Women Without Men (2009)

Women Without Men

Iranian visual artist, Shirin Neshat’s directorial debut focuses on the lives of four women set against a backdrop of political turmoil in 1950s Iran.

Women Without Men

A Woman’s Work by Laura Bennett

CAUTION: Here be spoilers.

Never afraid to shy away from the often incendiary issue of the role of women in modern-day Islamic society, Shirin Neshat graduates from still photography and audiovisual installations to her first feature-length picture, an adaptation of the magic realist novel Women Without Men, written by her fellow exile and countrywoman, Shahrnush Parsipur.

Women Without Men tells the story of the intertwined lives of four women living in 1950s Tehran. None of them have a particularly happy lot. In her early thirties, the unmarried Munis has more interest in the burgeoning political crisis than her violent, traditionalist brother’s intransigent attempts to fix her up with suitors. The devout Faezeh is unable to come to terms with her attachment to Munis’ brother who is about to be married to someone else, as she falls victim to a back-alley rape. The more mature Fakhri is trapped in a loveless marriage to an uncultured, heavy-handed military husband and is only reminded of her youthful, bohemian days when an old flame returns from abroad with tales of his glamorous life in America. Finally, the prostitute, Zahrin, is forced to service client after client, scrubbing herself raw with shame at the hammam before her final realisation that she has become so numbed as to no longer be able to see the faces of her cursory customers.

In their desperation, all four women find their way to a mystical orchard outside the city. Unbeknownst to her controlling husband, Fakhri acquires it, turning it into a refuge for the women, an escape from the oppression and struggle of their quotidian existence. A place of peace and natural beauty, the orchard contrasts sharply with the urban hustle-and-bustle of a Tehran on the brink of crisis. Reprising its role as a motif of exile, independence and freedom in Islamic culture, the garden is a space of “spiritual transcendence”.

Neshat’s visual art translates well to the silver screen. Best known for her series of black and white photographs entitled Women of Allah, depicting women in veils carrying guns while their skin is adorned with the regular pattern of Islamic verse, Women Without Men has a similarly faded and washed-out colour palette. Tehran’s city-scape is almost sepia, and while the orchard is considerably less monochrome in contrast, its wispy, hazy tones give it a fairy-tale, ethereal quality, as if it might, at any moment, simply disappear like a desert mirage.

By her own admission, Neshat is both aesthetically and symbolically fascinated by the chador. As Munis tries to end it all by throwing herself off the roof, she floats down like a serene bird with her jet-black chador billowing around her. Often seen in the West as a short fuse sparking controversy, Neshat tries to explain that for some it is a symbol of liberation, not always so politically loaded.

Little of Neshat’s work has ever been publicly exhibited in Iran. A long-time resident of the US, she is unable to return to the country of her birth. Women Without Men was made in Morocco using a cast of exiles and second generation Iranians given coaching to lose their inappropriately European accented Farsi. Orsi Tóth, playing the conveniently taciturn prostitute Zarin, is a Hungarian actress who was known to the director for her role in Delta. The book’s author, Parsipur, also plays a cameo role as the brothel madam constantly harassing Zarin.

Now a mere stepping-stone in the country’s complex recent history, the overthrowing in 1953 of Iran’s first democratically elected president Dr Mohammed Mossadegh was backed by Britain and the US, predictably motivated by the West’s need to secure its oil supply. Groundhog day anyone? Neshat’s women are caught up in these events, curious observers rather than ideologically motivated activists. But in a recent interview, she draws parallels between the character of Munis, who joins up with a rather haphazard band of demonstrators, and the female protester Neda Agha-Soltan who was shot dead during 2009’s civil unrest in Iran. “She was just an innocent bystander who cared deeply about what was going on on the street and then became a martyr.” Women, it seems, are at the heart of the action after all.

A beautiful and artful film, Women Without Men touches on many awkward issues, drawing attention to a period in Iran’s history which now languishes in the annals of time. Shirin Neshat has chosen to place the role of women in Islam at the core of her oeuvre, whether the magic realist elements of the narrative of Women Without Men proves a good marriage for these political issues remains yet another thorny question.

Women Without Men is released in the UK on 11th June 2010.

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