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The Silent Treatment

Woman needs only a few words to condemn an entire culture

On the day she turns nine years old, an Iranian girl must bid childhood farewell. Male playmates are banished; girlish dresses are exchanged for a loose-fitting chador, to hide the curves the wearer will develop as her body matures; and a rigid segregation of the sexes is suddenly enforced.

From a liberal Western perspective, fundamentalist Islamic society is a living nightmare for women. It is a charge that can be leveled equally against ultra-Orthodox Judaism and many other extremist religious orders and cultures, most of which thrive within a highly regimented and patriarchal society. Essentially females are relegated to the role of second-class citizens.

Increasingly, Iranian films are addressing the plight of postrevolutionary women. (A brief history lesson for those too young to remember: In 1979 a mass movement loyal to exiled fundamentalist religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini staged an uprising, a social revolution, which led to the ouster of the Shah and to the creation of a dyed-in-the-wool Islamic state. The good news: A corrupt, repressive, autocratic leader had been removed. The bad news: An inflexible, dictatorial, narrow-minded ruler took his place.)

First-time filmmaker Marzieh Meshkini takes an impressionistic look at a society that literally keeps girls under wraps, starting at age nine.
First-time filmmaker Marzieh Meshkini takes an impressionistic look at a society that literally keeps girls under wraps, starting at age nine.

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It's hard to decide which is more astounding: that women directors inside Iran are making films unmistakably critical of the status quo, or that male directors are tackling the problem with equal ardor. Some of these films, such as Jafar Panahi's The Circle, have been banned in their own country (although Circle won the Golden Lion at the 2000 Venice Film Festival). Others, including last year's Two Women, by Tahmineh Milani, and The Day I Became a Woman, have had at least a limited release in their native land. All of these films shine an unprecedented light onto the lives of women in contemporary Iran.

Directed by first-time filmmaker Marzieh Meshkini, The Day I Became a Woman comprises three separate but related stories. The first concerns Havva (Fatemeh Cheragh Akhtar in her acting debut), who awakens on her ninth birthday to be told she can no longer play with boys. Under Islamic law, she is now considered a woman, and interaction between the sexes is tightly regulated. The spirited child notes that it is only 11 a.m., and as she was not born until noon, she still has one hour in which to enjoy her childhood. Over the objections of a strict grandmother ("Hide your hair," the old woman scolds the little girl. "Don't sin."), her more understanding mother allows her a final hour of unrestricted play.

It is no accident that "Havva" translates as "Eve." Director Meshkini, who was born in 1969 and is married to celebrated Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf (The Pedlar, The Silence), means for her young protagonist to represent all women. The final shot of this cinematic short story reveals Eve's mother, chador in hand, walking up to her daughter on the beach where the youngster has gone to play. The blue sea stretches out behind them.

The second segment opens with a man on horseback, thundering across the countryside in pursuit of some two dozen women who are participating in a bicycle race. With their dark chadors whipping in the wind, these smiling, laughing women could be a group of French nuns on a weekend outing to the seashore. (According to Meshkini, the film was shot on Kish Island because it is the only place women are allowed to ride bicycles in Iran.)

The horseman catches up to the one woman in the group who is not smiling; he yells at her to return home and resume her wifely duties. Soon he is joined by other horsemen, all members of the same tribe, entreating Ahoo (Shabnam Toloui, one of the few professional actors in the film) to stop riding or face expulsion from the community. As Ahoo ("gazelle" in Farsi) furiously continues pedaling, her eyes register an increasing sense of desperation.

The third segment concerns Houra (Azizeh Seddighi), an old woman who has come to the island to purchase luxury items that seem rather useless to her. A touch of surrealism descends upon the film as the young boys whom she has hired to carry her new possessions spread them out along the beach and cavort there with a washing machine, which is miraculously spinning clothes without the benefit of electricity.

The Day I Became a Woman is a spare film, with little dialogue but a lot to say. Shots are long and lingering, with minimal activity within the frame and few camera movements. Natural background sounds fill the long silences. Only a few images stick in the mind, but they are powerful enough to make a deep impression. In the second section, a slow-motion shot of a horse's legs conjures up visions of the headless horseman. Neither the rider nor the upper half of the horse is seen, heightening the sense of doom and futility that overtakes Ahoo as she, metaphorically at least, pedals for her life. A second image is of Havva's little friend. Unable to come out and play because he has not done his homework, the boy stands with his small hands cupped around the bars that cover the window. He, rather than she, appears to be the one imprisoned, perhaps a subtle reminder that in some societies, no one is really free.

 
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