Docunight Presents: Iranian Women’s Stories

In September 2022, a twenty-two-year-old Kurdish woman named Jina (Mahsa) Amini died while in the custody of Iran’s morality police. The ostensible cause of death, reported by the authorities, was quickly punctured by eyewitness revelation that Amini was severely beaten by her captors as punishment for not wearing a hijab in accordance with state mandates. The event became a catalyst for protests that continue to unfold across Iran and around the world, laying bare the schism between the weaponization of fundamentalist Islamic rule and contemporary conceptions of human rights. With their lives and rights to autonomy and self-expression at stake, the voices of Iranian women fighting for a say in the future of their society are being amplified louder than ever.

Docunight Presents on the Criterion Channel showcases four women-directed documentaries that highlight the struggle and resilience of a handful of women’s experiences in Iran. The program is an offering from Docunight (a streaming platform dedicated to documentaries from and about Iran), examining the roles that women are taking to fight for a say in their society.

The Broker, directed by Azadi Moghadam, follows the operations of a woman-owned dating agency. In Sahar Mosayebi’s Platform, the viewer witnesses the sacrifice and dedication of three sisters training for an international martial arts competition. Radiograph of a Family pieces together the director’s own family history; Firouzeh Khosravani narrates over still photographs, archival footage, and family home videos to describe her mother’s relationship to Islam before, during, and after the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Finally, Here the Seats Are Vacant, directed by Shiva Sanjari, offers a portrait of an actress, writer, and performer who was stripped of her livelihood after the Islamic Revolution in Iran.

Taken together, these films reveal complex and nuanced narratives of women’s experiences in Iran that echo the Kurdish slogan adopted by today’s movement: Woman, Life, Freedom. We spoke with May Arjomand, co-founder of Full Potential, an arts collective and project aiming to empower female agency in southwest Asia, North Africa, and their wider diasporas, to learn more about the importance and impact of these films.

Jeremy Lawrence: What are the common threads you see between these four films?

May Arjomand: All four films are led by women who challenge their traditionally expected gender roles and successfully carve out a place for themselves within Iranian society. Yet, the degree to which the women deviate from these norms vary in relation to factors such as the film’s time period and the nuances of the particular woman’s socio-cultural backgrounds.

For example, The Broker and Platform both challenge traditional gender norms in Iranian society by actively choosing nontraditional jobs. This is more obvious in Platform, as the Mansourian sisters autonomously pursue martial arts, a traditionally male-dominated sport, and the sisters ultimately become champions in their field. Whereas the women in The Broker seem to uphold the traditional patriarchal structure by prioritizing men despite their nontraditional aspirations.

Radiograph of a Family and Here the Seats are Vacant explore similar themes but depict stories that are directly affected by the 1979 Iranian Revolution. In Radiograph of a Family, Tayi reclaims her religious identity through the Islamic Revolution, which liberates her and allows her to exert her own autonomy through the teachings of Islam. On the other hand, in Here the Seats are Vacant, the Revolution symbolically and literally strips Shahrzad of her career, and her autonomy is completely taken away.

Three Iranian Sisters pose in their martial arts gear.
The sisters of Platform

JL: Islamic culture seems have both liberating and restrictive qualities on the women in these films. It allows them to assert their autonomy, sometimes under strict limitations, but never in degrees so drastic that ties to the motherland are severed. Aside from the Mansourian sisters, every female character makes the conscious decision to remain in or return to Iran and live with this dichotomy. Do you think there is something within the culture itself that sparks independence or are the acts of independence we see in each woman, extending to the current protests and revolution, an act of rebellion against the system as a whole?

MA: It is important to note that what we see Iranians rebelling against today is their (Islamic) government, not Islam or Islamic culture as a whole.

As I understand it, “Islamic culture” is a broad term that refers to Islamic persons and communities both in and outside of Iran. Whereas Iran’s Islamic regime narrowly refers to the political and legal system in Iran that was born out of the 1979 Revolution. Iranians are indeed rebelling against a government that is Islamic in name, but they are not fighting Islam — they are fighting their government’s weaponization of it.

That’s why I think it’s imperative to distinguish between religious systems and state systems, or in this case Islam and the Iranian state’s weaponization of the faith. The Iranian regime’s interpretation of Islamic laws for women in Iran do not reflect cultural norms, values, and ideology that all Muslims or Islamic cultures would endorse. Islamic culture can mean a lot of things, but there is a distinction between an Islamic state versus one’s personal relationship to Islam. The state sanctioned regime in Iran is a specific case that deals with state political control over its people.

JL: What form does female empowerment take now and how has it changed or remained consistent with the forms presented in these films?

MA: The form of female empowerment and resistance we are witnessing in Iran today is truly remarkable, and unlike anything we have seen in decades. Many brave women, including children and students are refusing to cover their hair in public, which is a serious criminal offense and can lead to serious consequences. Many government symbols are being destroyed and set on fire, and there are also many protests and strikes happening in the streets.

Iranian women have always been resisting and protesting on the frontlines of political movements. Women actually played a pivotal role during the 1979 Revolution who protested for the abolition of the monarchy. I think it’s definitely evolved, as one generation has learned from the next, and so on. It has transformed from simply protesting the state to advocating for women’s rights themselves, which is a universal struggle.

JL: Any artists/filmmakers/leaders in this protest space you would like to shout out? Anyone you’d like the public to be especially aware of right now?

MA: The current uprising in Iran was sparked by the murder of a Kurdish woman, Jina (Mahsa) Amini. Her Kurdish identity has largely been overlooked by the media. In fact, the slogan of the movement in Iran today, “Woman, Life, Freedom,” actually originates from the Kurdish women’s resistance movement, which was formed in response to the historic oppression and persecution of Kurds across the divided land of Kurdistan. The Iranian people are isolated from the rest of the world. They are being squeezed between their own government’s inhumanity and US sanctions. Now more than ever it is crucial we center Iranian voices — and most importantly, women, Iran’s ethnic and religious minorities, Kurdish women, working class Iranians — coming from the streets of Iran.

While the current movement does not have a leader, these are some reliable sources and organizations that I would suggest following to stay updated and to learn more:

The women behind the dating agency featured in The Broker.

JL: I thought The Broker was the most ironic film of the series. The operations of the dating agency juxtapose the women’s work ethic in matchmaking and accommodating for the shortcomings of masculinity. The culture can reduce them to second class citizens but here it is the women taking the initiative and running the show. The associates are strategic and professional but not without a sense of humor and shoot straight with their clients both male and female. They seem to be doing the work necessary day-in day-out to facilitate the best marriages possible in a system that declares “a woman has no identity without a husband.” What identity do you think the marriage brokers assume within this system?

MA: The Broker raises fascinating consequences women incur as a result of society’s patriarchal structures; that is, the power women have over other women ultimately stems from men. The limited power that the marriage brokers’ in the film yield illustrates this well. The marriage brokers’ position displays the limited power women yield. That is, the brokers have the power to find a partner for men and women. The men who go to them for help listen to their instructions, in ways not traditionally expected of men. When in the position of the marriage broker, these women are taken seriously, which raises a question. If they weren’t brokers, would their opinion be taken seriously?

JL: In Platform, the Mansourian sisters enjoy a certain adulation from the community, male and female, but are also looked at sideways for participating in a “masculine” sport. They bring pride to their town, they’re the breadwinners for their family unit, but they are underpaid and do not receive the national recognition they know they could elsewhere. It’s clear the sisters practice martial arts not for the fame and glory, but for the commitment to the sport and the discipline it entails. There is a certain toughness that extends beyond the ring, knowing that they need to fight and work for their survival and place in society, the quiet acceptance that nothing in the world will be handed to them and that they have to make themselves champions (maybe is why it’s so emotional when two are cut from the national team). Both The Broker and Platform depict women taking their fate into their own hands, a common theme throughout these documentaries. They do not wait for a happy marriage or Wushu championship to fall into their laps. The women in both of the films know they have to advocate for themselves or nobody will. Is this a proactivity you see present in the female-led protests in Iran today?

MA: Both the agency of the matchmakers and the fearlessness of the Mansourian sisters are echoed in the women-led protests of Iran today, but also throughout Iranian history. The women of Iran have never been complacent or silent in the face of persecution and injustice. They have been resisting for decades, whether it’s through the way they dress, or by sneaking into stadiums to watch sports games. The protests we’re seeing in Iran today are in response to decades of injustice, both through the Islamic regime and within Iranian society itself. However, the women-led protests we are witnessing in Iran today are a byproduct of anger and defiance, rather than a premeditated response.

JL: Radiograph of a Family felt like a La Jetee-esque collage of Islamic culture pulling one person in so many different directions. The filmmaker’s mother, Tayi, is strongly connected to her religion and the culture of her motherland. She feels alienated in Switzerland with her new husband, who tries to distance her from the old ways and train her to embrace a liberal, progressive, European lifestyle. She is literally and figuratively “broken in two” when her spine snaps during a skiing accident, which is what I see as the culmination of her wifely submission to her husband’s demands (it was at his insistence that they went skiing). Everything shifts after that.

Upon returning to Iran, she births a daughter and becomes educated in the teachings of the Islamic Revolution, which reconcile modernity with Islam and open the door for Tayi to live in accordance with Muslim scriptures, assert her autonomy, and live her definition of a liberated life. The filmmaker presents this as both a blessing and a curse. Her mother is suddenly allowed to embrace the life she wanted, but religion becomes her first priority; everything else (including her family) takes a backseat. I’m fascinated by how emboldened Tayi becomes with the religious revolution. What do you think are the parts of this religious culture that allow Tayi to reclaim and enforce her own autonomy and are those the same cultural touchstones that are fueling the female-led movements today?

MA: I think it’s less about religious culture than it is about one’s specific relationship to their religion. I don’t think we can generalize and say that there are any specific factors of Islam that allow women to reclaim their own autonomy, since it depends on the person and what elements of their religion they choose to follow. That being said, Tayi was able to reclaim her own identity as a Muslim woman by resisting pressures around her to conform to a different way of life.  Tayi’s choice was personal, and one that is separate from the state-sanctioned Islam that we see in Iran today. On the contrary, the women-led protests in Iran today are fueled by years of repression from the state. These protests are not against Islam or religion, but against the weaponization of Islam and decades of state sanctioned violence.

Shahrzad in Here The Seats Are Vacant

JL: It was interesting to watch Here the Seats are Vacant after Radiograph of a Family because it felt like Tayi would have been involved with the groups who shut down the cabarets and censored the films that Shahrzad was involved with. This is a fascinating portrait of a person whose was stripped of her artistic autonomy and left to live and toil in something resembling destitute isolation. She was once a prolific dancer, filmmaker, writer, and singer, whose career was deemed unholy, disruptive, and inadmissible by the same revolution that granted so much power and license to Tayi. Seeing what has become of an artist who is not allowed to work or express herself (and considering Iran’s current treatment of the filmmaking community), what in your opinion is at stake with this cinematic censorship and what role do filmmakers, especially women, play in the current turbulent Iranian climate?

MA: Throughout history, filmmakers all over the world, and even here in the United States during the Classical Hollywood period, have been forced to deal with censorship. However, the censorship present in Iran today is particularly severe as it is state controlled. Everything from the screenplay to what is shown on screen, must be approved by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. Many completed films that get approved and produced are ultimately never shown if an ayatollah disapproves of them. Some of the censorship laws have changed over time as well. For example, any close-ups of women were previously banned in Iranian cinema.

This has changed over time in response to Iranian filmmakers’ resistance to censorship laws.

Censorship laws forced Iranian cinema to adopt its own language and style. Iranian filmmakers have not merely overcome these obstacles; their stories have received the industry’s most prestigious awards and global renown. It was incredibly groundbreaking to see Farhadi win the Oscar for A Separation at a time when Iran was so vilified in the western media. Through storytelling, filmmakers are often able to spread awareness and change public perceptions, in ways that politics fail to do.

Iran’s cinematic censorship has evolved into imminent human rights concerns. During the past few months, Iranian filmmakers have been a major target of the Islamic regime. Renowned film directors such as Jafar Panahi, Mohammad Rasoulof, Mostafa Al-Ahmad, and Nik Yousefi are all currently being unjustly held in Iran’s notorious Evin prison for speaking out against the regime. The international film community plays a major role in the fate of these artists, which is why it is imperative for film institutions around the world to amplify our calls to release them. Taraneh Alidoosti, a prominent Iranian actress, was just recently released after international support for her circled on social media, thus highlighting the importance of speaking out in support of these artists.


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