Post-Revolutionary Iranian cinema has attracted critical attention abroad while constituting a vibrant focus of cultural, narrative and technical experimentation at home. In the politically restrictive context of the Islamic Republic, film has become one of the key ways that sensitive topics are broached in civil society. One of the most important topics is the social and juridical situation of women, including the enforcement of legislation over women’s hejab, which refers to modest dress but can also mean modest decorum.

Hejab is commonly associated with specific understandings of public and private space. It is not only determined by general conventions of what is considered public and private, but itself signifies that any space in which a covered woman appears is public space. These conventions are altered, however, by cinematic representation. In contemporary Iranian cinema, in which the appearance and conduct of all performers is regulated by strict codes of modesty, all space is treated as public, including supposedly private domestic spaces. Because modern cinema is based on a norm of naturalism, displaying public codes of conduct within private spaces is strikingly artificial.

All Iranian films are subject to rules of state and self-censorship. Scripts, pre-production and final cuts must be approved by Farabi (the semi-governmental film agency) and the Ministry of Culture. Filming must follow certain codes of decorum: Actresses must always appear in hejab. Their hair must always be covered and they must wear a loose outer layer of clothing, even when depicting a woman alone in her home or going to bed. Men and women who are not real-life close relatives must never touch each other, even if playing close relatives. (Shortly after the Revolution, close-ups of women and cosmetics were strictly forbidden, but these restrictions have since been relaxed). [1]

These requirements have had two general results. First is the disorientation viewers experience when the accepted codes of cinematic naturalism collide with the requirements of Iranian cinematic modesty. Second is a growing trend in films about children, a leading cinematic genre in Iran. By focusing on young protagonists, films can sidestep awkward scenes of interaction between adults.

Nonetheless, Iranian films about adults are being made, and some even feature strong women characters. Directors of such films have worked around the problems of cinematic hejab, just as audiences have learned to adjust to the specific codes of national style. Yet because Iranian film codes seem clearly artificial to contemporary audiences, and because woman’s role in post-revolutionary Iran is so politicized, Iranian films are caught in a peculiar double bind. Directors who film only children, or make war films, or otherwise exclude women from their films can be accused of complicity with a misogynist state. Yet directors whose films present strong women characters triumphing over contradictions in their lives may risk accusations (especially by non-Iranian audiences) of propagandizing for the regime.

The following five films, all recent productions, have enjoyed at least limited screenings outside Iran. Two are directed by women, but all make the issue of hejab, and thus women’s appropriate role in public and private life, an integral element of their cinematic narrative. These films’ explicitly artificial negotiations of public and private space, as defined through hejab, highlight both the official definitions of those gendered spaces and popular reworkings of spatial and social definitions.

The Spouse (Mehdi Fakhim Zadeh, 1995), features a strong, positive portrayal of a woman executive who is also a wife and mother. Upon being promoted, she becomes her husband’s boss. The film includes an embezzlement plot, a car chase and a memorable woman police officer in a black chador, but the main dramatic element is the tension that develops in the couple’s intimate relationship because of their new roles at work. The husband, a fundamentally decent man whose pride has been wounded, starts acting like a jerk. He knocks over dishes, throws tantrums and demands to be waited on hand and foot to compensate for his subordination at work. The wife is patient with him at home, yet firm in keeping her job and the workplace authority that comes with it. In the end, after the couple have together solved the embezzlement plot (although it is the wife who helps the police woman chase down the bad guys), domestic harmony is restored and the suspenseful ending reveals that the wife is still her husband’s boss at work. [2]

The Spouse was a huge commercial success in Iran, so its feminist audacity would seem to be a cause for celebration. When the film was screened outside Iran, however, its realistic depiction of women’s universal difficulties managing home and work contradicted a general assumption that any woman wearing a headscarf was by definition confined by a role that associated her first and foremost with private space and private life. For some audiences, a film portraying a woman in proper hejab successfully negotiating the competing demands of the private and public spheres was just too disorienting.

Yet when a director presents a woman character who is less successful in negotiating the confines of her traditional role, the audience may be disoriented in other ways. In Leila (Dariush Mehrjui, 1997), a sophisticated, well-to-do young Tehrani wife is so confounded by her infertility that she persuades her husband to take a second wife, yet is heartbroken when he does. Leila is a film about the universal tension between marriage as a social institution and marriage as an intimate relationship between a specific couple. Leila loves her husband and their life together, but she also accepts the notion that a wife who is not also a mother is a failure, no matter how much she is loved as an individual. The social expectations of her culture (and her nagging mother-in-law) oppress her, but she is also complicit in her own oppression and the failure of her marriage, as a relationship and as an institution.

In Leila, the director finds subtle ways of adhering to modesty codes while distracting the audience’s attention from their artificiality. Although Leila always wears a headscarf and she and her husband never touch, a sense of intimacy is established in scenes of them cooking and eating together, activities that signal domesticity. But the film’s effective representation of private lives in private spaces creates a sense of suffocation. The director’s very success in minimizing the most artificial aspects of cinematic hejab only emphasizes Leila’s self-enclosure within a cultural norm that equates womanhood with motherhood. Leila’s complicity with her bitter fate makes the audience feel claustrophobic: We are as trapped in her story, and in the limitations of her choices, as she is. Some audiences, especially outside Iran, rejected Leila as unrealistic, insisting that no modern, middle-class woman would be so acquiescent in her own oppression.

Ironically, in both The Spouse and Leila, the directors’ attempts to distract the audience from the artificiality of the hejab may have contributed to the audience’s suspicion that the whole narrative of the film was artificial. In any Iranian film attempting to achieve a natural style, representations of hejab that contradict ordinary daily practice create an inescapable dissonance. The cinematic hejab’s artifice is a constant reminder of the film’s artificiality, and the more successfully a director evades direct confrontation with this cinematic self-contradiction, the more likely the audience will be to claim that the film is not realistic.

A more candid approach to cinematic hejab may be the most effective way of establishing a film’s realism. In The May Lady (Rakhshan Bani-Etemad, 1998), the main character is a divorced mother struggling to balance her career as a filmmaker, her duties as a mother and her love for the man who wants to marry her. The woman director and screenwriter establishes credibility with the audience by incorporating shots acknowledging the tension between what would be natural behavior and what is required by the modesty codes. The heroine is shown starting to pull off her headscarf as she walks through a doorway; but the shot cuts at the very moment the scarf would have been removed. While the audience knows that the scarf can’t come off, there is also a definite recognition that the director is admitting that it ordinarily would, thus pushing the limits of acceptable film representation. The heroine’s struggle to balance her competing desires and duties is echoed by the director’s struggle to balance state regulations with authenticity of representation. By making this struggle evident in the film, the director forges a private bargain with her audience that counterbalances the public requirements of the film codes.

Despite the cinematic norm of naturalness, all cinema is inherently theatrical. A director’s manipulation of this potential theatricality compensates for the artificiality of the cinematic hejab. Most Iranian films dealing seriously with adult women’s lives hesitate to play with the theatrical possibilities of hejab, fearing unwanted attention from the state. But the few films that have incorporated cinematic hejab directly into the narrative are remarkable. Both the comedy Pickpockets Don’t Go to Heaven (Abolhassan Davudi, 1992) and the semi-documentary The Apple (Samira Makhmalbaf, 1998) challenge the audience to reconsider conventional norms of gendered space and behavior. Both films issue this challenge by theatricalizing the cinematic possibilities of hejab.

Pickpockets Don’t Go to Heaven is a light comedy about a good-hearted but poor hero who gets involved in a bank robbery to raise money for his equally poor but deserving sweetheart and her widowed mother, who are threatened with eviction because they cannot pay their rent. Although the plot is unexceptional, the comic direction is not. An early scene takes place in the courtyard of the traditional apartment building in which the hero and heroine both live. Courtyards are indeterminate spaces, neither entirely public, since they are enclosed from the street and accessible only to residents and guests, nor entirely private, since no family exercises decisive control over this shared space. The hero, who is trying to avoid the greedy landlord, takes cover in a large refrigerator box. Cutting two eyeholes in his refuge, he scoots around the courtyard, shadowing the landlord, who does not realize that an inanimate object is actually moving. A classic slapstick scene, this is also an example of the “hejab-ing” of a character. [3] The hero creates a private space for himself, strategically adopting the conventions of (women’s) hejab by enclosing his body within a protective covering so as to move safely around a (semi-)public space. In a subsequent scene, the mother, the daughter and a sympathetic male friend are about to pursue some bad guys on a motorcycle equipped with a sidecar. As they approach the bike, there is a moment of hesitation: They know, as does the audience, that in a film the young woman is forbidden to take her “natural” place behind the man on the motorcycle seat.

Instead of cutting away from the problem, the director solves it to great comic effect by having the mother, a large, older woman in a traditional flowered chador, stride ahead and mount the bike. She will drive! Her daughter climbs on behind her, and the man hops into the sidecar as the audience laughs at its own limitations. The real problem, of course, was not the restrictions of cinematic hejab, but our own narrow assumption that only a man can drive a motorcycle.

In the film’s final scene, after the bank robbery has been foiled and our luckless hero has been snagged by the justice system, the camera tracks him in a close-up as he walks down the hall with his sweetheart. Their heads are close together and they are murmuring promises of mutual devotion. As their heads draw even closer, the audience senses the classic cinematic build-up to a screen kiss, made even tenser by the knowledge that it cannot happen. What will they do? The build-up makes the kiss inevitable: The hero whirls around as the camera pulls back, then plants a big smooch on the prison guard who is revealed to be shackled to him. We get the kiss plus the delight of a surprise. The director has satisfied the censors as well as the audience by cleverly reminding viewers of their own expectations’ complicity with the censors.

A recent film that makes brilliant symbolic use of hejab is The Apple. The film recreates an actual incident that took place in Tehran: Residents in a poor neighborhood in south Tehran reported to the authorities that a neighbor had never allowed his two daughters to leave the house. The authorities investigated and the press covered the case. The father was unemployed, the mother was blind and the two children could not even speak. The film recounts what happened after the children were taken from the home and then returned. The director had the actual family play themselves. In the beginning of the film, the two girls seem to be mentally, as well as socially, retarded, and when their father again locks them up, he seems to be a villain.

Yet the film makes clear from the opening scenes that its subject is as much the imposition and transgression of boundaries as it is the story of one particular family. Despite the father’s wishes, or even the state ideology, no space is ever absolutely private, public, or exclusively gendered. The family’s home is a dark space behind an iron gate that opens onto a tiny walled private courtyard, and this courtyard itself opens into a narrow pedestrian street that runs between the front walls of similar houses. The children have always been locked into the dark space behind the gate, but the very first scene is of a child’s arm reaching through the bars to pour water into a flowerpot. Later, the children look out at a spray of leaves silhouetted above the courtyard wall, and then recreate this image by using shoe polish to make handprints on the inside wall of the house.

Although no space can be completely isolated, individuals can isolate themselves within space. While the two girls reach for a connection with the natural world that is just beyond, yet within, their reach, their mother uses hejab to maintain her own, and their, distance from the outside world. An early scene in the film shows the girls, who can barely mumble, being taken into custody by social welfare officials who then bathe them, cut their hair and give them new clothes. When their parents come to collect them, however, the mother, who is blind, feels their hair and immediately insists upon replacing their headscarves. The mother herself is wearing a traditional chador that she grips so tightly that it entirely covers her face. This is the film’s main stylistic deviation from actual events: In the news coverage of the family, including one press photo that is incorporated in the film, the mother (like other Iranian women, even the most religious) leaves her face exposed. The brief but recognizable shot of the press photo makes clear that the director’s decision to have the mother cover her face is completely intentional. Throughout the entire film, the mother hides behind her hejab, the symbol of her fear of the world.

For her daughters, however, hejab eventually becomes inconsequential — a simple piece of clothing that doesn’t necessarily have to interfere with making friends and exploring the extended neighborhood. The private, feminine sanctity of the family courtyard is matter-of-factly violated by a boy who climbs the wall with a ladder to open the door for a visiting social worker, but this happens only after we have already seen one of the daughters scale the gate from inside so that she can peer over the top at goings-on in the street. Similarly, the public, masculine world of the street is not really so threatening, or even so masculine. The woman social worker goes house to house looking for a ladder, and then a saw; each woman who answers the door gives her opinion on the family’s situation and the state’s involvement in it. The social worker then shoos the children out into the street to play, and there they involve themselves with a child ice cream vendor, a goat and a housewife who breaks up a squabble over ice cream. The audience realizes that the whole social space of the neighborhood is porous: Not only can children climb walls, but windows overlook courtyards, and neighbors keep track of business in the street and in each other’s homes. The private/public spatial distinction that is supposed to structure hejab and be defined by it is revealed to be arbitrary, more a personal projection than a material condition.

As the film progresses, the children’s social reality and physical space expand: first the courtyard, then the street, then a shop, a park, a market. At each stage, they interact with a new character who teaches them a lesson. The young street vendor says they mustn’t just take what they want, and then gives them extra ice cream; a mischievous boy teases them with an apple, and then takes them to the shop where they can buy as many as they want; a chatterbox girl teaches them to play hopscotch and to share. By the end of the film, the chatterbox has convinced the girls and their father to go on a shopping expedition to look at wristwatches, leaving only the mother behind. She is still clutching her chador over her face, muttering from the depths of the dark house, until she stumbles out searching for the children she wants to protect from the world. The social worker smiles with satisfaction to see her leave the house. The last shot depicts the mother groping in the street and being teased by the same mischievous little boy who teased the girls with his apple. As the mother grasps the apple, the frame freezes. She still holds her chador closed against the world around her. But a larger social reality has literally knocked her on her head.

In The Apple, Samira Makhmalbaf has incorporated hejab into the symbolic structure of her film. Initially, it represents absolute, oppressive isolation. But by the end of the film, a scarf is either just a scarf or a self-imposed barrier between the wearer and the world, and the world itself is as private or as public as its inhabitants choose to make it. Building on a post-revolutionary Iranian tradition of innovative film-making, Samira Makhmalbaf (the daughter of well-known director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and only 18 when she directed The Apple) has crafted a first film that fuses form and content into a simple, sophisticated achievement. The Apple challenges her audience — and her fellow filmmakers — to reconsider the limitations of their own expectations, including the limitations their expectations place on cinematic representations of hejab.


[1] Ayatollah Mohajerani, Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, who is responsible for setting policy for the film industry, recently gave an interview about the state of film in Iran. Mohajerani, one of the most controversial members of President Khatami’s cabinet, is considered a liberal on social issues, and although his statements upheld the necessity of the cinematic modesty codes, in the context of Iranian national cultural politics they were understood to support a loosening of restrictions and to oppose hard-line enforcement of rigid codes of behavior. For further details, see Ayatollah Mohajerani, “Iranian Cinema Today: Trust, Not Suspicion,” Film International 5/3-4, pp. 6-7.
[2] If there is any Western equivalent to this film, one in which the tension between women’s domestic and productive or public roles is both honestly explicated and successfully negotiated, it is probably Salt of the Earth (1953), an account of a Mexican-American mining community on strike for better conditions and equality, made by blacklisted Hollywood leftists and funded by a miners’ union. Despite the obvious differences between the two films in terms of tone, style, content and production, both films allow a basically good and decent husband to be a jerk in dealing with his wife’s challenge to traditional roles.
[3] I am grateful to Raeshma Razvi for coining this phrase in a review discussing an earlier version of this paper I gave in a presentation on “Iranian Women in Film” at the Film Center in Chicago in October 1997. See Raeshma Razvi, “Iranian Film Festival in Chicago Celebrates Eighth Anniversary of Socially Conscious Art,” Washington Report on Middle East Affairs (January-February 1998), pp. 133-34.

How to cite this article:

Norma Claire Moruzzi "Women’s Space/Cinema Space," Middle East Report 212 (Fall 1999).

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