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Divorce Iranian Style: An Ethnographic Perspective

Kim Longinotto’s Divorce Iranian Style is yet another example of the extraordinary filmmaking used by Longinotto to address the sensitive issues that the world’s oppressed women face. Fitting within Longinotto’s style of highlighting the turmoil of female victims of discrimination and oppression, the film is is an excellent example of a documentary film that uses an anthropologist’s ethnographic approach. The goal of an ethnography is to create a structured argument or representation of a human social context as a participant-observer, instead of an active participant.

This means, that while an outside observer is participating through their observance of a cultural phenomenon, there is an attempt to remain as neutral as possible throughout the culturally-observed event. In this way, the ethnographer is able to present information to the world, allowing each individual viewer to make his or her own opinions about the gleaned information. Through the film we begin to see that although not illegal, divorce is strongly discouraged by both the legal system and the religion of Iran.

A religious saying (hadith) attributed to the Prophet Mohammad says: “Of all things permissible, divorce is the most reprehensible” (http://family. jrank. org/pages/954/Iran-Temporary-Marriage-Sigheh. html). Women, because of their low social status, must completely rely on men for both protection and economic sustenance, particularly in the case of divorce. (Mir-Hosseini, 1993) The film is typical of Longinotto’s visual ethnographic style. Visual anthropology is a subfield of anthropology, developed out of the ethnographic perspective in the media of the mid 1990’s.

Divorce Iranian Style fully complies with this model through its extraordinary portrait of the lives of different Iranian women struggling through the labyrinth of divorce within the Iranian court system. It takes a similar approach to Mir-Hosseini’s Marriage on Trial: A Study of Islamic Family Law; Iran and Morocco Compared, as they are both anthropological studies of the same problems that women face in the family law courts. In the same light, Mir-Hosseini focuses on the stories and injustices that happen to real women in Iran within the sphere of family law.

Divorce Iranian style takes a similar approach as Mir-Hussein, yet in this sense the film is more of a visual anthropological endeavor, instead of a written one. The film is also a good example of the “standpoint feminism perspective” discussed in Smith’s, Women’s Perspective as a Radical Critique of Sociology, in that the film is fully presented both by a woman and from the standpoint of women. Through the act of filming them, the actual experience of Islamic women is given a place of departure, a platform on which their deep issues of sexism and oppression can be at least observed, and at best addressed and healed.

Smith argues that through the feminist standpoint approach, as exemplified in the film, we can being to work with the available material to move towards a coalition where the voices of women can be not only heard, but respected. The filmmaker also takes a highly distanced artistic approach throughout the creation of the documentary. The filmmaker has chosen to distance herself so as to create an anthropological take on the issue of women and divorce in Iran. The filmmaker, through this distancing, creates a sphere whereby the viewer feels that he/she is fully present in the reality of what life is like for many Iranian men and women.

The camera is used as an observational tool more that an artistic instrument. Equally, the infrequent voice-overs are barely noticeable, and only used to fill the viewer in on the bare minimum of needed details. In this sense, the voice-over contributes to the detached role of the filmmaker, further allowing us to continue witnessing phenomenon from what feels like a first-hand perspective. This adds a convincing air of credibility and a rawness to the subject matter. Through this intention, a form of media is created that can cause the viewer to take a critical eye on the rituals and rules of Islamic law regarding women’s rights.

The filmmaker does not ask questions. There is no narration in oral nor in a written form. Through this silence, the filmmaker achieves her aim of creating a poignant bird’s eye into the difficult lives of women who are in unhappy marriages within Islamic fundamentalist law. That said, as the film reaches its climax, the filmmakers cannot help but be brought into the drama, as the women plead with them to act as witness. Suddenly, as the person behind the camera sides with the pleading women who is having her child taken from her, we get a glimpse of the opinion and compassion that the filmmaker has for these women.

In this sense, even though the film is shot in the strictest of objectivity, the nature of the content is so heart-wrenching, that we cannot help but reach out to help. Due to the incredible desperation of these Iranian women, even the most staunch and distanced of viewers cannot help but to be moved to action. As viewers, we are fully engaged in the on-goings of the court. Our very being cannot help but be affected as we see the voice of women being constantly hushed, reprimanded, silences and punished. Our engagement is very raw, as we are forced to go through each woman’s trial with her.

The film tackles the very prominent and sensitive issue of women’s rights in Islamic society. Through the film we see first hand the frustration of being a women in Iran. The women’s ethical issues addressed are multiple: rights to divorce, rights to remarry, spousal abuse, women’s rights to property and money, freedom of speech, freedom of decision, education, arranged marriage, child-brides, even the right for a divorced woman to keep her children. The film addresses all of these issues, although unfortunately, most of these issues remain unresolved for many of the women in the film.

In the film we are constantly confronted with the voices of women. There are women who are crying out for their husbands to respect them, women who long for their mates to be faithful, women who beg their husbands for the right to raise their children. There are women who plead to be loved and nurtured. There are voices of young women begging for an education. There are even the voices of children mimicking the adults and their tumultuous confusions. There are voices begging for money. There are voices begging to be pardoned. There are voices begging for understanding.

There is even the voice of a little girl stating that she will not be married, as she does not want to end up with men like the ones she meets everyday in her mother office as a court clerk. The subject matter is so challenging because of the fact that although we are hearing the words, pleads and screams of these women, yet at the same time we are also witness to the closed ears of men, of a religious dogma and a legal system. Although these women are yelling, crying and pleading, there is a closed-ear to there basic rights, a deafening silence of the continual oppression that they are destined to face.

The women of Longinotto’s film are like black ghosts, covered in their long veils, their basic feminine nature cloaked in heavy darkness. We are privy to their pain, and at the same time, feel a lack of entryway into the patriarchal hallways of the law and religion of Islam in its most fundamentalist of expressions. Similarly, we deal with what has been referred to as the “male gaze. ” (Sturken, M. and Cartwright, L. 2001) The authors take the perspective that many forms of media are created under the often sexualized and perceived gaze of men.

It states that the social and economic processes that shape art are subject to the male gaze, the male approval and even a hidden eroticism. Divorce Iranian Style is a testament to the actual experience of this theory of art. In this film, the male gaze is not inferred, but is real and powerful. In a world where men secure a sense of power over women through complete control of them, the male gaze is fully protected under a system of religion and law. This film highlights our understanding of women with the social context of not only Iranian law, but also religion, family and marriage.

Social context is the pivotal factor in the behavior of everyone in the film. The judge, who may actually be a kind human being, seems to be more of a computer than a human. He is fully operational only within the context of the societal laws and customs regarding marriage. Similarly, each of the women act and behave, and even dress, differently outside of the context of the courtroom. All involved seem to be playing a role that has been predestined in ancient books and meetings of elders.

Much more than a courtroom, the scenes played out as if enacted on a stage. One may think of this stage as the structure of the social context surrounding the human beings involved. The film leaves us with many unanswered questions and unresolved conflicts. According to the Iranian Cultural Journal, marriage and divorce rates have increased 8. 4% and 6. 58%, during the first nine months of this year, compared to last year. This may offer some hope that women are beginning to have more success in fighting for their rights in Iran.

Within this space, we are able to draw our own conclusions as to the ethical implications of women’s rights in Iran. Many feel that it is not up to the Western viewer to judge the lives of these women. In this sense, the film fully allows the women of Iran to speak for themselves. It is clear that each of these women are not satisfied with their lives and the rights they are given. In the same, it also seems that there is such an atmosphere of fear, that none of the women has the courage to challenge the system that is controlling them.Each of the women use men as the only tool they have for reaching their desired outcomes.


Ruby, Jay. “Visual Anthropology. ” In Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthropology, David Levinson and Melvin Ember, editors. New York: Henry Holt and Company, vol. 4:1345-1351, 1996 Barbash, Ilisa and Lucien Taylor. Cross-cultural Filmmaking: A Handbook for Making Documentary and Ethnographic Films and Videos. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. Grimshaw, Anna. The Ethnographer’s Eye: Ways of Seeing in Modern Anthropology.

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Iranian Divorce Rate on the Rise. Iranian Cultural Journal. http://www. iranian. ws/cgi-bin/iran_news/exec/view. cgi/2/1488 Mir-Hosseini, Z. (1993), ‘Legal Anatomy of Divorce: The Iranian Case’, in her: Marriage on Trial: A Study of Islamic Family Law, Iran and Morocco Compared. London: Tauris, pp. 54-83. Smith, Dorothy E. (2002 [1974] ), ‘Women’s Perspective as a Radical Critique of Sociology’, in S. Jackson & S. Scott (eds. ), Gender: A Sociological Reader. London: Routledge, pp. 63-68

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