‘Lifting the Veil’
The portrayal of women in contemporary Iranian film goes through transformation. Veiled women reveal their faces to some more extent than it used to be accustomed in the past, but certainly not contravening the Islamic law. Long process of transformation can be defined by many factors such as political, economical or historical among many others.
“Men are protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has made one of them to excel the other, and because they spend from their means. Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient (to Allah and to their husbands) and guard in the husbands absence what Allah orders them to guard. As to those women on whose part you see ill-conduct, admonish them first, next, refuse to share their beds, and last beat them lightly if it is useful, but if they return to obedience, seek not against them means (of annoyance). Surely, Allah is Ever Most High, Most Great.” (Abdul-Rahman,2009:177)
It is crucial to realise that all Islamic countries are strongly influenced by Islam and therefore film industry does represent the religion as a whole. The core of every narrative within Iranian cinema is Islam and its traditions. One has to determine the gender differences in Islamic countries, for instance in Iran women seem to have more freedom and rights than in Afghanistan. However, all Islamic countries seem to share the main elements of national identity such as Persian language and Islam.
The treatment of women, as well as their status within the Iranian society, has always been the most debatable topic within Iranian cinema. Post-revolutionary cinema didn’t portray independent women, who are able to make their own decisions or to oppose their husbands. The only chance when the women filmmakers could change the unrealistic portrayal of women in Iranian cinema was by making films by themselves. (Tapper,2002:17) Consequently, the attitude to become more progressive towards the women’s issues than the last attitude before the Revolution by male directors. Iranian cinema managed to place a female force behind the camera and therefore create more truthful portrayal of women in Iranian society. Women are no longer depicted just as repressed victims, but they start to occupy a more dominant role as well.
Long process of transformation was influenced by many changes. When Iranian Revolution burst (1979), Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was replaced by Ayatollah Khomeini and this fact carried significant changes such as mandatory veiling for women or the opposition to the USA. Consequently, many cinemas were burned down following the regime, because they represented the threat of the westernized culture. Furthermore the production was completely disrupted and the creativity became limited by the certainty of what is allowed (halal) or forbidden (haram). (Tapper,2002:1) At that time, most of the films produced were rejected by the government. The questions of uncertainty led to absence of women. Eventually the government could no longer ignore the existence of cinema and therefore they decided to Islamicize it and control it for political purpose (Revolution itself or Iran-Iraq war).
Strong censorship had been applied, Iranian cinema visibly differed from the conventional one. Romance or intimate touch were abandoned by censorship laws as well as face to face shots. Not appropriate and unveiled part of bodies were blacked out.
Especially after Iran’s war with Iraq, women directors have produced films that challenge the depiction of women. (Bahramitash, 2001:91)
By the late 90’s Iranian cinema started to be productive and is distinct as one of the most innovative and exciting worldwide. The cinema deals with social realism and somehow has been able to put a woman into a leading role, who drives the story forward. Women started to become the agents of the narrative. Many film directors have gained success as a true voice of Iran, for instance Manijeh Hekmat, Puran Derakhshahdeh, Rakhshan Bani Etamed, Samira or Hana Makhmalbaf and many others.
I would like to base my theory on few examples of women’s films directed not only by female directors like The Apple, The day I became a woman, but also by male directors, who were influenced by the rise of feminism and their films are as well dealing with female issues like Ten or The Secret ballot.
Samira Makhmalbaf was just 17, when she made her first feature film The Apple (1999). The film is based on a true story and it’s about two girls Zahra and Massoumeh, who were locked up until the age of 12, by their blind mother and unemployed father, who justified his actions on the basis of his religious beliefs – to keep them safe from men. Once their neighbours reported the case to the social services, they were released from captivity and welcomed to the exploration of the outside world in Tehran. Zahra and Massoumeh hardly walked and were not eve able to communicate. (Columpar and Mayer, 2009:164-165)
The film focuses on ignorance and repression, that are applied on girls in the Islamic world. The film also brings hope, that things can be easily changed and improved. Eventually the father is the one, who is repressed and the girls freely enjoy their exploration and become sort of a dominant element within Iranian society, that drives the narrative forward.
New Iranian cinema in 90’s (Mohsen Makhmalbaf or Abbas Kiarostami) won acclaim on the international art cinema circuit. But Apple gained worldwidely a charismatic poster of a child. In 2000 Samira produced another film Blackboards set in the mountains of the Iran-Iraq borders. She accepted the prize “on behalf of new, young generation , which struggles for democracy and better life in Iran.’ (Columpar and Mayer,2009:163,164)
She developed passionate debates about Muslim women in At five in the afternoon, where the story follows 23 year old Afghan, but cosmopolitan woman Noqreh, who dreams of becoming president of her country and encounters many obstacles and irony on her way. The film is set up in post-Taliban era and Noqreh comes from the generation of children excluded from school by Taliban. Her father is conservative and therefore still supports the past regime. The hardest part was persuading someone to play the role. Set up in Afghanistan, the spectator is introduced to fundamentalists, who still have Taliban in their minds.
Samira’s sister Hana Makhmalbaf did also the documentary about making the film called The Joy of madness, where the audience is shown the treatment of women and fundamentalists, who cannot abide women showing their faces and they refuse the liberalization of their country. The film perfectly showed Taliban ideas that are still anchored in people’s minds as well as in their traditions and culture. Women were still frightened to appear without a burqa as well as in front of the camera. (Sadr,2006:277)
“Originally, this was a story of psychoanalyst, her patients and her car, but that was 2 years ago.” (Saeed-Vafa,2003:124)
Ten (2002), film made by Abbas Kiarostami, focuses on a young main protagonist Mania, who drives her taxi and she has several female confidants and one male antagonist-her son. Unconventionally in post-revolutionary Iranian cinema, that eliminated women completely, in this film men barely appear on the screen. Masculine opinions are personified mainly by a boy. (Donmez-Colin,2007:237)
The film is staged within the car, where the main protagonist dominates her space. Male drivers outside function as obstacles to her driving and seem to dominate the outdoor space.
The film is divided into ten episodes, where the driver remains the same, but the front-seat passenger changes. First episode number 10 starts with Amin (8), who accuses his mother of divorcing his father and he is not able to understand, that his father was destroying her as a woman. The driver is very modern and isn’t afraid to oppose not just her son, but any male obstructing her driving as well.
The camera focuses purely on young Amin, which determinates the separation of gender that places him in a dominant role within the society. Mania doesn’t treat him as a child, but as an adult and their conversation reminds the conversation between the wife and her husband. Amin disagrees with her life choices and constantly undermines her role of housewife in a household, repeating the fact, that she was constantly busy and cooked the same meal for a couple of days.
The film can be defined as feminist because of awareness of repression and need to fight against traditional and unequal laws. Mania rejects traditions, religion and patriarchal ideology and admits she feels fulfilled now after her divorce.
“It was a good way of getting divorce. The rotten laws in this society of ours give no rights to women. To get divorce a woman has to say that she is beaten or that her husband is on drugs! A woman has no right to live! A woman has to die so as to be able to live?” Mania reacts, when her son starts blaming her that she lied made his father a drug addict in order to get divorce.
The huge criticism of woman being a possession to man is repeated throughout the film. “We women are wretched, we are like this. We don’t like ourselves, can’t be for ourselves. What does all this mean? This is enough. You cannot sum up everything in one person. What a pain! In such a big universe why you should become dependent on one person. I cannot understand.” (Zaydabadi,2010:127)
There is another interesting fact about the meaning of hejab or hijab. It seems to be upgraded by women to a fashion supplement. Despite the fact, that the head cover is compulsory in the public for the purpose of covering women’s beauty (hair). Mania always plays with her hejab, wears it in very fashionable way and moreover it is not traditionally black, but white colour. She also suggests to one of her passengers not to wear her hejab so tight and that she would look prettier when loosing it up slightly.
Mania features as a very pretty and attractive woman, that can function as an object for sexual desire, although she is dressed as a proper Muslim. This issue evokes a question of male gaze and a way of seeing the main character.
Ten is the first film Kiarostami has made about women’s issues and is at the same time his first film, that was abandoned in Iran due to censorship. Apparently four out of ten sequences are inappropriate, including one that features a prostitute, and are unsuitable for public viewing, because they support social corruption as well as prostitution. (Zaybadi,2010:125)
The Day I became a woman (2000) is a film directed by Marzieh Meshkini. The narrative is split into three separate stories. First one is about a little girl Hava, who became 9 and her mother forbid her to play outside as she is no longer a girl, but a woman and she needs to cover her face. Against this fact, she persuades her mother to let her play for last hour with her best friend a boy. While playing by the sea, Hava exchanges her headscarf for a toy, which is used by two boys as a sail on a boat. The vanishing boat connotates her childhood coming to an end soon.
The second part shows young rebelling woman Ahoo, who takes part in a cycling race. She is chased by her husband on a horse, who tries to persuade her to stop racing. After many unsuccessful attempts her husband calls a divorce and Ahoo is finally free for a few minutes. She doesn’t stop until her brothers come and they are able to stop her. Ahoo’s rebellious act to oppose her husband indicates her emancipation, will to be free and to be able to fulfil her dreams and desires.
And eventually the third part shows an old woman, who uses inheritance money to fulfil her wish. All stories give an example of a woman in three different stages of her life with insights to their private dreams. Hava wishes to play with her best friend, but once she puts her hejab on, she immediately starts to be limited by Islamic law when it comes to gender.
Ahoo does not just wish to be part of a cycle race, but tries hardly to win the race. Therefore she strikes and despite many warnings she manages to decide freely, although she is aware of the possibility to be punished.
All three characters in the films are not repressed victims, but rather strong personalities. They put their will to act rather than obey first and this fact clearly indicates feminism and emancipation. According to Hamid Reza Sadr, ‘It is an allegorical work, that explicitly examines feminist issues in a culture moving towards change yet tied to ancient conventions.” (Sadr,2006:267)
Secret Balot (2001) is a film directed by Babak Payami. The main character is a woman, who is sent to collect ballots for a coming election on a desert island of Kish in a Persian Gulf. She is accompanied by a soldier on duty, who escorts her around the island in a military jeep. On their way she has to constantly fight the stubborness of the soldier, who believes that a man should be a voting agent. By the en of the film he starts to like her because of her charm and persistence.
Despite agent’s very conservative and strict hejab, which can have an effect of her being a strict Muslim and Islamic tradition believer, she is very strong by contrast, independent and determined character, who functions as a heroine. Her trust in public voting keeps her persistent in persuading people to vote for a change.
The agent is aware of the gender ideologies imposed by Islamic radicals, however she is able to challenge any patriarchal customs within the island with her assertive approach. For instance the sequence, where women were afraid to vote without husband’s permission. The biggest challenge was the scene, where one person voted for her.
It is clear when addressing the feminism in contemporary Iranian cinema that nearly most of female characters featured in recent movies are carrying elements of emancipation, modern thinking and strong personalities. Portraying social realism juxtaposed with strong, but truthful dialogues create a significant influence on public opinion and lead them to passionate debates about the traditional roles of women on the screen as well as in real life.
Women film directors are very popular abroad and were able to establish themselves as highly respected. According to Samira Makhmalbaf: “We have a lot of limitations in terms of written or unwritten law. It is in the mind of everybody, that woman cannot be a filmmaker. It is a challenge, but the situation is now slowly changing in minds of people. When you break a cliché, the changes can start, so I now very much hope, that we can.” (Wood,2004) And to be honest, it is really a big step forward to place a woman behind the camera, accept her as an equal and obey her commands within Islamic society.
It is debatable if it is possible for traditional patriarchal ideologies to live head to head with progressing feminism. The principal fact is that male directors managed to put a woman into leading role and let her drive the story forward, although she had to fight the patriarchal issues. Male directors as well as female directors convey the message through visual interpretation and still explore the themes of gender inequality. It certainly is possible to some extent so far. However, some writers claim, that Islam and feminism are incompatible.
The woman started to be presented in different professions rather than to be conventional housewife. They features as taxi-drivers, voting agents, social workers among many other professions. “Feminist analyses of domesticity criticize the aspect of patriarchy for diminishing women’s socio-economic power for limiting women’s options in life to domestic roles of wives and mothers.” (Shahidian,2002:99)
Moreover, there seems to be lack of violence perpetrated on women in comparison with different films such as The Buddha collapsed out of shame or Under the skin of the city. Despite the fact, that punishment wait for women, when they misbehave (mentioned in verses of Qur’an), the violence slowly vanishes from the screen and is replaced by exchange of views.
Many Iranian filmmakers are interested in filming life in Afghanistan as the situation appears to be more extremist than in Iran due to previous control of Taliban, that is still anchored in people’s minds. Against the fear of danger filmmakers are willing to travel there in order to depict and bring into attention the cruelties and limitations made on women as they no longer deserve to be repressed and victimised under burqas, because they have suffered enough.
Limited budgets, small crew and minimum of equipment forced Iranian filmmakers to work with real people (unprofessional actors) in real locations. Iranian realism has developed a more tolerant discourse on Islam and its traditions and its semi-documentary, semi-fiction style has been honoured by many international film festivals. (Tapper,2002:202)
This theory leads one to conclusion that representation of women in Iranian cinema has radically changed and is still in a process of transformation through breaking conventions.
Tapper insists, that the new Iranian cinema needs to be built with more women behind the cameras and let them create new cinematic images themselves. They might portray new representation of women, who will not be in Shahla Lahiji’s words ‘those of chaste or unchaste dolls’.
If you’re hungry to see more Iranian films, please click on the link below!
Iranian house of Iranian cinema http://www.imvbox.com/
Also watch out for 4th Iranian film festival too!
1. Abdul-Rahman Muhammad Saed, The meaning and explanation of the glorious Qu’ran (Vol 2) 2nd Edition, 2009 by MSA Publication limited
2. Bahramitash Roksana, Hooglund Erik, Gender in contemporary Iran, pushing the boundaries, 2001 by Routledge
3. Columpar Corinn, Mayer Sophie, There she goes – feminist filmmaking and beyond, 2009 by Wayne State University Press
- Dabashi Hamid, Close-up: Iranian cinema past, present and the future, 2001 by Verso
- Donmez-Colin Gonul, The cinema of North Africa and the Middle East, 2007 by Wallflower Press
- Sadr Hami Riza, Iranian cinema: a political history, 2006 by I.B.Tauris&Co Ltd
- Saeed-Vafa Mehrnaz, Rosenbaum Jonathan, Contemporary film directors:Abbas Kiarostami, 2003 by University of Illinois Press
- Shahidian Hammed, Women in Iran: emerging voices in the women’s movement, 2001 by Greenwood Publishing group Inc.
- Tapper Richard, The new Iranian cinema:politics, representation and identity, 2002 by I.B.Tauris&Co.Ltd.
- Wood, J. (2004, x x). A Quick Chat with Samira Makhmalbaf. [accessed 4/1/12] http://www.kamera.co.uk
- Zeydabadi-Nejad Saeed, The politics of Iranian cinema : film and society in the Islamic republic, 2010 by Routledge
- http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2003/may/19/cannes2003.cannesfilmfestival [accessed 2/1/12]
1. Apple, DVD, 1988 Samira Makhmalbaf
2. At five in the afternoon, DVD, 2003 Samira Makhmalbaf
3. Buddha Collapsed Out of Shame, DVD, 2007 Hana Makhmalbaf
4. Close-up, DVD, 1990, Abbas Kiarostami
5. Kandahar, DVD, 2001, Mohsen Makhmalbaf
6. Secret Ballot, DVD, 2001 Babak Payami
7. Ten, DVD, 2002 Abbas Kiarostami
8. The Circle, 2002 Jafar Panahi
9. The day I became a woman, 2000 Mohsen Makhmalbaf
10. The Joy of madness, 2004 Hana Makhmalbaf
11. Under the skin of the city, DVD, 2001 Rakshan Bani-Etemad