This is a true story of found identity, history, and one man's determination to preserve the memory of a generation of women who were discarded, to be eliminated leaving no trace.
Najaf Shokri was on his way home, near downtown Tehran in 2005 when something caught his eye in a garbage bin. It was located outside the National Civil Registrations Organization. And the garbage papers in the bin were identification documents. Shokri said, "It was like discovering a mass grave."
All of the documents were issued in 1942, during the time when identification documents consisted of a 4 page birth certificate without photograph. But the holder was required to add a photograph to the document for certain things - marriage, entry examination for college, and voting. The women's photographs are from the late 1950s, when they were added to the original identification documents.
Shokri carried home hundreds of such found identities, and looked through them. In his mind, he formed the concept of an exhibition of these photos without names or other information. The result is that the photographs become historical meta-data. The faces, clothing, posture, and hairstyles reveal information about the lives of women during the period of time after the Second World War and before the Iranian Revolution.
Many of the women were named Irandokht, a popular name at the time, meaning daughter of Iran. Shokri decided to call his collection of discarded identification photos Irandokht, although the name has currently fallen out of favor. With this name he honors that period of history in his country before the Iranian Revolution, and the women who were at that time daughters of Iran.
Quite naturally, Shokri began to wonder about the women: Were they alive? Married with children of their own? Had they died? Moved or fled? Could they have renewed their identity documents? There was a nagging sense of honor, too, and Shokri says, "It seemed to me that the government was most probably erasing evidence of our recent and distant past, for these photographs oppose the current dominant culture." It is, in effect, a way of erasing these lives.
At the time these identification documents were issued, the role of women was changing. A number of women's organizations were founded to raise awareness and consciousness of issues pertaining to women. But they lacked a central focus and organization, and in 1959, the Shah established the High Council of Iranian Women's Associations which incorporated seventeen women's groups. But it's widely argued that the purpose of this was to gain political loyalty and to strengthen the monarchy. Women were finally again allowed to vote in 1963, and several women were elected to office. That may be the one positive outcome for women living in this era.
This is also considered to be the time that women joined the workforce in large numbers, and gained some independence through those contributions. But the truth is that traditional women held the more 'feminine' jobs - such domestic servants and self-employed vendors - where they were not afforded legal protection, minimum wages, or holidays. Eventually, there was a sense of moral degeneration because the Shah's policies were superficial in supporting women, but giving the outside world the appearance of modern, current practices.
The history of Iran is far more complex than what I've shared here, and there isn't enough room to give a detailed account of the progress of women through the era of Irandokht. (And I'm not a scholar on the subject, by any means.) But I am inspired by these photos to know more about the times that frame these lives.
Najaf Shokri began his art career in theater, writing melodramas. But he's always looked to photography as a way to preserve and appreciate his world. His academic thesis was Photography: A Mummified Memory. He has a number of solo and group exhibitions to his credit, including a very well-received group exhibit at the Fine Arts Gallery of California State University Los Angeles in April and May of 2014, entitled Contemporary Iranian Photography. You can find more of Shokri's work on his website, here.
Meanwhile, here are some more portraits of the daughters of Iran. May they be living or resting in peace, and may they long be remembered and honored.