Films are a window through which one can glimpse cultural, social and political dynamics in societies and gain a better understanding of underlying cultural traits, traditions, beliefs and aspirations. Several recent films provide such insights about the changing mores of women in Iran.
Tahmineh Milani, a feminist Iranian filmmaker, has been addressing women’s issues rooted in religious, traditional and cultural practices for the past two decades. She has challenged patriarchal traditions in films such as “Two Women,” “Hidden Half” and “Fifth Reaction.”
Her latest film, “Mali and the Untaken Paths,” which was released in 2017, focuses on new approaches by women to age-old problems. These include domestic violence and familial rejection of women who seek divorce because of it.
In the film, a young girl named Maliheh, which is abbreviated to Mali, works in a tailor shop. She develops a crush on a co-worker’s brother, Siamak or Sia, and they get married even though his family disapproves. Sia turns out to be a wife-beater, which unfortunately for Mali is not a new predicament. Her brother also beat her and was not stopped by their parents.
Mali’s tragedy, as she explains in the film, is that she got married to Sia to escape being controlled by her brother. But when she decides to leave her husband and seek a divorce, her family refuses to have her back. Instead, they encourage her to return to her violent spouse. Mali insists on a divorce, however, and resolves to get a legal committment from Sia to stop beating her.
Sia, whose personality combines aggression and instability, has in fact inherited these traits from his father, who beat his mother. Sia’s mother appears to lack empathy and ignores the way her son mistreats his wife, reflecting her apparent acceptance of her own ill treatment. The film reveals the vicious circle of patriarchal traditions and malpractices, which have led to physical and mental abuse of daughters and wives.
What’s new about Mali and the Untaken Paths is that it shows the way in which Iranian women have learned to protect themselves and to reach out to organizations that support vulnerable women as well as to the legal system.
The film also touches on a growing phenomenon of infidelity in Iran on the part of women.
Iranian men have traditionally had the freedom to take additional wives or have brief liaisons with women under the rubric of sigheh or “temporary marriage.” Women, on the other hand, have been assigned strict roles requiring chastity before marriage, faithfulness to a husband and devotion to children. In the past, transgressing these norms would be quite costly for women and their families.
Increasingly, however, young Iranian women have been living together with men out of wedlock, a practice known as “white marriage.” Women stuck in unhappy marriages have also entered sexual relationships with men other than their husbands.
“Cheating” by married women in Iran is particularly controversial. In “Mali and the Untaken Paths,” Mali’s sister-in-law, Nayyerh, is not happy in her marriage but will not divorce because of lingering social taboos. Instead, she takes a lover covertly – a distant relation who is also married and also has children.
Adultery is widely considered immoral but in Iran, it carries the horrific potential of capital punishment via stoning. This brutal practice is rarely invoked but remains on the books. Thus it is even more remarkable that women are willing to take this risk.
Other recent films also display the changing socio-cultural realities of Iranian society.
Manouchehr Hadi’s 2017 comedy “Side Mirror” deals with youth culture, consumerism and social and ethical issues. While the film focuses on the luxury life style of rich youth in Tehran, it also depicts how more traditional families control the lives of daughters and raises moral issues such as dishonesty and cheating.
The narrative revolves around the accidental meeting of a poor couple, Mahnaz and Morteza, and a rich one, Shahrzad and Shahrokh.
Mahnaz, a young woman from a traditional and religious family, seeks to escape the strict control of her father and becomes engaged to Morteza, who works at an auto showroom. The poor couple takes a Porsche from the showroom for a short drive and gets hit by a truck which breaks a side mirror. Just when they are preparing to spend a great deal of money on their wedding, they are obliged to pay for the repair.
Meanwhile the owner of the Porsche, Shahrokh, has his own marriage problems. His fiancée, Shahrzad, just arrived from Germany to arrange for their wedding and his ex-wife left a child at his home that she claimed was his. Shahrokh, who doesn’t want Shahrzad to find out about the child, forces Mahnaz and Morteza — in compensation for the broken mirror– to play the role of the parents of the child. Thus dishonesty becomes a main theme in the film.
In another 2017 film by Hadi, “Simple Worker Needed,” a young girl, Moones, is also controlled by her father, Rahmat, and cannot express her interest in an employee of her father named Ghadam. Ghadam, who has come to Tehran from a village, has fallen in love with Moones but Rahmat does not approve of the relationship.
Rahmat is murdered – by whom it isn’t clear. A wealthy old real estate agent who was owed money by Ramat proposes to Moones. Ghadam kills the real estate agent in a fit of jealous rage. The whole tragedy could have been avoided if Ramat had only let his daughter marry the man she loved.
Iranian media are increasingly discussing such issues as divorce rates rise and birth rates fall. Some analysts blame social media and the widespread popularity of Turkish and Latin American soap operas for the erosion of morality, but the phenomenon probably has more to do with rising levels of education among women and the shortage of equally educated and gainfully employed men.
That such practices are growing in a country whose government advocates Islamic values reveals the dramatic socio-cultural changes in Iran in recent years.
Tahereh Hadian-Jazy is seeking her PhD and writes on women’s rights in Iran and the Middle East. She holds a Masters degree in modern Middle Eastern studies from Oxford University.