Madeleine Davies

Expanding the circle in Iran

In Uncategorized on September 23, 2013 at 11:02 pm

The women in The Circle want to have a smoke. All are thwarted until the end, when a woman arrested after travelling in a car with a man who is not her husband is permitted to light up in the prison van.

It’s one of a number of moments in the film, released in 2000, in which a small kindness, or relenting, is shown. The director, Jafar Panahi, has said that he believes that “everyone is a good person”. In a film illustrating the many restrictions on women in his country, Iran, he shows a policeman asking a woman, vomiting as a result of an unwanted pregnancy, if he can help. A shop assistant holds a shirt up to a young soldier’s chest in order to help a young woman, recently released from prison, assess whether it would fit her fiancé. Panahi, who has rejected any suggestion that the film is feminist, asserts that he “never showed any kind of maltreatment or anger from men” in it.

“Iranian society, particularly in comparison to this part of the world, is a man’s world pretty much,” he said in an interview shown, in print, on the Artifical Eye DVD. “The radius might be marginally larger for men.”

Just how much larger can be demonstrated by looking at Iran’s penal code. The testimony of a woman is worth half of that of a man’s. The age of criminal responsibility is set at 15 for boys and 9 for girls. And the diya (blood money) for murdering a woman is half that of a man.

Panahi has said that he was not angry about the situation he depicted in the film. The emotion most powerfully conveyed is fear, rather than rage. In several scenes, women cower behind cars, an undignified, childlike position. Two women recently released from prison watch as another of their number is seized by the police; another observes as a young girl is abandoned by her mother. The fleeing, sneaking and skulking is all performed in the flowing garments of the attire prescribed by the State, making for an ungainly movement.

The film begins with the birth of a baby and the disappointment registered by its grandmother on learning that it is a girl. It goes on to tell the stories of several women, one after the other, all of whom have transgressed, although in most cases we are not told the exact nature of their crimes. One has a bruise under her eye which glimmers on screen, defying the viewer to look away, framed by a black veil and throbbing beneath the owner’s huge dark, frightened eyes.

There is a pervasive, suffocating sense of the walls closing in, accentuated by the style of direction – the women are followed along streets and corridors with a hand-held camera. Passage without an ID card or husband is difficult, as is entrance to a hotel or hostel. As is procuring an abortion. The women react to their confines in different ways. The youngest prisoner is still hopeful that she can find “paradise” in her home town. Her superior, pregnant, believes she can procure an abortion from a friend’s husband. When she delivers the news to former friends that the father of this unwanted child was executed she is blunt and calm. Resilience is much in evidence. Even defiance, in the young woman arrested for prostitution in the film’s final scenes. The penultimate shot of the film, panning the inside of a prison cell, shows women sitting in a ragged circle, leaning against the walls listlessly.

Shot in a naturalistic style and largely acted by amateurs, the film is, in part an education – an insight into a country largely closed to visitors from Britain (the Foreign Office advises against all but essential travel to the country and warns of the its “limited ability to assist in any difficulty”). It often reminded me of the dystopian society depicted by Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale, partly perhaps because of the billowing veils. But it also captures normality – travel without a chaperone is forbidden but this restriction takes the form of a bored bureaucrat who eventually relents. Although the fact that the chief protagonists have been arrested suggests that rebellion exists, much of the action involves characters wearily trying to find ways to get what needs to be done, done, despite strength-sapping restrictions. “I hope that if this film has any kind of effect on anyone, it would be to make them try to expand the size of the radius,” said Panahi in 2000. The suggestion seems to be that this could be as simple as sparking up.

I discovered after watching the film that, since the 1990s, more than 60 percent of Iran’s university students have been women. It is also worth noting this paragraph from the Iran Human Rights Documentation Centre:

“It is not deniable that, in stark contrast to Saudi Arabia and countries with similar gender oppression, Iranian women have the equal right to drive, vote, do not need to be accompanied by a male member of their families in public places, and have surpassed men in university entrance exams, unlike any other country in the region. However, despite these relative strides, the IRI legal system recognizes women as dependent upon men and incomplete human beings who need to be supervised and controlled by men and the State.”

In 2000, the year the film was released, Iran had seen many petty social restrictions eased. Human Rights Watch reported that, “in the years following the election of President Mohammad Khatami in 1997, on a platform of supporting the rule of law and civil society, independent newspapers and journals flourished in Iran.”

What followed was a wave of repression and in 2008, under President Ahmadinejad’s administration, the organisation warned that Iran’s human rights record had deteriorated markedly. Between 2005 and 2007 there was an increase of nearly 300% in executions and by 2012, Iran was one of the world’s foremost executioners, with more than 500 prisoners hanged either in prisons or in public.

Ten years after The Circle was released,  Panahi himself was sentenced to a six-year jail sentence and a 20 year-band on making films. This hasn’t stopped him.

The election of Iran’s new President, Dr Hassan Rouhani, sworn in on the 4th August, has prompted hopes for a relaxation of restrictions. “A strong government does not mean a government that interferes and intervenes in all affairs. It is not a government that limits the lives of people,” reads a post-election speech.

The Film Guild, closed last year, was reopened this month and the release of 11 political prisoners, including Nasrin Soutedh, with whom Panahi shared the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought last year, has prompted speculation that he might be released from house arrest.

In the meantime, women in Iran continue to push at the confines of the circle.

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