Talagh: divorce Iranian Style-

A documentary by Kim Longinotto and Ziba Mir Hosseini

Recently I was watching a dance choreographed by a friend. The first scene took place behind a curtain. A figure wrestled with a shroud engulfing him, to the haunting strains of a classical sitar. My first thought was: I wonder if the director has seen talagh?

The beauty of this excellent documentary is its impartial manner; the style was understated and non-judgmental; the limited voice over offered factual clarification and no opinions. The protagonists of the unfolding drama spoke for themselves; and the presiding judge unknowingly dug his Islamic government’s grave. The presence of the camera was not hidden, the people interacted with the camera and eventually in the face of injustice even the seemingly neutral camera became one of the protagonist ... offering an opinion on Maryam's right to her children and lying on behalf of Maryam to the judge.

Like the camera we (the audience) progressed from laughing at the absurdity of the situation - Massi wrangling with the clerk in the filing department, flirting, begging, "can I wait for ten minutes, can I come back tomorrow" determined to charm and not to give up- to a realisation of the intense tragedy of the situation. By the end tears were pouring down our faces, as Maryam begs not to loose her four-year-old child after remarrying. It was as if we traversed from the absurdity of the nose getting out of the carriage in Gogols famous short story, to the emotional reality of the official who lost his nose whilst no one would believe him, and his nose was higher ranking than him, in the process of an hour.

In Talaq as the drama unfolds the comic becomes tragic as the systemic absurdity becomes reality. Werner Hofman once contended (in the context of the Second World War) "the horrors of total war and dictatorship have set a boundary to all satire. Such a distorted world cannot be further distorted". What seemed to be a satire gradually became real, the distorted world on the TV screens becomes the real world that over 30 million Iranian women experience everyday.

Judge Deldar (literally "sweetheart" an ironic name under the circumstances), the cleric, the expert in Islamic law and the sole decision maker in the divorce cases, dishes out advice to the women, "you can change this all with good behaviour", "wear some make up, make yourself attractive to your husband", to "if you had married someone your own age it may have been worse". These remarks delivered in a paternalistic manner by this seemingly kind-hearted mullah become grotesque when set against the backdrop of the real situation of these women. So desperate were they for divorce that they eventually all agreed to forgo their mahrieh (marriage right).

Not only did these women have to prove their husbands deception at the time of marriage, insanity, or the inability to bear children, to even be able to start the divorce proceedings, but eventually they only succeeded by forgoing their marriage right, and in one case, her eldest daughter.

The impact of the Islamic ideology on women's lives is visible throughout the film; "a girl can marry once she reaches puberty. Nine years or above, if she is fully developed she can marry" the judge says in answer to Ziba’s plea as to whether it was legal for her to marry at 14. As they enter the court the women are checked by the clothes police, who correct their attire and rub the lipstick off their mouths, whilst advising them on the correct "Islamic" attire. Even the eight-year-old, pre-pubescent child of the court clerk comes in from school with the full Islamic hejab.

Regardless of the validity of their complaint all the women eventually need the consent of their husbands to divorce, usually by forgoing their marriage rights. Any notion of alimony is alien to these court proceedings. In the most tragic sequence of all Maryam looses her children because of remarrying - with a clear message from the court that by following her lustful instincts she looses her right to motherhood- In fact she was lucky that she had been given one of her children in the first place as children belong to the paternal side of the family.

Although deeply sad this documentary is a tribute to the women's defiance in the face of a full-fledged assault on their human rights in the 20 years since the revolution. All the women in the film, especially, Massi, Ziba and Maryam are inspirational in the fight they put up for their rights. Massi with her persistence, "shall I wait, ten minutes, quarter of an hour until you find my file, I can wait outside for 1/2 hour, I can come back tomorrow..." Ziba with her defiant, "if you hang me I will not go back to Bahman"; and Maryam with her stubborn insistence on justice, traumatised scenes in the court to delay the proceedings and buy time with her child. In the face of the systematic erosion of their legal rights these women have a strong sense of justice, and their human right's; "haqqameh" (its my right) Ziba reiterates over and over again as she fought for her marriage right; Maryam describes her happiness with her new husband, whom she refuses to abandon despite the bullying of her ex-husband and the court. Although they all achieve only partial victories in their divorce proceedings, the viewer is left with a sense that there is a volcano simmering in their hearts. The same volcano that showed a few of its sparks in the defiant vote by women and young persons for Khatami.

In stark contrast to the women, the men come across as lying, weak and opportunistic. In one scene Ziba's husband, Bahman, sidles up to the Judge, seeking to make him an ally, complaining about Ziba and pledging to do anything the judge suggests. There is an alliance between the men and the law, in opposition to the woman. Arguably this ideological regime, by repressing the women, has created a de facto support base amongst a proportion of men that will not be keen to see their newfound power taken away from them. Twenty years of unlimited power over half the population is not something they will give up easily.

In one of the most endearing sequences in the documentary, the 8 year old child of the clerk sums it all up: Whilst impersonating the judge she pretends to be talking to the man in a divorce proceedings and entreats him to treat the woman with more respect. Much to the judges dismay she subsequently explains that having seen the "rubbish men" in the court she never wants to get married. Even the eight year old girl realises that the women are getting the fuzzy end of the lolly pop (to quote Sugar in Billy Wilder's Some like it Hot) in the Islamic republic of Iran….. And perhaps, eventually, it will be these women who spearhead the force for change................

Ayesheh Ra