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.