed did that, we all thought what a genius idea! No one had done that before, no one had asked her to do that, it wasn't even following other women movements. One person was so so brave. She had the courage and she did it. She was arrested of course and maybe she will still be paying for what she has done.

But in my idea, what the second person did was even more important! It was she, who didn't let the act of the Girl of the Enghelab Street remain only an event and a myth. She turned a myth to a social movement!

That day, when I saw someone else has done the same, I realised it's not finished. Then when the third person mimicked the protest, I thought with myself this is actually something I can do as an individual. It doesn't need organisation, or gathering people and making group decisions.. It's one of the few activist acts that one person can do on her own. So I got dressed and this time instead of putting the scarf on my head, I left it on my shoulders and walked to find a plinth.

- How long did you stay there? What was the reactions?

- I stayed there for like half an hour. Most people would just pause, take a look and go away. Some people made jokes. Someone even made sexual jokes. Someone came close by and pulled my jacket and told me to get down. Another person came and said 'I also have criticism against a lot of things in this society, but this is not the way to go about it. Nothing will change with this kind of behaviour'. I only stared to the air in front of me.

Some people showed me victory signs with their fingers. That really made me happy and I felt I'm not alone in this.

Then I saw a couple of policemen coming towards me and I ran away.

- How did people close to you react to what you did?

- My family and friends were hugely supportive and are even proud of what I've done! But I know not everyone has this chance to be supported by people close to them. For some people, the dictator is inside their house. For those people, joining such actions could be even more difficult.

But I love how men and women with different beliefs are joining. There was this young man on a utility box, when someone asked him what his name was, he answered: my name is your name!

- Will you invite others to join?

- Never. I never want to provoke or influence others to do the same. Each person who does it, must really personally believe in it. I will never patronise those who do not take part. We live in a society that for such action one might pay very high prices. [3]


After the revolution, for a while the fundamentalists were against statues and sculptures in public places, specially figural representations. They even unofficially stole some of the statues of famous figures from parks and other public spaces. They resemble idols, they would argue. The restrictions were lifted after a while, here and there statues began to appear. None were female, except for a handful, nameless and characterless, representing the mother. The female figure was not supposed to be celebrated, but covered and hidden away.

One young woman stands on the utility box. She is highly visible there. Impossible to not notice. She is playfully waving her scarf that is tied on a piece of stick, instead of wearing it. A forbidden form, in an unacceptable outfit, standing right off one of the busiest streets of the capital. People come and go. She shocks them. She is an impossible being. Yet real, calm and composed.

The utility box, is the scene for the performer rather than the statue. Although she does not interact with people, she is highly active. Her appearance is a statement. She has not just crossed a red line, but is constantly pointing to it. By being peaceful about it. By not being distressed and scared of the consequence of it. As if living in another world. The strong image she creates, goes viral on the social media. She proliferate through the cartoons and illustrations. Her body stands on all the plinths that have been taken away from all women of history. Reclaiming the public sphere, redefining the female figure. She is not there to be watched. She is there to live the change and she can. Peacefully staring to the air, playing with the symbol of control over her body, the simple piece of cloth.

Many women transgress the Islamic dress code on a daily basis. In their cars, in cafes, in shopping centres, wherever there is less chance for the moral police to appear, they go loose on their scarves or leave their robes open. The everyday transgressive act is considered as an individual act. Police arrest you, you promise you will never repeat, and you are released. It is through putting the evidence of these acts next to each other that makes it collective. By putting the forcibly fragmented pieces of the protest together, a collective desire is revealed.

Standing on the plinth, this body has singled out the everyday disobedience. It's celebrating another kind of life, rather than hiding it from watchers. It's right there. In your face. She doesn't interact, talk or smile at people around her. Like a professional performer, she is there to act. And the plinth, gives her the authority.

It's her anonymity that creates the space for participation. In a totalitarian society, her lack of direct political speech, or any association to any group or ideology, creates a lot of space to include others. Through her lack of identification, she shares her body with others. Men and women, tired and frustrated of political parties, betrayed by the leaders from in and outside the country, find themselves in her.

Someone left on her own, who turns the public space to her own stage. Not for wanting or asking for her rights, but for performing it. People ask her name, where is she? And in lack of identity, she becomes all.

She is there to perform what she is rather than what she wants. She is the manifestation of what all progressive and reformist representatives have promised to her and failed to provide. It's in her loneliness that she find unity with others. Others who like her, are deprived of any collective act that now what they all share is this: a body, that must perform what she wants. Others join in. Others are inspired by not asking what you want, but being it. It is in this silence that the behaviour of one body, becomes the embodiment of a whole people's desire: the agency itself rather than calling for it.

She performs the change, the alternative, the dream, and the society of spectacles on the other side of the abyss, far away from the plinth, remains speechless.


[1] Interview with Narges Hosseini, the second Daughter of Enghelab Street, by Shahrzad Hemmati - Translated from Persian by the author


[2] The history of hijab in contemporary Iran is gathered from different sources online.

[3] Interview with one of the Daughters of Enghelab Street, by Omid Rezaei - Translated from Persian by the author


Image Credits

All pictures and cartoons are taken from various websites and social media and no credit has been mentioned, other than the sketch in black and red by Zahra Mousavi, one of the leaders of the Green Movement who is under house arrest, and three cartoons by Mana Neyestani, Iranian cartoonist.