Women of Iranian Popular Cinema: Projection of Progress

Beyond Tradition and Taboo

by Najmeh Khalili Mahani Volume 10, Issue 7 / July 2006 36 minutes (8859 words)

In the West, the media-driven portrait of Iranian women after the 1970’s Revolution is often blurred with over-simplifications that render their image bleakly oppressed, chained by Islamic fundamentalism, and scarred with violations of the rights and body. Yet, under the iron rule of the mullahs, an Iranian woman receives the Nobel peace prize; two Iranian females become the first Muslim women to conquer Everest; a woman becomes the national car-racing champion amongst both men and women challengers in Iran; women occupy over 60% of the capacity of higher education centers; the feminist non-governmental organizations grow by over 400%; [1] the international prize for technological innovation in Geneva goes to a provincial Iranian girl; and presidential candidates herald women’s issues in the election campaign. [2] Patriarchy in Iran is not fundamentally different from that in non-Islamic societies, but the religious dogma is bound to raise higher the bar of challenge for attaining equality for women’s right.

The encounter of Iranian society with feminism happened over a century ago, contemporary with the inception of modernity. The first public account of Iranian feminism is Tahereh Qorat-al-Eyn, an intellectual figure of the constitutional revolution, a poet, and the first woman to drop her veil publicly and to call for equality of men and women. Condemned to heresy, she was executed in 1850 at the age of 36 for her affiliation with the Babist movement. Almost half a century later, another poetess, Alamtaj Esfahani, born in 1884, challenged not only the literary traditions of Persian poetry, but also broke the boundaries between her private aristocratic life and the public, lamenting her personal unhappiness but in plight for universal freedom of women from oppression. Although women were instrumental in the Constitutional Revolution of 1906, the first parliament of Iran deprived them of vote and participation in the political process. Marginalized and pushed back, they took matters in their own hands. The Society for the Freedom of Women and the Secret Union of Women were formed in 1907. These associations resolved to put education on top of the priority list, and by 1913 63 schools for girls had emerged. Before the collapse of the Qajar Dynasty women had gained prominence as painters, poets, writers, publishers and activists. [3]

After Qajars, Reza shah became the monarch and pledged Iran to modernity. The unveiling of women was legislated and the process of female marginalization reversed, while Muslim women who refused to abide by the new dress code were excluded from the public sphere. Although the reinforcement of the dress code subsided by the end of Reza Shah’s reign (1942), the liberalism of the Pahlavi regime did not bode well with the conservative and traditional majority of Iranians. Although equal rights were provisioned for men and women, only a few chose to benefit from it. As a matter of fact, the rush to westernization gave reason to the religious and traditionalist patriarchy to save and protect ‘their’ women from the moral corruption of the urban Iran. In this context, the broad participation of conservative Muslim women in the revolution of 1979 demarks their struggle to reclaim the public sphere within the boundaries of their cultural and religious realms.

The right to participation in public sphere and the political process is at the heart of the Iranian women’s movement since the beginning. The politics of “veiling,” however, have been the centerpieces of not only religious but also secular legislative debates. The forced unveiling of women during Reza Shah’s regiment of modernity set back the women’s movement by as much as did the forced veiling of women during Khomeini’s regiment of Islamic rule. From the long history of struggle for the right to dress, however, Iranian women have inherited skills for negotiation, resistance and survival. Today, in spite of cultural and constitutional inequalities that cripple the women’s movement, it is they who push the wheels of democracy and (even post-) modernity.

The challenge for reterritorialization of gender roles is taking place in every aspect of life in Iran, be it domestic or public; pragmatic or ideological; academic or aesthetic. As the limits of the old identities delineate the boundaries of the new ones, the symbiosis between the traditional and the novel translates into cultural representation and into art, which has been a traditionally poignant instrument of social resistance and political discourse in Iran. Given the intensity of cultural traditionalism in contrast to an equally intense appetite for modernism, cultural production in Iran lays vast claims to a dialectical creativity that vitalizes the redefinition of the national, cultural and even gender identity.4 While the modes of cultural articulation and artistic practices in Iran are numerous, this article focuses on cinema, as one of the advocates for women, amidst the religious despotism that is believed to be holding back the movement for the Iranian women’s rights.

In recent years, Iranian cinema has become the yardstick of cultural, social and political progress in Iran. With formal innovation and mystical realism, Iranian filmmakers have developed a non-confrontational narrative style to express their voice, while circumventing the censorship Iranian cultural watchdogs. As such, the films of Kiarostami and the Makhmalbafs have secured the Iranian Cinema an internationally acclaimed artistic position as “the cinema of the 90s.” The spectators of the International film festivals marvel at the candid camera-stylo of Rakhshan Bani-Etemaad and the acute sensitivity of Jafar Panahi, who give image to the sociological plight for women’s right in Iran. However, parallel to these art-house productions, which are not aimed at but mostly consumed by the cultural elite inside and outside of Iran, there exists a prolific cinema industry that caters to the demands of a large population of Iranian cinemagoers who seek visual pleasure, distraction, emotional stimulation, moral identification, and socio-political involvement —as do most cinemagoers around the globe. Similar to Hollywood films, produced to be entertaining and profitable, this type of cinema aims not only to pleasure the spectator but also to reflect their aspirations and anxieties. As I will later demonstrate, the narrative of popular Iranian cinema manifests the desire of Iran’s young generation, impatient to become modern —Islamic or otherwise— and eager to reclaim its national identity, differently from that branded by the U.S. president: The Axis of Evil.

The purpose of this essay is less to debate the artistic or cinematic merits of this type of Iranian cinema, than to examine the efficacy of its particular mode of narrative in bringing about social reforms. Given the significant expansion of the Iranian film industry over the past 20 years, and its youth (under oppression), it is hard to judge whether this particular screen (i.e. the popular film) is a mirror, a phantasmic distraction or a projector of the histrionic clash of Iran with (post-) modernity. However, if we anchor the Iranian encounter with modernity to the inception of the feminist movement in the 19th century Iran, we can consider the cinematic representation of women as a gauge to the success of the Iranian women’s discourse of social equality and democracy.

The post-revolutionary era in Iran is classifiable into three distinct periods: the post-revolution and war era (1979-1988), the post-war period of reconstruction (1989-1996), and the reform years during Khatami’s presidency (1997-2005). This essay looks at the film industry in Iran during each of these eras and aims to quantify participation of women in this form of cultural practice. The growth of female participation in Iranian cinema is measured both in terms of the number of women behind and in front of the camera, in terms of the diversity of characters that populate the narrative, and also in terms of the box office success of films that are centered around a lead female character. This quantitative approach provides evidence of women’s success in transgression from the private to the public sphere, not only as fictitious film characters, but also as significant participants in the cultural practice of cinema.5

The Revolution Era: Unsacred Sight (from perdition to repentance)

The revolution era encompasses the overthrow of the monarch in 1979, the war that started almost one year after revolution and lasted until 1988, and the death of Khomeini in 1989. The first years of this period were marked by a short-lived surge of cultural and political dialogue, which soon faded into a brutal and uncompromising persecution of those with different opinions from the ruling clerics. Under charges of treason during the war, heresy, and anti-revolutionary conspiracy, many of the “children of the revolution” were executed or driven to exile.

Films were not immune from ideological massacre either. According to Hamid Naficy, from 2208 films reviewed by the officials between 1979-1982, only 252 were granted exhibition permission.6 More prominent than political dissent, it was the ‘moral inadequacy’ and the inappropriate representation of female roles on screen that condemned many of these films. Under the growing regularization of life into Islamic style, the appearance of uncovered women on screen was strictly forbidden, let alone woman’s interaction with “na-mahram” men (men other than husbands, fathers, brothers and sons). To be on the safe side of Islam, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance almost entirely cut the images of women from the screen and screenplays. The films of prominent filmmakers such as Bahram Baizai, and Dariush Mehrju’i, whose works often centered a strong female character, were banned from the screens.7

From a total of 40 movies produced between 1979-1982, 29 of them had political content; they depicted the tyranny of Shah’s regime and the feudal system. Three were social-thrillers (involving crime, drugs, family feuds). There were also a few historical and allegorical ones such as Baizai’s The Ballad of Tara (1979), and Death of Yazdgerd (1980) (which remain banned) and Ali Hatami’s Haji Washington (1981) (which was not screened for 18 years) and the first war movie (Border, 1981, Jamshid Heydari), about the resistance of the inhabitants of a border village against the enemy’s intrusion.8

Without access to the sales records of those years, it is hard to assess the audience reception. However, given that any leisure activity was frowned upon as an anti-revolutionary act, it is not hard to imagine that cinemagoing was not a popular practice in those days. However, the majority of movies that were produced in the early years were television productions. These films were broadcast on state-controlled national television and shared revolutionary idealism that promoted Islamic values and socio-economic equality (not for women and political dissidents, of course). The common themes in these films were western-conspiracy, demonization of tyrant aristocracy, and critique of corrupt bourgeoisie. With the exception of Baiza’s Ballad of Tara, women were either entirely absent or scarcely present in marginalized roles.

By the end of 1982, the number of war movies increased —in Iran “Holy Defense” was used in reference to the war— and along with other thriller plots, they proved not only profitable, but also amenable to the war-time propaganda machine. As a result, the government promoted internal production by increasing the taxes on film import and by offering tax cuts and insurance to film producers.9 The steep increase in film production in 1984 is a reflection of state-support for domestic film industry. (See Figure 1.)

In terms of box-office success during the war-years, crime thrillers such as Senator (Mehdi Sabagh-Zadeh, 1983), The Eagles (Oghabha, Samuel Khakchian, 1984), Boycott (Mohsen Makhmalbaf, 1985), The Tenants (Dariush Mehrjooyi, Ejareh Neshinha, 1986), Kani Manga (Seyfollah Raad, 1987) occupied the first position on the sales charts. With the exception of The Tenants —a satirical comedy about the cultural amalgamation of a group of disharmonious inhabitants of a collapsing building— the rest of these films did not cast any female protagonists; they were thrillers made by men, for men, dealing with politics, drug traffic, war, and crime. It was not the state that prohibited the practice of feminine/family moviegoing; it was the content of the movies that discouraged it.

In a society where women were dismissed from their professional roles in the society, there was no need for the projection of the image of a woman unless in secondary roles as silent mothers, nagging wives, bickering sister-in-laws and domestic helpers. Even as characters of mothers, sisters and wives, women were not able to play their roles realistically, as the fiction of the medium did not change the reality that the male actors in characters of husbands, brothers and sons were “na-mahram.” Thus, the character of the wife had to remain fully covered from head to toe, in the presence of the husband character! Ironically, the regulators took the threat of intersubjectivity mediated by pictures so seriously that any scene or idea suggestive of the slightest visceral attraction between the characters of a husband and a wife were rendered threatening to the moral health and purity of the celibate viewer —and thus omitted from scenarios. The “gaze” was so forbidden that the first romantic movie of the revolution (Golhaye Davoudi, 1984, Rasoul Sadr Ameli) portrayed love between two blind lovers! Nevertheless, Golhaye Davoudi became the first film after three years of inception of the Fajr Film Festival to qualify for competition and win the prizes for best male actor (Jamshi Mashayekhi), best female actor (Parvaneh Ma’soomi), best cinematography (Firooz Malek-Zadeh), best editing (Abbas Ganjavi), and best music (Kambiz Roshan-Ravan). In spite of being numerous, no war-movies won a prize in any of the major categories.10

In an analysis of the wartime cinema industry, Homa Tavassoli criticizes the complete absence of women (nurses, mothers, widows, victims) from the battlefield films:

Besides over-regulation of the filmmaking practices, apparent limitations of female casting, and unnatural opposition to subject matters such as love, […], the real problem perhaps resulted from the filmmakers of that era who were more political than cinematic. […] The film makers of the war era were either the directors of pre-revolution _film-farsi_’s [film-farsi is a pejorative term used to describe low-quality B movies], or those who, because of prejudice, ideology or opportunism, treated film as a propagandist medium.11

Although the state-funded cinema industry was primarily a propagandist medium, its commercial prospects led to the reopening of cinema screens to female actors. Because of the non-Islamic roles they had played in movies made before the revolution, many actors had left Iran in fear of persecution; and those who had remained were prohibited from any cinematic activity. In fact, the process of cleansing the government organizations (paksazi) from employees, such as teachers, doctors, lawyers, engineers, accountants, and managers —mostly women— who in appearance and belief did not satisfy the Islamic codes and revolutionary ideals, had deprived the new republic of the expertise that the running of a country required. The cultural revolution was taken as far as forcing the closure of universities to allow sufficient time to cleanse the institutions of culture from politically and culturally unwanted elements —be it professors, subject matters or dissident students! In such an atmosphere many of the Iranian actors, guilty of ‘liberalism’ because of their participation in decadent cultural practices during the Shah’s regime, were considered anti-revolutionary and thus put out of work during the early years of revolution.

However, when proven beneficiary to the state —both commercially and ideologically—the new cinema industry of the Islamic Republic had no choice but to bring back the actors who were trained and experienced in the cultural institutions of the previous regime. To be cast as either unglamorous, passive and submissive or demonic and conspicuous was perhaps an unspoken price that the stars of the pre-revolution cinema had to pay at the beginning for rite of passage to the new cinema. The return of Jamileh Sheikhi and Fakhri Khorvash, often in negative roles, and Nadereh, usually typecast as a helpless (grand) mother in 1983, opened the door in the late 1980s to a wave of new and talented female actors such as Roya No-Nahali, Fatemeh Motamed Arya, Farimah Farjami and Bita Farehi.

As will be shown in the next section, the later years of the war era provided conditions for the release of films such as Bashu, the Little Stranger (1986, Bahram Baizai) and Wedding of the Blessed (1988, Mohsen Makhmalbaaf), with a humanist and balanced look at war and with central roles for female characters interpreted by Susan Taslimi —star of Bahram Baizai’s earlier banned films— in Bashu, and Roya No-Nahali, who received the Golden Phoenix of the Fajr Film festival for the best female performance of the year for her role in The Wedding of the Blessed.

The Reconstruction Era: Reclaiming the Stage (Characters, Stars, Directors)

By the end of the war in 1988, with the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 and the start of the presidency of Ali-Akbar Hashemi, Iranian cinema witnessed not only a steep increase in the number of women portrayed in films, but also a notable increase in films with leading female characters (See figure 2). Films such as Mother (1988, Ali Hatami) and The Travellers (1989, Bahram Baizai) assembled a cast of female stars —Roghiyeh Chehre Azad, Nadereh and Farimah Farjami in the former, and Jamileh Sheikhi, Mojdeh Shamsayi, Fatemeh Motamed Arya, Mahboobeh Bayat and Homa Rousta in the latter— to portray the canonical role of the mother in the matriarchic structure of upper-middle class families. In contrast to the early years, when the presence of women in films was granted on the condition of minimal bodily movement, towards the end of the first post-revolutionary decade female actors found opportunities to appear as psychologically complex and physically dynamic characters. The acclaimed performances of Farimah Farjami in The Last Act (1990, Varuzh Karim-Masihi), Susan Talimi in Perhaps Another Time (1987, Bahram Baizai), Bita Farehi in Hamoun (1989, Mehrjui) and Fatemeh Motamed Arya in The Actor (Makhmalbaf, 1992), set new standards for potential female characters. As I will show in this section, this change was mediated by a slight relaxation of the Islamic code due to death of Khomeini and also by the public’s increased appetite for family moviegoing that further pushed the commercial and cultural envelop of the film industry.

The end of the war not only marked a noticeable increase in the representation of women on screens, but also the entry of successful female directors behind the camera. In 1984, Marzieh Boroumand became the first women in the Islamic Republic to direct a big-screen hit, ??The City of Mice??—a puppet show based on a children TV series The School of Mice (Boroumand, 1981-1984). Received enthusiastically by children, it also drew a large number of adult viewers with its satirical subtext that parodied the Japanese Samurai genre —which in those years had dominated the TV screens. However, it wasn’t until the end of the war that Pouran Derakhshandeh, Rakhshan Bani-Etemaad and Tahmineh Milani made their successful (commercial and critical) entry into the strictly masculine field of film directing.

Pouran Derakhshandeh’s first feature film, Parandeh Kuchak-e Khoshbakhti (The Little Bird of Happiness, 1988), was a commercial and critical success. (See Table 1.) and was nominated for a multitude of categories (best young actor, best director, editing, sound recording and the best leading female actor) in the 6th annual Fajr Film Festival, and won the Gold Torch for the best film in North Korea’s Piong Yang film festival in 1990. Rakhshan Bani Etemad started with movies such as Off-limits (1989) and Canary Yellow (1990) and established herself as one of the most prominent social artists of Iranian cinema with Narges (1993). Tahmineh Milani, who started her career with the Children of Divorce (1989), resorted to comedy in Afsaneh Ah (1991) and What Else Is New (1992) to express her uncompromising feminist views against the patriarchal culture. Common to films of all these directors was the presence of prominent female stars, feminist social criticism, and noticeable commercial success. [12] (See tables 1 and 2)

The success of Iranian female directors was partly a result of the void of a feminine voice in Iranian cinema. With their novel perspective on their subject matter, these women resonated within the social conscience of a large group of unrepresented Iranians: women and children. The box-office success in Iran is often determined by the level of entertainment that the film provides; the level of controversy that it provokes, or a combination of both. Although most candid films rarely pass intact through the censorship of the Ministery of Culture and Islamic Guidance, those that vex political and have a subtext of social criticism, or those that push the boundaries of the somewhat taboo subjects of love and sexuality, draw a large number of spectators to the movie theaters. A statistical survey of the popularity of films with leading female characters (presented in tables 1 and 2) indicates that in addition to catering cinema stars to the scopophilia of the cinemagoers, combining romance with a feminist critique of the social inequality of women, provides a recipe box-office success. Sizzling this recipe with comedy or suspense guarantees the film a place on top of the sales records.

In the 1990s films that explored the subject of love and male-female relationship usually stayed clear of sexuality. In the more intellectual films, love was dealt with as an abstract and existentialist question, as was the case in the Wedding of the Blessed (1990, Makhmalbaf), Hamoun (1991, Mehrjui), and The Actor (1992, Makhmalbaf). With reference to mystical definition of love in Persian culture and literature, love in all three of these films is presented as a symbiosis between the philosophical identities of the male protagonist and the instinctive logic of their women. Hence, the meaning of love in these films is a gendered one. For men it extends beyond natural desires that keep people together; and it becomes a yearning for an esoteric perfection that exists in articulation of one’s individual relationship to an abstraction, be it creativity (like in Actor), faith (as in The Wedding of the Blessed) or the ultimate meaning of life (like in Hamoun). For women, on the other hand, love translates to a slightly more palpable —but still transcendental— entity; it speaks to sacrifice, endurance, jealousy, and security.

It did not take long, however, for ‘love’ in the time of Islamic republic to descend to earth. One reason for such an unexpected shift was Hashemi’s speech in November 1990, in which he openly spoke of the young people’s natural sexual desire and proposed temporary marriage (sigheh) as a legitimately Islamic solution to the problem of youth’s sexual intimacy. [13] With unprecedented success of Aroos (The Bride, 1992, Behrooz Afkhami), and the rise of the young and attractive Niki Karimi to post-revolutionary stardom, Iranian cinema came to less celestial and abstract, and more earthy and visceral terms with the question of love; it allowed for representation of humanly attractions between a man and a woman. Aroos is the story of a young man who is forced into illicit business in order to accumulate enough wealth to marry his beautiful sweetheart. While driving to their honeymoon he runs over a villager; because of his refusal to help the victim his wife leaves him. Influenced by the goodness of his bride and devastated by loss of his marriage, he returns repentant to face the consequences of his actions and to pay for his crimes. With 38 million Tomans of sales (approximately 1.3 million tickets) Aroos not only set new standards for box office success, but also cast femininity as an agent for change of social mores and action.

It was, however, Rakhshan Bani-Etemad’s Narges (made in 1991 but not released until 1993), that daringly divested the Iranian cinema into a naked portrait of sexuality. As Dehbashi writes, “Bani Etemaad reconstitutes the very nature and disposition of sexuality. The love affair between the young thief, Adel, and his visibly older lover, Afagh, is narrated with such dark and passionate intensity that with this single stroke Bani-Etemad counters generations of both the over- and the desexualization of women in Iranian Cinema.”14 Afagh (Farimah Farjami) and Narges (Atefeh Razavi) are portrayed as strong characters that dismantle the patriarchically constituted gender role and power relations. In spite of its box-office success, Narges was by no means a commercial film. However, it pushed the frontier of sexual discourse by leaps and bounds and paved the way for the next wave of Iranian female films in the late 90s.

The theme of strong women sacrificing themselves repeated in other box-office hits of the early 90s. In Makhmalbaf’s The Actor, Fatemeh Motamed Aria gives an award winning performance as an infertile wife of an actor (Akbar Abdi) suffering an artistic crisis of creativity. To help her husband, she pays a young gypsy girl (Mahaya Petrusian) to marry her husband —if the first wife gives written consent— to have his child (polygamy is legal in Iran). Motamed-Aria’s character, however, loses her sanity as traces of love begin to appear between the actor and the gypsy girl. In Sara (1994, Mehrju’i), Niki Karimi plays a woman who sacrifices her health and reputation by working hard to repay a loan that she received in order to pay for her husband’s medical treatment. Fearing her husband’s refusal to accept the loan from a friend, she lies and tells her husband that the loan had come from her father’s inheritance. Under pressure from the demands (implied to be sexual) of the man who lent her the money, a blackmailing colleague of her husband, she confronts her jealous and suspicious husband with the truth, only to find herself rejected from the marriage and her family. In Hamsar (Spouse, 1995, Mehdi Fakhim-Zadeh), a wife’s courage and success in uncovering a ring of embezzlement in the company where she and her husband work, leads to her rejection at home.

In spite of the strength of their characters, the women of the 1990s films were cast fatalistically. Portraying cultural and legal inequalities that victimized women, in spite of their determination and strength of the character, brought the problem of gender equality from the literary intellectual discourse into a more accessible forum of popular cinema. The steady representation of women in the films made during the post-war Hashemi era (1988-1996) began a gradual increase on Khatami’s platform of cultural reforms. By the beginning of his second presidency term (2000-2001), cinematic representation of women jumped to its highest peak in the history of the Iranian cinema. (Figure 3)

The Reform Era: Re-inventing the Image (rebellion, sexuality, mobility)

Although entangled in the intricate web of state-regulations and cultural and social limitations, the female characters of the films of the reform era differed significantly from their predecessors, in that they showed pragmatic resistance and adamant refusal to accept the conditions of their victimization. Thus rebellion against a pre-defined identity, against a denied sexuality, against an arrested mobility and against a marginalized creativity is the most common theme of the cinema of the third era of the Islamic republic. The statistics of casting and box-office success give an impression that cinema in this era has been particularly capitalizing on the heralding of women’s issues. As Figure 3 shows, within the first half of Khatami’s presidency the presence of women on cinema screens grew almost three fold; and as Table 2 indicates, the number of female-centered box-office hits increased significantly in comparison to the previous era.


One of the greatest hits of this era, Red (Fereydoun Jeyrani, 2000), starred Hediyeh Tehrani in the role of a woman who runs out of patience with the possessive and paranoid love of her husband and requests a divorce. In spite of unaccommodating judiciary laws that refuse her divorce, and in spite of the threat against her daughter’s life and murderous attempts of the husband (encouraged by his mean-spirited sister), she fights back (physically, psychologically and legally) and wins her freedom. In Tootia (2000, Iraj Ghaderi), an intelligent and active woman goes to the brink of divorce in her refusal to fulfill her husband’s ideal of a wife. Her choice to return to the marriage is not determined by the traditional expectations of her role, but by her maternal choice, when an accident endangers the life of her child. While the woman of Red rebels against the domestic tyranny of the patriarch, the award winning character of Mozhdeh Shamsai in Sag Koshi (Dog Killing, 2002, Bahram Baizai), takes on a fight against the social corruption of patriarchic society.

It is not only the characters of mothers and wives in the new wave of Iranian feminist cinema that raise the volume of their voices of dissent against patriarchic order, but also the young girls who question the traditional restrictions on expression of their identity. In Dokhtari Ba Kafhshaye Katani (A girl in sneakers, 2000, Rasoul Sadr-Ameli), the character of a tomboy girl is borne to the cinema of Iran. Tadayee (played by Pegaah Ahangarani) is arrested with her boyfriend in a park —as dating is considered illegal and against the Islamic rules— and her family humiliates her as they have her medically examined to ensure her virginity. She runs away from home and starts her odyssey in the brutal and disturbed subculture of the inner city and returns home with a new perspective of her place in society and her relation to the opposite sex. In Deep Breath (Parviz Shahbazi, 2003), the question of identity is posed during a few days of escapism as an unconventional girl, Aida (Maryam Palizban), joins two bored young boys, a homeless and a rich runaway kid; she becomes the anchor of their purpose and aspiration in life.

Another taboo of the virgin Iranian cinema —pregnancy out of wedlock— would draw a significant attention in films such as Shukaran (Behrooz Afkhami, 2001), I’m Taraneh, 15 (Rasould Sard Ameli, 2003) and Khakestari (Mehrdad Mir-Fallah, 2003). In Shukaran, Hedyeh Tehrani plays the role of a seductress nurse, Sima, who starts an affair with a wealthy and happily married man. Once pregnant, the man attempts to end the affair by finding her drug-addicted father’s address, accusing her of being a whore, and denying any responsibility in the pregnancy —calling the claim a blackmailing attempt to find money for her father’s drugs. Although the film ends with the ambiguous death of Sima in a car accident, it does not cast a negative judgment on the eccentric character of Sima. Rather, she is presented as a smart and sympathetic character who falls victim to her ambitions. By contrast, I’m Taraneh, 15 and Khakestari are about young girls who are seduced by young boys of their age who impregnate them and run away. It is the girls, however, who have to deal with the result of their scandalous actions, and have to endure much of the blame, humiliation and discrimination from their families and society. Nevertheless, when presented with the supposedly honorable opportunity to marry the father of their children, these girls refuse to wed into a loveless marriage and opt for their dignity in independence from the men who have dumped them in the harshest situations.

It can be thought that the declaration of independence from spousal tyranny in Red, from social tyranny in Dog Killing and from intellectual tyranny in Tootia gives these dramatic films their happy feminist ending. However, the brutal reality of the life of a rebellious woman, a single young mother, or a runaway girl in Iran is far different from the empowering image that is cast in the characters of Taraneh, Tadayee and Aida. Nevertheless, whether excessive in style (like Dog Killing and Red) or realist in form (Like I’m Taraneh 15 and Deep Breath), these plots create intersubjective models of identification for a youth who observes itself in the mirror of the cinema screen. In other words, the emancipation that is narrated with the acts of Tadayee as she escapes her abusive home, Aida as she drops her scarf in public, Taraneh as she gives her own name to her child —effacing the existence of the father— at the same time that it shocks, releases the spectator into a desire to challenge the status quo and to claim a new identity. Similarly, the success of films like Dog Killing and Red speaks of audience fascination with a new kind of a woman, one that transcends physical and psychological abuse and triumphs over that which attempts to subjugate or chain her.


Farzaneh Milani [15], whose body of work is focused on the place and the role of women in Iranian literature, considers mobility of women in the public sphere to have been the most fundamental agent of the feminine literary modernism of the past 50 years in Iran. She draws attention to aesthetics of immobility —such as wrapped Chinese feet, or the Persian adjective of Pardeh-Neshin (veiled)— that connote feminine virtue or beauty in traditional societies; and argues that mobility is the first condition of modernity and that over the past five decades, Iranian female writers have revolutionized the literary tradition in Iran by creating characters who physically entered into traditionally male-dominated public spheres. She then notes the unprecedented and impatient mobility of the contemporary Iranian women who occupy 43% of the job market and represent over 60% of the post graduate students.16

It was mentioned earlier that constricting women’s physical movement was one of the conditions for the appearance of women in the early post-revolution cinema —women could appear in seated roles! With appearance of Na’i (Sousan Taslimi) in Baizai’s Bashu the possibilities for movement took a notable bound. Na’i represented a farmer woman in a rural northern village, whose husband was fighting the war in the south. The demands of daily farming life (running, jumping, fishing, chasing wolves) in the absence of her husband, gave Na’i infinite opportunities for motion. Furthermore, her rural costume excused her from the constrictions on an urban dress code required by the regulations. Sousan Taslimi performed an equally corporeal role in Perhaps Another Time, where she played a psychologically disturbed urban woman and her twin rural sister. The mental agitation in search of the lost sister gave the character a physical restlessness to discover the city, in its old and new forms and in spaces that would have remained unknown to her without her impatience to discover her lost, rural twin.

While Baizai’s films metaphorically address the potentials of feminine mobility in the early years of Islamic revolution, the reterritorialization of feminity in recent years has resorted to actual props. Automobiles have become an indispensable vehicle for extending the presence of women in the public sphere. In many of the recent family dramas the keys to a brand new car serves the same romantic notion as a big diamond ring does in most of Hollywood dramas. To give or take back the car keys from a woman signifies the man’s trust and love or their lack of. A woman rejecting the car keys symbolizes her refusal to belong to the limits of love and trust delineated by the man. For instance in Red (Fereydon Jeyrani) the paranoid and possessive husband (Mohamad Reza Forutan) convinces his wife (Hedyeh Tehrani) to end the separation by giving her an expensive new car to prove that he is not opposed to her participation in social life —although he remains opposed to her working as a nurse.

Automobiles also serve as an instrument of rebellion. For example, Tahmineh Milani frequently draws attention to the empowering role of cars in the feminist plight for freedom. In Two Women (Tahmineh Milani, 1999) Fereshteh (Niki Karimi), who is from a religious and traditional background, surprises her “modern” friend Roya (Marila Zare’I) with her driving skills as they run away from Fereshteh’s dangerous stalker. In the Fifth Reaction (Tahmineh Milani, 2003) the newly widowed Fereshteh (Niki Karimi), whose traditional and wealthy father-in-law has taken the custody of her children away, is persuaded by her girlfriend Taraneh (Marila Zare’i) to kidnap her children from the tyrant grandfather and flee the country. The women’s rebellious takes the form of an action-style car-chase as Taraneh steals her husband’s car to help Fereshte and her children, while they are pursued by the powerful grandfather and his menacing agents.

The feminine stretch into the field of “automobiles” has a sportive limb as well. The championship of a 28 year-old woman, Laleh Sadigh, in the 2004 Professional Car Racing Championship in Iran, drew significant media and popular attention to itself. Although incipient and expensive, car racing in Iran draws enough customers to create active organizations that promote this sport among women. Focus on Laleh Sadigh as the first female care-racing champion in Iran [17], and Shahin Rajayee, the first female trans-continental truck driver of Iran [18], push the envelop for claiming a space for women in this masculine field. In other words, the relationship of females to automobiles has become a signifier of their identity in relation to modernity.

This cultural subtext has also entered the cinematic narrative to such extent that the action-figure female drivers, or the urbanite female flaneuses, who explore the city aimlessly behind the wheels, are becoming standard features of Iranian popular films. In films such as Abi, and Soorati, automobiles become signifiers of the character’s rebellious personalities. In Abi, the character of Hedyeh Tehrani is a rich girl from upper town who suffers a nihilistic crisis as she deals with her mother’s inaction about her father’s affair with his secretary and his abusive treatment of her mother. She quits the university and runs away from her father’s house and entertains herself by getting into car-chase games with young men which end with bumping her expensive SUV into their cars and seriously but not fatally damaging them. In Soorati, the ex-wife (Mitra Hajaar) and the present fiancée (Faghih Soltani) of a theater director (Rambod Javan) have a competitive showdown of their coolness as they each take turns behind the wheel and drive madly in the streets of Tehran. In a regime where the representation of feminine sexuality is subject to strict Islamic law, the rules of attraction are negotiated by driving skills of the women in these romantic dramas.

Besides being an extension of feminine bodily expression, automobiles serve as a safe meeting place, a contained and private location for making acquaintance with the world outside the bounds of home, class, tradition, and law. In Ten (2002) Kiarostami, who is the pioneer of using the mobile mise-en-scene of the car as a site of interview and character development, creates one of the most compelling cases of a modern and mobile Iranian woman who navigates through the complexities of her society and becomes familiar with the paradoxes of her environment. It is only within the confines of her car that Farideh (Mania Akbari) gets the opportunity to share the stories of love, loss, sex, desire, and faith with unlikely characters such as a prostitute and a mausoleum attendee. Automobiles are also the sites of private encounter with the opposite gender. In films such as Deep Breath, a stolen car becomes the centerpiece of the plot as it is the only place where the runaway and homeless boys and Aida (Maryam Palizban), the energetic girl who motivates much of the adventures of the story, can coexist and escape the Islamic rules that forbid friendships between unrelated men and women.


While automobiles open up the physical public space to women, art is another accompanying motif in representation of the modern Iranian woman. For example, in Soorati, in addition to being diehard drivers, the women of the story are all artists. Shahram (Rambod Javan) is an energetic and optimistic theater director whose wife, Sahar, (Mitra Hajaar), a successful cellist, has divorced him. Sahar and Shahram share the custody of their only son, Amir, until Shahram auditions Leila, a talented actress, (Faghih Soltani). Although the story of Soorati is about the struggle of Sahar and Leila over the love of Shahram and the custody of Amir, it emphasizes the artistic success of these women and their critical influence on the theater work of Shahram. The presence of female musicians in the cinema of recent years is remarkable, especially considering that during the first few years after the Revolution, non-revolutionary music (which included anything but laments and military marches) was considered to cause moral corruption and women were entirely banned from public musical practice.

Besides music, however, women appear on screen in other artistic roles as well. In Kaghaze-Bi-Khat (Naser Taghvai, 1999), Hedyeh Tehrani plays the role of a housewife who struggles between her inspiration to write a major novel and her fear of her husband’s reaction to the unveiling of her private feelings and thoughts. In Two Women, Roya (Marila Zare’i) plays the role of a successful architect who works in affectionate harmony with her engineer husband. Roya’s modern life is in contrast to Fereshteh (Niki Karimi) whose talent as an student of architecture is arrested, as she is forced to quit university and to accept a marriage arranged by her traditional family. Farideh, the flaneur of Kiarostami’s Ten, is a design artist, and the free spirited girls of Khakestari are art students. In other words, artistic occupation defines a particular role for the woman in society, which not only distances her from the pragmatic realities of her traditional female function, but also gives her imagination an artistic allowance to act differently and rebelliously against the status quo.

With stars, rebellious characters, props, motifs, complex psychologies, enduring personae, and with the shear number of their presence on screen, women have moved from the margins of the Revolutionary era to a dominant position on the screens of the present Iranian cinema. But how stable is this position?

Future Direction?

An overview of the Iranian popular cinema of the past eight years (i.e. during Khatami’s Reform era) reveals that representation of gender-based conflicts within a feminist idiom has been drawn from the wishes of the society that have dictated the box office. This trend, Shala Lahiji warns, is likely to “push the Iranian film industry of the coming decade into a kind of exaggeration of the life of women” since the filmmaker’s attitude towards women has become “one of the current criteria for evaluating a cinematographic piece of work.”19 The filmmakers are becoming increasingly aware of the risk of critical reaction to a distorted and unrealistic portrayal of females as pitiable, haughty, or romantically obsessed characters. Lahiji notes that although focusing on one aspect of a film can amount to bias and prejudice and diminish the value of artistic criticism, the exaggerated image of the women heroine in the films of the recent years “can be justified by suggesting that the whole Iranian film industry is being called to account for the wrongs it has done to women in the distant and not-so-distant past.”20

Lahiji’s view is also shared by prominent directors such as Dariush Mehrjui, whose films of the 90s to date have been constructed around the figure of a woman in a conflictual state between modernity and traditionalism. In an interview, he states that in general narratives can be based on only a few story categories and “these stories are either about men or women but in our patriarchic society we used to have more masculine stories” and thus the current state of cinema strikes one as exceedingly feminist. Yet, he emphasizes that limiting the scope of the stories of his films to the cultural and geographical borders of Iran is an outcome of society’s obsession with local politics and social tensions and that it runs the risk of “creating a simplistic view which isolates our [and women’s] problems from the whole of humanity.” [21]

It is naïve to suggest that the rhetoric of the reform era, and the statistics of female-oriented film plots in the first half of this era are indicative of women having actually laid claim to their rights. Ironically, it is the female legislators who voice some of the most oppressing rhetoric against the equality of women’s rights. [22] Nevertheless, while being discriminated against in the parliamentary procedures, these women do not shy away from reminding the parliament that they deserve equal treatment on the account of 50% of the votes that were cast by women. [23]

Haleh Esfandiari, in The Reconstrucled Lives, brings together the experiences of many Iranian women from different walks of life and concludes the paradox of the lives of the women in the Islamic Republic as this: that the Islamic Republic is sensitive to the international opinion and that it wants to distinguish itself from the rest of the Islamic Regimes in the Middle East by professing an enlightened version of Isalm which is progressive in women’s issues. Parliamentary representation of women, the image of a chic young woman carrying the Olympic torch in Atlanta, and encouragement of women in education, sports and family and health practices are facets of this policy. She notes however, that as much as the Islamic republic wishes to distinguish itself from the backwards women’s policies in the rest of the Islamic Middle East, it “is impelled to enforce the dictates of its own traditional ideal of an Islamic woman—pious, modest of dress, wife, mother, and housewife, and, even if educated and employed, still occupying a sphere distinctly separate and different from that of men.”24 It is within the gaps of this paradox that Iranian women have generated their expansively modern sphere of social progress.

As Hamid Naficy writes, in a non-Western culture, the self is not an individuated and unified entity as it is in the west. Rather it consists of a private inner core and a public outer self. Thus the duality of the identity necessitated a boundary interface that although amorphous, is necessary to protect the inner core from leaking out. This interface, he suggests, can be thought of as a veil which motivates people to search for the hidden; therefore generating “a dialectical relationship between veiling and unveiling: that which covers is also capable of uncovering.”25 Therefore it can be suggested that the veiled identity of the woman in the Islamic Republic, also provides interest in a grand spectacle of unveiling, and thus encourages not only a voyeuristic interest in seeing the uncovered identity, but also a creative taste in sculpturing a newer and even less probable identity.

Whether feminist or humanist, whether popular or repertory, whether box-office hit or totally banned from the silver screen, the Iranian cinema has succeeded in taking advantage of the paradoxical nature of Islamic Republic’s quest for Islamic Modernism and become the outlet of expression for a generation who has experienced revolution, war and reform, all condensed in less that 30 years. The cinema in Iran is among many of other slumbering institutions that are awakening to the voices of the ‘second gender.’ Yet, in the vast emptiness of the visual field of the representation of feminine diversity, the voices of cinematic women, whether behind or in front of the camera, echo perpetually with that which is awakened and that which is awakening. Although journalism is the brave frontrunner of reform in Iran, it is the primacy of the visual affect that accelerates the efficacy of the text. Here, we glimpsed at the image of progress made by women of Iranian cinema: from perdition to resurrection to revolution. This progress is owed in part to the readiness of the spectators for change and in part to the artists who have taken risks and have pushed the envelope of the viewer’s imagination and expectations beyond tradition and taboo. And from beneath the ‘hijab,’ which is meant to obscure a vision of femininity, the Iranian women are painting a striking figure of their identity that flickers through the darkness of the cinema theater and perhaps into the darkness beyond.

Tables and Figures

Table 1: Table of sales for the top 10 movies of a year (1988-1996) that had a leading female figure.
Table 2: Table of sales for the top 10 movies of a year (1997-2005) that had a leading female figure


1 Parastoo Do-Koohaki, Eight Years of Work for Women Between Traditional Thoughts and Modern Manifestos, Zanan, 14(121), May 2005, pp 15-21.

2 Nooshin Tarighi, Men’s Race for Women’s Votes, Zanan, 14 (121), May 2005, pp 2-10.

3 For more details you can see “The Iranian Woman’s Movement, a century long struggle.” By Ali Akbar Mahdi in The Muslim World, Vol. 94, Oct 2004, pp 427-448. An account of women’s cultural participation in Iran’s move towards modernity is given by Azar Naficy’s 2003 article: “The Quest for the “real” woman in the Iranian novel: Representations of privacy in literature and film.” Published on the Iran Chamber Society as well as, “Images of Women in classical Persian Literature and the Contemporary Iranian novel” in In the Eye of The Storm, pp 115-130.

4 Ibid.

5 In preparation of this article, the Iranian movie database was consulted. Other than sales records, the database provides no statistics. To obtain the figures presented in Figures 1-3, the films in the archive of the Iran Actor Database were counted. To calculate the statistics of the female on-screen participation, the actor’s database was browsed for female actors and the samples per every year were obtained by counting the number of times that a woman actor was cast in a film. To obtain the average number of females per film in different years, a percentage of total female protagonist over total number films produced in a given year was calculated (Figure 3).

6 Hamid Naficy, “Islamizing Film Culture in Iran—a post Khatami update” in The New Iranian Cinema, Politics, Representation and Identity, p.33.

7 Bahram Baizai’s Ballad of Tara (1979) and Death of Yazgerd (1980) remain banned. The films of Dariush Mehrjui ‘s often provide symbolic representation of the modernity chaos of Iranian society. While his earlier film The Cow (1969, The story of a remote and desolate villager whose cow is his only belonging and when the cow dies he is so devastated that he resumes the character of his cow; living in the barn, eating hay, and slowly believing that he is the cow.) was well broadcast by the revolutionary state television, The School We Went To (1980) was banned and has never been authorized for screening.

8 Source: www.iranactor.com; films were surveyed between years 1358-1361 (Persian calendar) and the categories were determined based on synopsis on the web site.

9 Hamid Naficy, The New Iranian Cinema, pp 39-40.

10 The best film of the year was The Scarecrow, a family drama by Hassan Mohammad Zadeh, and the best director award of that year went to Yadollah Samadi for The Man Who Knew Too Much, a drama of repenting and redemption.

11 Homa Tavassoli, “Masculine War of the Iranian Cinema,” Zanan 13 (114), November 2002, pp 37-39.

12 Pouran Derakhshandeh and Rakhshan Bani-Etemaad were graduates of film direction from school of cinema and school of dramatic arts in Teheran before the revolution of 1979. Tahmineh Milani has studied architecture in Tehran University.

13 Fariba Adelkhah, Being Modern In Iran, p. 160.

14 Hamid Dehbashi, Close Up: Iranian Cinema, Past, Present, and the Future, Verso, 2001. p.228.

15 Director of the Studies in Women and Gender and Professor of Persian and Women Studies at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and the author of “Veils and Words: The Emerging Voice of Iranian Women Writers,” and “A Cup of Sin: Selected Poems of Simin Behbahani.”

16 Mozhdeh Daghighi, “Never Before Have the Women Been This Mobile,” an Interview with Dr. Farzaneh Milani. Zanan, 14 (121), May 2005, pp 57-63.

17 Parastoo Do-Koohi, “Interview With Laleh sadigh, Champion of Professional Speed Car Race,” Zanan 13 (116), January 2004, pp. 9-13.

18 Parvin Imani, “Men Always Want to Overtake Me,” and “Interview with Shahin Rajayee, first Iranian female transit driver.” Zanan 14 (122), July 2005, pp 8-11.

19 Shahla Lahiji, “Chaste Dolls and Unchaste Dolls: Women in Iranian Cinema since 1979,” in The New Iranian Cinema, Edited by Richard Tapper (I.B Tauris publishers, London, 2002). p.215.

20 ibid, p. 216.

21 Omid Rohani, “I had No plans to Make Films About Women,” Interview with Dariush Mehrjui, Zanan 6(40), January 1996. pp 21-26.

22 Laleh Eftekhari, one of the representatives of Tehran in the parliament, considers the restrictions on women’s rights to be “compassionate legislations” because “it is a national heritage for the Iranian women to not have been seen by the stranger men.” (Zanan, 13 (114), November 2004, p.19). She believes that bringing women to the public sphere has led to the breakdown of families, their inadequate employment, creation of rough sports (!), female objectification and negligence of their chastity. (Zanan 13 (115), December 2004, p24). Eshrat Shayegh, the notorious member of parliament for Tabriz, believes that execution of 10 prostitutes is the solution for eradication of sex trade (Zanan 13 (115), December 2004, p25). In defense of her statement, she goes as far as challenging any judge who questions the validity of a death penalty for a sex-worker and states: “The parliament does not obey anyone but the supreme leader and will not be over-shadowed by the [reformist] government.” (ibid)

23 In spite of Eshrat Shayegh’s zeal to side with conservative attitude of the current parliament, she was not elected for membership to the executive council of the 7th Islamic Republic Parliament. In protest to her defeat, she reminded the parliament that women had cast 50% of the votes and thus deserved representation on the executive council. She then asked women to “send more female representative to the parliament and to avoid voting for people with a narrow view of women” (Zanan, 14 (124), August, 2005, p.22-24).

24 Haleh Esfandiari, Reconstructed Lives, Women and Iran’s Islamic Revolution. p. 211-213.

25 Hamid Naficy, “Veiled Vision/Powerful Presences: Woman in Post-Revolutionary Iranian Cinema,” in In the Eye of The Storm, p. 136-137.

Women of Iranian Popular Cinema: Projection of Progress

Najmeh Khalili Mahani, PhD, is a Canadian-Iranian researcher, currently working as a Neuroscientist in the Netherlands. She graduated from the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema with a Master’s degree in Film studies in 2008. Her cinema writings focus on the historical or sociological contexts that inform the narrative of films, with particular attention to technological and formal elements that influence the film’s phenomenology.

Volume 10, Issue 7 / July 2006 Essays   ali hatami   baizai   country_asia   documentary   feminism   film theory   iranian cinema   islamic republic   mohsen makhmalbaf   political