In pre-revolutionary Iranian cinema, women were portrayed as mere bodies or puppets, and positioned within a ‘good/bad’ dichotomy, either as a virgin or a prostitute, as per the societal order of the colonial system.
In Amar Shervan’s 1972 film, Khaterkhah (Fallen in Love), the sex worker Behi, played by actress Forouzan, says to her lover, “I am a human being too. This is the real me. You want a gift-wrapped untouched woman! We women of the qaleh are the forgotten ones. We are like the goldfish thrown in a filthy pond. We don’t last long. We are buried alive.”
At the end of Khaterkhah, Behi marries the same lover, wears a hijab (headscarf) and is shown to the take the path of religion. The representation of a sex worker disappeared with the revolution and was reborn as a shadow in Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten (2002) and as an off-screen character in Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman (2016). The ‘shadow’ sex worker from Ten says that there is no difference between marriage and prostitution. In Masoud Kimiai’s Qeysar (1969), the theme is the reciprocity between modernity and gender in Tehran’s urban-scape. Urban modernity is not secure here for a woman. A mother is considered as obedient, patient, forgiving and self-sacrificing. She always wears the hijab. Yet, a Shia cleric declared that this popular film became irrelevant after the Islamic Revolution and proclaimed it should not be shown.
Minoo Derayeh defines the change from old cinema to new cinema as “from silenced and erotic to silenced and desexualised”. However, she also argues that one can find emancipated and liberated voices from New Iranian Cinema.
After the 1979 Islamic revolution, the ruling government imposed complete control and censorship over cinema and it was instructed that only the face and hands of a female character be exposed. Romantic glances, intimacy, and romantic jokes in cinema were banned. Women disappeared from Iranian cinema for about ten years after the revolution— the Iran-Iraq war was also one reason. The compulsory hijab law imposed in the country was implemented in letter and spirit by the film industry.
It was only in the 1990s that Iranian cinema began to creatively address this crisis of invisibility and misrepresentation. The mother in Gilaneh (2005) by Mohsen Abdulvahab and Rakhshān Banietemad—considered the First Lady of Iranian cinema—represents the figure of resistance within a paradigm of censorship. She is a religious and glorified mother but with feelings. She is strong, happy, and economically independent. She expresses love and sympathy towards her son who got injured in the war.
Banietemad’s other films are also socially analytical in nature. Off the Limits, Canary Yellow, Foreign Currency and The Blue-Veiled are a few famous films of hers. In the most debated Nargess, the three so-called feminine characters sacrifice, love, and torture are extensively visualised.
Tahmineh Milani argues that what makes women’s cinema different is not necessarily the gender of the filmmakers or women’s active involvement during production, but the production of films that reflect women’s perspectives and experiences. The Hidden Half (2001), Two Women (1999), and The Fifth Reaction (2003) are her famous works. The Hidden Half touches on social taboos such as a wife revealing her past to her husband, her feelings towards another man, and her political activities. It also criticises the regime’s cultural revolution, the closure of universities and the unfair treatment of political prisoners. Milani was arrested and her properties were looted.
In Two Women (1999), the victimised girls are blamed, exposing the perception of gender dominance that was prevalent. They are alleged to have instigated the attack. The film also showcases the story of a smart girl who ends up in an abusive marriage. This film was banned for a very long time. Family law, custody of the child, women’s rights, and laws instituted in favour of men are the factors criticised in The Fifth Reaction (2003). Dariush Mehrjui’s Leila (1996) is an excellent example of post-revolutionary realist cinema. It visualises what could happen if religious conservatism and liberal progressiveness worked in opposite directions among its female characters.
A Separation (2011), directed by Asghar Ali Farhadi, uncovers the conflicts within the family and complexities between male-female relationships. In Farhadi’s The Salesman (2016), the hero and (the typical masculinity and the underlying patriarchal morality) considers his wife as a sacred body. In Bahman Ghobadi’s Marooned in Iraq (2002), female singer Hanareh leaves the family and migrates to Iraq when Iran bans music after the Islamic revolution.
Majid Majidi’s Baran (2001) is a rare story of helplessness, innocence and love which are not being expressed. The character of Lateef knows that the newly recruited boy named Rahmat is actually a girl. She impersonates herself as a boy to help her family due to poverty. Baran is fascinating since Majidi overcomes the limitations of Iranian cinema, which cannot visualise the female body or romantic acts, through his political and visceral images.
Jafar Panahi’s Offside (2006), a movie that showcases women trying to sneak into a football match by violating the religious state’s laws and rules, was not legally permitted to be screened in Iran. Since women are not permitted to enter the stadium by wearing purdah, these six women enter the stadium by cutting their hair and dressing like men. He exposes how ridiculous these laws are. Those six women are not revolutionaries, political dissidents, or intellectuals; they are merely being football fans like everyone else.
Abbas Kiarostami’s Shirin (2008) showcases the changes in the faces of 113 women when they watch a film. The audience sits in a theatre, which is a set prepared in the living room of the director’s house. When he was shooting, Kiarostami was not sure what kind of film they would be watching. The actresses were instructed to act by imagining their own experiences on their romantic relationships and watch a film about love within their mind. A six-minute performance of each actress was shot. Only after the shooting did Kiarostami decide that the story of the film that they are watching will be ‘Shirin and Khusro’, and then creates the soundtrack of a film that has never really been made.
Shirin is an extraordinary cinematic experience which takes female audiences through a flashback of emotional and intellectual experiences of love, sex, passion, addiction, betrayal, waiting, sacrifice and lust through visualising Shirin, who is a lover and a princess.
The body, sexuality and identity of Iranian women are historically defined within the spectrum of religion and traditions. But, modern women question, reject, and rewrite these definitions. Modernism in Iran is also determined by the modernity of femininity. This is what reflects and liberates Iranian cinema.
G P Ramachandran is a film and television critic and is a member of the board of studies of audio-visual communication at the university of calicut
Medha Akam specialises in gender and media, and currently works as a content producer