Portrayal of Women in Iranian Cinema

An historical overview

Shahla Lahiji

What has and what has not changed in the portrayal of women

I would like to extend a warm personal welcome to our distinguished guests,1 women from all over the world and Iran who are active in the field of movie making, whether as film makers or critiques, and are here for an exchange of experience and understanding of the subject of “woman and the present day cinema”.  I hope this gathering will provide you with the opportunity to take back observations of Iranian women according to realities of their conditions and free from the current of political publicity which, regrettably, is far too common in the world.

Although in recent years, a great deal of discussion at the international level has addressed the issue of the place and status of women in present day Iranian society, the influence their social position has exerted in the spheres of art, literature, religion, politics, economics and history and so on, and despite the fact that more than any other time, critical eyes are focused on Iranian women living within the national borders, and in spite of a considerable corpus of literature published on these issues, the emphasis, on the whole, has been on the shortcomings.  Indeed, the ceaseless efforts of our women to participate in all areas of social life, and to enter areas hitherto beyond their access (albeit as a form of reaction) have not received much attention. One of these areas is the film industry.

Participation

The fascinating fact is, however, that for different political and social reasons, and above all due to the extensive presence of a large group of our women in various fields of social activity, even if as part of a shapeless mass, and in not-so-important roles, the Iranian woman has turned more than ever before to study and research, has expressed her views on the shortages facing her and has demanded the restorations of her rights.

Amongst the most active voices have, of course, been our woman film-makers. Despite being no more than ten years on the professional scene, working under difficult conditions and facing various limitations, they have had greater success than men in a more realistic portrayal of both women and men in Iran.  Their work has, moreover, enjoyed enthusiastic public reception.

The achievement becomes even more impressive if we note that, unfortunately, our national movie industry, both before and after the Islamic revolution, had little success in a realistic portrayal of people, especially our women.  And besides, what were offered were often far removed from the reality.  This, to my mind, has been one of the reasons why Iranian cinema was not successful at the international level.  The failure has, besides, damaged the place and status of women, both before and after the revolution, by presenting a distorted picture of them.

For this reason, I have chosen as the subject of my paper the Picture of Women in Iranian Cinema.  I am no film expert, and speak as a simple researcher on the question of women. What I have to offer is a reflection of an ordinary movie goer, what she has seen, read and heard - just like millions who are the main cinema audience, the largest audience after radio and television, the people who borrow some of their imagined heroes from movies, those who take a memento from every film they see to fill the hours of their solitude. I believe that all these show the deep socio-cultural influence of cinema because of its magic attraction and broad audience.

For myself, as a woman who has spent years pondering over the problems, difficulties and struggle of the women of my country, I assume the right to have a critical look at the picture of woman which the Iranian film industry has impressed, and continues to impress on the mind of the public.

The beginning

The first Iranian-Farsi film Dokhtar-e Lor or the Lor Girl was screened in 1933. The film was not only the first experiment in producing a full-length film with a drama, it was also the first appearance of women in Iranian films. Although the story was probably produced to meet official prescription at a time when the central government was engaged in clashes with the tribes of Lorestan, the theme was woven around a girl named Golonar (a supposedly typical rural name for girls, meaning pomegranate blossom) who lived with no supporters and earned a gypsy living by singing and dancing in tea houses and inns on the Lorestan-Khuzistan road.  The film, of course, has had a lot of problems both in its manner of storytelling and representation of the realities of the Iranian society of the time.  Still, the heroic tale of a girl who could manage her own life alone was no doubt attractive to the public.

The film was shot and put together in India. The cast was, however, Iranian and an Iranian singer played the part of Golonar.  At that time, removal of the hejab (Islamic dress code) had not yet been made compulsory and showing a woman with partial hejab was against social custom.  However, the film did not arouse any negative response and the public reception of the role of the woman was not too bad.  On the whole, the Lor Girl was well received by the cinema-goers of the time.

Between 1933 and 1937, several other Iranian films were produced in India, but it was another eleven years of relative inactivity before the cameras came to shoot inside Iran.

Toofan-e Zendegi, or the Storm of Life, was the first Iranian film to be produced in Iran in 1948.  The story was about a girl from a middle class family with intellectual leanings and an interest in the arts.  The girl gives in to the pressure of her greedy and ignorant father, a nouveau riche businessmen, and leaves her preferred suitor who happens to be a poor artist.  She marries a rich but evil man, but following a series of events, frees herself from bondage and marries the original suitor.  The film contained an elementary family melodrama but still had an eye on social problems.  In a crude way, the film tried to put across and criticise the boundless authority of the father in a family with strong patriarchal traditions.

On the whole films produced in the first ten years of the film industry in Iran shared a simple-minded kind of romanticism, mixed with a strong tendency to moralise.  In most of them, women were at the centre stage as victims of male immorality.  These women were not presented as examples of moral superiority, though they were the advocates of a type of simple and easily accessible morality.  The main female actors did not have much physical beauty, and being chosen from amongst famous singers and theatre actresses, often played roles too young for them.  Artistic expression was crude, movements rather artificial and without artistic value.

In many of these films, violation of the woman’s chastity was part of the theme, but the act itself was shown in a symbolic way.  In dealing with social problems, women usually showed greater wisdom than men.

The “deceived and abandoned” theme stayed with the Iranian industry for quite some time. Highly stereotyped dialogues, usually spoken by women, played the main part in putting across the message of the films.

The low quality of these Iranian films was the reason why the middle class movie-goers showed little interest in them.  Even the lower middle-class youths preferred foreign action films or Arab and Indian “sing and dance” movies rather than the tedious story and the inaction of these Iranian films.  The main customers, therefore, were lower and lower middle-class families who, because of meagre education, had no patience for foreign films.  The language - Farsi - and the sentimental family themes of these films, emphasising maternal feelings and attachments, satisfied their simple taste.

In discussing the place of women in those films, it is interesting to note that because of their limited audience, they were hardly in a position to exert much influence over society, and as such, they could be described as socially neutral.  They did little good and little harm.

Towards the end of the 1950s, a number of factors came to obstruct possible progress of Iranian film industry.  Large numbers of imported “sing-and-dance” films from India and Egypt, and commercialised low quality films from Italy and the rapid progress of the dubbing techniques in Iran, which removed the language barrier, deprived Iranian films of a large part of their audience.  The industry came to face crashing financial problems.

Instead of raising the quality of films to attract the educated middle-classes, producers chose to emphasise the physical attraction of actors and actresses, to draw the new generation of cinema-goers, particularly the single young men of the lower middle-classes, to the box office.  Introduction of a number of little known women actresses with the type of beauty appealing to these young men, and use of handsome actors with no relevance to any particular social stratum who could satisfy the fantasy of the young audience, inducing them to dig into their pockets and buy movie tickets, were part of movie-makers’ method of achieving box office success.

The hero of this genre of Iranian films developed into a strong-arm, well-proportioned fist fighter, and the actresses continued to cut down on their clothing.  The financial successes of the movies of this period in Iranian history of cinema, generally known as the velvet hat-meat broth-cabaret genre2  turned film production into a highly lucrative business.

During the 1960s, tens of such films were put on screen with revolting names such as the loose woman, dancer, sinner and the like, each being more or less a duplicate of the previous one with the difference that skirts shrank, nudity increased and the scenes became more permissive.  Thus, the cinema, the inexpensive means for the recreation for the masses turned into the place for the regurgitation of suppressed sexual drives.

The film makers of this period perpetrated the greatest insult to the Iranian women because only one picture of women appeared on the screen: the pervert woman who was easily deceived, became a cabaret dancer and a prostitute until the day when the saving angel arrived in the shape of an attractive strong arm, velvet-hat wearing man, or a roving fist-fighter who would then wake the woman from her sinful ways with a slap of the face, take her and pour the water of repentance on her head and finally, save her.  That insulting and distorted portrait of the Iranian woman on the screen had no affinity to the real woman in our society.

The life, suffering and joys of normal women, the housewives, women working on the farm, in factories, at school and offices, physicians, nurses, poets, authors, lawyers, and university teachers engaged in living normal lives had no place in the Iranian movies.  Iranian movies were empty of real women - and real men too.  What was shown on the screen included pure fantasy of the cheapest kind, without any artistic or aesthetic value.

The social reaction, or rather lack of it, to this structure of the national movie industry was, however, interesting.  The government of the time, which was arresting and imprisoning at home, and wheeling and dealing abroad, did not appear dissatisfied with this way of keeping the masses amused.  The intellectuals, too, merely held their noses, ignoring the fact that the consumers of such contemptible diversions were the very people about the defence of whose rights they were raising a hue and cry.  Even women themselves, raised no objection, and women’s magazines of the time did not even make a gesture of protest.

The only cinematic works of the period which presented a rational portrait of women were Khesht va Ayeneh (Mud-brick and Mirror) and Shohar-e Ahoo Khanom (Husband of Mrs Ahoo). These promised the emergence of a new type of thoughtful cinema.  Although the story of Mud-brick and Mirror was again about a prostitute, the director had tried to study the inner layers of the life of these women who were condemned to live their lives in that way, and had emphasised the natural tendency of women adorned with hope and ideals.  The Husband of Mrs Ahoo, based on a novel of the same name, portrayed the story of the Iranian woman’s patience and tolerance.  Both films were box office failures because of a lack of fashionable scenes.  Still, their difference with what had been termed the Iranian Film until then, drew the attention of a group of critiques and specialists.

During the early 1960s, the Iranian film industry finally experienced a change.  A group of young Iranians who had been educated in the art of movie making abroad returned home.  Better films, both in terms of technique and development of the theme, were produced.  Films were made for international festivals and won prizes.  A new group of cinema goers who had, until then, kept away from the Iranian films, accepted the change.  The movie pages of national magazines too, opened up small sections to discuss Iranian films.

Dolls without virtue

In 1968, the arrival of the so-called avant garde film making was officially announced by screening Gheysar, which proved a watershed in the history of Iranian film industry.  This period is also interesting for its part in bringing a different face of women to the screen because the negative results of this change was inflicted women in an absurd way.

The capable, but also calculating maker of Gheysar had used feminine appeal in his first film with even greater permissiveness, and had failed.  Now, his instinct told him that films emphasising the sexual aspect of actresses would not get him anywhere, especially with the new group of cinema-goers who has now turned to Iranian films, for being both cheap and repetitious.  He also hoped to received the acclaim of Iranian intellectual circles.

With a clever trick, and relying on the values of a male-dominated society and the nostalgic tendencies of both the masses and the intellectuals, he banished at a stroke women from the cabarets to the isolation of the ante-room.  Women in Gheysar and similar films were driven to the margin of a male dominated text.  The Iranian film making industry experienced a twenty-year reversal.  An antiquated category of relations between people which, had been presented before in a cheap, confused but unpretentious way by the velvet-hat films, was now offered in the context of glorifying manifestations of traditional culture as against imported cultural phenomena, and assumed epic proportions.  More surprising was the apparent seal of approval of this retrograde step from those who claimed the role of intellectuals, who were no doubt the product of social changes, with comments which often had political overtones and was influenced by the political air of society.  Since it was no longer expedient to use women in first roles it was decided to blame women for all social problems.

In the avant garde intellectual movies of the period, appearance of women signalled  the arrival of disaster and misfortune.  The young girl was helpless and unable to defend her chastity and the honour of the family.  Thus, men of the family, carrying knives in their pockets, would search the city to repair the torn curtain of the honour and chastity of the clan by piling corpse upon corpse.  The middle-aged woman in these films was usually the accomplice of the drug trafficker and deceived simple soul from rural areas, or the wife of the big landlord and village henchmen who mercilessly ordered the oppression of poor villagers, or the tempter of innocent men whose pockets she would finally pick.

These “avant garde” film makers, very much like producers of the cheap films of the decades gone by, had no time for the efforts of millions of normal women in our society.  The heroism of ordinary people is hidden under the mundane layers of everyday life and to search for and pull them up for display requires an incisive mind and a perceptive eye.  It also needs a sufficient background in anthropology, social psychology, folk culture, literature, and knowledge of many things.

Gheysar and films like it, with their distorted look at women, came on the screen in large numbers.  Commercialised movie makers, noted the public reception, and added the spice of sex and nudity to inflate the market.  The business-minded followers of Gheysar, who did not possess the intelligence of its director, went even further, and by summarising the entire ability of women in their bodies, presented a picture of women whose prominent feature was loose behaviour.

In something like ten years, over four hundred of this genre of films were produced and society became addicted to this absurd and unreal definition of women without ever saying enough is enough.  But it was no doubt during this period that the subconscious mind of the masses, who were the main audience of these films, registered an impression of women as creatures born out of immorality, who were the causes of immorality - dolls without virtue - an impression that showed its results in later social changes in Iran.

Influence of theatre

Meanwhile, there were those who tried to offer a different menu.  Films like Cheshme (The Spring), Gav (Cow), Hashtomin Ruz-e Hafteh (Eight Day of the Week) Yek Etefaq-e Sadeh (A Simple Accident) were made in the same period.  Some producers tried, hopelessly tried, to offer stories of a different type and pull down the strong walls of immorality, but they also failed to present a true picture of Iranian women.

Nonetheless, theatre had a positive influence over cinema in this phase.  The late 1960s to late 1970s, Iran’s nascent theatre which, following  the earlier, and suppressed, political theatre was experiencing a resurgence and adopted a more universal attitude.  Those active in the sector were mostly teachers and students of the Faculty of Fine Arts and were acquainted with modern theatre.  Directors usually worked on foreign pieces.  In these pieces, the role of women coincided with the deep rooted one acceptable to the world dramatic literature and was which was not open to questioning. 

The students and teachers of dramatic art came to look at their heroines with a new look, even though she was not Iranian and perhaps not identifiable with the national culture. But they offered a good place to exercise the mind and prune the stereotype of women of wrong trappings.  This process was, of course, prone to shortcomings, yet was not alien to the essence.  Women who were interested in drama but had kept aloof from cinema because of its unhealthy atmosphere, turned to the theatre and found a better place for training.  They had an important role in the evolution of the art of theatre.  Girl students learned to choose their parts carefully and responsibly.  As a result, contemporary theatre actresses emerged and formed a new group of artists.

Perhaps if the national theatre had followed the way it had commenced, it could exerts a direct influence over cinema and clean it of its distortions.  However, the Iranian theatre did not last long and its influence over  cinema did not go further than supplying film makers with a few capable directors and good actors and actresses.

Cheshmeh (The Spring) was the first film with roots in the theatre.  However, because of the predominance of stage features, the film did not go down well with cinema-goers.  Lack of success of Cheshmeh was more than made up by the film Ragbar (The Downpour), again by another theatre director Bahram Beizai’.  The film offered a new representation of the old story of life and love, the story of ordinary people in a not-ordinary context.  It related the suffering and joys of common people who are the epic makers of their own lives.  The film, represented women, the ordinary women outside affluent classes, and men, educated and uneducated men, and offered an important and realistic piece to the Iranian cinema.

However, an even more important contribution of Ragbar was the presentation of a different picture of women, drawn by the virtuous pen and camera of a responsible film maker and with considerable aesthetic appeal.  The film won several prizes and was a box office success.

The success led to the production of another film of the same genre:  Gharibeh va Meh (The Stranger and the Fog) in which the heroine was is a pivotal position in a mythological space cast into a modern context.  Other players were in the side light.  Such a glorious portrayal of women was unprecedented in our cinema.  Although other films by Beizai’, namely Kalagh (The Crow), Cherikeh Tara (Tara the Guerrilla-fighter) and Marg-e Yazdgerd (Death of Yazdgerd), had been based on the life of Iranian women and their feminine and maternal power, none was put on public show because of their coincidence with the Islamic revolution and restrictions which decreed regarding the showing of the face of women on the screen.  Still, even with a limited showing, the name of the film-maker has been registered in the history of Iranian film industry as one of the best who looks at women with praise and respect.

After the revolution

In early years after the Islamic revolution a strange event occurred in Iranian film industry, which having been cleared of “immorality”, had promised a place to women to offer their true talents.  Yet once again, women were blamed for all the permissiveness and corrupt activities of makers of commercialised films in the past. Once again women were exiled to the margin.  The faint shadow of women in the new films was cast in neutral roles, sitting next to the samovar to pour tea for the men of the family, to obey the father, husband and even young sons.  When given key roles, women played the part of upper class grumbling women with illogical, demanding characters without accepting responsibility. This, as in earlier times, was a distorted picture of Iranian women.  Once again, women were used as the scapegoats and were banished to the ante-room and kitchen.  The difference was that the immoral doll became a virtuous one.

Little by little women who had taken part in political marches during the revolutionary months, raised their voices in protest: women who had endured war and economic pressure, had seen off their husbands, fathers and brothers to the war fronts and had suffered immensely as the heads of their families.  On the other hand, actresses and women interested in drama, made up for their elimination on screen by becoming active behind the scene as assistant director, director, stage manager, designer, producer, and similar jobs.  In this way, they exerted their presence and finally lowered the strong high walls of cinema, and using the much cleaner environment of film making after the revolution, proved their talent as directors.

Following the Iran-Iraq war, and with a number of different films such as Basho, Gharib-e Koochak (Basho, the little stranger),  Madar (Mother),  Vaght-e digar shayad (Another time, maybe) Parand-e koochak-e Khoshbakhti (The little bird of happiness), the subject of the portrayal of women in Iranian films which had, at different times, started and then suspended, was once again brought up. Women’s protest against their unrealistic portrayal in cinema was shown in the form of films which they made themselves.

Our women film makers entered the field with self-confidence and professional ability, away from sexual bias, but with the penetrating eyes of women, showed that despite all the “musts and must-nots” and limitations, it is possible to make better and more realistic film.  Such as Nargess and Roosari Aabi (Blue scarf).  From there on and little-by-little, male film makers too came round to a new way of making films in which women played the pivotal role. Such were Sarah, Zinat, Banoo (Lady) and ...... This is how they showed their approval of the change in Iranian cinema.

Now that public taste has improved, better films will be made. I would like to close this short review of the portrayal of women in Iranian Cinema, from the beginning to today, by emphasising a point:

The Iranian woman has been, and is a partner, the equal and the collaborator of the Iranian man.  Her presence is a creative one - whether in carrying out social duties or the specific roles assigned to her, as a capable manager or mother whose incisive and organised approach to life represent her special abilities.  If we neglect these facts, we are guilty of neglecting the whole truth.

The special dress of the Iranian woman may be a vehicle for her purer presence, but it must not and should not prevent her presence.  If we accept the rule that the Muslim Iranian woman must be covered, we must at the same time, try and draw up plans so that the limits of his covering does not conceal her real identify and role.

As past experience has clearly shown, it is not possible to deprive Iranian women from participating in social activities and institutions and from her natural and social life.  Her appearance on the screen is also a logical necessity.  It is not possible to deny, nor limit, the personality of women by reversing the course of events.  The Iranian woman is going through one of the most important experiences of all times. We cannot see women as the shadow of men living in men’s shade.  How can one ignore the other half of humanity?

 



1 Talk given to

2 Velvet hat was supposedly worn by a group of men, generally known as jahels or "ignorants", who took the appellation without much offence.  They were a strong men, with some following among younger men of their own type, who mixed a kind of benevolent violence with a life of both piety - as regards for instance to respecting the honour of women - and lack of it, for they spent much of their evenings drinking in rather shabby cabaret-joints.  Ab-e goosht, or meat broth, was the usual dish of the poorer people.  A film in 1960s, had the usual sentimental theme of a rich father who abandoned his wife and son for money, to his own later regret, is found by the boy without either side knowing the truth.