Shirin Neshat’s Women without Men (2009)

Shirin Neshat’s Women Without Men (2009), a visual treat – screened at the Lincoln Plaza Theater (New York City) this Sunday (16 May, 2010) – is  an adaptation of Shahrnush Parsipur’s eponymous novella revolving around the lives of five Iranian women – Mahdokht, Faizeh, Munis, Mrs. Farrokhlaqa Sadraldivan Golchehreh, and Zarrinkolah. In the adaptation of the novella, the movie deliberately omits the character of Mahdokht. The 1953 CIA-engineered coup – in which the democratically-elected Iranian Prime Minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh, was toppled to make way for the 25 year-long dictatorship of Mohammad-Reza Shah Pahlavi that culminated in the Islamic Revolution of 1979 – is the pivot around which the film weaves the narratives of these individual women. The film won the Best Director Award in Venice Film Festival.

Faizeh, the spectral political participant in the 1953 pro-Mosaddegh movement, a woman acutely interested in the politics of the time jumps to her death resisting a proposal of marriage that her self-righteous brother brings. Her body is exhumed by Munis, her close friend and a secret admirer of her brother. The ghost of Faizeh throngs the male public spaces such as coffee shops and bazaars to partake in the contemporary political discourse. While Munis follows Faizeh to the coffee shop, she is hounded and raped in one of the deserted alleys of the city, thus producing a discourse of impossibility for women’s ‘real’ and embodied participation in the movement. Zarin, by far the most allegorical of the Iranian nation by Neshat’s own admission, is an overworked sex-worker providing relief to the riff-raff of the city. The inscription of male sexual as well as political desires on the woman’s body is an oft-repeated trope that Neshat forcefully employs in the film. And, finally, there is Mrs. Farrokhlaqa, the Ava Gardner-like figure, the bored, artistic wife of a distinguished Iranian army officer.

While the men participate in the political movement for emancipating an embattled nation from the neo-imperial aggression of the British and American powers, the excluded and exploited women in the film regroup, ironically, in the garden of the estranged Mrs. Farrokhalaqa, the most westernized woman in the film, an Ava Gardner like figure as her ex-lover calls her. The metaphor of a garden, an exclusive space for a community of women to provide each other solace and companionship, a space for the production of a society oriented towards culture and not politics (as one of the writers in the film mentions while accounting the problem of Iran), is the only private space that women can claim as their own. The socially endorsed domesticity in which women are expected to perform certain gender roles is rejected in favor of an exclusive aesthetic as well as de-domesticized (if I may coin a term) space for women. The garden with its promise of vegetative growth allegorically foregrounds the scorched nation. The presence of a  community of women in the secluded space could be interpreted either as the shallowness of a national imaginary in which women have no role to play or the possibility of a regenerated nation in which women take control of the destiny of the nation. The garden which hosts one of the cultural gatherings for the artists also represents a space of cultural osmosis between the east and the west even as Iran struggles to survive against western domination.

Neshat points out right at the beginning of the screening that the film draws heavily on magic-realist techniques in order to transcend the limits imposed by state-censorship in Iran (the film has so far not been screened in Iran). The suicide of Faizeh and her eventual return to life is one of the striking examples of this technique. The spectral political participation of Faizeh circumvents any controversy arising out of a woman’s embodied participation in the movement. Even though the film depicts countless women participating in the 1953 political demonstrations, the individuation of agency appears to be possible only in spectrality. Drawing a parallel with the contemporary Green Movement in Iran, Prof. Hamid Dabashi (Columbia University), at the end of the screening, reminds the audience how the 1953 nationalistic movement was a cathartic moment in the political history of Iran in its quest for justice and democracy.

Women without Men is a visual and aesthetic delight with its innovative camera-shots and angles – the elaborate hamam (bath in Turkish) scene, the merging of the sky and the rivulet, the wanderings of Faizeh’s ghost in the garden, and one could go on. The film conveys its message right at the beginning as the chador-clad figure of Faizeh leaps to death (Neshat calls it a flight) from the terrace of her house. The chador separates from the body and the sound of azaan frames the scene suggestively. Did the filmmaker conceptualize the scene in order to reignite debates about the life of Muslim women in Islamic societies? Zahra Sabri, Columbia University graduate student, asked Neshat precisely this question. Hamid Dabashi defended the use of azaan as a Muslim musical score and not just as a symbol of Islam. Dabashi’s reply would appear technically cogent as the Iran of 1953 was a much more fluid space than the Iran after the Islamic Revolution. However, for a contemporary American (by that I mean those who were present at the theater on that Sunday) audience, Iran can only be framed through the reproduction of its images after the Revolution. In this sense, a film-maker is a captive of the present even as she/he reconstructs the past to generate a different discourse about Iran.

What is, however, undeniably true of any cultural production from the Islamic countries is their obsession with women’s oppression and emancipation. The contemporary Green Movement in Iran is framed to the west through the death of Neda Agha-Soltan, the symbol of oppression by the Islamic regime. Azar Nafisi’s memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003) is another example of how women’s bodies become sites for the production of particular discourses of the nation and emancipation is achieved only with the intervention of the west (western literature, in this case).

Are there other ways to conceptualize the project of justice and democracy in the Islamic countries other than viewing it through the monochromatic lens of women’s emancipation? One wonders if this film would have differed significantly had it not been shot in Morocco by a New York-based Iranian film-maker.

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8 Responses to Shirin Neshat’s Women without Men (2009)

  1. Durba says:

    You have made the point well that the film is yet another instance of the liberal conception of the west’s seemingly emancipatory role in Islamic countries, or for that matter, anywhere in the Orient. Nice masthead pic, and nice layout! Looking forward to reading more!

  2. tashfeen says:

    Hi Mossaraf bhai, nice work! I’m more intrigued by the dialogue session rather than the movie. As for similar works, Persepolis is quite good (and is originally a graphic novel). But you’re right, there’s too much of this kind of literature around these days.

    I’m actually very interested in a topic you unconsciously introduced in this post (at least for me): how can artists surpass seemingly-saturated modes of expression in societies where the political stakes are higher than usual (e.g. women’s emancipation in present day Iran)? Perhaps, only by turning the respective genre upside down (?).

    Azaan as music – it’s been a long time since I last came across that. Nice. A slight objection to the term “magic-realist”: “magical realist” is more conventional and accepted. (Ref: , Faris & Zamora).

  3. A huge congratulations on launching your blog! Reading your response to the movie it occurred to me how women are inevitably the poster children of any nation/community, and sometimes even of movements, and here I am thinking of India’s own independence movement and Partha Chatterjee’s explication of the “women’s question”. Thus when a nation is defined on the basis of its women (as traditional or modern most commonly), its re-definition will also necessarily be a response to that particular definition thereby limiting other ways of conceptualizing “the project of justice and democracy in the Islamic world.” This I believe explains the “obsession with women’s oppression and emancipation.”
    Similarly, women are, to a great extent, like Faizeh – the unseen ghosts in whose name wars are fought, movements launched, decisions and laws made.
    It is very interesting that women come together in a garden, which with all possibilities that you point out, is nevertheless again, a circumscribed space. Circumscribed spaces are the places where women must remain if they are without men (by their side).

  4. Thank you all for your encouraging comments. It’s much appreciated.

    Durba, the issue of west’s emancipatory role in the eastern societies is something that has been endlessly debated even in colonial times, especially in colonial legislation of ‘sati.’ What we see now is a similar western discourse about the ‘women’s question’ – as Mary Ann rightly points out – in the Islamic societies. While I ask if there is another way to conceptualize questions of justice and democracy in Islamic societies, I do not intend to downplay the all-important question of women’s status in these societies. However, to reply to Mary Ann, my worry is how gendering the issue of justice and democracy often allows the west to generate certain stereotypical discourse about these societies. What is completely elided in this discourse is the fact that there are other possibilities from within these societies: as Saba Mahmood’s study on dawa movement (women’s piety movement) in Egypt shows. However, both Durba and Mary Ann are making important points that I agree with.

    Tashfeen, your question of the mode of artistic expression in these politically turbulent times is well posed. If I remember right, there is a fleeting reference to Albert Camus in the film. I guess it sort of implies that the realist mode of narration may not work and hence magical-realism. Here I remember Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990) written as a fable after the fatwa controversy. So yes, certainly, the artist will have to reinvent the genre to circumvent censorship and other forms of prohibition. Moreover, it’s not just a question of getting around censorship, certain realities demand new modes of expression. Neshat explained how in Iran magical-realism is the preferred mode for the artists and filmmakers. However, Neshat did not have to adopt ‘magical-realism’ as she is based in New York. Thank you for correcting the term to ‘magical-realism.’ Neshat used magic-realism, though. But on that I go with your expertise in this area. I did look up Persepolis and it looks interesting. My next post could well be on a graphic novel!

    Looking forward to your future comments!

  5. priya says:

    I see your point but I’ve been spending a great amount of time thinking about woman as nation, writ small/large. For me, the birthing of new identity, refreshed identity, re-vised identity cannot come from any other space beyond the female. Granted I may seem jarringly feminist but I am still convinced that any sort of real change must start within the woman. Especially in the medium of film. As I keep harping on to anybody that will listen, there is a film called Samt-el-Qusur (Silences of the Palaces) by the Tunisian filmaker, Moufida Tlatli. This is, I feel a seminal film for the exposition of such an idea, indeed, a tri-generational movement of liberation and emancipation of the nation-state, the Tunsian one from under the French translated through the allegory of three generations of women. Allegory is very powerful, and in my mind it is not because people cannot say what they want but simply because allegory can speak to and within the interstitial. It allows for the spectator to decide from themselves thereby extending the space of the monstrator outside and beyond the screen, leaving the space of decision and interpretation solely in the hands of those that watch. In this, is where Jameson’s ’emancipatory vehicle’ comes into play. Of course, the question is who’s emancipation and from what…but I still, think that its all very easy to question the use of the gender and female metaphor in representations of Islamic/Postcolonial identity. Yes, without a doubt, Spivak and her ‘white women saving brown women from brown men’ trope is persistent but I am still convinced that shirin neshat, moufida tlatli, nadine labaki, aparna sen and sabiha samar, and to a lesser extent mahreen jabbar are representing and bearing witness to experiences within their own country. Indeed, they have all been schooled abroad, live abroad but the idea that they are enforcing the western emancipatory ideas…is a little stunted. I really do not see this as part of western project, i see this more as woman project that is necessarily exclusionary and uses as the sole point of departure, the liminal space of gender and the domestic/or even the downstairs..
    I cannot agree with your use of the word obsession. It seems to be a very stunted and unfair reading. Not all Islamic/Postcolonial women artists living in Paris/New York are using Western tropes to ’emancipate’ themselves or speaking to a need for emancipation. Certainly not Shrin Neshat. She’d probably leave that project to Deepa Mehta.

  6. priya says:

    In my bra-burning haste…:)… I forgot to say that, I love the name that you chose for the blog. Indeed, and for picking this as a starting point. Yay Mosharraf…!

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