With: Aida Shamlu, Simin Behbahani, Mahmud Dolatabadi, Mohammad Ghazi, Mohammad Hoghughi, Abbas Kia-Rostami, Javad Mojab, Zia Movahed, Esmail Nuri-Ala, M Sepanlu, Pouran Solatani, Nasser Taghva’i.
Executive Producer: Behruz Maghsudlu, Akbar Ghahary.
Director: Moslem Mansuri
A documentary on the life, art and thoughts of the contemporary Iranian poet and writer, Ahmad Shamlu was shown for the first time on April 18 at the behest of the Association of Iranian Writers in Exile. This one-hour documentary, was completed in 1999 and was shown when the Swedish academy gave its highest literary prize to Shamlu, whose poems can be said to have given life to thousands Iranians. The film has also been shown in two North American festivals, CIRA and MESA, and in several universities including Harvard, Columbia, North Carolina, Chicago, Washington DC, Baltimore, Ottawa, and Montreal where it was given critical acclaim.
This was perhaps the first time that the Iranian documentary cinema made a film of a prominent personality and a contemporary poet during their life. Shamlu’s literary works, both poetry and translations, have made him one of greatest cultural and literary influences, particularly on the Iranian left.
Shamlu was born in 1925. His life coincided with the period of radical reform in Farsi poetry – a process that began with the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-6 and to which Shamlu was a major contributor. Shamlu is prominent both as a great historical literary figure and a major poet. His historic contribution to the reform of Farsi poetry has been a subject of numerous books. But it is his eminence as a national poet that sets him apart as Iran’s offering to world literature. Shamlu’s poetic vision accords with both Western and modernist concepts as well as the modern transformation of classical Farsi poetry. As a humanist and a socially conscious intellectual, he has skilfully woven personal love and affection with social attitudes. His poetry exudes both hope and a passion for justice:
Dry path, all through life
Having been born with a cry
In a hatred
Turning on itself.
Thus was the
The story of the ruin.
If only freedom
Could sing a song
Small, smaller even ...
Than the throat of a bird.
Abbas Kia-Rostami (writer/filmmaker): After 30 years of work… Shamlu has arrived at such credibility in his work that confirmation or denial of anyone can take away, or add nothing, to that credibility.
Zia Movahhed (poet/philosopher): Anyone who reads Fresh air today can see that … this language, this texture, is different from anything else. Poetry without metrical structure… but musical nevertheless… Poetry that does not have prosodic rhythm. But has natural rhythm. In contemporary poetry, few have accomplished this kind of rhythm as Shamlu has. Fresh Air was the greatest event in our poetry – after Hafiz.
Esmail Nuri-Ala (poet/critic/literary historian): If the Persian language was a Latin language, his name would have been familiar to all poetry-reading public in the world… and it would have been a name as great as Neruda and Lorca.
Abbas Kia-Rostami: instead of making any comments about Shamlu’s poems I should just read them, and in this way …. pay my respects and my dues to a poet who… wrote poetry for 30-40 years and lived poetically:
I have never dreaded Death
Though its hands
have always been
More fragile than banality;
My fear, however,
was of dying in a land
where grave diggers’ wage
is higher than the price of
Searching, finding and then
choosing with freedom:
Turning the essence of oneself
into a fort.
Even if there were more value
to death than all this ….
I deny that I had ever
The documentary will be shown again in London and other European cities in June.
Shamlu was a founder of the Iranian Writers Association. It the thirty intervening years he has not ceased defending its ideals. As he put it to an interviewer "The Iranian Writers Association is alive because its thought is alive in each and every one of us. That means every one of us cultural workers who remains true to its shining ideals is individually an association".
Numerous are those from this tribe of the pen who in this republic of terror gave their life in defence of the pen and its honour: Hossein Eghdami, Piruz Davani, Hamid Haji-Zadeh, Ghaffar Hosseini, Mohammad Mokhtari, Ahmad Miralai’, Mohammad-Ja’far Puyandeh, Hamid Rezvan, Said Soltanpur, Saidi Sirjani, Majid Sharif, Ahmand Taffazoli, Ebrahim Zalzadeh.
The documentary "Shamlu, master poet of liberty" paints a life that is both passionate and rational, the purpose of which is the quest for liberation. And it is through this battle for liberation of people like him that liberty is conceived in the perspective of humanity and humanism.
Shamlu’s achievement go beyond poetry. He has written stories and film scenarios. He has made an important contribution to children’s literature. He has been one of the most amazing journalistic talents in the last few decades. It is through his name and his presence that many of the most successful and lasting publications of our time have achieved their success.
Shamlu is also a translator. Not only is his colourful language unforgettable in his translations of stories and prose, but many poems in foreign languages have been so transformed by Shamlu’s extraordinary word-painting as to seem not so much a translation, as the most beautiful contemporary Farsi poetry.
In an interview Mohammad Mohammad Ali lists 65 works by Shamlu (Ghatreh 1993): anthologies, translations, novels, plays, collected essays and articles. Shamlu adds a further five works. These include speeches political writings, commentaries on Hafez , a free translation of a new anthology by Margot Beikel and a rewriting of Graham Green’s book The Power and the Glory under the title of Another Jesus, Another Judas.
A pride of place should be reserved for his Ketab-e Kucheh (alley book) . Here he expounds the aural, the colloquial language, following the footsteps taken earlier by Dehkhoda and Sadegh Hedayat. This is a gigantic undertaking. There are to be about 100 volumes, over 30 of which are ready, though most are unpublished.
Shamlu’s position in the firmament of Iranian literature is a vivid mirror of what is happening to the pen and to culture in Iran. Shamlu is rightly considered the most significant figure in contemporary Iranian poetry. The pulse of literature in Iran and among the people beats with what is in his poetry and thought. For the Islamic Republic to deny this undeniable fact is futile. Shamlu’s influence on poetry is a feature of contemporary Iran. But his influence undoubtedly goes beyond poetry. He has influenced the whole direction of Iranian literature.
The fact that a poet or writer influences a whole period of literary and cultural life to such a degree is not without precedence in other languages and cultures. The recognition of such moments in any putative literature can be very helpful. Yet Shamlu’s inspiration on the Iranian literary scene is not confined to the purely literary. What makes Shamlu’s literary creations in their totality, and his poetry specifically, so influential is his world view of humans, and what can, and must, direct the noble future of humanity.
In his poetry humans stand on the equator of poetry and poetry on the equator of humanity. He has a grasp of his time and his epoch. He is contemporary, understands all the anxieties of the current miseries and yet believes in the ability of humankind to resist and not capitulate.
This is how he put it in an interview: "what makes up my poetry, in its totality and essentials? I can simply say that for some time my life can be reduced to anxiety and apprehension. All my life the nightmare of my waking hours was seeing poverty, injustice and lack of culture. I have nothing more to add to this. Everything else is incidental and marginal. Justice is my permanent anxiety, and perhaps this is why injustice is always around to take revenge on me in some way. This terrifying animal circles me and with its steps weaves a spell round me so that I can never ignore its presence…"
Let us see what the Islamic Republic does to such a poet: a mirror of what befalls any intellectual that has not bowed to the ruling power. Shamlu puts it thus in an interview some years ago: "… for ten years I have been eliminated from the arena of culture in my country. Of course I have continued my work, and if something was in my head I have put it down on paper…"
In this sentence is encapsulated on the one side the repression of the Islamic Republic on our culture makers and people, and on the other, the enduring resistance of the culture makers and people against this repression.
Shamlu today symbolises the free poets of this world. And the liberated of this world. In a world dominated by profit and capital, anyone speaking of freedom, justice, rationality, and kindness is a free individual who demands freedom for all humanity as the shared identity of citizenship, whatever corner they inhabit. And if this were to come about, then humans will break every bond and boundary to a promised land without confines. In that sense the world is a city, and he who shouts out the liberty of humankind is a citizen of the world.
If you look well Shamlu is a citizen of the world from the now to the yet.
This is an abridged version of a talk given by Dr Berelian, a member of the Iranian Writers Association in Exile. The talk was given before the showing of the film: Shamlu, master poet of liberty in London in April.
1. Shamlu’s edition of the great Iranian classic poet is itself a classic.
2. This is gargantuan research on language as used in everyday speech, and encompasses all the richness of the Farsi language spoken by a nation of such diversity.
Portrayal of Women in Iranian Cinema
An historical overview
What has and what has not changed in the portrayal of women
I would like to extend a warm personal welcome to our distinguished guests,1 women from all over the world and Iran who are active in the field of movie making, whether as film makers or critiques, and are here for an exchange of experience and understanding of the subject of "woman and the present day cinema". I hope this gathering will provide you with the opportunity to take back observations of Iranian women according to realities of their conditions and free from the current of political publicity which, regrettably, is far too common in the world.
Although in recent years, a great deal of discussion at the international level has addressed the issue of the place and status of women in present day Iranian society, the influence their social position has exerted in the spheres of art, literature, religion, politics, economics and history and so on, and despite the fact that more than any other time, critical eyes are focused on Iranian women living within the national borders, and in spite of a considerable corpus of literature published on these issues, the emphasis, on the whole, has been on the shortcomings. Indeed, the ceaseless efforts of our women to participate in all areas of social life, and to enter areas hitherto beyond their access (albeit as a form of reaction) have not received much attention. One of these areas is the film industry.
The fascinating fact is, however, that for different political and social reasons, and above all due to the extensive presence of a large group of our women in various fields of social activity, even if as part of a shapeless mass, and in not-so-important roles, the Iranian woman has turned more than ever before to study and research, has expressed her views on the shortages facing her and has demanded the restorations of her rights.
Amongst the most active voices have, of course, been our woman film-makers. Despite being no more than ten years on the professional scene, working under difficult conditions and facing various limitations, they have had greater success than men in a more realistic portrayal of both women and men in Iran. Their work has, moreover, enjoyed enthusiastic public reception.
The achievement becomes even more impressive if we note that, unfortunately, our national movie industry, both before and after the Islamic revolution, had little success in a realistic portrayal of people, especially our women. And besides, what were offered were often far removed from the reality. This, to my mind, has been one of the reasons why Iranian cinema was not successful at the international level. The failure has, besides, damaged the place and status of women, both before and after the revolution, by presenting a distorted picture of them.
For this reason, I have chosen as the subject of my paper the Picture of Women in Iranian Cinema. I am no film expert, and speak as a simple researcher on the question of women. What I have to offer is a reflection of an ordinary movie goer, what she has seen, read and heard - just like millions who are the main cinema audience, the largest audience after radio and television, the people who borrow some of their imagined heroes from movies, those who take a memento from every film they see to fill the hours of their solitude. I believe that all these show the deep socio-cultural influence of cinema because of its magic attraction and broad audience.
For myself, as a woman who has spent years pondering over the problems, difficulties and struggle of the women of my country, I assume the right to have a critical look at the picture of woman which the Iranian film industry has impressed, and continues to impress on the mind of the public.
The first Iranian-Farsi film Dokhtar-e Lor or the Lor Girl was screened in 1933. The film was not only the first experiment in producing a full-length film with a drama, it was also the first appearance of women in Iranian films. Although the story was probably produced to meet official prescription at a time when the central government was engaged in clashes with the tribes of Lorestan, the theme was woven around a girl named Golonar (a supposedly typical rural name for girls, meaning pomegranate blossom) who lived with no supporters and earned a gypsy living by singing and dancing in tea houses and inns on the Lorestan-Khuzistan road. The film, of course, has had a lot of problems both in its manner of storytelling and representation of the realities of the Iranian society of the time. Still, the heroic tale of a girl who could manage her own life alone was no doubt attractive to the public.
The film was shot and put together in India. The cast was, however, Iranian and an Iranian singer played the part of Golonar. At that time, removal of the hejab (Islamic dress code) had not yet been made compulsory and showing a woman with partial hejab was against social custom. However, the film did not arouse any negative response and the public reception of the role of the woman was not too bad. On the whole, the Lor Girl was well received by the cinema-goers of the time.
Between 1933 and 1937, several other Iranian films were produced in India, but it was another eleven years of relative inactivity before the cameras came to shoot inside Iran.
Toofan-e Zendegi, or the Storm of Life, was the first Iranian film to be produced in Iran in 1948. The story was about a girl from a middle class family with intellectual leanings and an interest in the arts. The girl gives in to the pressure of her greedy and ignorant father, a nouveau riche businessmen, and leaves her preferred suitor who happens to be a poor artist. She marries a rich but evil man, but following a series of events, frees herself from bondage and marries the original suitor. The film contained an elementary family melodrama but still had an eye on social problems. In a crude way, the film tried to put across and criticise the boundless authority of the father in a family with strong patriarchal traditions.
On the whole films produced in the first ten years of the film industry in Iran shared a simple-minded kind of romanticism, mixed with a strong tendency to moralise. In most of them, women were at the centre stage as victims of male immorality. These women were not presented as examples of moral superiority, though they were the advocates of a type of simple and easily accessible morality. The main female actors did not have much physical beauty, and being chosen from amongst famous singers and theatre actresses, often played roles too young for them. Artistic expression was crude, movements rather artificial and without artistic value.
In many of these films, violation of the woman’s chastity was part of the theme, but the act itself was shown in a symbolic way. In dealing with social problems, women usually showed greater wisdom than men.
The "deceived and abandoned" theme stayed with the Iranian industry for quite some time. Highly stereotyped dialogues, usually spoken by women, played the main part in putting across the message of the films.
The low quality of these Iranian films was the reason why the middle class movie-goers showed little interest in them. Even the lower middle-class youths preferred foreign action films or Arab and Indian "sing and dance" movies rather than the tedious story and the inaction of these Iranian films. The main customers, therefore, were lower and lower middle-class families who, because of meagre education, had no patience for foreign films. The language - Farsi - and the sentimental family themes of these films, emphasising maternal feelings and attachments, satisfied their simple taste.
In discussing the place of women in those films, it is interesting to note that because of their limited audience, they were hardly in a position to exert much influence over society, and as such, they could be described as socially neutral. They did little good and little harm.
Towards the end of the 1950s, a number of factors came to obstruct possible progress of Iranian film industry. Large numbers of imported "sing-and-dance" films from India and Egypt, and commercialised low quality films from Italy and the rapid progress of the dubbing techniques in Iran, which removed the language barrier, deprived Iranian films of a large part of their audience. The industry came to face crashing financial problems.
Instead of raising the quality of films to attract the educated middle-classes, producers chose to emphasise the physical attraction of actors and actresses, to draw the new generation of cinema-goers, particularly the single young men of the lower middle-classes, to the box office. Introduction of a number of little known women actresses with the type of beauty appealing to these young men, and use of handsome actors with no relevance to any particular social stratum who could satisfy the fantasy of the young audience, inducing them to dig into their pockets and buy movie tickets, were part of movie-makers’ method of achieving box office success.
The hero of this genre of Iranian films developed into a strong-arm, well-proportioned fist fighter, and the actresses continued to cut down on their clothing. The financial successes of the movies of this period in Iranian history of cinema, generally known as the velvet hat-meat broth-cabaret genre2 turned film production into a highly lucrative business.
During the 1960s, tens of such films were put on screen with revolting names such as the loose woman, dancer, sinner and the like, each being more or less a duplicate of the previous one with the difference that skirts shrank, nudity increased and the scenes became more permissive. Thus, the cinema, the inexpensive means for the recreation for the masses turned into the place for the regurgitation of suppressed sexual drives.
The film makers of this period perpetrated the greatest insult to the Iranian women because only one picture of women appeared on the screen: the pervert woman who was easily deceived, became a cabaret dancer and a prostitute until the day when the saving angel arrived in the shape of an attractive strong arm, velvet-hat wearing man, or a roving fist-fighter who would then wake the woman from her sinful ways with a slap of the face, take her and pour the water of repentance on her head and finally, save her. That insulting and distorted portrait of the Iranian woman on the screen had no affinity to the real woman in our society.
The life, suffering and joys of normal women, the housewives, women working on the farm, in factories, at school and offices, physicians, nurses, poets, authors, lawyers, and university teachers engaged in living normal lives had no place in the Iranian movies. Iranian movies were empty of real women - and real men too. What was shown on the screen included pure fantasy of the cheapest kind, without any artistic or aesthetic value.
The social reaction, or rather lack of it, to this structure of the national movie industry was, however, interesting. The government of the time, which was arresting and imprisoning at home, and wheeling and dealing abroad, did not appear dissatisfied with this way of keeping the masses amused. The intellectuals, too, merely held their noses, ignoring the fact that the consumers of such contemptible diversions were the very people about the defence of whose rights they were raising a hue and cry. Even women themselves, raised no objection, and women’s magazines of the time did not even make a gesture of protest.
The only cinematic works of the period which presented a rational portrait of women were Khesht va Ayeneh (Mud-brick and Mirror) and Shohar-e Ahoo Khanom (Husband of Mrs Ahoo). These promised the emergence of a new type of thoughtful cinema. Although the story of Mud-brick and Mirror was again about a prostitute, the director had tried to study the inner layers of the life of these women who were condemned to live their lives in that way, and had emphasised the natural tendency of women adorned with hope and ideals. The Husband of Mrs Ahoo, based on a novel of the same name, portrayed the story of the Iranian woman’s patience and tolerance. Both films were box office failures because of a lack of fashionable scenes. Still, their difference with what had been termed the Iranian Film until then, drew the attention of a group of critiques and specialists.
During the early 1960s, the Iranian film industry finally experienced a change. A group of young Iranians who had been educated in the art of movie making abroad returned home. Better films, both in terms of technique and development of the theme, were produced. Films were made for international festivals and won prizes. A new group of cinema goers who had, until then, kept away from the Iranian films, accepted the change. The movie pages of national magazines too, opened up small sections to discuss Iranian films.
Dolls without virtue
In 1968, the arrival of the so-called avant garde film making was officially announced by screening Gheysar, which proved a watershed in the history of Iranian film industry. This period is also interesting for its part in bringing a different face of women to the screen because the negative results of this change was inflicted women in an absurd way.
The capable, but also calculating maker of Gheysar had used feminine appeal in his first film with even greater permissiveness, and had failed. Now, his instinct told him that films emphasising the sexual aspect of actresses would not get him anywhere, especially with the new group of cinema-goers who has now turned to Iranian films, for being both cheap and repetitious. He also hoped to received the acclaim of Iranian intellectual circles.
With a clever trick, and relying on the values of a male-dominated society and the nostalgic tendencies of both the masses and the intellectuals, he banished at a stroke women from the cabarets to the isolation of the ante-room. Women in Gheysar and similar films were driven to the margin of a male dominated text. The Iranian film making industry experienced a twenty-year reversal. An antiquated category of relations between people which, had been presented before in a cheap, confused but unpretentious way by the velvet-hat films, was now offered in the context of glorifying manifestations of traditional culture as against imported cultural phenomena, and assumed epic proportions. More surprising was the apparent seal of approval of this retrograde step from those who claimed the role of intellectuals, who were no doubt the product of social changes, with comments which often had political overtones and was influenced by the political air of society. Since it was no longer expedient to use women in first roles it was decided to blame women for all social problems.
In the avant garde intellectual movies of the period, appearance of women signalled the arrival of disaster and misfortune. The young girl was helpless and unable to defend her chastity and the honour of the family. Thus, men of the family, carrying knives in their pockets, would search the city to repair the torn curtain of the honour and chastity of the clan by piling corpse upon corpse. The middle-aged woman in these films was usually the accomplice of the drug trafficker and deceived simple soul from rural areas, or the wife of the big landlord and village henchmen who mercilessly ordered the oppression of poor villagers, or the tempter of innocent men whose pockets she would finally pick.
These "avant garde" film makers, very much like producers of the cheap films of the decades gone by, had no time for the efforts of millions of normal women in our society. The heroism of ordinary people is hidden under the mundane layers of everyday life and to search for and pull them up for display requires an incisive mind and a perceptive eye. It also needs a sufficient background in anthropology, social psychology, folk culture, literature, and knowledge of many things.
Gheysar and films like it, with their distorted look at women, came on the screen in large numbers. Commercialised movie makers, noted the public reception, and added the spice of sex and nudity to inflate the market. The business-minded followers of Gheysar, who did not possess the intelligence of its director, went even further, and by summarising the entire ability of women in their bodies, presented a picture of women whose prominent feature was loose behaviour.
In something like ten years, over four hundred of this genre of films were produced and society became addicted to this absurd and unreal definition of women without ever saying enough is enough. But it was no doubt during this period that the subconscious mind of the masses, who were the main audience of these films, registered an impression of women as creatures born out of immorality, who were the causes of immorality - dolls without virtue - an impression that showed its results in later social changes in Iran.
Influence of theatre
Meanwhile, there were those who tried to offer a different menu. Films like Cheshme (The Spring), Gav (Cow), Hashtomin Ruz-e Hafteh (Eight Day of the Week) Yek Etefaq-e Sadeh (A Simple Accident) were made in the same period. Some producers tried, hopelessly tried, to offer stories of a different type and pull down the strong walls of immorality, but they also failed to present a true picture of Iranian women.
Nonetheless, theatre had a positive influence over cinema in this phase. The late 1960s to late 1970s, Iran’s nascent theatre which, following the earlier, and suppressed, political theatre was experiencing a resurgence and adopted a more universal attitude. Those active in the sector were mostly teachers and students of the Faculty of Fine Arts and were acquainted with modern theatre. Directors usually worked on foreign pieces. In these pieces, the role of women coincided with the deep rooted one acceptable to the world dramatic literature and was which was not open to questioning.
The students and teachers of dramatic art came to look at their heroines with a new look, even though she was not Iranian and perhaps not identifiable with the national culture. But they offered a good place to exercise the mind and prune the stereotype of women of wrong trappings. This process was, of course, prone to shortcomings, yet was not alien to the essence. Women who were interested in drama but had kept aloof from cinema because of its unhealthy atmosphere, turned to the theatre and found a better place for training. They had an important role in the evolution of the art of theatre. Girl students learned to choose their parts carefully and responsibly. As a result, contemporary theatre actresses emerged and formed a new group of artists.
Perhaps if the national theatre had followed the way it had commenced, it could exerts a direct influence over cinema and clean it of its distortions. However, the Iranian theatre did not last long and its influence over cinema did not go further than supplying film makers with a few capable directors and good actors and actresses.
Cheshmeh (The Spring) was the first film with roots in the theatre. However, because of the predominance of stage features, the film did not go down well with cinema-goers. Lack of success of Cheshmeh was more than made up by the film Ragbar (The Downpour), again by another theatre director Bahram Beizai’. The film offered a new representation of the old story of life and love, the story of ordinary people in a not-ordinary context. It related the suffering and joys of common people who are the epic makers of their own lives. The film, represented women, the ordinary women outside affluent classes, and men, educated and uneducated men, and offered an important and realistic piece to the Iranian cinema.
However, an even more important contribution of Ragbar was the presentation of a different picture of women, drawn by the virtuous pen and camera of a responsible film maker and with considerable aesthetic appeal. The film won several prizes and was a box office success.
The success led to the production of another film of the same genre: Gharibeh va Meh (The Stranger and the Fog) in which the heroine was is a pivotal position in a mythological space cast into a modern context. Other players were in the side light. Such a glorious portrayal of women was unprecedented in our cinema. Although other films by Beizai’, namely Kalagh (The Crow), Cherikeh Tara (Tara the Guerrilla-fighter) and Marg-e Yazdgerd (Death of Yazdgerd), had been based on the life of Iranian women and their feminine and maternal power, none was put on public show because of their coincidence with the Islamic revolution and restrictions which decreed regarding the showing of the face of women on the screen. Still, even with a limited showing, the name of the film-maker has been registered in the history of Iranian film industry as one of the best who looks at women with praise and respect.
After the revolution
In early years after the Islamic revolution a strange event occurred in Iranian film industry, which having been cleared of "immorality", had promised a place to women to offer their true talents. Yet once again, women were blamed for all the permissiveness and corrupt activities of makers of commercialised films in the past. Once again women were exiled to the margin. The faint shadow of women in the new films was cast in neutral roles, sitting next to the samovar to pour tea for the men of the family, to obey the father, husband and even young sons. When given key roles, women played the part of upper class grumbling women with illogical, demanding characters without accepting responsibility. This, as in earlier times, was a distorted picture of Iranian women. Once again, women were used as the scapegoats and were banished to the ante-room and kitchen. The difference was that the immoral doll became a virtuous one.
Little by little women who had taken part in political marches during the revolutionary months, raised their voices in protest: women who had endured war and economic pressure, had seen off their husbands, fathers and brothers to the war fronts and had suffered immensely as the heads of their families. On the other hand, actresses and women interested in drama, made up for their elimination on screen by becoming active behind the scene as assistant director, director, stage manager, designer, producer, and similar jobs. In this way, they exerted their presence and finally lowered the strong high walls of cinema, and using the much cleaner environment of film making after the revolution, proved their talent as directors.
Following the Iran-Iraq war, and with a number of different films such as Basho, Gharib-e Koochak (Basho, the little stranger), Madar (Mother), Vaght-e digar shayad (Another time, maybe) Parand-e koochak-e Khoshbakhti (The little bird of happiness), the subject of the portrayal of women in Iranian films which had, at different times, started and then suspended, was once again brought up. Women’s protest against their unrealistic portrayal in cinema was shown in the form of films which they made themselves.
Our women film makers entered the field with self-confidence and professional ability, away from sexual bias, but with the penetrating eyes of women, showed that despite all the "musts and must-nots" and limitations, it is possible to make better and more realistic film. Such as Nargess and Roosari Aabi (Blue scarf). From there on and little-by-little, male film makers too came round to a new way of making films in which women played the pivotal role. Such were Sarah, Zinat, Banoo (Lady) and ...... This is how they showed their approval of the change in Iranian cinema.
Now that public taste has improved, better films will be made. I would like to close this short review of the portrayal of women in Iranian Cinema, from the beginning to today, by emphasising a point:
The Iranian woman has been, and is a partner, the equal and the collaborator of the Iranian man. Her presence is a creative one - whether in carrying out social duties or the specific roles assigned to her, as a capable manager or mother whose incisive and organised approach to life represent her special abilities. If we neglect these facts, we are guilty of neglecting the whole truth.
The special dress of the Iranian woman may be a vehicle for her purer presence, but it must not and should not prevent her presence. If we accept the rule that the Muslim Iranian woman must be covered, we must at the same time, try and draw up plans so that the limits of his covering does not conceal her real identify and role.
As past experience has clearly shown, it is not possible to deprive Iranian women from participating in social activities and institutions and from her natural and social life. Her appearance on the screen is also a logical necessity. It is not possible to deny, nor limit, the personality of women by reversing the course of events. The Iranian woman is going through one of the most important experiences of all times. We cannot see women as the shadow of men living in men’s shade. How can one ignore the other half of humanity?
The true face of women:
A missing link in Iranian cinema
Women present but only as a shadow
The story of Iranian cinema and the picture it paints of women, especially after the revolution, is a complex topic worthy of some thought. In this article I will confine myself to an important chapter of this story, that is the way the Islamic Republic of Iran has dealt with the question of women in Iranian cinema.
For the people of Iran today, the cinema is one of the most important and popular organs of mass media. That is why from the moment it gained power the Islamic government did everything in it could to bring the cinema under its total control. This of course is not the first time that a government has used all its cunning to make use of this magical giant to shape its own people. All governments, and in particular the dictatorial ones, have approached the cinema from this angle. One need only recall the German cinema at the time of Hitler or the Spanish cinema in Franco’s time. But what that dictatorship does with the question of women in cinema, particularly in an ideological way like the Islamic Republic, may be unique in the history of cinema. For this reason, if for no other, it must be studied.
The first clashes
From the perspective of the Islamic Republic’s rulers, based on their religious interpretation of women, a woman is defined and explained not only just through her sexuality, but with an exaggeration of her sexuality. From this same viewpoint, when men are confronted with the sexual power of women, their sexual instincts are seen as feeble and yielding. The first prescription the Islamic regime wrote on the way women should feature in Islamic cinema came out of this perspective and this definition of women.
Accordingly the leader of the Islamic Republic, ayatollah Khomeini, saw the pre-revolutionary cinema, as nothing other than an epitome of corruption in the service of Western colonialism. "It is the Shah who, in order to corrupt our youth has filled cinemas with colonial programme and wants to bring up our girls and boys with unchastity and ignorant of the dreadful state of the country. The Shah’s cinema is nothing but a centre of prostitution and the educator of self-ignorant puppets ignorant of the of the disordered condition of the country. The Islamic nation consider these centres as being against the interests of the country" he declared . Previously, in his two books Kashef al-Asrar (discovery of secrets) and Velayate Faqih he had condemned the cinema for its direct link with Westernisation and a source of corruption .
Thus the first step of the Islamic regime, under the excuse of fighting corruption, was to hammer the cinema of the Shah’s era with the bludgeon of denunciation and censorship in reaction to the question of women in cinema in particular. The Pasdaran (revolutionary guards) were given order to arrest and confiscate the possessions of Iranian actors, actresses and film-makers. Screening of pictures of these actors, and in particular actresses, was banned from the cinema and television.
The next step was to set up a group for inspection, or as they called it to clean up, the cinema from corruption or of films that are in conflict with Islamic decency. This group looked at 2,000 Iranian and foreign films and banned 1,800 of them, and set the censors scissors on the other 200 to make them fit for show in Iran’s cinemas . It was thus that in the first phase the 98 year-old history of the Iranian cinema was washed clean in the revolutionary bath.
The next phase they struck out to totally control what remained of Iranian cinema. This control was so tight that in the first three years film production came to a virtual standstill. The cinemas were emptied of the cinema going public. But this was not what the rulers wanted. They believed that the cinema could, and should, be turned to a means of implanting their views. There was nothing to be done but for those who were with the government to roll up their sleeves and create their own special religious cinema. Obviously they could not entirely rely on their own forces with their limited knowledge of the cinema. They needed help from the filmmakers and all the specialist forces in the cinema.
Thus the second part of our story went ahead with the permanent presence of male and female Pasdaran, as well as the censors’ scissors in its various forms both on and behind the scenes. One actress described the scene: These Pasdaran made sure of the correct Islamic relations between all those working on the scene and filming. They ensured total Islamic dress code, no contact between sexes, even hand contact, no smoking or make-up, nor any verbal jokes between men or women on or behind the scenes. They even interfered in the choice of scenes, their mixture, or even the camera angles. This interference became so intrusive that in order to get on with their work, film directors used, wherever possible, members of the same family to portray husband and wife, mother and son, or father and daughter. Otherwise actors and actresses had to get into a "temporary marriage" or else they could not show their feelings and emotions to one another .
The pioneers of religious cinema then went on to remove any contact between the sexes on screen, whether relatives or not, and rid themselves once and for all of having to show any physical emotion or feeling. After the banning on of any physical expression of emotion one of our most famous actresses observed in an interview: I was suppose to play the role of a mother whose only son had just returned from the war after a long absence. Since I was not allowed to embrace, smell, let alone kiss him, I had to pretend that I was so excited by seeing him that I became rooted to the spot .
In another episode, when the actress needed make-up and the male make up artist as well as the actress were both married, the make-up artist had to take the actress’s 6-year old daughter in "temporary marriage" so that the actress, as his mother-in-law, would become related by blood (mahram = people who can socialise because of close kinship) to him and he could touch her face .
Gholam-Hossein Saedi, the great Iranian dramatist who died in exile has pictured this tragi-comedy in his last play, Othello in the land of the exotic, where a theatre group tries to stage Shakespeare’s play in the Islamic Republic.
Later the cabinet officially ratified the regulations which were to Islamise the cinema on February 4, 1983. Later the ministry of Islamic Guidance (culture) created the office of censorship (momayezi) whose job was to review and make decisions on films and scenarios. Large sections of these regulations dealt with the question of the image of women on film:
1. With reference to the above mentioned, Islamic hejab (covering) must be obeyed at all times for women. This means: wearing loose long clothes and trousers in dark colours. Even scarves and chadors (a one-piece cloth covering head-to-toe) must be of dark colour. The hair and neck must be completely covered. Only the face and the hands to the wrist can be visible. When this not impossible, as when showing women in the previous [Shah’s] time, a hat or wig can be used.
2. It is prohibited to show the made up face of a woman
3. Close up of a woman’s face is not allowed
4. It is prohibited to show a variety of clothes through a film without a logical explanation.
5. All physical contact between men and women is prohibited
6. The use of the chador for negative characters and persons must have a logical excuse.
7. Hair styles which show dependence or approval of loose and immoral political, cultural or intellectual groups inside and outside the country is not permitted.
8. The exchange of any joke, talk, conduct, or sign between a male and female individual in a film which suggest a departure from the behavioural purity acceptable to society is banned.
9. To use young girls is not allowed without permission of the Office of Supervision and Evaluation.
10. Words, signs or signals that directly or indirectly relate to sexual matters are prohibited.
11. The use of a tie, bow tie and anything that denotes foreign culture is not permitted.
12. Smoking a cigarette or pipe or the drinking of alcoholic beverages and the use of narcotic drugs is prohibited.
13. The use of music, which is similar to famous internal or foreign songs, is not allowed.
14. Propaganda for doctrines that are illegal and counter to the Islamic order is banned.
15. Sharia’ laws and customs, religious beliefs and mandatory religious laws have to be followed and the religiously forbidden be avoided .
The downloading of these regulations caused fundamental changes especially in the presence of women in cinema – particularly in films produced after 1983. However in the ensuing 15 years these regulations have gone through various phases, depending on different circumstances.
Phase 1: elimination
Iranian filmmakers found it easier to remove women from cinema rather than confront the censor both at the script stage and during filming. Of the 27 films produced by 1985, in 25 films the main character is a man .
Some time later Hojatoleslam Javad Mohaddesi theorised the removal of women from the screen: "Women are personified in the Qur’an as dependent and shadowy figures and women are never the hero of a story and have not been depicted independently and in essentially. In the whole of the Qur’an women are referred to by name only. The special Qur’anic procedure is to give women a minor and sexual role in the story. To depict a woman in a story or a play has no aim but to provoke satanic forces, incite passion and increase the appeal of a film" 
Thus one function of the cinema which is to present a total picture of society through stories depicting a people has been eliminated by removing the image of women from the cinema. The most recent example is the Taste of Cherries by Abbas Kiarostami, which won the Pulitzer Prize at Cannes in 1977. On the whole the making of films without a female character saves the filmmaker much headache and heartache in dealing with the religious censor.
Phase 2: diluted image
Filmmaking, however, could not survive without the presence of women. At the very least you lose your audience. A diluted or off-screen presence was a way out. For example in Telesm (the spell) by Dariush Farhang (1986) the whole story is about a powerful princess who had disappeared in the hall of mirrors of her castle. In this way the women is at the centre of the story without having to appear on screen right until the end of the film. Or Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Bicycle rider (1987) where a man makes efforts for a woman who being in hospital does not appear in the film. Or in the Gozaresh-e yek qatl (report of a murder) where the voice of the secretary is heard throughout the film, but because the action takes place at the time of the Shah and her portrayal would cause technical and censorial difficulties, her image is totally absent from the screen.
Phase 3: limitations
According to Article 2 of the Regulations for Showing Films and Slides, the general roles that women can portray on screen are mother, caring for their husbands, children and housework. This means confining women’s roles in the framework of the home. An example of a film made within the limits set by this Article is Rakhshan Bani-Etemad’s film Kharej az mahdudeh (off limits - 1987). This woman, recognised as a feminist, who happens to be one of the most prolific women directors in Iran, keeps her heroine Ra’na throughout the film in the home. She even lets her husband shop for her groceries . Even now women are usually pictured in these roles.
Phase 4: return to the screen
Naturally the tale of the suppression of the female image and presence of women both in picture and in the script could not go on in its previous form. This was both because of the inner complexity and contradictions of the art of cinema, and also the fact that the cinema must answer the needs and tastes of different people. The Iranian cinema was forced to undergo a number of changes. The main reasons that speeded up these developments are:
1. The growth of the women’s movement and the consciousness of Iranian women drew them into increasing conflict with a regime, which was imposing endless pressures from various angles on them. In particular, the cultural skirmishes that the women’s movement had with the Islamic regime was able to change the cultural climate to some extent. These conflicts continue to the present, and have become even more acute since the election to the presidency of Khatami last year.
2. Pressures brought to bear on the government to open up the cultural climate by producers, directors and the audience alike . For example many of the movie houses which showed the regime’s propaganda films were empty while films by directors who in one way or other were in conflict with the regime received an overwhelming positive public reception. Moreover, increasing number of people were using hidden satellite dishes receivers to watch satellite movies.
3. Fundamentalist of religious film are to some extent confident that they have been successful in their reaction to the films made in the Shah’s regime to clean up the non-sharia’ presence of women in the cinema. Therefore they are now less suspicious and distrusting on women and cinema. They are relatively confident that they have established their religious cinema.
4. Khomein’s fatwa in 1987  which released the hand of film-makers to show women and give them in more important roles in film.
These developments have allowed films where women have an independent role or depict personalities with power and courage. Many of the main roles in films are now given to women.
Most importantly a number of female directors found their way into the cinema. Before the revolution there were only three female directors each with only one film to their credit. Shahla Riahi made Marjan in 1956  Kobra Sa’idi (Shahrzad) made Maryam va Mani and Marva Nabili made Khak sar be mohr in 1978. There are now eight female directors five of whom have produced films almost continuously over the last few years. According to one female director, one reason for their turning to film was that after the revolution women were purged from the radio-television. It was natural for them, with their experience, to move to the independent cinema.
In reality these few women tried very hard to paint a true picture of Iranian women using whatever ruse or symbolic language at their disposal to circumvent the strictures. The central role of women can for example be seen in films such as Tahmineh Milani’s Afsaneh Ah (The legend of Ah - 1990), or Rakhsan Bani-E’tamad’s Nargess (1992) or her Banuy-e Ordibehesht (the lady of May), and Puran Derakhshandeh’s Zaman-e az dast rafteh (lost time -1989).
Male directors follow suite
The reappearance of women has drawn viewers into the cinema. It has now become fashionable for women to be given significant roles even in films made by male directors. Many of Iran’s leading directors have tried to sympathetically deal with the problems of Iranian women.
For example Rajab Mohammadin’s Bekhatereh hameh chiz (for everything - 1990) women make up all the main roles and many of the subsidiary ones. The doctor, hospital personnel, the manager, and the van driver are all women. The main subject of Madian (the mare - 1985) by Ali Zhegan is lack of choice for women. In Arus-e khuban (marriage of the blessed - 1989) Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s main character is a woman photographer, who rides a motorbike and accompanied by her fiancé goes out at night to hunt for the hidden truths in society and to take pictures in the alleys and byways of the city.
In Alireza Raisian’s Reyhaneh (1990), the story revolves the difficulties a divorced woman faces. Ebrahim Mokhtari Zinat (ornament - 1994) the topic is the conflicts and final victory of a nurse with her husband and in-laws. She is forced into this friction in order to keep her responsible job.
Many other directors have tried to portray the abilities of the personality of women in a variety of ways. For example in Bashu qaribeh kuchek (Bashu, the little stranger - 1988) the prolific veteran Iranian filmmaker Bahram Beiza’i. Or the pioneer of Iranian cinema Dariush Mehrju’i, who not only gives the main role of his films to women, but chooses the name of the heroine of the film as the name of his films such as Sara (1993), Pari ( 1995) and Leila (1997). Mehrju’i also tries to take his heroines out of the shadows of the home and give them jobs and social identities. In Ejareh neshinha (the lodgers - 1986) a women architect supervises the building and the property business. In Hamun (1990) the female character is a painter who also designs clothes and holds exhibitions. Leila, which last year caused a stir, is an educated woman who through intense love for her husband and because she is infertile, takes the road of traditional women and goes after finding a second wife for her husband.
Other Iranian filmmakers have followed similar paths. Perhaps the most significant are Ziafat (banquet - ) by Masud Kimia’i, Ghazal (gazelle) by Mojtaba Rai’ and Siamak Shayeqi’s Madaram gisu (my mother hair).
But despite all these efforts have Iranian filmmakers succeeded in showing the true face of Iranian woman in cinema? In reality, what conceals the real presence of women, even when they are the heroines of the film, or even where the story line revolves round the life of a woman, are the regulations imposed by the religious censors which severly limit the pictorial depiction of women.
Even as the central figure in a film, the woman is denied the chance to show her real physical feelings even for her child, father, husband, or another female character even if they play the role of her mother or daughter. Where the director is forced to show his or her female character even in the most exciting situations either sitting down or standing still; when the emotions of not only the actress but her opposite male character has to be self-censored what space is left for the director to say all they have to say to the viewers? As one religious film director, a believer in the Islamic Republic, put it: "in cinema we must show women only in a sitting position so that the viewer instead of being deviated by the arousing walk of the woman, concentrates on the hidden ideology within the work of art" .
The Iranian filmmakers were forced to concentrate all the feelings and emotions of the actress in her eyes. But our religious censor could not tolerate even this. New regulations came out defining haram (religiously forbidden) looks and halal (permited) looks! I must here point out that many of these regulations were not always obeyed to the letter.
A halal look
One of the greatest headaches for Iranian film-makers is how to portray love themes. Since love between men and women is a private affair only between people religiously permitted to be intimate [mahram] it totally vanished from the screen after the revolution until the mid 1981. Yet this state of affairs could not go on. Love stories are of interest to humans and cinemagoers. They came back but since women form one side of heterosexual love, love, with all its sweetness, can cause much heartache for filmmakers.
Since film-makers were deprived of the depiction of the female body, and any physical contact between the sexes was had a total ban, even if they were man and wife in real life, the poor Iranian director was forced to concentrate all love and emotion between two souls in the face, and particularly in the expression of the eyes. But the religious censor was wise to this. They went back to religious texts and the numerous religious problem solving editions [Towzih al-mas’el], including Ayatollah Khomeini’s .
They then announced the regulations for the "looking" and the look. Accordingly in the cinema only one look was permissible: the halal look. This is a sisterly look, noever in close up, but a long shot. Thus the haram [prohibited] look was ruled out and the poor directors, actors and acresses left with a real problem. The most burning love can only be portrayed by a look between two players seen from a distance, some polite conversation or at best a love poem.
In Makhmalbaf’s Gabbeh (1997), the story is of a girl from the Bakhtiari tribe, who manages to escape with her beloved with all the dangers and difficulties this entailed. Yet the whole of this glorious love has to be condensed in a mid-shot of the girl turning to look across to the mountaintop. The lover is not even shown. We only know of his presence through the neighing of his horse, shown in a vague image in a very long shot. Finally the man is forced to bring two horses so that any physical contact between the two lovers before their religious marriage, even in our imagination, is ruled out. All the images of the elopement of the girl with her lover are in brief wide long shots showing them escaping on two horses.
Kiarostami tackled the issue in a different way. In Under the olive trees the wooing by the boy throughout the whole film is met by total silence and not even a half-glance by the girl. The viewer is drawn into what the girl is thinking, and what her answer will be. When the girl gives her final yes to the boy’s love, Kiarostami is forced to place the couple thousands of metres from the camera, and to convey her yielding, and set the viewers anxieties at rest, he suddenly introduces a joyous baroque theme above the beautiful scenery of the olive groves.
There are other restrictions too which censors have officially or semi-offficialy passed on to filmmakers. Women must have a measured and dignified bearing. Since the gait of a woman can raise passions it is best to show her sitting or standing. Tahmineh Milani, a prolific woman director, who has had many disputes with the censors and many of her films have been denied permits said last year "in my view those who wrote these regulations see all things in black and white. They cannot imagine that a woman can speak, be intelligent, be human, head a department, and be educated. Women are given the most isolated, passive and secret shape and this means [they are] nothing. … Women cannot run, can have no close up, must not bend forwards when sitting or getting up, not be made-up. This regulation have also fixed the roles of women: a faithful wife, a concerned nurse, a kind mother … The directive even forbids two women kissing. How can it be that a mother and daughter cannot kiss in critical moments? I cannot imagine a more beautiful scene than a father kissing the forehead of his daughter. In fact kissing is the most beautiful way of expressing emotion. But our policy makers only thought of the erotic aspects of this topic. What has become a tradition in our cinema is [the image] of men embracing and kissing three times each and every morning they meet. If you see men 50 times in a film they kiss, but women…" 
In another section she goes on "unfortunately it has become in vogue that they regularly pass down [to us] a unified model, and only for women. It is as if a woman is a dangerous creature that you constantly have to tell her what to do or not do, to keep society healthy…"
Thus love shared the fate of feeling, affection and a woman’s body, to be suppressed by religious cinema. As a result men and women are turned into beings without sex and feeling, and in the case of women without a body.
The ultimate image left of woman in cinema is one which is un-human, one which has lost its real shape and soul, hidden amongst the folds of her dark all-covering clothes. In this way too the most important part of the being and personality not just of women, but men too, is automatically eliminated in Iranian cinema.
Almost two decades have passed since the ayatollahs took over the rule in Iran and nearly a century since Iranian cinema began. Yet despite every effort to impose a model for depicting the image of women on the screen in keeping with its Islamic ideology, through countless regulations, seminars and pressures of various kind the Islamic Republic regime has been unsuccessful.
Seen from another angle the Iranian cinema has experienced the greatest confusion, and chaos in its last 20 years. This chaos has been fanned by continuous changes in those responsible in drawing up directives, and hence in the directives themselves.
Not unnaturally this confusion has also engulfed the filmmakers themselves. They have to juggle between values dictated to them by censors of Islamic Republic’s religious cinema, in order to get their films through the tunnel of the censor’s scissors, and the universal laws of the cinema so as to keep their viewers in the movie houses – not least inside the country. It is a Herculean task.
The cinema is an art form, which because of its complexities, cannot be totally curbed and controlled. However, in real life the highly restrictive regulations of the censors especially as it relates to women, has truly tied the hands of Iranian filmmakers. No amount of wiles and techniques of the art of cinema, no amount of creativity and intelligence, complex techniques, and symbolic language is enough to let the director really say what they have to say.
The image of women in the Iranian cinema today is in fact that very image that the Islamic Republic forces women to adopt in society: an unreal presence, without sexuality, feelings and body. In a way one can say that in the same way that women are forced into having a dual character, in private and public, and can only reveal the presence of their real existence in society with great difficulty, this too has been reflected in the cinema. The scren image of Iranian women is nothing other than the deformed and unreal image imposed on them by the Islamic Republic.
This is how Tahmineh Milani put it in another part of the interview quoted above: "I say openly that I am fearful of the future of girls and boys in society. I am more anxious about the girls, since I see a duality in their being that has no end. I am certain that, as those responsible have said, we have been defeated in the task of educating the youth. I would very much like to make a film on this but I knew that this would not be possible" 
In the end we come to the conclusion that the appearance of this false image of women, not just in Iranian cinema but in Iranian society, has its roots in the viewpoint and approach of the policy makers and in particular cultural policy makers of the Islamic Republic. How the Islamic faqihs view the subject of women is outside the scope of this article.
But it should be observed here that this viewpoint, and their approach to a creature called woman, especially in the cinema, is from one angle no different from the commercial, popular and cheap-to-please cinema, both before the revolution and also what the commercial world cinema does with womankind. Both systems look at women as sexual object. One removes the pieces, and body and later the physical presence of women from cinema because she is a sexual being. Commercial cinema used this very view of women to use parts of her body as breasts, buttocks, thigh, waist and hair to attract viewers.
These two approaches may appear in opposite, but are in reality two sides of the same coin. Both are the result of the culture of a system of paternalism in society. Both try to present women as a passive, fragmented and separated from her real being.
Naturally I am excepting the enlightened cinema and the good directors. Other-thinking filmmakers have tried to use symbolic language, deeper and more human dialogue to express the deeper emotion of women. Yet the restrictive regulations of the censor is so complex that in the final analysis these filmmakers will not succeed. The final image the viewer sees is unreal and fractured.
The reality is that the cinema is an art that is supposed to show the real life of humans, and people in society should be able to project their common image through the medium of film. Therefore a director, in addition to the skills and techniques of the art, should be able to make their films in total freedom and without the prejudices ad fanaticisms which control the nation’s culture. Our filmmakers in Iran not only have to face all the strictures faced in other dictatorial countries, but also have to manoeuvre the Islamic regulations and especially the strictures relating to the portrayal of the image of women.
Thus, despite heroic efforts by some filmmakers, the image of women in the cinema of the Islamic Republic is a missing kink that has been locked up in the censors safe.
Parvaneh Soltani is an actress and cinema critique at present living abroad. She has acted in
1. Quoted from Mohammad Ali Sadat. The spiritual attributes of women. Teheran. Undated.
2. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Velayate Faqih. Teheran Amir Kabir 1971 p 292.
3 Hamid Nafisi, Iranian Cinema, section on supervision and control over cinema.
4. Siqeh. In Shi’i religion a temporary marriage can be arranged from one hour up to 99 years. See Javad Mohaddesi. Religious (maktabi) art page 181, quoted in Hamid Nafisi, ibid.
5. An interview with a famous actress [who asked to remain anonymous] Nafisi ibid.
6. On the story of a film that had no religious warrant. Fouqoladeh, Los Angeles October 1983 p 16.
7. Under the magnifying glass. New laws for not making film under the guise of directives for filmmaking. Free Cinema magazine no 5, page 61
8. Masoud Pour-Mohammad. Special report: first small stones…. Film Monthly, no 64, May 1985 page 8 Quoted by Nafisi ibid
9. Javad Mohaddesi. Religious (maktabi) Art, page 181
10. Hamid Nafisi. Faded presence of women. Iranian Cinema
11. Interview with Bahram Beizai’ – referring to an unsigned letter by Iranian filmmakers which was circulated in Europe. Free Cinema, no 1.
12. The views of Imam Khomeini on films, serials, music, and the broadcasting of sport. Keyhan Hava’i. December 20 1987 page 3.
13. Hamid Nafisi’s article on female directors of feature films from the beginning to today.
14. Actresses have been excluded from films. Keyhan (London) September 26 1985.
15. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini Towzih al-Masael ya Ezafate Masael-e Jadid (solution of problems or addition of new problems). Taheri, Teheran no date.
16. Tahmineh Milani. Interview in Zanan no 35, Teheran, June 1997.
Women, modernity and political Islam
Exaggerated claims over recent legal gains by women, and Islamic feminists, distract attention from economic, social and cultural conditions that have mobilised wide sections of Iranian society against Islamisation and Islamic morality
Reports of cultural and legal gains by Iranian women has had a mesmerising, not to say tranquillising, effect in the West, particularly on its governments. The spell became particularly powerful after last year’s unexpected election of Khatami to the presidency. Khatami’s smiling face, his knowledge of foreign languages, even the fact that he wears laced up shoes rather than slippers as other mullahs do, is taken by influential Western newspapers as sign of the dawn of democracy in Iran. It seems that if Khatami did not exist, he had to be invented.
It was time the West found a way to smooth diplomatic and commercial relations with Iran so that here would be no need to keep on repeating over and over again all that exaggerated talk about violation of women’s rights, and those of religious and ethnic minorities in Iran. An excuse was needed and the academic and intellectual climate of the world, and especially the USA gives the political excuse an intellectual legitimacy.
This is why it has become fashionable to speak sympathetically and enthusiastically about the reformist activities of Muslim women, and to insist on their independence of thought. Their agency and the effects their activities are having in bringing change to highlight the importance of the "choice" of the veil and the head-scarf as a consciously chosen identity by them. If you add to all this a short trip to the country and a few interviews with women activists (especially the hand-picked group of Islamic women), and one or two ayatollahs you will have a huge audience.
Tradition versus modernity
I contend that what is taking place in Iran today is the continuation of the conflict between tradition and modernity, rather than evidence that political Islam is a solution to the cultural, social and political problems arising from the policy of modernisation and the experience of modernity. To one degree or another this conflict has been chronic in the social life of Iran ever since the county’s political formation during the Constitutional period .
Tradition and modernity have been at loggerheads over the replacement of an absolutist, authoritarian religious outlook (which by nature is against critical judgement and insists on the absolute supremacy of religious belief and its clerical guardians which everyone else must obey) with a modern outlook which believes in human reason, ability, merit, and agency. In this latter vision humans are given the right to free thought, critical judgement and the possibility to intervene in their own destiny. Political and religious power is de-sanctified. Political power is seen as a means to improve the lot of citizens, to establish a society with cultural and ethical pluralism in place of reactionary religious dogmatism.
Few people will deny that the process of modernisation and modernity in Iran ended in crisis, confusion and chaos. Modernisation and modernity in the West had various dimensions little of which we experienced in Iran. What we experienced was economic upheaval at a giddy speed. Social change was superficial, patchy and unrelated to the cultural milieu, an poorly-thought out carbon copy of others. We experienced neither cultural nor political transformation, or democracy, cultural or political tolerance.
Fascinated with the modern
Those who claim that what we experienced was not a conscious modernisation and modernity but a fascination with everything labelled modern have a point. The monarchical modernity was no more than ornamented clothes made to European patterns which hung miserably on the bony and pained body of traditional Iran.
Political Islam, the system of the velayate faghih  and the disastrous moves towards older and obsolete political and cultural forms was the reflection of this crisis. Some experts on Iran consider the Islamic revolution as a reaction to modernity and modernisation - a revolution to return to the traditional self, to native cultural and traditional roots. Yet what we are witnessing today in the form of popular protest at the religious-political aggression and cultural repression is after all the continuation of the century-old confrontation between tradition and modernity.
Without wishing to exaggerate I will allow myself to declare that in this confrontation the urban population of Iran have taken the lead in the struggle for modernity against the Islamic government and the system of velayate faghih and its ethical teachings and values. This they have done independent intellectuals and their explanations, and on the back of experience gained in 20 years of rule by this regime. Theirs is a no vote to religious government.
It is therefore a pity that some intellectuals, influenced by post-modernist and post-colonial theories, and lagging behind these spontaneous, but highly purposeful moves of the people, try to persuade us that political Islam is a native alternative to Western-oriented outlooks and a road for progress and change in step with the culture and religious beliefs of Iranians.
Supporters of this account normally resort to two arguments in relation to women’s rights:
1. The fact that Islam is adaptable to time and place, and that there are differences between what fundamentalists say and do. Islam and the sharia’, therefore do not prevent women from achieving equal rights.
2. The appearance of Islamic feminists and their achievements in imposing reforms on the system.
The subtext is that these realities invalidate the long-held belief that it is necessary to
fight for a secular pluralistic state and a separation of religion and the state - i.e. the essential elements of modernity - as prerequisites for equal rights between men and women. The message is that a new road has been opened up for women - Muslim and non-Muslim alike - to gain equal rights to men: a road based on feminist interpretations of Islamic sharia’ laws.
Firstly, there is no debate that ultimately Islam is any less able to adapt, adjust and soften its moral messages than any other official religion. The possibility of altering Qur’anic and other textural interpretations to improve the lot of women can obviously not be discounted. But this is only on condition that Islam is seen as a collection of ethical teachings, and as an instrument for spiritual calm in response to individual spiritual needs.
I deliberately emphasise features such as choice, and being an instrument of spiritual and moral solace, because these are incompatible with Islam as a legal and political system that relies on religious devotion to give holy legitimacy to oppressive tools and relations. In Iran we are dealing with the second variety - Islam as a legal and political system. This point seems to evaporate in most of the discourses about Islam and women’s rights in Iran.
Islam in political rule is incompatible with the cultural pluralism that is after all the pre-requisite of the right to individual choice. Indeed, lack of cultural and religious tolerance is the most visible characteristic of every existing version of political Islam in our world. Iranian fundamentalists cannot tolerate other Islamic interpretations, such as the Sunnis, let alone those of other religions or non-religious persons or ideologies.
In relation to women, too, the particularity of political Islam has been to revitalise and reinforce paternalistic relations. Several decades of modernisation and its consequences on the relations of men and women are to be rubbed out. Extinct Islamic traditions are re-instated. The duty of purifying women from the assault of foreign cultures and Islamisation of social and sexual relations of women unites the various strands of political Islam. The similarities of the teachings and beliefs of divers leaders of a wide variety of political Islams at different times on women, from Hasan al-Banna in turn of the century Egypt, to Mawdudi in Pakistan, to our own Khomeini (all of whom claim sole inheritance of undiluted Mohammadan Islam) is too striking to ignore. The only differences relate to the level of the economic, political and social development and the level of consciousness and expectations of women in these societies.
Secondly, the gap between what fundamentalists say and do is smaller than is generally made out. When waxing enthusiastically on the agency, struggle and independence of women in the Islamic Republic it is easy to forget that citizenship is a male prerogative; The legal status of women is defined in relation to their fathers and husbands; for example The woman chosen to be a vice-president can only fulfil her duties with her husband’s permission and authorisation…
Half an eye for an eye
The law of Retribution, confirms gender inequality and is a major factor in encouraging violence against women. How can society remain impervious to a law that calculates human life in monetary terms and gives the woman half the value of the man? As one Islamic reformist commented, "in the Islamic Republic of Iran the life of a murdered woman is officially and legally less than the life of a male murderer." This is because when a man murders a woman the latter can avoid punishment until the victim’s family has paid his "blood money".
A particularly tragic example is the case of an 11 year-old girl in Kurdistan who was raped, murdered and her body cut up. The money her father got by selling his house was not enough to pay for her murderer’s blood money. Hence for the last two years the family are without a roof over their heads, while the Islamic judicial system refuses to bring the murderer to justice until his blood money is fully paid. Recently even judiciary head ayatollah Yazdi had to admit that cheap blood-money of women encourages their murder at the hands of their men-folk for vacuous reasons. A series of horrendous crimes against women and children reflect the rise in violence in the country. It appears that the torturing of children to death has reached epidemic proportions. The law of Retribution is equally lenient to fathers if they "punish" their children to death.
Let us now turn to the other point: the emergence of Islamic feminists, and the extravagant reports on their achievements in imposing some reforms. Islamic feminists are supposed to offer a new road, one that moves through feminist interpretations of Islamic texts.
Can me clarify my own position about the term "Islamic feminism" which seems to have fascinated many political activists in exile. The debate usually starts from the following point: can one use the term feminist to identify those who use an Islamic discourse to struggle for women’s rights in Iran, even though their activities are outside what is generally recognised as feminist, and regardless of whether or not they call themselves feminist? In my view this is in essence not a particularly useful argument.
Today, feminism encompasses such a broad framework, and such plurality of viewpoints that it can be applied to all those who believe in the existence of legal, cultural, social, and economic inequality of women and men, who condemn the male centred and patriarchal relations in family and social life, and who struggle to end these relations. The fact that they differ in what they see as the roots of this inequality is no barrier to the common epithet of feminism. We have Right feminists, Jewish and Christian feminists, black and native American feminists, homosexual feminists and dozens of others. Islamic feminists can join the ranks.
"Feminism" and "Islamic" are two terms each portraying their own particular characteristics. To combine them creates a term with its own peculiar meaning. Someone holding "Islamic feminist" views can be distinguished from someone who is either Islamic or feminist alone. They can be recognised as Islamic feminists if they views and beliefs adopted from the two outlooks of feminism and Islam.
However, my argument about "Islamic feminism" is not whether or not it is correct to identify as Islamic feminist the women who are struggling to improve the lot of women in the framework of an Islamic ideology. My argument is about the political consequences of the irresponsible way the term has bee used.
I am of course deeply happy that, after the systematic repression of non-religious women in the months after the revolution, our sisters in Iran have continued the struggle in many candid ways in keeping with the new conditions.
I even consider it as being in the long term interest of the women’s movement that a number of Islamic women who were essentially recruited in support of sexist policies of the regime have now raised their voice in support of reforms in women’s favour. Not to mention the activities of women who work outside the regime, who for political or ideological reasons, use Islamic discourse to struggle for some improvement in the condition of women. These are women who in recent years have been identified as Islamic feminists. Their number are so great, and their views and politics so diverse, that I see no point in highlighting names.
However, as I have argued in my previous work, this term has been used in an inaccurate, and I would like to say irresponsible, way. It has come to encompass almost all Islamic and active women, even though their activities might not even fit the broadest definition of feminism. This include, for example, the activities of a handful of Muslim women who have entered public life and political activities and who believe in the sharia’ and its prescribed gender-rights a roles. The fact that some of these women occasionally speak in favour of women does not make them feminists. Because their world-view and the general tenet of their activities are against the interests of women in Iran.
The obvious examples are two pieces of legislation. One prohibits publication of pro-women materials "which cause division between men and women." The other is the sexual segregation of health care which places women’s health at grave risk for lack of sufficient female health care workers. Both these legislation were initiated and pushed for by "Islamic feminists" such as Monireh Nowbakht, the spokeswoman for the Women, Family and Youth Commission in the Majles, together with Marzieh Vahid Dastjerdi, and Nafiseh Fiaz-Bakhsh, who are in the directorate of this commission. ,
Islamic feminists or Islamisation of feminism?
Let us now turn to the activities of the Islamic feminists outside the regime. First, not all those who are using Islamic language are necessarily Islamic feminists. They have been forced into this outfit by the force of circumstances. Now we should ask why lumping all activists, and indeed all Iranian women, into one Islamic or Muslim sack is any different from what anti-Iranian and anti-Arab Orientalists did a century or two ago. Why ignore the ethnic, regional, class, and religious differences which expresses of the diverse identity of Middle Eastern women.
The point is that scholarly work can sometimes turn into propaganda mouthpieces for dictatorial rule, cause confusion, advocate the status quo, and prevent change. Unfortunately, the academic exaggerations on recent developments, over Islamic feminism is not encouraging pluralism in the women’s movement. Nor is it helping the women’s movement inside Iran.
Exaggerated claims over recent legal gains by women, and the role of Islamic feminists in bringing them about, draws attention away from the economic, social and cultural conditions that have mobilised wide sections of Iranian society against the policy of Islamisation and Islamic morality. Reports on the resistance of ordinary passers-by against the "morality police", roaming the streets, show the widespread hatred for the cultural and social repression imposed and drilled into the population under the guise Islamic values.
Moreover, after experiencing modernity and its cultural and social impacts, the level of awareness, expectations, and cultural and moral beliefs of women has undergone such changes as to make the acceptance of the political and cultural programmes of the mullahs an impossibility.
The current one-sided picture of the Iranian women’s struggle has the paradoxical effect of making it easier for the Islamic regime to continue its anti-women policies. It weakens the struggle of women inside Iran.
July 1998, Washington
This is an abridged version of a talk delivered at the 9th annual conference of the Iranian Women’s Studies Foundation. It was translated by Mehdi Kia
Footnotes (by MK)
1. For the Constitutional Revolution (1905-6) see E. Abrahamian. Iran between two revolutions. Princeton UP 1982
2. Article 5 of the Constitution which gives absolute rulership (velayat) over political, civil and religious society to a just an knowledgeable religious jurist (faqih)