When legendary — and politically militant — Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf wanted to start a state-funded film school in his native country, the government refused, unwilling to sponsor a breeding ground for more troublemakers like Makhmalbaf. So he started the school anyway on his own, and took on his wife, Marzieh Meshkini, as one of his students. No wonder the powers that be worried about Makhmalbaf’s influence — Meshkini’s thesis film, The Day I Became a Woman, is a scathing indictment of the harsh, stifling treatment of women in Iran.
At least it is from a Western point of view.
A series of three short films depicting the passages in the lives of Iranian women, Day seems to brim with defiance in the face of society that restrict female freedom. But I wonder if that’s the intended effect… and if it is, would it also appear that way to a native audience?
The first chapter introduces us to Havva (Fatemeh Cherag Akhar), on the morning of her 9th birthday. This is, her mother and grandmother remind her, the day she enters womanhood, so there will be no more playing or other childhood foolishness. Her young friend, Hassan (Hassan Nebhan), is confused — yesterday she could come play with him, and today she can’t? — and Havva herself wants none of this grownup foolishness, like the wearing of the chador. Since she wasn’t born until noon, shouldn’t she be free to play until noon, when she’ll actually turn 9? She is granted a reprieve till then, to go romp with Hassan on the beach, and is given a stick by which to measure the time — when the stick no longer has a shadow, it’s time for her to come home.
Does Havva’s tale read as merely a bittersweet farewell to childhood to an Iranian audience, many of which likely see nothing amiss in hiding women from the world under black drapes and removing her from interaction with men? Or do they see an almost erotic knowingness in Havva’s pixie face as she shares a lollipop with Hassan? (Iranian government censors did, anyway — Meshkini had to fight to keep the scene in the film.) Do they see her reluctance to give up the joy and liberty of childhood as a metaphoric rebuke of social mores, or merely as a normal step on the road to womanhood?
The next installment focuses on Ahoo (Shabnam Toloui), a 30ish woman participating in a bicycle race with hundreds of other women, pursed all the while by her husband (Sirous Kahvarinegad), on horseback, who threatens to divorce her on the spot if she doesn’t abandon this activity immediately. Meshkini uses what is essentially one long chase sequence, one with very little dialogue and lots of tight shots of Toloui’s desperate face, to convey a desire for a freedom that is unreachable.
But would an Iranian audience find it blackly, bitterly funny when the husband shouts at the female cyclists, “Why are you all riding? Don’t you have a man?” Would they see irony in the fact that the tribesmen who accompany the husband are shirtless in the desert heat while the women must be draped in the black chador… over their clothes… while riding bikes? Would they see the symbolism of the traditional husband riding an old-fashioned horse and the rebel wife riding a very modern racing bike?
Finally, we meet Houra (Azizeh Sedighi), a wheelchair-bound old lady, who flies into the airport on the tourist island of Kish to shop at the duty-free malls, spending wads of money on all the things she never had, from teapots to a refrigerator, an army of boys pushing her newly acquired goods on carts in a train behind her. Do Iranian audiences find her comical because this is obviously the kind of craziness you can expect from a woman who does have a little freedom? Or do they see that a lifetime of deprivation is what causes the craziness?
A raft floats free of the beach, Havva’s chador as its sail; a swarm of black-clad women speed through the desert on bicycles; Houra’s entire household is laid out on the beach, a bedroom here, a kitchen there. Do Iranian audiences see Meshkini’s tart ode to freedom, despair of confinement, and requiem for lost opportunity for what it is? Or do they just see pretty, surreal images of silly women?