Veiled Voice and Vision in Iranian Cinema:
The Evolution of Rakhshan Banietemad's Films
By: Hamid Naficy, 2000
In the early 1990s, a journalist in Paris asked renowned Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami to evaluate the status of the current Iranian cinema. With a mixture of pride and sly satisfaction, he answered: "I think of it as one of Iran's major exports: in addition to pistachio nuts, carpets, and oil, now there is cinema" (Rosen, 1992, 40). Called "one of the pre-eminent national cinemas in the world today" by both the Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival, Iranian cinema is a new, vital cinema with its own special industrial and financial structure and unique ideological, thematic, generic, and production values. It is also part of a more general transformation in the political culture of the country since the revolution of 1978-79. However, this cinema is not an "Islamic" cinema, which upholds the ruling ideology. In fact, at least two major types of cinemas have evolved side by side. The "populist cinema" affirms the post-revolutionary Islamic values more fully at the level of plot, theme, characterization, mise-en-scene, and portrayal of women. The "quality cinema," on the other hand, engages with those values and tends to critiques current social conditions. In terms of quantity, Iranian cinema is quite productive, with its output in the last five years standing at around 60 feature films annually.
A unique and unexpected achievement of this cinema has been the significant and signifying role of women both behind and in front of the camera. Here, I will provide a brief historical analysis of principles of modesty as practiced in the Islamic Republic, followed by an account of the institutionalization and evolution of these principles in cinema as offered in the context of the emergence of women filmmakers, particularly that of Raskhshan Banietemad. What is unique is the inscription of modesty rules and what is unexpected is that more women feature film directors emerged in a single decade after the revolution than in all the preceding eight decades of film making--and this in a patriarchal and traditional society, which is ruled by an Islamist ideology that is highly suspicious of the corruptive influence of cinema on women and of women on cinema. This achievement was made possible partly by the incorporation of a complex system of modesty (hejab in its widest sense) at all levels of the motion picture industry and in the cinematic texts. A major goal of this system was to disrupt the direct discursive link between representation of women and promotion of corruption, amorality, and pornography which the pre-revolution cinema was said to have established. To that end it became necessary for the post-revolutionary government to strengthen two existing discourses: the "injection" theory of cinematic power and the "realist illusionist" theory of cinematic representation. The injection theory posited that the mere exposure to unveiled or immodest women would turn autonomous, centered, and moral individuals (particularly the men) into dependent, deceived, and corrupt subjects. The realist illusionist theory claimed a direct and unmediated correspondence between "reality" and its representation (or illusion) on the screen. For the illusion to be Islamically modest, reality had to become (or to be made to appear) modest. This necessitated a total "purification" to cleanse both the film industry and the movie screens of the offending vices and corruption. The result was that both the industry and the screens became open to women as never before as long as women abided by very specific and binding Islamic codes of modesty.
Modesty as Social Practice
Iranian hermeneutics is driven by a dynamic and artful relationship between veiling and unveiling, which together constitute "modesty." Indeed, this hermeneutics is based on distrusting manifest meanings and concealing core values. People are thus motivated to search for hidden, inner meanings in all they see, hear, and receive in daily interaction with others, while trying to conceal their own intentions. Since women are a constitutive part of the male core self, they must be protected from the vision of unrelated males by following a set of rules of modesty that apply to architecture, dress, behavior, voice, eye contact, and relations with men. Walls, words, and veils mark, mask, separate, and confine both women and men (Milani, 1992). Instances abound in Iranian culture: high walls separate and conceal private space from public space, the inner rooms of a house protect/hide the family, the veil hides women, formal language suppresses unbridled public expression of private feelings, modesty suppresses and conceals women, decorum and status hide men, the exoteric meanings of religious texts hide the esoteric meanings, and the perspective-less miniature paintings convey their messages in layers instead of organizing a unified vision for a centered viewer. Modesty is thus operative within the self and pervasive within society. Veiling is the armature of modesty, requiring further elaboration.
With the onset of menses women must cover their hair, body parts, and body shape by wearing either a veil or chador (a head-to-toe cloth) or some other modest garb, including head scarf, loose tunic, and long pants. Further, the related/unrelated rules (mahram/namahram) govern the segregation and association of men and women. Chief among these is: a woman need not wear a veil in front of male members of her immediate family (her husband, sons, brothers, father, and uncles). All other men are considered unrelated, and women must veil themselves in their presence, and men must avert their eyes from them. It must be noted that many of these psychological and social practices of veiling and unveiling predate the Islamic revolution in Iran, although some of them have been intensified since then. Significantly, many of them are present in other Muslim societies (Abulughod, 1986; Mernissi, 1991, 1987) and they are applied not only to the women but also to the men. Finally, veiling does not necessarily imply lower status: in ancient Persia, for example, it conferred higher status to the women who wore it and to their men, and among the Tuareq of North Africa today it implies the higher status of the men who wear it (Murphy, 1964). In the aesthetics of veiling, the voice has a complementary function: before entering a house, men are required to make their presence known by voice in order to give the women inside a chance to cover themselves and to organize the scene for the male gaze. Women must not only veil their bodies from unrelated men but also to some extent their voice. Veiling of the voice includes using formal language with unrelated males and females, decorous tone of voice, and avoidance of singing, boisterous laughter, and generally any emotional outburst in public other than expression of grief and or anger.
However, veiling as a social practice is not fixed or unidirectional; instead, it is a dynamic practice in which both men and women are implicated. In addition, there is a dialectical relationship between veiling and unveiling: that which covers is capable also of uncovering. In practice, women have a great deal of latitude in how they present themselves to the gaze of the male onlookers, involving body language, eye contact, types of veil worn, clothing worn underneath the veil, and the manner in which the veil itself is fanned open or closed at strategic moments to lure or to mask, to reveal or to conceal the face, the body, or the clothing underneath. Shahla Haeri aptly notes the dynamic relationship that exists between the veil and vision:
Not only does the veil deny the penetrating male gaze, it enables women to use their own judiciously. Because men and women are forbidden to socialize with each other, or to come into contact, their gazes find new dimensions in Muslim Iran. Not easily controllable, or subject to religious curfew, glances become one of the most intricate and locally meaningful means of communication between the genders (1989, 229).
This "communication" involves not only voyeurism and exhibitionism but also a system of surveillance, of controlling the look and of being controlled by the look. Veiling-unveiling, therefore, is not a panoptic process in the manner Foucault (1979) describes because in this system vision is not unidirectional or in the possession of only one side. Both women and men see and organize the field of vision of the other. Furthermore, although the other dualities of religiously related/not related (mahram/namahram), inside/outside (baten/zaher), religiously allowed/forbidden (halal/haram) are structured psychically and socially, they are not only porous but also invite transgressive pleasures. In addition, although the veil restricts and oppresses women, it can also empower them through anonymity (Mills, 1985).
The social principles of modesty and veiled vision govern male/female social interactions both in daily life and in movies.
Modesty as Cinematic Practice
Although veiling and modesty existed in Iranian cinema before, they were first codified and instituted in cinema in 1982 (for a full discussion of these, see Naficy, 1994, 1992). However, they did not remain static, as they evolved gradually and steadily toward liberal interpretations. The evolution of the codes and the use of women both behind and in front of the cameras occurred in three overlapping phases, which I have called: the absence, the pale presence, and the powerful presence of women.
During the first phase, immediately after the revolution (early 1980s), the images of unveiled women were cut from existing Iranian and imported films. When cutting caused unacceptable narrative confusion--and it did, as some films were cut by over half an hour--the offending parts were blacked out directly in the frames with magic markers. As part of the purification process, the existing films were reviewed, a majority of which were banned. For example, of 2208 locally made films that were reviewed in this phase, only 252 received exhibition permit (Naficy, 1992, 187). Many entertainers, singer, and actors were banned selectively, by what distinguished them: their voices, faces, and bodies were banned from film and TV screens, radio, periodicals, and all forms of advertising. Women were excised from local films through self-censorship by a frightened industry unsure of official attitudes and regulations regarding cinema. Instead, many filmmakers resorted to making war films and children's films, or adult films that involved children--two popular genres of post-revolutionary cinema.
In the second phase (mid-1980s), women appeared on the screen either as ghostly presences in the background or as domesticated subjects in the home. They were rarely the bearers of the story or the plot. An aesthetics and grammar of vision and veiling based on gender segregation developed, which governed the characters' dress, posture, behavior, voice, and gaze. Female characters wore headscarfs, chador or veil, and a long, loose-fitting tunic. They behaved in a dignified manner and avoided body contact of any sort with men, even if they were related to each other by marriage or by birth. The evolving filming grammar discouraged close-up photography of women's faces or of exchanges of desirous looks between men and women. In addition, women were often filmed in long shot and in inactive roles so as to prevent the contours of their bodies from showing. Both women and men were desexualized and cinematic texts became androgynous. As a prominent director Dariush Mehrju'i told me: "In post-revolutionary cinema the religiously unlawful (haram) look does not exist. All women must be treated like one's own sister." (Personal interview, Los Angeles, April 1990.) Love and physical expression of love (even between intimates) were absent.
One of the most significant consequences of veiling in films was that filmmakers were forced to represent all spaces in the films, even bedroom scenes, as if they were public spaces. This resulted in unrealistic and distorted representation of women, since they were shown veiling themselves from their next of kin in the privacy of their homes--something they would not do in real life. This was true even if the diegetic husband and wife were married to each other in real life. This curious situation arose because female characters had to veil themselves NOT from their diegetic next of kin but from the male audience members, who by definition were considered to be unrelated to them. In this manner, the spectators were always already sutured into the text. This undermined the voyeuristic structure of looking that Western film theorists posited for cinema, which is based on the unawareness of the subject of the fact that she is being watched. Another result was that non-verbal intimacy was absent from the screen for quite some time, as women veiled not only their bodies but also their sentiments. This tended to present a formidable challenge to the actors who had to express their feelings to their intimate relatives in psychologically unrealistic ways, without touching them (Naficy, 1991). Poetry became the only option for expressing intimacy, at first primarily for the men. Another result of veiling was that certain historical periods (such as the pre-revolution era) and certain civilizations (such as the West) were closed to Iranian cinema. They were simply unrepresentable because of the unrepresentability of the unveiled women in those periods and civilizations. Finally, the aesthetics of modesty also affected the on-screen relationship of the men, resulting in fascinating gender and sexual reconfiguration that were sometimes inimical to the ruling ideology, such as those that suggested male homoeroticism, as in Mohammad Reza A'lami's The Weak Point (Noqteh Za'f, 1983)--a form of sexuality that is severely punished in Islamic Iran.
The third phase appeared gradually (since the late 1980s) and it was marked by a more dramatic presence of women both on the screen in strong leading roles and behind the cameras as directors. A 1991 film entitled For the Sake of Everything (Beh Khater-e Hameh Cheez, directed by Rajab Mohammadin), is an example of the changed screen presence of women. It examines with moving realism the difficult lives of garment workers, all of whom are women--a long way from an all-male cast just a few years earlier. The director's comments express the perception of the changes: "Previously, Iranian women were portrayed as miserable, ignorant and superficial creatures who were used by men for sexual or decorative purposes. I wanted to tell a story in which women were virtuous, active, and socially constructive." ("For the Sake of Women's Image," Mahnameh-ye Sinema'i-ye Film no. 117 (Dey 1370/February 1991), p. 3 [I have edited the English for clarity, HN]).
While laudable, this replacement of the negative images of women by wholly positive ones could not guarantee a more realistic and complex representation. The restrictions on women served to represent women as "modest" and "chaste," preventing them from becoming sexual fetishes. This changed representation signaled the successful implementation of the injection theory of ideology and the realist illusionist theory of representation. However, this accomplishment was not counter hegemonic in so far as it replicated the dominant/subordinate relations of power between men and women in the society at large. The strong presence of women behind the camera was officially recognized in 1990, when the 9th Fajr Film Festival--the country's foremost national film event--devoted a whole program to the "women's cinema." This cinema is very diverse, as women are involved in all aspects of feature, documentary, short subject, and animated films as well as in all aspects of television films and serials production. Some of the filmmakers are quite versatile and they make documentaries, television soap operas, and feature films.
Of particular significance is the emergence of a new cadre of feature film directors (and prominent actresses) trained after the revolution, who have begun to make their mark on the cinema and provide powerful role models for other women. Prior to the revolution, only one woman, Shahla Riahi, had directed a feature film (Marjan, 1956). Today, nearly ten women are directing feature films--all of whom emerged since the revolution. They are: Tahmineh Ardekani (who died in a plane crash in 1995), Faryal Behzad, Rakhshan Banietemad, Marziyeh Borumand, Puran Derakhshandeh, Zohreh Mahasti Badii, Samira Makhmalbaf, Yasmin Maleknasr, Tahmineh Milani, and Kobra Saidi.
Their output has been abundant. More importantly, most of them have directed several films, indicating that after the purification process film making has become not a one-time shot-in-the-dark, but a legitimate profession for women. Increase in quantity, however, has not been matched by corresponding improvement in quality, which remains uneven. It would be inaccurate and politically naive to expect that women directors in the Islamic Republic necessarily present a better rounded or a more radically feminist perspective in their films than do male directors. In fact, many of them did not, particularly in the years immediately after the revolution; the situation has gradually and steadily improved, as the case study below demonstrates.