Women and girls of all ages take centre stage in Iranian photographer Sima Choubdarzadeh’s project The Lotus Seeds Waiting to Sprout. A little girl dances in her living room, waving a gauzy veil above her head and wearing her mother’s high-heeled shoes. An older woman, hair grey, holds a framed photograph of her daughter, taken years before. Elsewhere, the photographer herself stands with her back to the camera, nude from the waist up, and holding a wispy cluster of long grasses behind her back.

This is me, Sima. I am not a religious person nor a prostitute. I have taken off a cruel costume.
“Get married to virgin women because their mouths are sweeter and more compassionate. They learn something early and their love is more enduring,” Prophet Muhammad said. © Sima Choubdarzadeh

“This is a story about my life and my pain,” Choubdarzadeh says. “One day, my husband locked me up in the house to stop me from reading books, going to university, seeing my family, and involving myself with society. It was the same day an earthquake hit our city, and I was trapped up on the 10th floor. I had not paid attention to rules and traditions before my marriage, and it ended in a tragic divorce shortly after.

“Divorce in Iran, and in other religious areas, is beyond a disaster for women. I can’t tell you how many times I have cried as I go to sleep at night because women see me as a danger to their lives, or how many times I’ve felt that women are sad because I am at their wedding ceremony. How many times men have behaved differently, when they find out that I’m divorced, as if I am an object and not a human. I feel that they see me as bait. After the divorce, I had such deep and complicated fears in my soul. I was living in a swamp, alive but unaware. My whole identity until then had been defined by my father’s name, my husband’s name, and the name of my future unborn son.”

Child marriage. Sharia-based Iranian law states that the legal age for marriage is 13 for girls and 15 for boys, but marriages can still be carried out at a younger age with the consent of fathers and permission from court judges. According to statics, the marriage of girls under 14 years has been expressed at about thirty thousand. © Sima Choubdarzadeh

Born in Iran in 1985, Choubdarzadeh was the oldest of several children. Growing up, she says, she was lucky because her parents are kind and open-minded people, who have always supported her and her siblings in their choices. “When I was a child my father bought me photography books and I still have them now. I looked at them all the time and they really affected the way I make art,” she recalls.

Despite this early presence of creativity, though, Choubdarzadeh came to photography as a career late, because she was rejected from the education system after graduating with an MA in philosophy. Along with her experiences of marriage and then divorce, that’s one of the first reasons she was drawn behind the lens—as a way to channel her anger about the treatment of women in the Iranian public sphere. “I soon found out that the main purpose of the government was the repression of women,” she says, “and in every conversation I had with those around me in daily life, I started to form stories as images in my mind. Those images led to this work.”

Choubdarzadeh began the project with self-portraits, deciding to look inwards before looking out, and in the camera she found a powerfully therapeutic tool. “At first, I wasn’t serious about photography. I only wanted to cure my soul through art, and it was great for my fears and other mental issues. Step by step, though, I found myself and my character in my photos. It felt like an active and practical way to engage with philosophy and societal problems. It was really awesome for me.”

“And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers, their husband’s fathers, their sons, their husbands’ sons, their brothers or their brothers’ sons, or their sisters’ sons, or their women, or the slaves whom their right hands possess, or male servants free of physical needs, or small children who have no sense of the shame of sex; and that they should not strike their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments. And O ye Believers! turn ye all together towards Allah, that ye may attain Bliss.” © Sima Choubdarzadeh

The other women Choubdarzadeh collaborated with on her project were mostly friends and relatives. “In my daily life, my mind had two functions: being with them and capturing forms somehow inside of our conversations.” In one photograph, we are introduced to Azadeh, who forced her daughter to marry a man she did not love. Eight years into the marriage, her daughter took her own life. When asked about that meeting, Choubdarzadeh said it was one of the most difficult she’s had. “At first I didn’t like talking directly about the suicide with Azadeh. I wanted to find a way to include her daughter in the image. Azadeh will always regret her behavior; I strongly believe that she is a victim of society—a mother in the worst situation. She is completely regretful, but she is a Muslim person and she fears breaking tradition.” Azadeh’s expression in the photograph is soft but solemn.

Azadeh had forced her daughter to marry a man she did not love. Her daughter was Leila who committed suicide after 8 years of her marriage. Upon our rules, women cannot marry without father’s permission. “Most of the people in the hell are unmarried people.” The Prophet Muhammad. © Sima Choubdarzadeh

Other images are more abstract representations of, and responses to, tragic female experiences, drawn from real events and news headlines. One such picture depicts a bladed weapon lying on yellowing grass, with a caption that tells the story of Romina Ashrafi, who was murdered by her father as an act of ‘honor killing’ in northern Iran. “He killed his daughter with a sickle,” Choubdarzadeh says bitterly. “She told the police that she was afraid of him, but unfortunately, the police did not care. I was affected by this event, and I wanted to take a picture of it. Most weekends I spend time in my father’s garden and one time I was there, I saw a sickle and decided to use it to show Romina’s story in detail.” In another image, a photograph of a piece of sky blue fabric floating in the forest is paired with the story of Sahar Khodayari—a young woman who set herself on fire protesting a prison sentence for trying to attend a football game. “Sahar is named the blue girl here. She is one of the fans of the football team in Iran, and that team’s colour is blue,” Choubdarzadeh says. “I want to tell stories in an artistic way, rather than as a reporter, so the blue scarf is her symbol.”

Sahar Khodayari, also known as Blue Girl, was an Iranian woman known for setting herself on fire in front of the Islamic Revolutionary Court of Tehran on the 2nd of September 2019. She was protesting a possible sentence of six months in prison for having tried to enter a public stadium to watch a football game, against the national ban against women at such events. She died a week later from her injuries. Khodayari’s self-immolation has generated much debate in Iran about the government’s restrictions on women. © Sima Choubdarzadeh

All sorts of objects and symbols haunt the pictures in this project. Some are painfully clear in what they signify—the weapon, for instance—while others are more poetic and obscure. Plants and flowers are a particularly important example of this, and Choubdarzadeh explains she uses them because young and virgin girls are compared to fresh flowers. Elsewhere, an image of goldfish in a bowl stands in for the photographer’s personal fear: like a visual echo of the entrapment and surveillance she tries hard to avoid. Swathes of fabric recur through these pictures too, reminding us of how home can be a suffocating, or smothering, place to live. In a visual, visceral sort of way, they show us how female freedoms can be covered or obscured by rules and traditions. “I know that our situation is difficult for people in other, freer countries to understand, so I try to find ways to show what our lives are like in simple and direct ways,” she explains, evocatively adding that making these pictures was like “taking off a cruel costume” she has been forced to wear for years.

My name is fear © Sima Choubdarzadeh

In the end, The Lotus Seeds Waiting to Sprout is a searing reflection on the prisons that can be made for Iranian women out of outdated societal, familial and marriage-based traditions. And as she’s grown and gained both independence and perspective, Choubdarzadeh says, the meaning of ‘home’ has changed fundamentally in her eyes. “Home for many women in Iran is still not a safe place. Its rules break people’s wings, especially women who want to learn to fly, and so they look to flee. Some of them do so by becoming financially independent, some through immigration, and some by taking their own lives. Others don’t get to choose, but leave by becoming prisoners or getting killed.”

For Choubdarzadeh, making powerful portraits of Iranian women, and telling stories that would otherwise only be heard from one side, is the main objective. “I want to protest against the rules that make women weak, and I want to show that I am a minority in my society. A man still has the right to request a certificate of virginity from a woman for marriage, but it doesn’t work the other way round. That’s intolerable for me. And you can imagine what suffering that leads to.” Meanwhile, she says, “I am happy in my limited life” and she wants to show people that too—that the small freedoms she has been afforded have led her life to flourish and bloom in ways she never thought possible before.

Editor’s note:
The Lotus Seeds Waiting to Sprout was a jurors’ pick in our HOME International Photography Prize 2021. For more powerful discoveries, check out all the other winners, jurors’ picks and finalists here.