Women Without Men is the debut feature of Shirin Neshat, a brave and talented Iranian artist who is daring to talk about a topic many stay away from: women in a conservative Islamic society. Her film is a beautiful, poetic adaptation of a 1990 novel by Shahrnush Parsipur, a work which is banned in Iran. Neshat was born and raised in Iran, although her upbringing was more Western-orientated than other Iranian women of the time. Although from a Muslim family, she went to a Catholic school in Tehran and studied art in America. This sense of variety in her upbringing and her cultural influences comes, she says, from her father: “I lived through his influence; he always encouraged me to be an individual, to take risks, to learn, to see the world, as he always did.”*
Her reputation as an artist began to emerge when she produced a series of photographs which were collected together under the name of Women of Allah. They depicted Neshat herself holding weapons, dressed in the black veil. From these photos, which were shot and displayed throughout the 1990s, we can see her starting to tackle in a very head-on way the subject of female repression in Islamic society. However, Neshat has insisted that it is important that her work shows the power of Iranian women: “In Iran, women are quite powerful, unlike their clichéd image. What I try to convey through my work is that power, which is quite candid”.* Her photographs certainly do contain a forthright power to them, and it is this challenging and provocative quality that Neshat brought with her when making her debut feature film.
Although the finishing work ended up becoming a feature film, Women Without Men started life as a series of video art installations. It blossomed, from these moving images, into a drama that pokes and prods at the delicate issue of female influence in Iran. The film endeavours to tell the story of the upheaval that came about in Iran during the period around the US/British-instigated coup, and does this by focusing on the lives of four women from different classes and backgrounds.
The film opens with a woman, Munis, throwing herself off a roof to escape her domineering brother. We are then taken back to a point before this suicide attempt where she is being chastised by her brother about not being productive in her life. He is appalled that she is thirty years of age and not married. But Munis explains she does not want to get married. She appears to have an interest in politics, and listens intently to reports on the radio of the current troubling state of the country.
Munis has a friend named Faezeh who is assaulted in the street by a group of men. She clearly likes Munis’ brother, but she is also consumed by the shame that surrounds her after being attacked. She becomes both a victim of violence and the values of the society she lives in.
The final two women couldn’t be more different in terms of class and social standing. One is Zarin (pictured left), a prostitute, and the other is Fakhri, an upper-class woman who is in an unhappy marriage to a military-man. Zarin has anorexia. In one scene – a very painful one to watch – she scrubs her skin at a public pool so hard the flesh starts to break and blood rises to the surface. Fakhri’s troubles are domestic. She is not happy with her marriage and finds her husband cruel and insensitive. She decides to leave him and buys a house. It is surrounded by a high wall and a lot of trees – a heaven to shelter her from the social storm that is currently raging in her country.
The imagery Neshat uses is brilliantly potent, and combines the novel’s sense of magic realism with her own understanding of symbolic visual energy. There are moments when Fakhri’s safe sanctuary looks like something out of a bleak, melancholy fairytale. Because Neshat is no longer allowed to enter Iran, Morocco fills in for the country and she harnesses its savage beauty magnificently well.
Women Without Men doesn’t try to offer concrete solutions to the problems that are raised within the film, nor does it put politics before character. It is an involving film – perhaps the most interesting feminist picture of the 2000s – and reminds the viewer of the challenging and emotional power of cinema.
Women Without Men (2009), directed by Shirin Neshat, is released on DVD in the UK by Artificial Eye, Certificate 15.
Quotes: *Between two worlds: an interview with Shirin Neshat. **Essay on Women Without Men by Marco Muller in Take 100, published by Phaidon.