This kiss is not a kiss: Iran’s problem with women and film-makers

The fuss amongst religious conservatives in Iran over the actress Leila Hatami receiving a kiss on the cheek from the president of the Cannes Film Festival is … well, interesting.

You’ll recall that Iran’s Deputy Culture Minister Hossein Noushabadi was quoted as saying, somewhat ominously, that “those who attend international events should take heed of the credibility and chastity of Iranians, so that a bad image of Iranian women will not be demonstrated to the world.” Hatami’s presence at the film jamboree was, Noushabadi said, “inappropriate”, and “in violation of religious beliefs”.

Meanwhile, Iran’s Young Journalists’ Club, operated by Iran’s state broadcaster, said that even Hatami’s handshake with the Cannes president was “unconventional and improper behaviour”. Gilles Jacob, the Cannes kisser and hand-shaker in question, later maintained - rather ingeniously (or should that be disingenuously?) - that his air-kiss-style contact with Hatami was really something symbolic: “I kissed Mrs Hatami on the cheek. At that moment, for me she represented all Iranian cinema, then she became herself again”. Er, OK then.

Jacob’s rather strained explanation is clearly an attempt to spare Hatami any trouble back in Iran, though in the view of Jason Rezaian the high-profile actress’ supposed indiscretion is unlikely to be a serious issue if she broadly continues “working within the Islamic republic’s rules and regulations”.

And there’s the rub. Women in Iran have significantly fewer rights than men and their behaviour (dress, demeanour) is strictly policed according to a rigid view of “chastity”. Women are banned from running for the presidency, they can’t be judges, their evidence in a court (presided over by a male judge of course) is worth half that given by a man, they have inferior rights to men over inheritance, marriage, divorce and child custody, and fathers can lawfully arrange for daughters younger than 13 to be married to older men. Meanwhile, periodic crackdowns on “social vices” keep the public on their toes, with women (and men) arrested over their supposed infringements of “public decency” (under article 638 of the penal code, for example, women who appear in public “without wearing religiously acceptable cover” - long coats and headscarves - can be imprisoned for up to two months). It's restrictions like these that have given rise to - fairly modest - campaigns like the Facebook-based My Stealthy Freedom initiative, as well as the more ambitious Campaign for Equality a few years ago.  

On the one hand the Hatami-Jacob incident can appear almost absurdly trivial - for instance the journalist and prominent Iran tweeter Negar Mortazavi has tweeted a cartoon (see her timeline for 19 May) lampooning Tehran’s ludicrous overreaction when viewed against a multitude of serious human rights ills in the country. But on the other hand, the furore over a standard “mwah-mwah” luvvie non-kiss is also a serious indicator of how careful Iranian women have to be to stay safe.

One of the many depressing things about this is that Iran’s anti-women conservatives can’t seem to see further than their own bigoted views and appreciate that Hatami, as a juror at Cannes, was potentially doing a useful job of projecting (excuse the pun) a positive image of Iran via its amazingly good film industry. Just this weekend I myself fled the heat to watch an afternoon screening of The Past, Asghar Farhadi’s excellent new film set in France featuring Hatami’s real-life husband, the actor Ali Mossafi.

When you recall that Iran has recently produced Samira Makhmalbaf (The Apple, Blackboards) and Jafar Panahi (The Circle, The Offside), not to mention Abbas Kiarostami, then it’s doubly disheartening to see how Iran’s philistine establishment hardliners can disregard all this cultural capital and instead bark out their commands over “correct” behaviour. Relatedly, another example is this week’s arrest and parading on TV of six young Iranians in connection with a video of their version of Pharrell Williams’ hit song Happy. Indeed, in many cases - including where people are facing capital punishment - the Iranian judiciary and security establishment seem to think that the medium of television is best used to show people “confessing” to their supposed crimes, a warped form of fictionalised reality that involves the connivance of state-run media companies, including “journalists” from outfits like Press TV.

To return to the big screen, the film director Jafar Panahi has, of course, already so incensed Iran’s hardliners that he’s been given a six-year prison sentence and a 20-year ban on film-making. Already under attack from the authorities back in 2010, Panahi was the subject of a Juliette Binoche protest at ... that year’s Cannes festival. Yes, all cinematographic roads lead to the south of France.

I recently watched Panahi’s made-whilst-under-house-arrest protest documentary This Is Not A Film, a really engaging and sometimes funny exercise in meta-film making. This is the sort of stuff the Iranian government should be celebrating. Not complaining about a kiss that wasn’t even a kiss.

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