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Milan photo exhibition reveals lives of women in Iran

By Federico Maccioni

MILAN (Reuters) - A photograph of a woman, wearing a white chador with an ornate pattern and standing in front of a hanging Persian rug, is perhaps the most striking image of a new exhibition in Milan that aims to shed light on women's lives in today's Iran.

The woman is photographed from behind and the pattern of her chador, which completely covers her, seems to intertwine with the dense floral design of the rug.

The image is part of the first solo exhibition by Iranian photographer Farnaz Damnabi, which opened at Milan's 29 ARTS IN PROGRESS gallery on Tuesday.

Damnabi, 29, told Reuters the photo was taken in the holy Shi'ite city of Mashhad, one of Iran's most conservative places, where women would only be photographed provided their faces were not shown.

"In my opinion, in various aspects women are invisible but they are so powerful and courageous", she said, adding that she became a photographer to bring the lives of ordinary people to a broader audience.

Damnabi, who lives and works in Tehran, travelled across Iran to document women's lives, among other themes. The women are shown going about their daily lives at home, at work, in the city and the countryside.

Women in Iran are among the most highly educated in the Middle East, with a literacy rate of more than 80%.

The photos were taken before massive protests broke out in Iran last year after the death in custody of a 22-year-old woman arrested for allegedly violating hijab rules, leading to the worst legitimacy crisis for the country's clerical rulers since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

The Islamic Republic has blamed the unrest on its foreign foes, and authorities responded with violations that may constitute crimes against humanity, according to a U.N.-appointed expert.

"What struck us is that some of the images... are snapshots that very few could capture", said the gallery's co-founder and co-director Luca Casulli.

(Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Dubai, editing by Gavin Jones, Alexandra Hudson)