Khosrow Hassanzadeh


In the summer of 2001, the strangled bodies of a number of women were discovered in Mashhad, a holy city that is a pilgrimage site for Shiites visiting the shrine of Imam Reza. The city’s piety is mixed with the realities of modern life. Like most Iranian cities, the main form of public transportation is the shared cab, in which men and women who are otherwise strangers are crammed together. The cabs have also become a main site for prostitution. Angered that his wife had been mistaken for a prostitute as she rode in a cab, Sa’id Hana’i was spurred to kill women he believed to be prostitutes. At the time of his arrest, he confessed to killing sixteen women whom he lured to his house, where he strangled them, sometimes using their veils. The killings were dubbed `the spider murders’ after the way Hana’i preyed on powerless victims.

Some of the murdered women had been previously arrested for prostitution or drug-related crimes. Major newspapers published the women’s police mug shots and photos from the crime scenes. The evocative photos of veiled women posed as criminals or as corpses heightened the public anxiety over the serial killings. Much of the Iranian press covered the case through a political lens, condemning either the reformists or the conservatives for the broader sociological context that led to the rise of prostitution and the subsequent killings. Women’s journals and blogs provided subtler analyses, pointing to the gendered implications of poverty, the rise in drug addiction and the complex implications of the state’s attempt to police public morality.

In a powerful documentary, And Along Came a Spider (2002), filmmaker Maziar Bahari interviewed the killer in prison before he was tried and hanged for his crimes. The probing documentary tears through the killer’s logic, exposing a deeply psychotic impulse hidden behind a religious sense of morality. The painter Khosrow Hassanzadeh wrote that Bahari’s film ‘asks the fundamental question: “Who is the victim???

Hassanzadeh’s own artistic intervention on the killings, a series of artworks entitled Prostitutes, extends this sense of probing ambiguity. Using a mixed-media technique of silkscreens and painting, Hasssanzadeh reconfigures the mug shots and crime scene photos. Police photographs documenting arrests become evidence in a murder case become front-page newspaper photos become political art. Ways of seeing the images shift;2 the state’s documentation of criminality is transformed into the artist’s commentary on society. Pointing to the style of Andy Warhol, which rendered the quotidian as iconic, Hassanzadeh’s series highlights the complex nexus of gender and power in contemporary Iran. The veiled woman becomes a marker of society’s submission to religious and secular authority. These mug shots of veiled women – murdered by a serial killer acting as a self-appointed guardian of morality – underline the disturbing implications of the iconic stature of women in the Islamic Republic of Iran. What remains, Hassanzadehs pictures remind us, is the women’s gaze, at once diffident and defiant.