By Sogol Khalkhalian edited by Vincent Lyn
I grew up in Tehran, moved to Germany during my childhood, returned to Tehran, and established myself there. From my adolescence onwards, I’ve been deeply passionate about travel. These journeys have taken me from exploring the far East to residing with the Maasai tribe in Kenya, mingling with the Nenets in Siberia, and engaging with the Kalash people in Pakistan. These experiences have revealed that every society offers a facade to tourists and researchers, concealing certain aspects of its way of life while highlighting aspects unfamiliar to outsiders.
One of my enduring interests as a photographer and documentarian is delving into the lives of women in these societies. Conversations with women often offer a more authentic glimpse into these cultures. They unveil the hidden dynamics, including freedoms, power dynamics, conflicts, alliances, and solidarity. As a woman who has predominantly lived in Iran, I can relate to these intricate dynamics. It may appear that the world of women is filled with restrictions and no visible escape, but women have the capacity to carve out new paths and challenge societal norms from within these relationships.
This project was initiated half a year prior to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. A year ago, I relocated to Dubai, a city renowned for its immigrant-friendly atmosphere, which afforded me the opportunity to engage with women from the Middle East, hailing from places like Syria, Lebanon, and Oman. During this half-year duration, my objective was to capture the daily lives of women residing in the vibrant urban landscape of Tehran.
In recent years, Iran has grappled with an array of economic, cultural, social, and political challenges, with women being disproportionately affected compared to men. The central inquiry guiding our project was how these women have coped with the multifaceted challenges of recent years. What specific issues have they encountered, and what individual solutions have these women adopted?
We initiated a photographic storytelling project, accompanied by a research assistant. Our primary objective was to identify subjects from various socio-economic backgrounds, including high, middle, and low strata. To achieve this, we designated a key informant for each group and employed a snowball sampling technique. In snowball sampling, each interviewee suggests another person to be interviewed, a method commonly used in projects where subjects need to have complete confidence in the research team. Photography served as the central element of our work, and overall, our sampling method proved to be highly effective.
Regarding our methodology, we adopted a qualitative approach and employed semi-structured interviews from a technical perspective. In this project, our goal was not to seek out women entrepreneurs or those celebrated for their societal achievements. Instead, we sought women who had encountered significant challenges but, through their personal efforts, had managed to instigate changes in their own lives and the lives of others. Despite facing hardships, they had kindled personal and societal aspirations. We encountered women engaged in social support groups, those striving to create their own livelihoods, individuals linked to spiritual, literary, or yoga circles, and women who had initiated discussions of social importance. We also met women who had demonstrated resilience in the face of adversity, prioritizing the well-being of their children over personal gain. At times, we encountered women who, despite their efforts for change, had not succeeded.
With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the project was temporarily suspended, but my connection with the photography subjects persisted. The pandemic upended the lives of many of these individuals.
In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, one of these women faced a severe health condition and tragically passed away. Her life had been marked by enduring hardship. She resided in a subterranean dwelling on the outskirts of Tehran, struggling alongside her husband with addiction and relying solely on their children for support. For years, she had worked as a domestic laborer, but with age, her capacity to work dwindled. When I inquired about her foremost concern, she expressed constant apprehension about her own death, dreading the idea of passing away alone on a street corner. Following her demise, I discovered that she had passed away in a hospital with her children by her side, which brought some solace to her story.
Two of the subjects, who had been employed in domestic roles as cleaners or caregivers for the elderly, lost their jobs due to the spread of COVID-19 and underwent trying months. Nonetheless, they eventually managed to secure alternative employment.
Among the subjects, we encountered a woman who had previously held a high-ranking government position. Armed with a doctorate in sociology, she eventually stepped away from her career due to the need to conceal aspects of her life that did not align with government standards, such as her clothing and appearance. She had been a part-time social researcher, dedicating her free time to establishing a social group that hosted monthly open discussions focused on books. Through these gatherings, she created a social haven for many to connect with her world. The advent of COVID-19 led to the suspension of her sessions, and virtual discussions couldn’t quite replicate the experience. However, as the pandemic eased somewhat, she resumed her sessions.
We encountered another woman who had tragically lost her parents during the early post-revolution violence in 1979. Her father had been executed, and she witnessed her mother’s death in a confrontation. The government did not hand her over to her extended family, resulting in her spending years in a state-run orphanage. It wasn’t until much later that her maternal family managed to adopt her. She had worked as a municipal employee but was eventually dismissed from her job due to her family’s political history. All the adversities she had faced prompted her to join a storytelling group, where she attempted to grapple with her experiences through writing. After a year, I learned that her book had not received approval for publication, yet she continued to write tenaciously.
Among the other heartening updates, I learned that the young lady we interviewed successfully secured admission to university. She had endured years of abuse from her father, leading her to run away from home for a period and subsequently return to school after a two-year hiatus. When I first encountered her, she bore the scars of her experiences. Her dream was to study photography, and with the assistance of some friends, she became part of a women’s support group. Through their support, she managed to secure a scholarship for her education, purchase a camera, and pursue her passion for photography at the university.
In addition, we conducted an in-depth interview with a sex worker who candidly shared the difficulties that had compelled her to enter this profession despite her desire not to do so. She was a mother of three and had divorced her addicted husband. For four years, she had hidden her profession from her family and daughters. At the time of our meeting, she had been working in a hotel for about a year and a half. Unfortunately, she lost her job during the COVID-19 pandemic and had to return to sex work to make ends meet.
Through her, we were introduced to her close friend, a woman living with a suspicious husband who restricted her from leaving their home. She had made two suicide attempts, clandestinely made pickles to hide her activities from her husband, and used his money to support their daughters, son, and elderly mother. Despite these challenges, she held onto hope for a better future for her three children. All three of her daughters excelled in school, and she endured these hardships with the vision of a brighter tomorrow for them.
The day following our encounter with these women, we conducted two photography sessions in some of Tehran’s most upscale areas. In our first session, we met a woman who was part of a mystical circle. Although the activities of this mystical group had been prohibited in Iran, its followers continued to gather. Financially, she lived in complete comfort, but after her children had grown up, she experienced a profound sense of emptiness. Joining this group provided her with the motivation to overcome her depression.
We also encountered another young woman who divulged very little about her family circumstances. Despite her financial prosperity and both her parents being doctors, she harbored deep dissatisfaction with her life. Her attempt to share her story ended in tears, leading us to make an ethical decision not to press further. However, she did mention her struggles with excessive alcohol consumption and her battle with depression, including a failed suicide attempt. The pandemic had brought the loss of both her father and mother, which had a profound impact on her. She shared her journey of making lifestyle changes and how she had managed to improve her mental well-being through yoga, integrating her practice into her life.
Through her, we got to know a young woman whose family had Afghan immigrant roots and resided in Iran. Although she was born in Iran, she did not possess Iranian citizenship, which left her without access to many social rights. She used to work at an underground beauty salon where her earnings were meager due to the unofficial nature of her work. However, she managed to establish connections with a group of women in Tehran. Most of these women avoided public salons and opted for beauty services at home, albeit at a higher cost. As a result, her income improved significantly. She held a strong interest in yoga and attempted to learn it through social media. She also had plans to immigrate. Later, I discovered that she had succeeded in relocating to Germany and was teaching yoga at a migrant shelter.
In the midst of these encounters, we were introduced to a pregnant woman who had overcome her doubts and, despite her fears about her child’s future, had made the decision to become a mother. We met her in her studio; she was a sculptor and lamented that her profession was not recognized as legitimate by those around her. During the pandemic, she became a mother, and she occasionally sends me pictures of her child.
Amidst all these experiences, we decided to explore one of the well-known suburban areas around Tehran. This district had been developed through land acquisition, and disputes over ownership documents had long been a source of contention between the residents and the government. It was here that we encountered two remarkable women. The first woman, in collaboration with her husband, operated a shop where they sold homemade food products. The second woman had overcome substantial challenges to establish her own hair salon. While my contact with them has ceased, their stories continue to fill me with immense joy. They both held a strong passion for generating income and achieving financial independence, and I hope they persist in forging their own paths with resilience.
In the most recent update I received about the group of women I had photographed, there was a woman who specialized in crafting homemade food products. She was a spirited and dynamic woman who had raised seven children after her husband’s passing. Tragically, she passed away on the first day of the Persian New Year.
One of the most haunting memories from this project was the encounter with a woman stranded behind one of the women’s shelters, standing in the pouring rain. She was battling a meth addiction, and her children had abandoned her. She had lost her way on the metro, arriving at the shelter after the designated hours. The rain was relentless. She candidly shared her life story but declined financial assistance for a night’s stay in a budget hotel, instead choosing to spend the night under the sheltered cover of a wall.
These were the stories I heard — lessons in resilience and effort, tales of victory and defeat, patience, and the endurance of life. Lives that appeared broken but had somehow risen anew, brimming with hidden narratives. People with interconnected stories, carrying both fear and hope.
As the Women Life Freedom Movement unfolded on the streets of Iran, I found myself in Dubai. Due to my support for the protesters on my personal Instagram page, I received security threats. I watched these brave women on the streets from behind the screen of my phone, yet it felt as though I knew them. I sensed the hope beneath their courage, the courage of women who, despite severe oppression, were determined to transform their lives and break free from the dominance of male family members and the government.
Although I couldn’t physically travel to Iran, my heart was heavy with sorrow and concern for those who were being killed, injured, or detained. Nevertheless, I hold onto hope. This photo story project has taught me that the Iranian women’s desire for change is so astonishing that they can overcome any obstacle.
Adventurer/ Documentarian/ Yogi
National Geographic Magazine Explorer
CEO & Founder of We Can Save Children
Deputy Ambassador of International Human Rights Commission (IHRC)
Director of Creative Development at African Views Organization
Economic & Social Council at United Nations (ECOSOC)
Rescue & Recovery Specialist at International Confederation of Police & Security Experts