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  • Negotiating the Forbidden:On Women and Sexual Love in Iranian Cinema
  • Ziba Mir-Hosseini (bio)

Women and sexual love are time-honored—but problematic—themes in Iranian cinema. Soon after the 1979 revolution and the establishment of the Islamic Republic in Iran, these themes were forced into the straitjacket of Islamist ideology and Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh), which allowed little room for representations of current social realities. The authorities imposed hejab (a dress code) and sexual segregation, and the public presence of women and the expression of sexual love became highly restricted. For almost a decade, Iranian filmgoers would look in vain for screen depictions of women and love. Gradually, however, both came out of the shadows; and by the late 1990s, they were once again leading—if highly controversial—themes in the Iranian cinema.

In this essay I explore these developments through a discussion of three films, which in different ways were landmarks in the passage out of the shadows and became the focus of heated debates for their transgression of the rules. They are Abdolhossein Sepanta's The Lor Girl (Dokhtar-e Lor; 1933), Mohsen Makhmalbaf's A Time to Love (Nowbat-e 'Asheqi; 1991), and Behrouz Afkhami's Hemlock (Showkaran; 2000).

I argue that the problem of the cinematic representation of women and romantic love in Iran long predates the birth of the Islamic Republic. It is part of a larger problematic, which has two elements. The first is a deep-rooted ambivalence in Iranian culture and society toward love and women: on the one hand, both are "objects of desire," and, on the other, both are feared as corrupting influences. The second element is an ongoing struggle between the forces of modernity and traditionalism, in which women and their bodies have become a battleground. While the first element, the ambivalence, is ancient and more poetic in form and expression, the second (women's bodies as battleground) is contemporary and more political. This contrast is evident in the two famous twentieth-century mandates on how women should appear in public. In 1936 Reza Shah, the first Pahlavi monarch, banned hejab and punished women who appeared in public wearing a chador or scarf. In 1983 the Islamic Republic did the opposite.

By imposing religious rules on cinema, the Islamic Republic accentuated and politicized both the cultural ambivalence toward sexual love and women and the conflict between tradition and modernity. This in time opened the way for renegotiating some old cultural and religious taboos. [End Page 673]

Sexual Love and the Art of Ambiguity

Love has always been the main theme in Persian poetry, where it is seldom clear whether the writer is talking about divine or earthly love, or (given the absence of grammatical gender in Persian) whether the "beloved" is male or female. Both the Persian language and the poetic form have allowed writers to maintain and even work with these ambiguities. The art of ambiguity (iham), perfected in the work of classical poets such as Hafez, has spoken to generations of Iranians, including the present one.

But such ambiguity cannot be maintained in the performative and visual arts, where both the language and the form demand greater transparency and directness in the depiction of women and love. Among the traditional solutions to this problem were either the complete elimination of women or idealized and unrealistic representations. The first is seen in ta'ziyah, the religious passion plays, where women's roles have always been played by men, and the second in the "neuter" figures depicted in much painting before the later Qajar period—embodiments of how the "beloved" was described in classical poetry.1 In these paintings, as Afsaneh Najmabadi argues, male and female attributes of beauty—such as arched eyebrows and slim waists—are blended in such a way that a figure emerges, which she calls "neuter."2

By the late nineteenth century, with the advent of photography, representation became more naturalistic, and women's bodies were depicted more realistically in both painting and photography.3 In the twentieth century, the drive to "modernization" under Reza Shah, and the corresponding take-off of cinema as public entertainment in Iran, reinforced this tendency. Not only had Iranian...


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