Guest Post: “We Are Half of Iran’s Population”

I received a film recommendation last week from my sister, who is finishing her masters in Iranian studies at St. Andrews.  I watched the film online (link below) and thought it was fascinating, so I asked her to introduce it to readers of this blog.  I hope this does not bar me from traveling to Iran one day.  Enjoy!

To keep with the theme of Tim’s earlier post about the dangers of oversimplification, I wanted to share a documentary that does exactly the opposite with the complex issue of women’s rights in Iran. Directed by Rakhshan Bani-E’temad, “We Are Half of Iran’s Population” (available with English subtitles here: http://www.linktv.org/programs/we-are-half-of-irans-population) features Iranian women from different political and social backgrounds asking presidential candidates how they will address specific legal and social problems affecting women. Shot just three months before the now infamous June 2009 presidential election, the film moves beyond well-publicized, western-oriented women’s rights issues to offer a glimpse of the myriad legal, economic and social challenges women in Iran face, and to show some of the ways women are confronting these problems.

Bani-E’temad takes viewers into a range of settings, from a crowded press conference for a coalition of women’s rights groups to “The House of the Sun,” a dingy treatment facility for female addicts. She interviews female activists, academics and journalists as well as women on the streets and women in shelters. Although certainly left-leaning, the film includes several women from conservative organizations who do not necessarily subscribe to a gender egalitarian view of women’s rights, but rather one centered on ensuring that women can fulfill their familial roles.

In spite of their distinctive backgrounds and political leanings, many of the women ask very similar questions—and, tellingly, none of them have much to do with the legally-enforced dress codes that the US and Europe so often condemn in the name of women’s rights. Rather, Iranian women young and old voice their concerns over divorce laws that favor men; quotas that limit women’s enrollment in certain educational fields; the lack of jobs for educated women and single mothers with children; the scarcity of women’s sports teams; domestic violence and many other laws (or gaps in the law) that put women at a disadvantage.

All of these questions and demands point to the film’s underlying message suggested by its title: that discriminating against half of the population hurts the entire nation, and as long as politicians ignore these discriminatory policies and practices, the whole country will suffer.

Following these interviews, Bani-E’temad turns the camera on the presidential candidates themselves, all of whom (with the notable exception of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) attended a screening of the documentary with their wives and/or their directors of women’s affairs. Though their responses (which begin at 35:40) sound like those of any politician pandering to a particular group, to frankly acknowledge on camera the legal discrimination facing women in a country whose government imprisons activists for much less provocative comments is itself significant. Their wives’ takes are even more pointed.

While discussions of Iranian women’s rights (and middle eastern women’s rights in general) in the US and Europe often focus exclusively on veiling practices and gendered forms of punishment such as stoning, films like “We Are Half of Iran’s Population” and Bani-E’temad’s many other documentaries and movies shed light on less hot-button topics that have more of a direct impact on women’s daily lives. This documentary is educational not only for international women’s rights activists, but for anyone hoping to gain some insight into the lives and concerns of the actual people living under the Iranian government.

Words by Claire Rann

~ by responsiblenomad on January 17, 2011.

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