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Ruzi keh Zan Shodam (The Day I Became a Woman, Marzieh Meshkiny, 2000) is Marzieh Meshkiny’s debut film, produced by the Makhmalbaf Film House which was founded in 1996 by renowned Iranian film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, also Meshkiny’s husband. The film is composed of three interconnected stories of women’s lives at different stages; each of which may be said to offer a subtle critique of traditional gender roles and expectations conveyed through each protagonist’s quest for personal agency. In the first story, a young girl named Hava (Fatemeh Cherag Akhar) resists becoming a woman and the obligation to wear a chador (a full covering) on the morning of her ninth birthday. In the second story, Ahoo (Shabnam Toloui) cycles in a metaphorical bicycle race defying her husband, and finally Houra (Azizeh Sedighi), an elderly woman, mysteriously comes into money and goes on a shopping spree to buy the things she never had. 

Each story is rich with symbolism where the Iranian veil or chador may be seen as an object of discourse centring each girl/woman’s quest for personal agency.  According to Walid El Khachab, one hypothesis regarding the veil in Middle Eastern photography, art and cinema is that it functions as a tangible piece of fabric with multi-faceted roles, akin to a “meta-skin.” The veil as meta-skin creates discourse through its potential to organise cinematic space, serving as an icon of cultural identity, beyond that of a mere symbol of oppression.1 In this sense, the veil may be interpreted as a site of negotiation for extended childhood in the first story of Havva, while the physical hindrance of the veil’s fabric in Ahoo’s forbidden race along with other chador-clad women help to convey her struggle for agency. Moreover, Houra, in her complete veiled presence, offers a reflection on the cyclical nature of cultural norms and societal constraints endured in the totality of a woman’s life, leaving the door open for further reflection.  

On the morning of her ninth birthday, Hava’s grandmother (Ameneh Passand) wakes her up and immediately declares her a woman, to the little girl’s puzzlement. The grandmother and mother (Shahr Banou Sisizadeh) fuss lovingly, sizing her up for the chador she will don on this day as she squirms and refuses their efforts. In the process, Hava picks up on her mother’s recounting of her birth around noon and turns the tables by asserting that she is rightfully allowed the last hour of her childhood as it’s not noon yet. Her grandmother yields, but stipulates she must return home when the shadow of a stick has disappeared. They place a black scarf around Hava, as if to signify the placeholder for the chador, before she runs off to find her friend Hassan (Hassan Nebhan). While waiting for him at the beach, Hava encounters two boys of roughly the same age making a raft out of garbage cans. The scarf in this scene initially seems to function merely as a shield from the sun until one of the boys asks if she wants to trade it for a little yellow toy fish. She happily accepts and floats it in the sea, as the boys attach the material of her scarf to their little boat. As the scene draws to a close, the boys float their raft and Hava’s scarf fills with wind, connecting back to the opening shot of the sail catching the wind, reinforcing an allusion to the fleeting agency and liberation of childhood.

Similarly, in the second story, the chador comes to signify personal agency and the latent potential for collective empowerment, as Ahoo and other chador-clad women ride in a forbidden bicycle race. During Ahoo’s ride, the fabric of her chador becomes unruly, flying off her head just when her husband (Sirous Kahvarinegad) catches up to her on horseback and begins to chastise her while the other women look on with their chadors in place. During the heated exchange, Ahoo bites down on the unruly fabric saying “No” in resistance to her husband’s authority. As the race progresses, Ahoo is either ahead of the pack or falls back after further altercations with her father and the men of the tribe who disown her, resulting in Ahoo cycling stretches of the path alone. The significance of the chador-clad women as a collective varies, with some forming alliances and others competing individually. Notably, a young teenager (Norieh Mahigiran) passes Ahoo, wearing her chador unconventionally with pop music escaping the headphones worn over her ears. Despite Ahoo’s attempts to retake the lead, the young woman overtakes her, wistfully suggesting that Ahoo’s journey may pave the way for others, but not herself. 

In founding his nontraditional film school, Makhmalbaf asserted that learning filmmaking should extend beyond the conventional boundaries of teaching cinema. As such, he encouraged students to engage in physical activities such as driving lessons, swimming, skating, and cycling, emphasising the importance of bodily strength for filmmakers.2 Meshkiny recounts cycling 8 hours a day for a month as part of this unique training regimen.3 Considering the metaphorical bike race featured in Ahoo’s story, it becomes evident how life and art are intrinsically woven into the film.  

The final story of Houra, an elderly wheelchair-bound woman in full chador, creates a discourse about societal constraints through the opportunity for a shopping spree. Accompanied by a curious boy (Badr Iravani), she collects goods symbolising her newfound agency to make the life she never had, represented by colourful bits of material tied to her fingers, each corresponding to items on her shopping list. As they journey from shop to shop, Houra shares snippets of her life story, revealing a lost suitor which presumably set in motion her marginal status in society. The norms and values of a woman’s life manifests subtly when she is confronted with a glass teapot that she deems “shamelessly naked”; her reaction alluding to the code of the chador she has adhered to since childhood. At the beach, the domestic goods are set up on display and when her back is turned, a collection of teenage and pubescent boys play without restriction: one tries on lipstick and another dons a wedding dress while a washing machine spins mysteriously on the beach, momentarily detaching each of these objects from their domestic feminine signification.  

When two chador-clad women with bicycles arrive, they marvel at Houra’s items, highlighting the societal expectation that a woman’s worth is tied to material possessions, evidenced by their own lack of dowries. As Houra is taken to a larger boat with her goods, Hava arrives with her mother. Gazing at the spectacle of Houra’s departure, Hava lingers on the boys and their rafts, which sport black fabric sails reminiscent of her scarf and chador. The connection between generations of women, symbolised by Hava and the women of the bicycle race occupying the same space on the beach, suggests the cyclical nature of women’s lives and experiences, leaving the interpretation open to broader implications beyond oppression.

While Meshkiny attributes the metaphorical style of her film and others to the constraints of Iranian government censorship; a “blessing in disguise,”4 the full richness of Meshkiny’s film and others produced by the family should be regarded in the totality of output of the family film house. As Hamid Naficy points out, the production mode of family members working on each other’s films, while respecting the autonomy of individual efforts, creates a web of intertextuality and interconnectedness that must be viewed together to unveil their collective and cultural significance.5 

Rouzi Ke Zan Shodam/The Day I Became a Woman (2000 Iran 78 mins) 

Dir: Marzieh Meshkiny Prod. Co: Makhmalbaf Film House Scr: Marzieh Meshkiny and Mohsen Makhmalbaf Phot: Maysam Makhmalbaf, Hana Makhmalbaf Mus: Mohammad Reza Darvishi Ed: Shahrzad Poya, Maysam Makhmalbaf Snd: Behrouz Shahamat Set Dsg: Akbar Meshkini Snd Eng: Hossein Mahdavi 

Cast: Fatemeh Cheragh Akhar, Shahr Banou Sisizadeh, Ameneh Passand, Shabnam Toloui, Azizeh Sedighi, Hassan Nebham, Sirous Kahvarinegad, Norieh Mahigiran, Badr Iravani

Endnotes

  1. Walid El Khachab, “The Veil as National Allegory: Cinema, Visual Arts, and the Epistemological Trope of Fabric,” Canadian Review of Comparative Literature / Revue Canadienne de Littérature Comparée, Volume 45, no. 2 (2018): pp. 243-244.
  2. Mohsen Makhmalbaf, “About Makhmalbaf Film House,” Makhmalbaf Family Official Website, 7 June 2000.
  3. Joan Dupont, “An Iranian Traces the Path of a Woman’s Life,” The New York Times, 24 November 2000.
  4. Dupont.
  5. Hamid Naficy, “All Certainties Melt into Thin Air: Art-House Cinema, a Postal Cinema” in A Social History of Iranian Cinema, Volume 4 (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2012), pp. 229 – 223. pp. 223-229.

About The Author

Sandra E. Lim currently lectures on Politics and Film at Toronto Metropolitan University, Canada. She holds a PhD in Art and Design for the Moving Image, from the University of Brighton in the UK. Her writing on films and art can be found in the journals Screenworks and Reconstruction. Additionally, her moving image work is distributed by the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre (CFMDC) Toronto.

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