"We Are Half of Iran's Population"

Institutionalised Oppression

In her new documentary film, renowned director Rakhshan Bani-Etemad examines discrimination and legally disadvantaged position of Iranian women and highlights new forms of resistance to the political pressures in the Islamic Republic. By Alessandro Topa

Rachsan Bani-Etemad (photo: © Rakhshan Banietemad)
Two months after the elections, Bani-Etemad's documentary makes clear why so many Iranian women participated in the mass protests and why the only candidate who did not participate in her project, now wants to bring women into his cabinet

​​ "Who do you actually show these pictures to?" asks an exhausted female voice off-screen. "Why is nobody helping us?" complains another. The spectator, meanwhile, sees only a flickering computer screen, the preview window of the video recording showing several small rectangular frames, each containing the face of a veiled woman.

There are old women, and young, from across the social spectrum – a click suffices and the pictures begin to speak: "I want them, up there, the officials, whoever they are, to know that we are starving, that we've had enough," cries one of the women, pugnaciously, before breaking down in tears. Finally the camera comes to rest on the face of a girl, a face with fine eyebrows, framed by a beige coloured prayer chador.

On the margins of society

She is probably from one of the rural areas. She appears to gaze into the future as the voice of the narrator is heard for the first time. "Who sees these films? Who hears these words?" questions the off-screen voice. It is the voice of the director.

Born in Tehran in 1954, Rakhshan Bani-Etemad's films have, particularly during the last ten years of her long career, concentrated more and more on the precarious socio-economic situation of Iranian women.

Her protagonists are society's marginalized, those whose stories document the injustices perpetrated against them by the Islamic Republic in the name of Sharia law and tradition. In her film "Mainline" (Khun-bazi) the grande dame of Iranian auteur cinema even broached the taboo topic of female drug addiction.

New communication space

Her 2001 documentary "Our Times" (Ruzegar-e ma) brought the presidential election campaign of the time into focus as she ventured into the issues of political participation and women's rights, whilst accompanying a single mother on her failed attempt to become a candidate.

Women demonstrating in Teheran (photo: DW)
After the 2009 presidential elections many women took part in the protests against the Iranian regime, demanding political rights and an end of the authoritarian rule of the clergy

​​ "I have been a film-maker for thirty years, I have heard these questions time and again, but, ultimately, I have no answer to them," she says. "This time, however, in the spring of 2009, new spaces for communication opened up." And, indeed, at the beginning of the documentary "We are Half of Iran's Population" (Ma nimi az jamiyat-e Iran hastim) we are already made aware of the director's feeling that she now, at last, finally has some answers.

"To whom do you actually show these pictures? Who hears these words?" To these naïve, yet legitimate, complaints of desperate women, which, for a film-maker, also pose questions about the sense and relevance of politically committed film in a quasi-totalitarian state, Bani-Etemad answers by turning her film into a medium for communication between society and politics. A medium that was already circulating in Tehran in May complete with exhortation to "please make pirate copies!" and which, as historic document, captures the grassroot democratic spirit of optimism that reigned in Iran until June 19.

An indicator of just how strong the wish for political participation was is that shortly before the elections Bani-Etemad succeeded in persuading three of the four candidates to participate in her project and in screening the main documentary part of her film for them in a cinema.

Iranian women's movement coalition

Leading members of the Iranian women's movement feature in this highly informative main section of the film. Since Ahmadinejad's accession in 2005 they have gradually set aside their political differences in order to concentrate on fighting together in a coalition that has gained the support of both conservative-religious and secular feminists.

As journalist and co-initiator of the campaign for "one million signatures for the equality of women", Noushin Ahmadi Khorassani, makes clear, the demands of the coalition include in particular the accession of Iran to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women as well as pushing for the removal of all offending laws.

Points of contention are Articles 20 and 21 of the Iranian constitution, which, although they guarantee gender equality and the obligations of the state with respect to women, do so in a rather limited way and "in accordance with Islamic principles".

The struggle for equality

A second strand of the film documents the structural forms of violence, oppression and discrimination exerted against women in Iranian society, through a series of mostly anonymous interviews. Strangely, it is not the cases, such as those involving legal discrimination in custody and divorce law, for example, that cause most upset.

Schadi Sadr (photo: © Meydaan News)
Feminist Shadi Sadr was released along with 140 other political prisoners in mid-August 2009. According to the German Federal Foreign Office, a personal intervention by Foreign Minister Steinmeier helped to bring about the release

​​ It is, above all, the scenes that show the widespread material poverty affecting single mothers in Iran that really shock. It is the interviews with female students that outrage. Interviews with women who have achieved excellent university entrance qualifications, but who, due to the quota system introduced by the Ahmadinejad government, find themselves unable to fulfil their potential through study.

Or interviews such as that with Fatemeh Daneshwar, an entrepreneur who has built up a highly professional counselling and advice service for vulnerable women and families, who tells of the constant harassment from the authorities that jeopardizes her charitable work.

In short: it is an increasingly radical culture of misogyny that is captured in these interviews, interviews that reveal just how courageous and important a document "We Are Half of Iran's Population" is.

Ready for dialogue

At the end of the film we see Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karrubi und Mohsen Rezaei sitting in a small cinema where they have just been watching Bani-Etemad's film. Mousavi is interviewed in the company of his wife. The moderate and principled Rezaei has also bought along his women's representative. Mehdi Karrubi, on the other hand, is accompanied by Ali Abtahi, who was ten kilos heavier at the time.

Marsieh Wahid Dastdscherdi (left) and Fatemeh Adschorlu (photo: © shabestam-ir)
Ahmadinejad recently presented his cabinet list of 21 candidates for ministerial posts. For the first time since 1979 it includes three women: Fatemeh Ajorlou is proposed as social security minister, Marzieh Vahid Dastgerdi (left) is planned for the department of health and Sussan Keshavarz as education minister

​​ Both Rezaei and Mousavi, who is surprisingly careful in his choice of words, say essentially that politics cannot avoid taking account of the culture and tradition of the country. But as the lawyer and activist, Shadi Sadr, who was arrested in the street in July, had stressed shortly before, this "tradition" owes a great deal to a model of the family and an image of women that is enshrined in the constitution of the Islamic Republic. Only Mehdi Karrubi is visibly moved and shows himself ready to engage in dialogue with the women.

Populist motives for recognition

That the only candidate who was not willing to participate in the film and who is now posing as a fully fledged feminist intent on giving ministerial posts to women, Ahmadinejad is not only revealing himself as the arch populist, he is also showing that even a radical Islamist must now sit up and take notice – or at least pretend to – of the problems and the anger caused by Iranian women's lack of perspective.

Having borne the Islamic Revolution, the long years of war with Iraq and the reconstruction of the country, these courageous women, amongst them highly qualified academics who are currently expected to sell their skills for a pittance, are unlikely to content themselves with the prospect of the merely symbolic recognition currently being bestowed upon them in the form of three ministerial posts.

Alessandro Topa

© Qantara.de 2009

Translated from the German by Ron Walker

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