Wo[men]: Shirin Neshat’s Foray into Film is Allegorical Genius

I think this is the piece I am proudest of from FREN/CPLT 359. Women Without Men was a difficult movie to analyze. I found it challenging to decide how to represent the movie in an accurate way, lauding what I thought was a masterfully designed allegory while remaining largely descriptive and objective.


In her first feature-length film, Women Without Men, the visual artist Shirin Neshat paints a complex picture of Iranian life in the 1950s. Based on stories by Shahrnush Parsipur, the movie follows the lives of four women who, for various reasons, are living their lives outside the status quo. Munis is almost thirty years old and refuses to get married, contrary to her controlling older brother’s wishes. Her friend Faezeh is a modest young woman who wants to marry Munis’s brother; he, however, is betrothed to someone else. Zarin is a prostitute who cannot bear to spend one more day in the brothel where she works. And Fakhri is so fed up with her marriage and emotionally neglected by her husband that she divorces him and moves out of the house. Munis, the film’s narrator, spends much of her time in the city, while the other three women meet in a safe house owned by Fakhri, where each finds her own form of refuge.

The women’s disjointed–yet somehow connected–stories are told against the backdrop of 1953 Iran. The power of Women Without Men, which began as a series of audio/video installations, does not lie in its narrative. It is a story told in moments, with the signature techniques of an installation artist visible throughout. The intensity and individuality of each scene can be appreciated as a piece of art; narrative is not prioritized. Were the scenes to be shuffled around and rearranged, not much of the story would be lost; it would almost be akin to walking the opposite way around a gallery. Like many other films in the genre of magical realism, Neshat’s creation weaves together the familiar, the uncanny, and the aesthetic, and the result is a work of art that is deeply moving. All four of the women transcend their environments and together they become an allegorical representation of the ways in which the male gaze oppresses women. And reciprocally, through each woman, we bear witness to the ways in which women fight back.

Neshat tackles the concepts of death as freedom, society’s definition of purity, the reduction of woman to her body, and the intellectual freedom of the independent woman. She invites viewers on a journey to investigate each theme through Munis, Faezeh, Zarin, and Fakhri. Remarkably, Neshat does this without succumbing to the temptation of an over-the-top, heavy-handed visual allegory.

Munis uses her death as power. Her brother cannot control her from beyond the grave, and the audience sees her resurrected with the power to participate politically and enter spaces in which she was not formerly welcome. Munis is our narrator, and through that role we see her freed from even the confines of the film, being the only character able to break the fourth wall. Munis establishes her agency when she closes the film speaking directly to the audience: “Death isn’t so hard. You only think it is… All that we wanted was to find a new form, a new way. Release.” Munis’s message–and Neshat’s–is that the concept of women’s freedom must be reframed. Munis’s independence lies not only in listening to the radio and going into male-dominated spaces; it is the power and the agency that she acquires when she takes her life, death, and resurrection into her own hands.

At the beginning of the film, Faezeh is adamant that her destiny lies in being a devout wife; her image of purity is tied closely to her virginity. When she is raped by two men from the town, she is plagued by painful memories and the knowledge that she has been irreversibly changed. It is through reclaiming her body in Fakhri’s sanctuary that she is able to transcend this suffering. Faezeh must remove herself from her everyday life in order to begin fully embracing herself, reiterating the independence and autonomy required to experience this kind of shift. Fakhri’s sanctuary gives Faezeh the space to explore herself without society pervading that exploration. Having been led there by Munis, with whom she has a profound connection, Faezeh is also an example to viewers of the power of two women working together for the betterment of their womanhood.

Zarin is the literal embodiment of the male gaze reducing woman to her body. This is especially true given the exclusively visual nature of her character: she does not speak throughout the film. Zarin’s fight takes a different form than those of the other women. In contrast to Faezeh’s life of religious modesty in which her body is constantly hidden, Zarin’s days are spent acting as an object of pleasure for paying customers. Her message is one of healing, in which she takes a journey away from the pain inflicted upon her by society, and replaces it with a kind of acceptance that she had not previously known. Zarin also represents the unity in adversity fostered by the women in the film, primarily Faezeh and Fakhri. For them, the silent Zarin provides spiritual and emotional healing. While, by the end, Zarin does not find bodily healing, we have already learned from Munis that bodily healing is not necessarily that which brings the most peace.

Fakhri makes the difficult decision to divorce her husband, who is a high ranking official in the Shah’s army. During such a politically turbulent time, Fakhri’s decision is seen as even bolder than it might have been without the surrounding social and political context. Her mystical orchard home is a safe haven for the women, and provides the physical space of escape in the film. The home is a liminal space, not connected with the politics or the societal turmoil until the very end. This space allows Fakhri to grow just as much as her counterparts. The last image we see of Fakhri is that of a woman who has finally carved out her space in a world dominated by men.

Shirin Neshat’s stark images and intense scenes largely ignore the chronological, placing much heavier emphasis on the allegorical. She powerfully highlights concepts of death, purity, physicality, and oppression in Women Without Men, inviting viewers into the art gallery that is this film. Not only does she show us the power of each woman by herself–she shows us the meaningful connections and small community that form within the confines of an oppressive society. Through each scene, Neshat paints a picture of the visceral feelings associated with witnessing the radical agency of women who do not operate according to the rules of men.

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