Author: Zainab Zeb Khan 

Author, Zainab Khan moderating Q&A with director Saeed Nouri at the Iranian 30th Annual Festival of Films from Iran

Iranian women’s rights have been a prime example of why personal stories are integral to understanding history. On March 1st, the Muslim American Leadership Alliance (MALA) participated as a sponsor of the US premiere of the groundbreaking documentary “Women According to Men” by critically acclaimed director Saeed Nouri at the Gene Siskel Film Center’s 30th Annual of Festival of Films from Iran. The screening marked the kick off of Women’s History Month and highlighted the closing of the film festival which, for three decades, has endured as a showcase that has brought the innovation, resilience, and humanism of one of the world’s great national cinemas to Chicago at the 48-year-old art house cinema in Chicago’s Loop. With films like “Women According to Men”, now more than ever, the voices of Iranian artists need to be heard in exploring our shared humanity through history, compassion, comedy, and love.

The film depicts destroyed footage as far back as 1934. Through meticulously crafted footage of archived Iranian cinema, we learn that under the Shah, efforts were made to modernize the system and bring it more in line with norms shared among most western nations. 

The reforms were championed by women’s groups and media across the globe. At the 11th hour of the Shah’s governance, these efforts were finally rewarded with results, as the Royal National Assembly passed the new “Family Protection Act,” which sought to enforce equality between men and women in matters pertaining to family life and divorce.

The new law was condemned harshly by the incoming theocracy. Ayatollah Khomeini, the future founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, expressed his outrage from exile: “The socalled family protection law, passed by representatives of foreign interests running the country, is null and void… Divorcees under this law, are married women who will be adulteress if they remarry… Children who are products of such marriage will be considered born out of wedlock, and will have no share of their parents’ estate.”

It is clearly apparent that the condemnation does not extend to men, because under the current regime, men can practice polygamy and hence a man subsequently remarrying after divorce under this law is not a social or religious issue-only if you are not a woman.

The Ayatollah would soon have his revenge. With the collapse of the relatively secular royalist rule in early 1979 and official establishment of theocracy in Iran, known as “leadership by the clergy,” as their system would later be called, one of the first orders of business was to roll back the freedoms women’s right activists had earned. An early sign of what was to come was the enforcement of dress codes for women in public.

Only weeks after the establishment of the new system on March 7, 1979, a large protest by women against compulsory hijab was subjected to brutal crackdown by the notorious Komités (or committees, as the new armed units in charge of enforcement of Islamic law were called). And this was just a taste for more to come.

“Women According to Men” directed by Saeed Nouri

The laws that took effect in Iran subsequently, whether pertaining directly to the family or not, were an embodiment of systemic sexism enshrined in a version of Islamist Sharia: from reducing legal marriage age for girls to 9, to “modesty patrols” terrorizing the streets by arresting women on trumped up charges of showing “too much” hair, to putting compensation for injuring or killing women at half of men in traffic accidents as well as boys getting twice as much inheritance as girls, to giving automatic custody to fathers in divorce cases, to a woman’s legal testimony being worth half a man’s.

There are also certain jobs that women have been barred from having altogether, such as judgeships (and of course, leadership of the state), because those positions are reserved for Muslim clergy, and women cannot become clergy. 

The message was and still remains clear: women are not as worthy as men.

The more recent years have seen Iranian women nonviolently fighting back against discrimination, as well as the reactionary regime’s responding with brute force. Through MALA’s storytelling project, the Iranian American diaspora includes stories of some of the most prominent women across sectors of medicine, arts, technology, and entrepreneurship- all roles that have made them able to strive and thrive once leaving Iran. 

Just as we saw women protesting mandatory hijab by taking their headscarves off and waving them on sticks of wood, we have seen imprisonment, not just of “perpetrators” of such “lawlessness,” but lawyers representing them: the most notorious case being that of Nasrin Sotoudeh, the lawyer representing “Revolution Street Girls,” a group of women representing women protesting compulsory dress for women, who was sentenced to 5 years in prison for “actions against national security”.

Those of us in the developed nations who have the means and the freedom to amplify the voices of Sotoudeh and women like her, have a moral responsibility to do so. 

We have lived long enough with the repulsive rule “one law for women under theocratic dominance and another for the rest of the world,” and we cannot stay quiet any longer, because at this point, silence is complicity. The world wouldn’t stay quiet if women in Europe or North America were treated like this, and it shouldn’t stay quite when it happens to women in the Middle East, North Africa and East and Southeast Asia.

We applaud Saeed Nouri for his bravery and ambition in creating this wonderful, powerful, and brilliant work of art and history combined in an aesthetically profound film. As the world celebrates women for Women’s History Month in March, MALA’s community is doing the same – while also demanding a safer, more equitable society for women everywhere. 

About the Author

Zainab Zeb Khan

Zainab Zeb Khan is Chair and Cofounder of the Muslim American Leadership Alliance. Born in the US to Pakistani-Afghan immigrants, she became an activist after eye-opening experiences counseling survivors of domestic violence and organizing exhibitions for artists facing repression. A former Senior Clinician holding a Master’s Degree in Clinical Psychology, Zainab also co-curated the International Museum of Women’s exhibition “Muslimah: Muslim Women’s Arts and Voices”and has served as a United Nations Delegate on the Commission on the Status of Women since 2013. Most recently, she contributed a chapter to the bookCan Art Aid in Resolving Conflicts (Amsterdam: FRAME Publishers, 2018). Zainab has been published in the Oral History Review on Muslim American oral histories, and also serves as an Advisory Impact Board of Director for Picture Motion. 

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