Exploring Iranian Women’s Representation through a ‘Female’ and ‘Male Gaze’ in Iranian cinema

In this piece, Iranian women’s rights will be explored through visual representation by the analysis and comparison of two of the most prominent Iranian art directors: Shirin Neshat and Jafar Panahi. Women Without Men is the first feature-length film that will be explored by Shirin Neshat. It illustrates the problems faced of women in the Islamic public sphere by questioning female representation in cinema from an aesthetic and artistic perspective under Western female influences. Panahi’s works, in this case his movie The Circle, will be analysed, and will give us a different point of view, with a political and social engagement through an Iranian lens and a ‘male gaze’. Both films that are classified as social films, can also defined as ‘women’s films’ because of their challenging of patriarchal values, institutions, and society.

In light of all this, I will begin by briefly tracing back the development of female agency in cinema together with the politics of cinema in the Iranian society, with a focus on the post-revolution period and analysis of the effects of women’s use of cinema space. To illustrate the complexity of the issue, I will also touch upon the comparison between the ‘female gaze’ and ‘male gaze’ to represent women’s rights through Neshat and Panahi’s works.

Women Without Men by Shirin Neshat

Shirin Neshat, an Iranian-born artist, left Iran in 1975 and went back after the 1979 Iranian Revolution had ended. It was the culture shock, that she experienced in returning to Iran after its transformation into an Islamic Republic in the 1980s that triggered her decision to represent women in Islamic cultures. She brings Western viewers into a dialogue with their Iranian female and male counterparts. In this exchange, even the allegedly superior position of women in Western democracies comes under scrutiny. In fact, Neshat is concerned not only with Islamic societies as such, but also with what it means to be a woman living in a repressive society.

Women Without Men is among Neshat’s first movies. It is based on the 1990s Shahrnush Parsipur novel that tells the story of four different women coming from different social backgrounds. The story is staged in 1953 and gives an insight into Iran during that period, right after a CIA-backed coup replaced the democratically elected Iranian government with the Shah. There are four main characters in the story. Munis is a virtual prisoner living with a tyrannical brother controlling every aspect of her life, driving her to commit suicide. Faezeh is a religious woman working with an underground Communist group that publishes and distributes leaflets. Zarin has been a prostitute ever since her childhood. She flees the brothel and finds temporary refuge at a women’s public bath that reminds us of the Ingres canvas The Turkish Bath. Fakhri is a wealthy 50-year-old, unhappily married to an army general who reviles her for being menopausal and sexually unresponsive.

All these women end up running away from their lives. The only consistent male presence in the story is the gardener, who brings them together in a mystic place burdened with women’s dreams and nightmares, a place of time-out for those women where they can collect and reassert themselves before once again resuming the paths of their real lives.

The Politics of Iranian Cinema

After the Revolution, the way in which women used the cinema space changed, and women only groups became commonplace. Through group meetings, these women gave themselves the chance to collectively reflect on gender issues and to raise awareness of these issues. It may then be considered true that these female movements fostered solidarity by sharing their experiences and reflecting on such issues collectively.

It is on this basis that Butler elaborates his concept of the performativity of gender, according to which the repetition of polemics such as the condemnation of patriarchy could be constitutive of identity for women engaging actively in numerous women’s films in Iran. As Saeed Zeydabadi-Nejad argues about the importance of men’s engagement with women’s movies, it is important for men to get involved as viewers and for women to address their ‘issues’ in order to challenge the traditional patriarch system.

As Sarachild (the American feminist writer and campaigner) suggests, this rise of consciousness is far more important that single issue political action. It is this radical action with the potential to involve many women, which is not only politically minded that gives an opportunity to rescue female experiences from invisibility.

Women in Iranian Cinema 

Before the Revolution, women were banned from performing and from practicing visual arts. However, even up until this point, cinema had threatened women with great injustice, distorting their image and often portraying them as corrupt and immoral. The contribution of Iranian cinema had recently risen to the level of international acceptance, after having ignored women’s lives for almost half a century.

Following the Revolution, from 1987 to 1997, Iranian cinema entered a golden period. Many of the films produced were exported internationally rather than being created domestically and accurately representing Iranian society. Many filmmakers were criticised for only producing movies aimed at foreign audiences and film festivals, therefore for putting Iranians’ sense of national identity in danger, diluting Iranian culture. Amongst them, Pahani critically portrayed the status of women and religion in Iran in his movie The Circle, in which society and system are confronted with their unjustified oppression of women.

The Comparison Between Female and Male Gaze

Panahi’s works portray a ‘male gaze’ that in Islamic cultures often corresponds to a masochistic interpretation with a male figure controlling women and imposing upon them their male vision.

The Islamicate gaze theory, as it has been defined, centres on the belief that women far from being victims turn into agents of patriarchal sexualisation and political corruption. According to British feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey[1], author of the essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, this reinforces the masculine dominion by providing the male audience with the possibility of identification with the male protagonist via a voyeuristic gaze. Instead, introduce the essay by saying. Naturally, the ultimate function of the ‘female gaze’ should be the alleviation of patriarchal imbalances of power and gender inequality in cultural representations. But following Mulvey’s point, the ‘male gaze’ begets a reversal of roles whereby women are the gazers and men become objects of the gaze. This reversal is seen a counter productive empowerment and a reinforcement of the masculine hegemony and women’s function to submit to masculine domination.

It is also important to consider points of views like Goddard’s, who argues that masculine identity is never created in isolation. Rather, the radicalization of the masculinity in male characters is a result of the ‘female gaze’s’ pressure to turn into an ideal in women’s minds. Therefore, all the imaginary characters are created as part of the defence mechanism to alleviate the burden of the ‘female gaze’. In relation to this, Kara Abdolmaleki, a Persian literature academic at the University of Alberta’s Department of Modern Languages & Cultural Studies, questions the role of the ‘female gaze’ in acting as an emancipating force for women. Coming back to Mulvey’s point, the ‘female gaze’ may serve as a reversal of the imbalance of power that can be seen as the latest commodity on this production line, yet another instance of indirect subjugation of women could mean the reinforcement of patriarchal hegemony.

The Circle by Jafar Panahi

Jafar Panahi, an internationally celebrated filmmaker, was banned from making films for twenty years in 2010 and sentenced to six years in prison for ‘propaganda against the state’ following the country’s 2009 disputed presidential elections. In The Circle, patriarchy, religion, and custom have resulted in a severe curtailment of women’s rights. The movie starts in a hospital maternity ward where an unseen woman has given birth to a baby girl instead of a boy. In the outside context we see Arezou and Nargess, the latter managed to leave the prison and is not planning to come back, while Arezou cleverly manages to get the money to come back home in the countryside. At the same time, one of their friends, Pari, escapes from prison in order to get an abortion. After having been threatened by her brother, Pari will ask for help from two of her jail mates. At this point, she comes across Nayereh, a single mother who abandoned her daughter. In the final scene, in the holding room in the police station, the audience will recognise some of the characters’ faces and will realise that the story has come to a full circle for all of these women, whose stories are deeply inter-connected.

Panahi brings the attention of the viewer to the limited freedom of women, imprisoned in a system of external constraints where everything is dependent on the male presence. Panahi clearly earned his place at the centre of contemporary Iranian film-making even though the country’s censors have banned most of his films. Among his movies, Offside also puts the spotlight on the constraints on women in Iran. Official accounts have never given a clear reason as to why Panahi was detained. Various reasons were given for the two months of his incarceration, but it is clear that the director’s works posed a threat to the regime and the established order of gender hierarchy. Payami, an exiled Iranian filmmaker, said that ‘the laws of the country, as stipulated by the regime, are not being adhered to and International norms are being violated (by) the Iranian regime against its citizens’’.

The Revolution changed Iranian cinema permanently, allowing women to have new grounds of representation. New narratives have been shaped by women dealing with authorities and various obstacles, with the help of women’s groups pushing for the collective consideration of women’s issues. After decades of the exploitation of the female image and the denial of female characters, a high number of women filmmakers are new emerging.

However, it remains clear that the growing public space for women needs to be claimed both through ‘female’ and ‘male gaze’. Nishat and Panahi gave us two different perspectives of representations by highlighting how film making has been a fundamental tool claiming women’s space in the Iranian context. Despite this, the film industry and other cultural institutions are still supported and controlled by the state. The effects of the shifting political climate on Iranian cinema and therefore the agency and position of women in the industry and in society remain, an open-ended question.

[1] Mulvey, Laura, Visual and Other Pleasures (Language, Discourses, Society), Palgrave Macmillan; 2nd Edition, February 2009.

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