is this me? this no-body. that is dressed up, wrapped in veils, carefully kept distant, pushed to the side of History and change, nullified, kept out of the way, on the edge of the stage, on the kitchen side, the bedside? is this me?
– Hélène Cixous (1986: 69)
The structural erasure of women and queer subjects is inseparable from the identity of Iranian cinema, wherein these subjects are neither censored nor misrepresented but simply do not exist. The imaginary (or the prosthetic) body we are presented with, situated in unrealistic settings and appearances (seeing women sleeping veiled, wearing one scarf over another, unable to help/touch their injured son, brother, or husband, etc.), is a confused ideology commonly reduced to a binary of chaste/unchaste. Depictions of the ‘corrupt’ and the ‘virtuous’ woman are often relegated to monotonous imagery whose mere existence caters to a specific doctrine, dictating permissible appearances (the right and wrong ways of being a woman) inside and outside the cinema.
In many Iranian films, we are offered a limited and proscriptive set of necessarily repetitive gender performances whose purpose is, for the most part, far from a space for reflection. In other words, we are shown not how women live but how they must live – or else, there will be consequences. The difficulty, or rather the impossibility, of depicting the former due to strict screen regulations imposed by Ershad (Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance) has made many films obsessed with the latter: the consequences. Hence victim narratives centred on women’s suffering (her life inescapably shifting from one misfortune to another) dominate much of screen productions in varying ways and to various degrees. At times, the screenwriters have little choice other than killing the bodies who venture beyond the prescribed boundaries of admissible codes of conduct outlined by Ershad.
Dissecting the binary of chaste/unchaste women in post-revolutionary Iranian cinema through the films’ visual inscriptions, we notice the corrupt essence of a woman is signaled at first on the surface, materializing through an array of objects and props, including loose scarves exposing errant strands of hair, false eyelashes, long colored nails, hats, pets, cigarettes, (fake) alcoholic or energy drinks, and so forth. Seen in front of beds and mirrors, she has no children by choice, is career-driven, often a divorcee, with sultry eyes, laughing loudly, and chewing gum.
Yet, the opposite holds in the realm of the chaste, where the virtuous woman is most routinely seen in kitchens, mosques, or corridors of hospitals. For the modest woman, who emerges quietly through delicate hints, props are excessive. Colors and garments are curated diligently to attract no undue attention and to dissolve her into her surroundings. She is anchored to the men who define her world, her sacrifices become her identity, her needs overshadowed, and her desires submerged in familial values regulated by what the neighbors say.
Props in most of these images are rarely innocent and habitually removed from their known function into a forced surrogacy to provide a substitute for what cannot be shown or said. As a child, watching TV series involved a mode of viewing that demanded double vision. You see what you can see, but also what (you know) you can't. Sitting next to my parents was like having a live political commentary as they decoded every gesture, word, and object in the soap operas we watched. Nothing was innocent on the screen. In a video I made in 2021 (Irani Bag), I suggested that in the absence and prohibition of touch in post-revolution Iranian films, words, objects, and glances conspire. They become mediators, skin prosthetics, and sensual: subtle reminders that touch is never erased but fetishized.
A prosthesis is a medical device that replaces a missing body part. Here, I refer to it not as a missing part but as a missing whole. The imaginary and the prosthetic body replace the subjects missing from decades of Iranian cinema. Neither the chaste nor unchaste woman is a realistic representation but prescriptive or decorative. Each body/image contains its double/negative image. The corrupt/virtuous woman must obey the binary structure prescribed by the laws of the permitted and the forbidden enforced by Ershad. The cinematic rules that outline the screen representations of an unchaste woman follow the same socio-political values that punish and sustain the assault of women; she (her appearance) is responsible for the crimes committed against her.
The unchaste/abjected body is not a legitimised body and thus worth neither respecting nor saving from getting killed in the film. The demarcation of the chaste/unchaste body is not merely reductive or simplistic, but it is the parameter through which the domain of abjected and excluded subjects are produced to measure bodies’ worth and social merit. The limits of this binary hierarchy reflect state-controlled societal borders while normalising the brutal consequences for those who dare to imagine beyond its fiction. The consequences for bodies who defy the authority of the binary logic are humiliating, life-altering, and deadly – the tragically ever after, the inevitable endings in films imply that there is no way out. This gently demands women to conclude that obedience, tolerance, and sacrificing one's needs and desires are, after all, solely for her safety, in a country where male aggression can only be dodged, not questioned.
Her body, a workshop for political exploitation, has undergone varying degrees of policing for decades. Subjected to the shifting rules of modesty, wrapped in seen and unseen veils, her image becomes the vehicle through which we understand the cinematic regulatory protocols that extend beyond the silver screen and onto the street. Images regularly function not as representations but as instructions in the codes of public appearances and disappearances, teaching the intricacies of how one must present or efface oneself in order to survive.
In this video, through excerpts from films spanning three decades, I seek not to clarify or reinforce the dichotomy of women's onscreen portrayals but rather to leverage it as an opportunity to establish an alternative relationship between the two women—one that is prohibited and remains unseen within the confines of these films.
Cixous, Hélène. 1986. ‘Sorties: Out and Out: Attacks/Ways Out/Forays’, in The Newly Born Woman, trans. by Betsy Wing. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 69-73.
Maryam Tafakory [b. Shiraz/Iran] works with film and performance. Her work has been screened and exhibited at MoMA, Cannes’ Directors Fortnight, NYFF, Locarno, TIFF, FICUNAM, Oberhausen, and Anthology Film Archives, amongst others. She was awarded the Gold Hugo at the 58th Chicago Int'l Film Festival, the Tiger Short Award at the 51st IFFR, the Barbara Hammer Feminist Film Award at the 60th Ann Arbor Film Festival, and the Best Experimental Short Film at the 70th and 71st MIFF. She was the 2019 Flaherty/Colgate Distinguished Global Filmmaker in Residence.
She has delivered several papers and videographic research at international conferences, including the Film-Philosophy Conference, SAR International Conference on Artistic Research, and EASA Biennial amongst others. She serves as an Associate Editor of [in]Transition.