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Iran, Women and Craft - A Conversation with Golnar

Written by Megan Hudson - 8th December 2022

Golnar Khalesi speaks with us about Iran, women and craft. A story of embracing disruption in the personal and the collective, speaking of the rise of women during this Iranian revolution, Golnar reflects on the embeddedness of the feminine within Iranian culture and the power of limitation in birthing creation.

Having founded Gombad, a fashion brand working with traditional crafts of Iran in co-creation with female artisans, Golnar disrupts the narrative of separation between ‘designer’ and ‘artisan’, bringing play and creativity to break down notions of scarcity within the artisanal landscape of Iran. Reflecting on the women-led revolution in Iran, crafting a story which highlights the beauty of disruption, limitation and sacred rage, Golnar shares with the Zazi Community.

Could you tell us about your story? And how did your journey lead you to where you are today?

'My love of craftsmanship started at such a young age. I was born in Isfahan - the capital of craft in Iran. I was raised in Iran until the age of 8, when I moved to Canada. I remember in every Iranian's household you would have, and still do, some expression of Persian craft. My mum’s and grandma’s house were always filled with these crafts. I remember during the summers when I was back in Iran I would go ‘treasure hunting’ at all the antique markets on Fridays, collecting things like beautifully crafted textiles and trinkets from different communities of Iran. And I loved it!"

Carrying this passion through-out her studies into her work later with fashion brands such as Zazi. “I began working with these very niche luxury fashion brands that were actually disrupting the luxury sector. Focusing on respectful co-creation, culture and craft.” The power of disruption was with her from the outset of her journey, disruption unfolding itself as a teacher of the feminine and creative expression along the way. It is this same sacred process of disruption which is woven into her identity as an Iranian woman, a mirror of the disruptive feminine power which is now erupting all through-out Iran.

"There just came a point, where I knew it was time. I had always wanted to do something of my own. I wanted to test my vision from the beginning, to gain these skills to later be able to test these ideas on my own. I realised that that spark or special area that I loved, was still missing for me, I hadn’t found it yet. And so I went into a phase of deep exploration." Gathering her courage, Golnar gave herself 6 months to try and make this dream happen. Not knowing what the end picture was or that this journey would eventually lead her back to her land of birth in Iran, she says: "but there was just this thing in me, pushing me to go. And it wasn't all easy! It was a rollercoaster ride, with lots of uncertainty!!...", she says, bursting out laughing, “..but when we leave out the hardships, I feel like it creates a wrong image." Speaking of the doubts and fears that come up in such a journey: “fear of failure, rejection, not being cool enough. Something I had encountered a lot being an Iranian immigrant to a Western country. And something I was pushing through to craft this dream into a reality.

”We are all creative beings and in that sense, it is our duty to be creative and to embrace this creative flow that is going through us. Dancing, Moving, Singing, and Cooking. Embracing this is to live your fullest potential. And it was really the time for me to do this. And I just thought okay let's give this a chance." Bringing the love she felt as a child for craft into a full circle, Golnar is working to rejuvenate creativity within the Iranian artisanal landscape, cultivating abundance through play and love into the artistry of her heritage.

"It was a big learning curve, and understanding that through limitation, that's where creativity comes. Not necessarily out of abundance and having so much. It's more that you use your limitations in the sense that you use them to your advantage, it gives you a sense of clarity. You work with what you have and you create beauty out of that." Her journey led her to meeting the female artisans she works with today. They are masters of Khatam Kari, an incredibly delicate and intricate inlaying technique, which today is the signature of Gombad’s iconic handbags. “The big thing is that if women in Iran can be more independent, then they can be present within the society, the more power they have as well as how that society is going to take shape, and this is really a key point. There is a connection between the suppression of women and that of creativity.“ When the woman is oppressed, the feminine quality is also suppressed or becomes distorted. Society suffers from this lack of creativity, of creative expression and there is something innately human about crafting, creating and expressing ourselves! When the feminine becomes suppressed in a society, this aspect of the human experience suffers. “So this is how my story started and it's been a journey, it really has." 

What stories does craft tell of Iran and women? How is this connected to your bigger vision?

"In Iran the feminine is really embroidered into the culture. Craft can be seen in everything and the love for creating is deeply within our cultural DNA. We speak of Iran as the motherland, the arts and the feminine are everywhere." Poems resonate throughout the walls and music echoing through the streets, expressions found in performance and dance. “Although there is such a presence of the feminine through-out the culture, somehow the embodiments of the feminine in women are so oppressed, such violence enacted against them,” Golnar shares. “It's a paradox I find almost hard to explain, yet alone decipher myself. Iran is a country which has experienced many forms of limitations, of oppression, through the regime, sanctions, amongst so many other things. And somehow with these limitations, there is a creativity which permeates all the corners of the culture, resistance and unity shining through these expressions.”

“As a child, we would visit the Bazaars in Iran with my family, with all the beautiful crafts and spices. You would know all the producers of the things you bought.” Spices packed away into packages of old newspaper expertly folded by practised hands. "This relationship to craft was always something that was so integral to our family. When I was in Canada it seemed so strange to me to watch how things are crafted. This difference between the designer and the artisan in the Western narrative was so clear but didn't make sense to me coming from my background. Before globalisation and industrialisation, craft was in everything we interacted with in our daily lives. Artisans are als inherently designers, where craft is a mergene of art and design. Designers are the daughters of artisans. This has been forgotten in the Western mindset."

 “In Iran, even though the craft is so deeply rooted within the culture, today the craftsmanship is dying. When I went to the market years ago, I could see over 20 coppersmiths, this went down to 10 and then turned into 2. These master artisans were practising their craft but newer generations weren’t joining them to continue their skills, because the younger generation feels it doesn’t bring enough money.” When beginning to work with the artisans on her team in Iran she says: "I observed this scarcity mindset amongst the artisans. Craft people being somehow segregated from this aspect of play in their creativity. And I love play! I think it's such an important thing. Especially in creating. I saw this element of play was missing. So I created this idea of the Play Studio, part of the profits of Gombad going here. It is like a micro artisan fund, creating a safe space to explore, play and create craft without the fear of money lingering. For example when I was in the creation process of the bags for Gombad, we were working with inlaying, which is this incredibly intricate process of creating geometric patterns, arranging about 250 separate pieces within one cm3. It is usually found in homeware however, I thought to bring this into the fashion space, creating handbags from this traditional craft. (...) I wanted to be creative, to move away from the traditional colours used! I suggested bringing in pink, but the artisans were hesitant, saying it wouldn't work or look good, shutting down from moving away from what they knew. When I said to them ‘listen, the bags are already paid for, we will see it as an experiment. It doesn't matter if it doesn't work!’ They opened up to try and made the inlaying with these beautiful new colours and in the end we were all so excited about the results. Moving away from scarcity and allowing for creativity to shine through from play." 

This spirit is reflected through-out Golnar personal philosophy and her brand, a weaving together of play, disruption and the feminine. "Gombad actually means dome. I loved the imagery of the dome, it is like a sacred space, it is all encompassing, all inclusive and within this, playfulness can take place." Like a mirror of the feminine, holding space for it to unfold. "In the end it is about creative sovereignty and disrupting the market through play, breaking down a scarcity mindset." Golnar’s creative process led her to designing a supply chain, one which is built on disruption and slow growth. Bringing both disruption to the scarcity mindset she found in the artisan market, as well as disrupting the western narrative of design in the luxury market. Slow growth reflecting the process of artisanal creation, one where creativity can unfold with playfulness.

What message do you want to share about the uprising of the women in Iran? What is important for the community to know about what is happening in Iran?

Golnar shared about the dilemma of many of the Iranian diaspora in this time of uprising. Being stuck between wanting to speak out against the regime, but also worried about long-term consequences, such as fear of not being able to return to Iran to continue her work and even the safety of family members still in the country. "This is the dilemma of every person you see posting on instagram that is Iranian, I don't think many people know this. They are actually risking their own safety and their family's safety if they have family in Iran. The other side of me really wants to resist, I want to be free. All the videos you see up on social media, people have actually risked their lives capturing these videos. Most people leave their phones at home during the protests, out of fear of being identified or being killed if certain footage is found on your phone. But it’s these videos that are actually showing what’s going on, they are a symbol of hope for our people. People are still choosing to speak up because there is no other way to move forward.” 

“Women in this uprising are very present - they are the ones leading it. This is a grassroots movement, it is a movement about basic freedom. We do not want this regime anymore. (..) The culture in Iran is quite feminine, but there is this anger coming up from the violent suppression of this same quality, the suppression of its women. Iran has so many educated women, so many graduates, however they are not so present in the workforce, in the seats of power. But the movement goes beyond women, it is about everyone, each and every one of our freedoms”

People are protesting in so many ways, through strikes, disruption and art. Chanting slogans, performing dance and uniting in song, chants of “Women, Life, Freedom” echoing everywhere, coming from the Kurdish freedom movement. “It is really men and women rising together. There is this realisation that we have been lied to and we don't actually have to live this way.” She shares some of the stories she hears from back home: “At protests, if a person is being arrested by the regime, everyone comes to protect and pull the person away. Women are putting pads on surveillance cameras in the streets to not be filmed!” Referring to the cultural norms of shame around women’s bodies and periods, Golnar reminds us of the symbolism of feminine rage and disruption in such acts.”It is a movement about basic freedom, a collective bursting from decades long oppression of women, freedom and Iranian culture by this patriarchal regime. Where there is unity and solidarity, we are unstoppable", Golnar says, and "this is terrifying the regime." It is a reclaiming of sacred rage, “it is disruptive, it is an expression of full rage and it is beautiful.” Reflecting on rage and the necessity of fighting in Iran during this time, she says:  "Fighting for our freedom doesn't need to look pretty. People in Iran don't want to fight, but we see what is happening and we need to fight."

"It feels like there is something bigger at play, something coming from the universe. Sacred rage comes in to realign you, to bring harmony. In Farsi, there is a word: 'Shirzan', it means lioness, someone who is very strong, this is a symbol that is very present during this uprising." The courage and strength of Iranian women seems unstoppable.

Golnar spoke to us about how this uprising is a fight and planting of a seed, an echo of the rise of the feminine which is catalysing through-out the world, touching the hearts of women across the earth and sending waves into neighbouring countries.

This fight is every woman's fight. "Nothing can break solidarity! And if women in Iran can do it, then every woman and beyond can do it."

What is your message to the community? How can we best be allies to the women of Iran in this time?

It is so important for allies to come together in this moment in raising the voices of the people of Iran. For many Iranians doing so puts their safety into danger, if it's speaking out on social media against the regime or people in Iran risking their lives to record what is actually happening, to spread the truth about the sheer violence and resistance which is taking place. Golnar speaks of two main ways for people to show up in this moment of uprising, to be allies in a global sisterhood. “Firstly, by bringing awareness to what is currently happening and if you have a platform sharing this to raise further the voices of Iranians. If you're a journalist, interview an Iranian woman. If you have a gallery, show our art, if you're a brand, support us at this moment." There are so many ways to give support and use our platforms of power to extend the reach of the roars coming from this female led uprising. "Secondly, it's also so important to hold your governments accountable. We are asking for non-intervention of other governments, we do not want them supporting this regime. If they are being watched, if your governments are being held accountable, deals with the current regime of Iran cannot take place.” 

Golnar has shared some resources with us to help us keep ourselves informed, platforms sharing the true stories from inside Iran, which need our attention and hearts more than ever in this moment.

1. Nicole Najafi
2. Samira Mohyeddin
3. Iranian diaspora collective

Any projects you would like to share about?

“I was planning on expanding Gombad to work with other artisan communities in Iran this November. But with the uprising, our plans are developing at a slower rate. So in the meantime I am planning on providing support in another way as well and with friends of mine on ground will be creating a pop-up platforming Iranian businesses and crafts. Because many small business owners, mostly women, are not working at this time, they are protesting or not able to work, this will aim to provide some financial relief to them in support of this incredibly powerful uprising.” 

If you would like to support this beautiful initiative, you can find more details soon on Golnar’s personal Instagram account! 


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