Milad Ahmadi: Mother Also Gave Bread
THE MUSLIM BAN, SOCIETAL CLASSES, HOMOSEXUALITY AND WRESTLING IN IRAN.
photographer: Matin Zad, Ainaz Gharavi, Anjelic Owens
creative designer :
model: Ainaz Gharavi, Farnaz Dadashi, James Koroni, @raudiculous, Kayvon Zand, Anna Zand
editor: Mari Al-Midhadi
date: Jun 30, 2019
PRIDE MONTH FEATURED INTERVIEW SERIES
Milad Ahmadi is an Iranian fashion designer and recent Parsons BFA Fashion graduate. Born in Iran and immigrated to Dubai at 7 years old, he has now lived in NYC since 2015. His graduating thesis collection is an almost ironic re-imagination of Iranian society, in which the conventional uniforms of different societal classes are redefined. “Mom Also Gave Bread”, a play on words of a common Farsi phrase “Dad Gave Bread”, which is often used as the first sentence to practice writing Farsi in primary school. The title is the precursor to this rich collection, which takes classic archetypes within Iranian society and reimagines what these characters would look like free from societal conventions. In honor of pride month, we got to sit down and speak with Milad about his collection, the muslim ban, wrestling in Iran, and identified as a gay man while in his own country is punishable by death.
How did you set out beginning your thesis collection?
My work has almost always revolved around different aspects of my culture, but I knew that I wanted this to be more than just a self-identity project. It was important to me to be able to create a work that was relatable and meaningful to other people as well. This is when the thought of imagining a utopian Iran occured to me. We all know that we dislike our government and that we’re unhappy. We have also dwelled on our past glory and history for far too long. I wanted this project to be hopeful.
When was the last time you were back there?
I haven’t gone back in three years, since Donald Trump was elected as president and issued the muslim ban. As an Iranian student, I was only given a 2 year visa that was meant to be renewed. But out of fear of not being able to re-enter the US and continue my studies, my family decided that I shouldn’t risk going back home to renew my visa. So, while I’m legally staying here as a student, I can’t travel internationally. Unfortunately, my family can’t visit me either because they can’t obtain a US visa due to our nationality. My mom couldn’t even attend my graduation. We haven’t seen each other in so long. I can’t go back, they can’t come here, I don’t know when I'm going to see them next.
AS A GAY MAN, I AM ILLEGAL IN MY OWN COUNTRY — HOMOSEXUALITY IS STILL PUNISHABLE BY DEATH. YOU CAN BE HUNG.
How did this tension affect your thesis?
The one reason why I’m so adamant on staying here is purely for survival. As a gay man, I am illegal in my own country- homosexuality is still punishable by death. You can be hung. If they find out that you’ve engaged in sexual activity, you can be hung. But at the same time, we have the second highest rate of Sex reassignment surgeries in the world, only after Thailand. If you wanted to transition, that’s actually completely legal, and subsidized by the government.
So basically, they don’t like intercourse between men, but if you want to have that you have to become a woman.
Exactly. That just reinstates how much gender norms are present. And so, that was a huge issue that I wanted to address in the project because this is such a taboo topic, just sexuality in general it's illegal to even research it, there’s just a complete vacuum of information. And so nobody knows, even gay people themselves don’t know how to identify. Everybody thinks that being gay is a pitstop to being trans.
In terms of expressing yourself, how has your family taken it?
I came out to my mom recently, almost at the start of the semester, mostly because of the confidence that I gained through this project. I've become so much more accepting of myself and after many lengthy conversations, I was able to access my family.
As for my dad, I haven’t come out to him but we’ve had many conversations about gender. Because he was mad that I was wearing certain clothes and posting "controversial" content. He asked "why are you wearing this" and I responded "First of all, I made it so I get to say if its menswear or womenswear." I just realized how much power there is in talking to people, and not automatically labelling people as a "homophobe" etc. I can’t be mad at my family that’s never been exposed to these notions for being homophobic, because they just don’t know better. As frustrating as that is for me or other LGBTQ folks- because people definitely do need to try harder- there’s just no education on these topics, so that’s what I wanted to do with my collection.
BEFORE THAT WE HAD ALL SORTS OF KISSING SCENES, SEX SCENES; WE HAD A KING AND A QUEEN...
How did you begin ideating your collection?
Initially, I didn’t know how to go about the garments because conceptually, I’m very research-oriented. So I tried to identify the different sects and social classes, religious versus secular, different residential areas etc. There are a number of different types of women's public dress in Iran. By law, women are required to wear a headscarf, at the very least, even if loosely. And you need to wear a garment that they call the manteau. It’s essentially just like a long cardigan.
That’s defined by religion?
Well, it’s by the government. Iranian people are actually very secular. Nowadays, 70% of our population is under 30. Everyone collectively despises the government. But, the issue is that the US doesn’t see that.
In my country being gay is simultaneously a disease, a sin and a crime punishable by death. It is a feminist issue, an obsession with inflexible gender roles meticulously implanted in the minds of Iranian youth to retain a system that benefits only the heteronormative male. This book that I made is called "Mom Also Gave Bread", which is a reinterpretation of ‘Dad Gave Bread’. That’s the first sentence that we learn to read and write in primary school, like a very short kiddy phrase. As in the male is the breadwinner. And I look at it as mom also gave bread. Through the medium of this project, I attempt to deconstruct taboos around gender and sexuality in modern Iranian culture, each look is a subversion of a different social group imagined as an individual character.”
How is the division between genders in Iran?
Even in movies, men and women aren’t allowed to have physical contact. But at the same time there are movies, especially comedies, where because they want to have that affection, they dress up male actors as women. So crossdressing! But surprisingly, that’s completely socially acceptable.
In football stadiums, women are banned. Only men can watch sports in the football stadium. Also wrestling is huge in Iran, it’s one of our sports. And looking at photos of wrestling with their tight singlets, you think, really??? And this is broadcasted on national television. Totally fine.
Do you think the specific limitations are coming from more of a religious point of view or the government?
It’s all the government, because in 1979, there was the Islamic Revolution. Before that we had all sorts of kissing scenes, sex scenes, we had a king and queen. It was completely different, there was a monarchy, very westernized …. I guess the revolution mainly happened because there was a huge financial gap between the royal family and the people. They lived their best lives while a lot of people couldn’t afford basic necessities. So when that happened everything just completely shifted. We went 360. So when I see pictures of my grandma and everyone, they’re all in mini skirts, at the park, by the beach in bikinis, and then the next thing they knew they’re supposed to live a completely different life. A lot of it has to do with propaganda. They executed all the intellectuals or they all left the country, so now Los Angeles has the second highest population of Iranians other than Iran. They’re all in LA.
I was looking at Iranian female militia. I think iranian women are just so badass, and they are the leaders of every protest. Right now there’s a campaign called "White Wednesdays" where women wear white scarves and drop them on their shoulders or tie them around sticks and hold them up as a sign of rebellion. It started with one woman and after that, many followed her lead and shared pictures and videos of themselves walking in the streets without the headscarves. And a lot of people get arrested but they continue to do it, and that’s really powerful to me.
My teachers were pushing me to put more of myself into it. So I birthed the character called "Tabu", her last name "Azad" which means free. The instagram name is @chai.shots. Essentially, I wanted to talk about how we lead a double life in Iran because at home you’re secular, you’re partying, you’re drinking alcohol, which is illegal but you find ways to get it either way. And when you step outside you have to cover up and be a completely different person and lie to everyone about how your family is. Like, in school you can’t talk about it. If it slips from your mouth "oh my dad drinks at home" then you could probably get in trouble, they’ll send government authorities to your house. So, the instagram’s basically a lesbian couple, and it’s just me juxtaposing myself in all these different places.
I WANTED THE TABLE CLOTH FABRIC BECAUSE DOMESTIC CHORES ARE ALWAYS ALLOCATED TO WOMEN, BUT AGAIN, IT'S ALL ABOUT RECLAIMING.
Tell us about this (the Chadori) character.
This character is the Chadori. This was, in my mind, a girl in a hyper-religious family. She has to be all covered up but secretly she’s smoking and drinking at home when her parents are gone. And, the fabrics that I chose for this, actually for a lot of the garments, were the ‘chador’ fabric itself. We call the women that wear the chadors "chadori". So this floral fabric is usually just a loose covering. When they go to the mosque they usually just wear that to pray. And it has no other function. It’s never been made into garments. So with this look I wanted to still have her all covered up, but at the same time, revealed. So it’s very tight. My grandmother sourced everything, she was like my business partner, she was in the market sending me photos on Whatsapp asking "ok do you want this do you want this." I wanted the table cloth fabric because domestic chores are always allocated to women, but again it’s all about reclaiming. The floral chador is usually worn indoors and the black chador is worn outdoors, it’s seen as more elegant. So I wanted to have that floral underneath and then the black chador on top, but in a different way that’s more adjustable instead of just covering up your body, it allows you to tie it differently.
...I OWE A LOT TO THIS COUNTRY BECAUSE IT'S THE FIRST TIME I HAVE
And tell us about this Akhoond (Muslim Clergy) character.
This is the clergy. I abhor these people. The muslim clergy... so these are the people that are oppressing us on a daily basis and are against anything that brings joy. So, I wanted to completely subvert and sexualize their look. They usually wear the turban, they have a mandarin collared shirt, and they wear a long overcoat. I took elements like the neckline and the turban and the shape, and subverted them.
The Iranian flag has "Allah" in the middle but it’s a stylized calligraphy. I just slightly tweaked that in the shape of a heart because love should be the only religion I think. And then all around the Iranian flag is "Allah u Akhbar" which means "God is Great" and I turned that into "eshgh" which means love. I tried to keep the same style of typography and that was printed onto the edges of the clergy’s outfit.
How did you cast your models?
All the models I was working with were people that I found through different means. Some in person, some on instagram, and the looks were kind of revolving around them. They’re all Iranian, that was essential to me.
How has your experience been being a part of the LGBT community and also Iranian in the United States?
Well, this is where I came out. This is where I finally allowed myself to accept that I am what I am. I mean, in school, I suppressed the fuck out of it. And when I came to Parsons freshman year, I told everyone I was straight, and everyone was like "Oookay." But eventually, after a year, I got into a relationship, before I came out. And still, for a year, even though I was in a relationship, I still wouldn’t tell anyone. And everyone’s like "lol we know." So I owe a lot to this country because it’s the first time I have felt free. I can dress how I want, I can talk how I want, I’m not embarrassed of my voice anymore. I used to be extremely introverted in school, and now I’ve become like a whole different person, so in that sense I’m extremely grateful. I just wish I didn’t have to fight so hard to be able to stay.
Plans for the future?
I just want to connect with as many people as I can, and do something interdisciplinary. I would love to do sculpture. I also wanna do film.