Beyond Tradition and Taboo

Women of Iranian Popular Cinema: Projection of Progress
Volume 10, Issue 7 (July 31, 2006)
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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:; 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.

Author Bio:

Najmeh Khalili Mahani was born in Iran and lived her childhood through the turmoils of revolution and the Iran-Iraq war. She left Iran at the age of 21, after 3 years of uninspired study in Computer Engineering at Tehran Polytechnic (Amir Kabir University.) After obtaining a master’s degree in Biomedical Engineering from McGill University in Canada she enrolled as a part time MA student in Film Studies at the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema (Concordia University), and in the PhD program in Neuroscience at McGill University. Her multidisciplinary research interests focus on how the environment (history, technology, politics) can modulate human perceptual experience with respect to ontology.

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