Women in Iranian Cinema
Women without Men
by Massoud Mehrabi
Perhaps it would seem surprising to say that in a few generations, the Iranian society which is known for its traditionalism and patriarchal structure will be dominated by women.
Since the inception of cinema in Iran, traditional and patriarchal society considered the new phenomenon as symbol of corruption and was severely opposed to presence of women in cinema, even at movie theaters. Starting from November 1904, when the first movie theater opened in Tehran, up to two decades ago, women were not allowed to enter movie theaters. Khan Baba Mo’tazedi was among early Iranian cinematographers who built a movie theater called Pari just for women in Tehran. Two years later, women were conditionally allowed to enter other movie theaters: they sat on the left side of the theater while men sat on the right.
Reconciling a traditional patriarchal society with cinema was the theme of the second feature made in Iran: Hadji Aqa, the Cinema Actor (1933). Avaness Ohanian chose Asia Qestanian, a Christian woman for the leading actress to avoid condemnation from Muslims (at that time, female roles in stage plays were either played by men who clad as women, or were played by non-Muslim women). Asia Qestanian was cast in Hadji Aqa, the Cinema Actor as a girl that marries a man in the film industry and had to deal with his traditional father’s objections who later banished her. After long struggles, they convince the girl’s father to go to a theater. After seeing his own face on the screen, he reconciles with his daughter. The first Iranian sound film, Lor Girl, which was made in India, was screened around the same time. Although people received it with warm welcome, its leading actress, Rouhangiz Saminejad, who is known as the first actress of the Iranian cinema, was never forgiven by her relatives and even moviegoers. When she returned to Iran after having lived in India for 18 years and appearing in two more films, she was cruelly banished by her own people and died many years later in total isolation.
Such treatment, which emanated from gender discrimination and was reminiscent of maltreatment of ethnic, racial, and religious minorities by apartheid regimes, continued in a new form from 1947 onward when filmmaking restarted in Iran with Storm of Life after a 10-year interregnum. Most subjects chosen for films depicted women as dupes who did not comply with standards of a male-dominated society and were corrupt. At the end, only those women were forgiven who had repented. Singing, dancing, and seduction (mostly as fatal women) characterized most actresses of the Iranian cinema from 1950s to mid-1970s. Presence of famous female singers such as Delkash, Parvaneh, Rouhbakhsh, Sarfaraz, Fattaneh, Shams and Marziyeh in films most of whose viewers were poor, lower class men, was enough to guarantee high box office returns. Meanwhile, a dancer who danced at cabarets was a regular presence to cater to ordinary Iranian audience. Names of dancers and singers were put at special places on film placards and posters. A famous dancer called Mahvash was so popular among moviegoers (especially the lumpen) whose funeral was attended by thousands of them when she died in a car crash. The event greatly surprised intellectual circles.
Although this approach to women (which was also discriminatory) was mostly taken by the mainstream cinema, the intellectual cinema, which came into being as of mid-1960s, also ignored women and assigned marginal parts to them. Ahou Khanoum’s Husband (Davoud Mollapour, 1968) was the only film which followed a neorealist style and was greatly influential in revealing oppression that women suffered in a male-dominated society. Women were so strained for suitable opportunities to prove their talents that a progressive actress, Azar Shiva, started selling gums at the entrance of the University of Tehran (a symbol of intellectualism in Iran) in protest and said, “I prefer this to acting in a cinema which only wants naked women.” That symbolic move greatly resounded in the Iranian press.
As modernity made its way into Iran (though through government’s force), a few women were gradually allowed in other areas of cinema. You could hardly see a female name among crewmembers before 1970s. However, that decade saw the rise of such educated women as Zari Khalaj, Mahtal’at Mirfendereski, Malek Jahan Khazaei, and Mahvash Sheikholeslami who worked as editor, production manager, assistant director and makeup in the most prominent Iranian movies. Kobra Saeedi (a mainstream cinema actress) made a film called Maryam and Mani just before the outbreak of the revolution in 1979.
It seemed that the revolution would cause more restriction for women in arts, but the opposite was true; just for the same reason that Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden. Eating the forbidden fruit has been eternal temptation of humans. Apart from increasing enrollment of girls in music, painting, graphics, acting, photography and other arts classes, the most important developments occurred in cinema and literature. Although there were very few women like the famous poet, Forough Farrokhzad (who also directed The House Is Bleak, 1965) before the revolution, when it came to literature and novels, there were no famous women save for Simin Daneshvar and perhaps one or two more names. At present, female writers have outnumbered men and conquered bookshops. Interestingly, most books they write are against men and built around feministic themes. From the outset of the Iranian cinema up to 1970s (when more than 100 features or dramas were directed), the number of women among crewmembers, even as script girl was so few as to be ignored. Now, their presence is so pervasive that if they went on strike, many cinema and TV projects would grind to a halt or face grave hardships.
Although films like Where Is the Friend’s House? (Abbas Kiarostami) are valuable works of art they stemmed from social conditions in 1980s when more attention was paid to children and their problems than women and their presence in cinema. That unwritten law soon fell apart and was abandoned in domestic and international festivals. Female filmmakers gradually rose from the ashes and made the Iranian cinema believe them as women. Rakhshan Bani-Etemad, Niki Karimi, Puran Derakhshandeh, Fatemeh Mo’tamed Arya, Hayedeh Safiyari, Leila Hatami, Jila Mehrjui, Taraneh Alidousti, Mahtab Keramati and hundreds of other women who are active in all kinds of cinema professions are but a small part of the Iranian female art community who suffered a lot to connect narrow ways and build wide roads. Despite presence of many forbidding signs and laws on their path, this highway will lead to the other extreme end in a generation or two from now: complete domination of women.
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2010, Film International
Quarterly Magazine (ISSN 1021-6510)
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Publishing Date Spring 2010
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