Volume 4 : Cover Topic - Iranian Cinema (3)




Marzieh Meshkini’s ‘The Day I Became a Woman’ : A Complicated Treatise on Patriarchy

Nandini Dhar

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Why ‘The Day I Became a Woman’ and the Representation of Children in Iranian Film Culture

When I first saw ‘The Day I Became a Woman’ (2001, dir: Marzieh Meshkini1), I was amazed at the way the visual language negotiates the images of children’s bodies. It is not a Hollywood-like move to deploy Shirley Temple or Macaulay Culkin’s white overtly sexualized cuteness. Neither it is our familiar desexualized attempt to explore the rural innocence and maturation of ‘Pather Panchali’. Meshkini is clearly trying to do something else. Arguably, she is pushing beyond the commonly accepted cultural definitions of “childhood”. To be sure, the presence of children in Iranian films is nothing new. In the last few years, we have seen a number of Iranian films where the children occupy the centre stage — Jafar Panahi’s ‘Mirror’ and ‘The White Balloon’, Majid Majidi’s ‘Children of Heaven’, and Samira Makhmalbaf’s ‘The Apple’. While as an outsider it is difficult to assess the specific importance of the representation of children within Iran’s cinematic and cultural matrix, it is obvious from these films that Iranian filmmakers have transformed childhood into an aesthetic trope and the figure of the child into a site where the interrelationship between social power and identity categories can be discussed. Marzieh Meshkini’s film ‘The Day I Became a Woman’ follows this trend, but has extended it beyond the traditional parameters of Iranian cinema. Meshkini’s film offers spectators a complex panorama of the categories of age and gender, illustrating how the intersection of these categories can be transformed into an important site of socio-ideological struggle.

The presence of children in Iranian films serves important narrative and social-ideological purposes2. It is also to be remembered that within official Iranian policies and ideologies, there is a deep anti-cinema feeling which can be traced back to pre-revolutionary Iran. In that context, bringing children into film texts can also be regarded as a strategic move which helps to deflect official attention. It is important to remember that Meshkini’s film cannot be read without a consideration of such factors which have guided the representation of children’s bodies in the film culture in Iran in the last two decades.

‘The Day I Became a Woman’ : An Attempt to Defamiliarize and Refunction Existing Genres

‘The Day I Became a Woman’ is divided into three episodes: “Hawa”, “Ahoo” and “Hoora”. Each episode is named after its female protagonist, and each represents a different stage of womanhood — childhood, the young woman within marriage, and old age. While each of these episodes is relatively autonomous, Meshkini takes great care to weave them together. The film begins with Hawa, and then moves on to Ahoo and Hoora, before returning to Hawa in the conclusion. This circular narrative structure as well as the tripartite representation of womanhood permits Meshkini to begin a complex set of negotiations with and problematizations of the conventions of the West European bildungsroman genre.3 In Meshkini’s film, adult womanhood and childhood/ girlhood are bound together through the common determining factor of patriarchy.

Women’s Films : Is Meshkini Attempting to Build up a Feminist Iranian Cinema

One of the most important characteristic of feminist cinema is that it transforms women from objects of the male cinematic gaze to creative subjects, by endowing them with the power to author filmic texts. When women create filmic texts, they are operating within certain social spaces which are structurally not geared towards accommodating women as active creators. Meshkini is conscious of the social constructions of femininity and especially how women’s creativity has been trivialized within patriarchal culture. Meshkini is well aware of the fact that the “condition of women” has been a contentious issue not only within the Middle Eastern domestic politics, but also in the context of the interrelationship between Middle Eastern nations and the West — in particular, how the West European and US imperialist projects in Middle East and the rest of the Islamic world have manipulated the condition of women to justify imperialism.

Meshkini’s film demonstrates a similar awareness of gender politics. While the film explores the structural organization of women’s lives under patriarchy, it does not reduce the reality of patriarchy to an Iranian or an “Islamic” problem, as was typical of most West European traditional colonial or US neocolonial texts. Rather the film depicts a complex constellation of indigenous Islamic patriarchal and neocolonial patriarchal structures in Iran. It is this attempt to look upon gender and patriarchy in complex interactions with other social categories which transforms Meshkini’s film into an oppositional text and endows it with certain characteristics of a feminist film. But it is also important to remember that Meshkini is moving beyond the theoretical-ideological premise of white Western feminism within her film, through her exploration of visual images.

Implicit within most of the First World feminist scholarly discussion of “feminist film” , including Laura Mulvey’s seminal essay of the 1970s is a critique of the Western mass cultural film industries (and in certain cases, European male-dominated avant-garde film) which sought to institutionalize the male gaze by depicting overtly sexualized women’s images. Meshkini and other Iranian film directors operate within a different socio–cultural context. According to the official Iranian laws of censorship, the depiction of women in Iranian films must follow certain guidelines.4 The overt sexualization of the female bodies, which forms the crux of the First World feminist film criticism becomes irrelevant in Iran in the context of official censorship laws which advocate the desexualized representation of women. This, according to Shahla Lahiji, the Iranian film critic, has given rise to the representation of women in popular Iranian cinema, in terms of two binaries — what Lahiji calls the opposition between a “chaste doll” and an “unchaste doll”. Such a problem, can only be solved by the emergence of women filmmakers. Marzieh Meshkini, I will argue, represents that new women’s cinema in Iran.

“Hawa” : the veil as a site of Contestation

In an interview in May 1980, Abolhassan Banisadr said, “[…] we live in a society in which clothing has a social role” [109]. Banisadr’s comment, made in support of women’s veil or chador, complements Ayatollah Taleghani’s comments on the importance of veil in Iranian women’s lives. According to Taleghani, “If we consider the question of hejab from an Islamic and national point of view, we see that it is a question of history and of tradition, that in the depths of our history and the history of the East our women have always had some sort of hejab, hejab in general sense, not specifically chador [the veil], that is, in the sense of preserving their purity, dignity, and personality, in Iran and in other Eastern countries, both Islamic and non-Islamic countries” [104]. It is important therefore to attempt to understand the “chador” or veil as an important site of contestation in Iranian social and political history. It is, therefore, important to remember while watching Meshkini’s film the centrality which gender has been granted within the Iranian socio-political discourses.

From our citations above, it is obvious that the acceptance of the veil, for the ideal Iranian woman, is meant to signify an acceptance of the space socially granted to her. It is no accident that Meshkini’s film begins on the ninth birthday of the first main character, a little girl named Hawa. This is the moment when she is expected to adopt the veil. Meshkini is attempting to interrogate the complex relationship between Islam, nationalism and national and religious control over women’s body and sexuality.

The film opens with a close-up shot of a boat and its black sails. The black sails occupy almost the entire screen. The spectator gets only a liminal view of the sea. Preventing the spectator from getting a full view of the sea enables the filmmaker to problematize the popular association of liberation and openness with the visual image of the sea, a narrative strategy which Meshkini will pursue throughout the film. The spectator thus enters the film text with a fragmented image of not only the ocean, but a fragmented idea of liberation. The camera then makes a swift shift to the courtyard of Hawa’s house. It is the morning of Hawa’s ninth birthday, which means Hawa must be introduced to the veil. Hawa’s introduction to the veil is a marker of the end of her childhood and the beginning of her womanhood. While the acceptance of the veil will endow Hawa with the status of a national citizen, this entry is also gendered, since it is only by accepting the veil that Hawa can become an ideal female citizen. Given that the opening of the film follows the conventions of bildungsroman as a genre, one might assume that the veil is destined to become an important cultural artifact/symbol which marks the initiation of the process of the woman’s interpellation into the dominant national definition of citizenship. However, Meshkini refuses to permit any easy or unproblematic identification with the bildungsroman, by making her protagonist a girl and by destabilizing the conventional unproblematic entry of the protagonist into the narrative of national citizenship.

It is interesting to note the conspicuous absence of state institutions within Hawa’s narrative. The action takes place almost entirely within Hawa’s family courtyard, and Hawa’s symbolic induction into adulthood is almost singlehandedly performed by Hawa’s mother and grandmother. This is an important hint of Meshkini’s understanding of the state and its ideological operations. Hawa’s mother and grandmother’s attempt to introduce Hawa to the veil becomes an important comment on how we need to understand state and state ideologies, not only as public governmental institutions or as repressive apparatuses, but as socially decentralized, diffused and decentralized bodies of practice and institutions which we, as members of society, all embody. To Hawa, her mother and her grandmother become agents of the state, and the veil itself becomes the inscription of the state upon her body. At the same time, the identification of Hawa’s mother and grandmother as the agents of the state enables the spectator to identify the family as a state institution which performs the ideological interpellation of the individual within the spaces of the nation and civil society. It is important to keep in mind here that the Islamic Republic transformed the chador into a mandatory form of dress.

The veil, to Hawa, is not just a formality, but an entity which has a dramatic material impact upon her life. Her introduction to the veil is followed by a series of behavioral strictures — Hawa cannot ask too many questions, Hawa should not stand on the terrace, Hawa should not play with boys anymore. Contrary to the traditional bildungsroman narrative, where the protagonist’s coming-of-age experience is marked by expansion, Hawa’s coming-of-age is marked by the contraction of her world and the spaces she can inhabit. However, Meshkini is not interested in construing Hawa as a mute, defenseless victim of patriarchy. She is fully aware of the ideological stakes involved with such a project, and also aware of the fact that the veil is a contentious issue within Iranian politics. Beginning from early modern colonialist cultural productions, the veil has been portrayed by colonialism as the socio-cultural symbol of women’s subjugation, which can only be abolished through Western colonial intervention. Such ideologies tended to undermine Muslim women’s attempts to empower themselves and to resist patriarchal and/or colonial oppression. It might be interesting to think of Meshkini’s film in the context of the recent US invasions of Afganistan and Iraq, which have focused international political attention on the question of the “condition of women” within Islamic societies.

Yet Meshkini moves beyond the discourse of the muted subalterneity usually associated with the figure of the Muslim woman, by locating various modes and structures of resistance. One of the most important moments in the film is Hawa’s attempt to extend the temporal limits of her girlhood/ childhood . She does this by claiming that since she was born at noon, then it is only at noon that she will be transformed from a girl to a woman. This argument buys Hawa an additional hour of playtime with her friend Hassan, a playtime which will soon be prohibited as the mark of her adulthood. Hawa’s attempt to initiate this negotiation endows her a certain form of agency. More specifically, it demonstrates Hawa’s desire to extend the space socially assigned to her by entering upon a tactical manipulation of the social norms. She confronts power and attempts to negotiate its limits, and thus to squeeze out from the power structure a limited freedom. However, Hawa does not confront power head on, but seek only to construct a space which is only liminally free of power. What is important in Meshkini’s film is that she is also conscious of the limits of such forms of agency. The film narrative’s attempt to communicate such limits has been achieved within the film through a complex set of visual images.

Meshkini grounds the images of her film on the relationship between power and agency. Hawa’s attempt to extend her playtime, for example, depends upon a stick. Her grandmother teaches her that if she keeps a stick straight upon the ground, it is not midday until the shadow of the stick completely disappears. It is important to note that her grandmother did not introduce her to a clock, which might have signified the capitalist-Western way of measuring time. As we watch Hawa’s grandmother handing down to her a non-capitalistic way of measuring time, we cannot help but think of the female community which could have been a potentially liberating moment within the film. Here again, Meshkini does not allow any such easy idea of liberation based upon an East/West or First World/Third World dichotomy, or the traditional feministic invocation of a women’ community. The deployment of a non-Western sense of time handed down by her female ancestors does not allow Hawa any liberation or dissociation from patriarchy. Any such possibility of liberation has been tainted by the presence of an Islamic patriarchy which has succeeded to mobilize women in its service. At the same time, it is difficult to miss the association of the stick with phallus or the metaphor of the stick as the ruling specter. The presence of patriarchy remains the determining factor in Hawa’s life, and overshadows the spaces she must grow up into an adult. The reference to the omnipotent presence of the symbols of patriarchy defamliarizes the notion of children as “ sexless” or “beyond contamination”, and drives home the point that patriarchy as a system is based upon gendering and sexualizing children, however difficult that might be for us to accept.

Ahoo : From Everyday Forms of Agency to Rebellion

The second episode of the film is titled “Ahoo”. Ahoo is the name of a young girl who joins a cycling race in spite of her family’s resistance. The camera focuses on rows of young women dressed in black, who cycle along a narrow road. The result is especially compelling given the history of the representation of women in limited social roles within popular Iranian cinema.5 In that context, both the mobility of the women’s bodies represented in Meshkini’s film, as well as the portrayal of women as cyclists rather than in dominant socially accepted gender roles, can be considered radical and even revolutionary.

Before we glimpse of Ahoo, we see the image of a man riding on a horse and calling for Ahoo. Almost immediately we get to see Ahoo — she is riding a bicycle, a clear marker of the fact that she is participating in the race. Ahoo has an agitated expression on her face, is grabbing the end of her chador and biking vigorously. The representation of Ahoo’s agitated expression in close-up can again be considered revolutionary in the context of dominant Iranian cinema, where the convention has been to portray women primarily in longshots, with few close-ups or facial expressions. In response to her husband’s chidings to come back, Ahoo nods almost invisibly. The camera focuses on Ahoo’s face — the face wears a determined expression, signifying her refusal to abandon the race.

The visual language of this sequence is remarkable. While the image of the rows of cycling women give us a certain sense of physical mobility, such physical/spatial mobility cannot move beyond the well-formed files through which the women are biking. While one might assume that this shot of the bicyclists hints at the possibility of resistance on the part of the women, this resistance cannot move beyond certain well-defined spaces, something which has been represented by Meshkini through the long rows of well-organized linear files of cyclists. Thus, as in Hawa’s case, the resistance and the attempts of the women to derive agency out of their own situation is limited in important ways. The imagery of the women riding bicycles, therefore, is a deeply contradictory image — while on the one hand, the attempt to ride a bicycle involves a manipulation of women’s physical prowess often frowned upon and prohibited in patriarchy, the circular movements which riding the bike embody a sense of being trapped within a vicious circle. The film does not allow us as spectators to identify with an easy or inspirational philosophy of liberation.

Ahoo’s attempt to empower herself must be considered within this context. While Ahoo’s participation in the bicycle race connotes a break from Hawa’s attempt to negotiate with the given structures and instead represents a rebellion against such, her rebellion cannot move beyond the premise of circularity conveyed by the visual image of bicycling. What is interesting in this context is how Meshkini provides a visual representation of familial patriarchy. Ahoo’s husband’s repeated threats, her grandfather and her father’s attempts to persuade her are coded in a language which emphasizes and privileges the impulse to protect her and look after her welfare rather than to threaten her existence. Meshkini’s skillful deployment of such moments conveys the fact that what sets patriarchy apart from other forms of domination is its reliance upon emotion and intimate relationships. Meshkini also shows how such languages of emotion and intimacy are mobilized by the systemic impulse to infantalize women. As Meshkini herself says in an attempt to explain her film, “Women are chained in their houses not because they are hated but because they are loved. In order to gain individual independence and social presence, they have no choice but to forego their emotional attachments.” Ahoo’s refusal to listen to her husband and her parents can be looked upon as an attempt to empower herself. At the same time, Ahoo’s attempts of self-empowerment can never be represented without a simultaneous attempt of ideological defamiliarization of the family as an institution, which has been represented in the film in Ahoo’s attempt to distance herself from the spheres of familial control.

Ahoo’s rebellion represents an important break within the national narrative of the bildungsroman, a process which was initiated through the introduction of Hawa to the veil. Ahoo’s acceptance of the proposal of divorce embodies her denial of the status and the space reserved for women within the dominant national narrative. Within Meshkini’s film narrative, therefore, Hawa becomes the potential Ahoo. Here it might be useful to re-examine why Meshkini chose to build up the basis of her filmic narrative upon three short sketches rather than transforming the narrative into a classic bildungsroman-like narrative. The narrative strategy thus adopted by Meshkini to conclude Ahoo’s sketch problematize the notion of smooth and unproblematic induction of women into national citizenship. Simultaneously, she also succeeds to displace the spectators’ desire to attain from the narrative a definitive answer. Thus, when Meshkini brings forth within her narrative Ahoo’s brothers who have come to “rescue” their sister from the disgrace of divorce, the spectator expects Ahoo’s triumphant resistance or at its worst, her tragic submission in the hands of the social structures. Instead he/ she is exposed to a screen where Ahoo and her brothers are no longer the centre of narrative action. Rather they have been transformed into mere dots in the horizon. The camera focuses exclusively on the landscape. The spectator gets a faded glimpse of the physical struggle which takes place between Ahoo and her brothers. Thus, while the spectator gets a clear idea of the fact that Ahoo’s interpellation into the notion of national citizenship, here, is not ideological but primarily repressive, how Ahoo succeeds or does not succeed to negotiate with such narratives of interpellation is left open. This absence of easy answers is what paves the way within the narrative for Hoora’s story to be explored.

Hoora : Liberation in Consumerism?

As the spectator begins to feel the claustrophobia which characterizes Meshkini’s screen narrative, the camera fades out and we are introduced to the third and the last of the sketches “Hoora”. The narrative opens into an airport and this is the first time we as spectators get a glimpse of the modern state — the army, the national flag. Out comes Hoora from the airport in a wheelchair and asks the boy who is helping her with the wheelchair to take her to a marketplace. She confides to him that she never had a refrigerator and she would like to have one now that she has money. We are introduced to the mall where Hoora and the boy have come for shopping. The spectator, thus, is introduced to the spaces of global capital, which at the same time is also the space where Hoora has come to celebrate her recently found financial/economic freedom. It is important to note here that Meshkini engages with a dexterous use of the idea of the matriarch. Hoora as an old woman can have a certain amount of social authority even within patriarchy. However, within the film, what makes Hoora’s desire to become a matriarch almost a mockery of the idea is that she does not have a family where she can be a successful matriarch. The only place where she can find freedom , agency and authority, therefore, is within the spaces and cultures of global capital and consumerism.

While Meshkini’s narrative here assumes almost a surreal dimension, it is difficult to miss her important intervention within the discourse of liberation produced by the Western imperialist discourses and colonial feminisms. Meshkini’s intervention operates specifically within a theoretical premise which aims to complicate the binary opposition between veiling and unveiling by superimposing upon it the phenomenon of the presence of capital. To the extent that the cultural symbols of an Islamic patriarchy do not interfere with global flow of capital, the veil and the capital domination can co-exist. Thus, Hoora does not have to give up her veil in order to be an ideal global consumer. Meshkini’s sharp sense of irony reveals to her spectators a semiotic world where the cultural symbols of use value and exchange value have been sufficiently confused. Thus, Hoora ties up little pieces of colourful clothes as knots around her fingers to remind herself the consumer items she needs to buy. While such a mode of calculation is typically pre-capital, it is significant that here it has been put to the service of global capital. Thus, to Meshkini the tradition-modernity dichotomy brought up so often by both the imperialist discourses and the Islamic nationalism becomes irrelevant. Such a dichotomy can only be judged in the context of the intrusion of capital in Iran and the relationships between capital and the Islamic Republic. It is even more significant in this context to examine the visual impact produced by the sequence of Hoora’s coming back to the sea-beach with three carts full of goods and one knot still untied on one of her fingers. She says to the boy that she cannot remember this last thing she needed to buy. Meshkini thus brings her cinematic language to a point where it becomes extremely important to point out to the limits of the global domination of capital and the consumerist culture as a form of women’s agency. Hoora’s amnesia, here, therefore, becomes a marker of the fact that there is a sphere, certain perceptions of subjectivity and liberty which capital cannot buy. Neither can it be found within the familiar spaces of Islamic nationalism. Hoora knows about its existence, but her language is incapable of naming it.

The film narrative, at this point, takes a circular turn as we see in the background two women with bicycles. In their conversation with Hoora, the women inform her about this woman in the race whose bicycle was forfeited by her brothers so that she would not have any option but to return to her husband . As the spectator realizes, this is a reference to Ahoo whose life-story has been transformed into a gossip. The women argue between themselves without any passion about Ahoo’s fate. We witness , not without some amount of disbelief, that Ahoo’s rebellion did not inspire the women. As the women argue between themselves about whether Ahoo got to finish the race or whether her bicycle was taken by her brothers, the spectator is brought face to face with the fact that Ahoo’s finishing the race is not that different from her bicycle being taken from her. Even if Ahoo was going to finish the race, where would that have taken her? It is at this point that Meshkini raises the question between everyday forms of resistance, ideology and radical social transformation. What is resistance without ideology ? What is the relationship between everyday forms of agency and radical social transformation ? What kind of ideological narrative can sustain Ahoo’s rebellion in the long run? Can Ahoo’s rebellion in absence of any sustained ideology can at best turn into Hoora’s consumerist perception of liberty?

The conclusion of the film again brings back Hawa. While Hoora floats in the sea water with all her belongings, the camera focuses on Hawa’s face. We come to realize that while the film narrative had moved away from Hawa’s story, it was specifically on her birthday when Ahoo and Hoora’s story takes place. The camera exposes the spectator to Hawa’s expressionless face, her veiled head as she stares at sea and therefore, at Hoora, at her floating status amidst her goods. As spectators, we are left without any easy answers. We begin to think , is Hoora’s answer going to be a viable option for Hawa? If not, then what?

End Notes :

1. Marzieh Meshkini was born in Tehran in 1969. From 1996 to 2001, she was a student at Makhmalbaf Film School, and worked as an assistant director in Samira and Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s films. ‘The Day I Became a Woman’ is Meshkini’s second film (she wrote and directed her first feature, ‘Stray Dogs’).

2. In an interview with David Walsh, Jafar Panahi, the director of the films ‘The Mirror’ and ‘White Balloon’ says, “And I had the feeling as well that in our society everyone wears a mask over his face, and cannot remove that mask. And I thought that only a child, because he or she has not yet been contaminated, will notice this, and it is only a child who can decide to remove the mask from his or her face, and no longer play a role, and try to be herself.” To Panahi, the artistic attempt to put a child at the centre of the film narrative serves a specific purpose. Yet Panahi’s assertion also embodies an ideological preconception about the figure of the child. While his assertion that a child is an individual who “has not yet been contaminated” represents the traditional premise of the Romantic notion of children as innocent beings beyond any identity categories, a closer examination reveals that Panahi is referring to the process by which the individuals are integrated into the social mainstream. Children, so runs Panahi’s argument, are individuals who reside outside of social structures. As social entities, they have not yet been socialized, but are rather undergoing that process. The theoretical premise of Panahi’s comment coincides with that of the Iranian film critic Hamid Reza Sadr, who writes, “Using children in films facilitated the development of Iranian cinema and the role it played in reflecting, interpreting and above all representing Iranians.” [231].
3. The bildungsroman is primarily a developmental narrative, which traces the maturation of a (typically male) protagonist from earliest childhood through education and schooling, and finally to self-knowledge and eventually a secure position as a member of civil society. At its heart, the bildungsroman is a narrative which depicts the process of the formation of an ideal citizen. Meshkini borrows from this convention, but also problematizes it.

4. An example of one such guideline: ”Muslim women must be shown to be chaste and to have an important role in society as well as in raising God-fearing and responsible children. […] Women were not to be treated like commodities or used to arouse sexual desires”

5. As Hamid Naficy writes in his essay “The New Iranian Cinema : Islamizing Film Culture in Iran”, “To use women, a new grammar of film evolved, which included the following features : women actors being given static parts or filmed in such a way as to avoid showing their bodies. A post-Revolution film director underlined these practices by saying that women in Islamic performing arts should be shown seated at all times so as to avoid drawing attention to their ‘ provocative walk’, thereby allowing the audience to concentrate on the ‘ ideologies’ inherent in the work” [46].


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