Iran: 'Unveiling' the Reality about Iranian Women in Film

Published March 12th, 2000 - 02:00 GMT

Are Iranian women condemned to being perceived by Iranians and foreigners based on hackneyed Hollywood portrayals? With the evolving role and image of Iranian women in society, experts in the Islamic republic contend that the portrayal of Iranian women in both local and foreign films, must adapt to capture this change. The image of Iranian women on the silver screen must mirror the "real image" of Iranian women, Baul Mohtashemi said at a recent seminar on 'Women in the Movies' held at Tehran University.  


The heart of the problem seems to rest in arriving at what this "real image" actually is. The seminar's organizer advocated the need to moderate between Western portrayals of female nudity, and restricted portrayals of women since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The issue of portraying Iranian women in a more 'true' fashion is intensified by the political climate, with a new breed of Iranian women emerging and calling for improved civil rights and a stronger political voice. The progressive women's movement in Iran, criticized by conservatives as part of the Western "cultural invasion" is seeking to reform the realm of influence of women in the nation, which has long been confined to the family.  


The extent to which Iran's roughly 32 million females succeed in expanding and improving their role in society, does not necessarily guarantee a change in the "image" of Iranian women in local and foreign films - but it will certainly help. Perhaps a debatable chicken and the egg dilemma emerges: Are the films about how women should be perceived in society inspiring the societal changes? Or are filmmakers simply trying to keep up with the social advancement of Iranian women? 


The Present 'Picture' of Women in Iranian Films 


According to many critics, Iran's film industry is emerging as one of the world's most prominent artistic cinemas. The Iranian film, 'Children of Heaven' was nominated for best foreign film at the Academy Awards in 1998.  


The film industry in Iran has gained momentum since the late 80s, reaching a peak in the summer of 1997, when Iranian films won top awards at the Cannes, Locarno and Montreal film Festivals. During the immediate years following Iran's Cultural Revolution, female roles were downplayed or substituted by the use of teenagers - a practice that has lessened over the years. Currently, however, authorities continue to impose restrictions on the roughly 60 films produced annually in Iran. Iranian movies are prohibited from showing physical contact between men and women, even if their characters are married in the film.  


In the summer of 1996, the Ministry of Culture published a booklet of Rules Governing Iranian Cinema, with detailed stipulations for censorship. The published laws relating to women in Iranian films include: prohibition of tight clothes on females; forbiddance on the showing of any part of a woman's body other than the hands and face; disallowing physical contact, tender words or jokes being exchanged between men and women. A ban on showing close-ups of women's faces and filming of unveiled women is also in effect. Nonetheless, foreign/Hollywood films depicting unveiled women can be seen in Iran - one of many points of contentions used by Iranian filmmakers wanting more artistic freedom.  


After former Culture Minister Khatami became President in May 1997, culture officials have been trying to "lessen" the restrictions. Moderate Iranian intellectuals have demanded changes in women's roles in films, as well as in many of the imposed restrictions on films. At the January 16, 2000 "Women in Film" seminar held at Tehran University, Seifollah Dad, Deputy Culture Minister in charge of the film industry announced, "We can't change things by simply issuing circulars." However, he did say that female roles have improved in films over the past three years. The previous seminar in February 1997, saw female filmmakers from Iran and abroad calling for a better presentation of women in films.  


Rose Issa, an independent curator of contemporary arts from the Middle East and North Africa and consultant to various international film festivals regarding Arab/Iranian films, offered, "[Iranian] women's contribution to the different spheres of art, literature, religion, politics, and economics is hardly known outside Iran; their status in present Iran is often discussed with a strong emphasis on its of the fields in which women participate massively is the film industry."  


Art Imitating Life? 


While women in Iranian film continue to be governed by prohibitions, the "Iranian woman" content of many Iranian films, experts agree, is beginning to increasingly adopt the principles of "art imitating life." More and more female Iranian filmmakers are emerging and producing their own visions of Iranian women. Experts hope that these films will present a more "true" portrayal of Iranian women to the international community.  


Tahmineh Milani's, "Two Women", an Iranian film released in 1999, is an example of a modern Iranian film with a progressive attitude. She comments on her film, "The two female characters in my film are a single person with two personalities -- the heroine's actual personality and her potential personality, what she is and what she wants to be but can't because of society and its mores." Film in Iran is becoming a medium through which women can "get across their message", film experts agree. 


Another example of an Iranian film challenging traditional norms and values relating to women, is the 1998 film, "Divorce Iranian Style." In the film, which is set mainly in Iranian courts, one woman tells the judge that her husband is crazy: He has refused to let her answer the phone for 30 years. (In Iran, a husband's insanity or lack of ability to provide financially are the only current legal grounds for a woman requesting a divorce - whereas Iranian men have an 'absolute right' to divorce, needing no justification). 


A 16-year-old, married at age 15 to a man more than twice her age, explains that she desperately wants a divorce to go back to school. Another pleads for custody of her 4-year-old daughter, having already lost custody of the older child. As a result of the joint efforts of intellectual activists and thousands of women in the courts (and perhaps films such as these), family laws are undergoing a change. Men can no longer divorce their wives without the ruling of a court in which a female legal observer is present to ensure that the woman's rights have not been violated. Improvements in custody regulations are currently pending, as well as raising the legal age for marriage for Iranian girls from the current 9 years.  


Marva Nabili's film (first women to direct a film in Iran), "Sealed Soil", is the story of a young woman in pre-revolution Iran caught between the traditional values of her village, and her own cries for independence and individuality. 


The recent International Human Rights Film Festival featured, "Iranian Journey", a 1999 film about the journey of the first long-distance bus driver. The film is an examination of how Iranian women have managed their lives since the Revolution twenty years ago. 


Not long ago, Iranian theatres screened the first-ever Iranian film made in Hollywood. The female director of "Love Without Frontiers", said, "The film deals with the problems of children from a mixed Iranian-American marriage - father Iranian, mother American - and exposes the unclear future of such a generation." Many will recall the Hollywood movie, "Not Without My Daughter" which dealt with the desperate efforts of an American woman who takes her daughter (from a marriage with an Iranian) out of Islamic Iran and eventually succeeds in escaping to Turkey with her child. The movie was harshly criticized and prompted protests by the Iranian government and people for its, "painting of a negative image of Iran, Iranians, and Iranian customs."  


Addressing the issue of the Hollywood stereotyping of Muslims, Professor Shabana Mir of Easter Illinois University said, "Muslims are portrayed as the prototypical other...put together a few camels in the desert, put together a few huddled women, invisible, a call to prayer...a few wild-eyed fanatics - there you have it." Indeed there is no question that Pouran Derakshandeh's Iranian version of "Not Without My Daughter" was not viewed by nearly the same audience (both size and type) as the original. Experts largely agree that Iranian movies must continue to focus on the "truth and real image" of Iranian society and its people. 


Addressing the Issue 


The hejab, or mandatory dress code in (all public places) Iran for women, consisting of dark veils and long chadors, has long been a controversial issue in Iranian film, and definitely plays a role in films: Government rules prohibit women in film from wearing tight clothing, or clothing that reveals body parts besides the hands and face. In Iranian society, the special dress of the Iranian woman is largely deemed to be a vehicle for the woman's purer presence.  


In Iran, violations of the dress code for women are punishable by anything from a verbal reprimand to 74 lashes with a whip - to imprisonment for one month to a year. Women keep modifying or enhancing their public dress in ways that press the limits of the hejab. The regulations further ban any mini or short-sleeved overcoat, and the wearing of any "depraved, showy and glittery object on hats, necklaces, earring, belts, bracelets, glasses, headbands, rings, neck-scarves and ties" as well as the use of cosmetics.  


Iranian filmmakers contend that if it is to be accepted that the Muslim Iranian woman must be covered in films, plans must be devised so that the limits of this covering does not conceal the actress' real identity and role. 


The Rights 


Increasingly, women in Iran are demanding equality, respect and the right to participate in social, political and economic activities. According to Shahla Lahiji, "Past experiences evidenced that it is not possible to prevent Iranian women from participating in social activities and institutions and from presence in social life. Appearance on the screen is also a necessity. We can not see women as the shadow of men living in men's shade... how can we ignore the other half of humanity?"  


Many experts on Iran contend that unemployment, illiteracy, unequal opportunity for the two sexes, the traditional male dominating codes in the community including crowded families, male domination and lesser respect for women and difference of age among the married couple have placed women in an unequal and unfair scale. An international study comparing workforce conditions for women around the world ranked Iran 108 out of 110. In urban areas women comprise only 9.5 percent of the workforce, and in rural areas the figure drops to 8 percent; this despite the fact that women represent 64% of those holding high school diplomas in the nation. "Although the mother has a very lofty place in Iranian literature and religious tradition, legally she is next to nothing", said feminist lawyer Mehrangiz Kar. 


Iran's incoming parliament, which will convene in May, is expected to improve the status of women, as the liberal thinking of moderates and reformists will shape the country's agenda. Soheila Jelodarzadeh, a recently elected MP and women's rights activist, said, "Given the scarcity of women elected, we need help and cooperation from the male deputies for enough votes to pursue women's issues." A total of just nine women were elected to the 290-seat parliament. The new parliament will be dominated by moderate MPs, including over 100 reformers sympathetic to women's causes. She added, "The present civil code is 90 years old and ineffective," she said. "The law has to be revised, given the high status of women in Islam." 


Curtain Call 


While the women's rights cause continues to grow in Iran, and women call for a more flexible dress code in and out of the movie world, conservatives generally oppose their requests. Many agree that the greater freedom (content-related) in the movie industry can be largely credited to the Minister of Islamic Culture and Guidance Ataollah Mohajerani, who has been severely criticized by conservatives. Increased public empowerment of Iran's women is being seen in many societal realms, particularly in the cultural sphere, in questions of artistic freedom versus government standards. "Iranian cinema has led a major counter-cultural revolution since the early 1990s", Foreign Affairs disclosed, "Films now tilt at all the inadequacies of the system, including gender-biased laws." Yet both in and out of the 'movie world', much work remains, experts emphasize. Parliament recently passed a bill for segregation based on gender for access to medical facilities - a bill that many experts agree will leave women with care of inferior quality.  


On a positive note, Zahra Shojai, Khatami's adviser on women's affairs, announced that the budget for next year allocated 20 billion riyals for handling women's affairs - a substantial increase from previous years. The Reformists made an extremely strong showing in the recent parliamentary elections, and this is expected to aid in the advancement of women's rights - but only time will tell. On the movie industry level, many Iranian filmmakers continue to call for "Lights, Camera and Strong Action" regarding restrictions still imposed on their films. 


Photos courtesy of 

© 2000 Al Bawaba (

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