Women Without Men: Femininity and Euro/American Encroachment in Iran

Shirin Neshat’s film Women Without Men depicts the lives of four women during the tumultuous days following the attempted (and discovered) coup by the British in August of 1953. We follow the lives of Munis, Faezeh, Zarin, and Fakhri, whose lives have many differences, but also several important similarities.

Those days before the fall of Mossadegh’s government that are depicted in the film demonstrate the continuing question that surrounds the coup in the modern Iranian consciousness: what if? What if the CIA hadn’t agreed to assist the British in bringing down a popularly elected government? What if Iran hadn’t been considered a semi-colonized space by the British, who were intent on retaining control of the country’s oil at the expense of the Iranian people? What this film does is bring this question to the forefront. We ask ourselves as we watch the shots of passionate protests, what if the British had recognized the validity of protesters who shouted their praise for Mossadegh and their disgust for British protesters, and had recognized the right of Iranians to their own oil? How might things have been different if there was any recognition that Mossadegh was a Western-educated liberal secularist, who was in his calls for a constitution and for more power for the Iranian people, actually upholding what we consider to be Western ideals? As for the characters in the film, we wonder who Munis could have been if her brother had supported rather than buried her. We question the course of Faezah’s life if she hadn’t been brutalized by two strangers who followed her out of a café. We envision a different life for Fakhri, one in which she marries her sweetheart Abbas and was embraced by his group of Western intellectual friends, before he gets engaged to an American woman. We ask who Zarin is: though she is extremely expressive, we don’t know because she never speaks. The film leaves us hanging onto the question, what is Iran without the coup of 1953? What would women be without men?

Historical context is important in order to understand the events that occur in this film. As noted in our lecture, the role that the Americans and the British played in toppling the popularly-elected government of Mossadegh in 1953 was admitted only six decades after it occurred. In the decades before the eventual confession, both the US and the UK destroyed important documents that detailed their efforts leading up to and during the eventual coup. The CIA regarded the coup as a great success of covert operations, proof that favorable regime change was within the country’s arsenal. After the Islamic Revolution of 1979, however, this narrative is difficult to uphold. The 1979 Revolution is studied in American schools as a critical event that brought on an area of dangerous animosity between Iran and the US: for international relations students in the US today, Iran is studied only in this context, unambiguously cast as an enemy. Students of American foreign policy are taught to forget that history is linear, that US-Iran relations had a past prior to 1979, and that there ever was a coup in which the United States and its Central Intelligence Agency were instrumental. 

In 1908, oil was struck in Iran. This leads the British to eagerly guard their discovery, which was crucial to their war efforts during the first and second world wars. For this reason, the British considered Iranian oil to be an important resource to their empire. When Mohammad Mossadegh became prime minister, he pushed for civic nationalism, political rights, and Iranian oil for the Iranian people. Importantly, he wanted to free Iran from the semi-colonial influence that had been around since Qajar rule. Especially following the Anglo-Soviet invasion in 1941, the Iranian people were eager to be free of foreigners. In the relatively open period following Mohammad Reza Shah’s ascent to the throne, Mossadegh’s National Front and the communist Tudeh emerge as prominent political parties. It is important to note that contrary to justifications given by the US for its involvement in the coup, that the Tudeh party was not a revolutionary one. Genuine concern about a communist takeover in Iran was not a driving force in the CIA’s decision to carry out the coup.[1] Mossadegh believed that the wealth created by Iranian oil would improve Iranian live. He stood out as a politician during this time because of his refusal to cozy up to the British. Because of this, the British frequently labeled him as insane, and a liability. In order to punish Iran for attempting to throw off British influence, the British imposed an international embargo that would drive Iran’s oil sales down, in the hopes of damaging the Iranian economy. 

It is important here to note the reasons for which the US purported to have helped the British in the coup. The first reason that is commonly given is that Eisenhower was concerned with threat of a communist takeover in Iran, which would then extend the Soviet sphere of influence in the Middle East. However, as noted above, the Tudeh Party advocated for workers’ rights rather than for revolution. In fact, Tudeh was instrumental in pushing Mossadegh’s oil nationalization agenda: by organizing a strike by Iranian oil workers, Tudeh showed members of Parliament, many of whom were in the pocket of the British, how seriously Iranians would take oil nationalization. The second reason attributed to US involvement in the coup is the “imminent” threat of political instability.[2] According to American analysts, the devastation wreaked on the Iranian economy by the British oil embargo would ultimately lead to a collapse of the Mossadegh government, plunging the country into more uncertainty. The increasing political instability in Iran is what led to the increasingly alarmist outlook by Eisenhower’s administration leading up to the attempted coup. 

The first attempt in August of 1953 was successfully thwarted by Mossadegh, who discovered the ploy and arrested the plotters. In the aftermath, there were protests in Tehran due to the foreign interference in Iranian affairs. These are the protests that we see in the beginning of the film. As Munis and Faezah speak in their yard, we get a glimpse of the internal division occurring even amongst family and friends, as Faezah criticizes the protesters, to which Munis responds that they should be out there as well. The contrast between the two friends is very apparent: while Munis treasures her radio and feels suffocated under her brother who wants her to marry a suitable man, Faezah longs to marry Amir Khan, a literal embrace of Munis’s brother and the traditional ideals that he represents. It is only after Munis is buried that she actually achieves freedom from the life that her brother would impose on her: after an eerie scene in which Faezah hears Munis calling to her and saying she can’t breathe, Munis leaves for Tehran to begin a new life as a member of the Tudeh party. 

The other two women in the film are Zarin and Fakhri, two women who are very different but evidently grow very close by the end of the film. Fakhri is the wealthy wife of a general, who is dissatisfied with her marriage and leaves her husband in the film to purchase a remote house in the woods. In the exchanges with her husband, we see that even with her pearls and her comfortable lifestyle, she is still viewed by her husband as valuable only as much as she is able to satisfy him sexually: he comments that he will need to take another wife if she doesn’t satisfy him, to which she responds that she is leaving him. She is continuously drawn throughout the film to an old flame, Abbas, who left Iran to study in the West and returned with an American fiancée. Abbas is representative of the generation of westernized liberal Iranians who were fiercely repudiated following the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Fakhri’s attraction to Abbas is yet another what if? raised in the film, as we question how her life might have been different if she’d been with him rather than her husband.  

The final and most heartbreaking figure in the film is Zarin, who never speaks throughout the film. Zarin is a prostitute working at a brothel, who eventually flees and arrives at Fakhri’s new house. At a public bath that is reminiscent of Ingres’ Turkish Bath, Zarin scrubs her skin furiously until she draws blood in an attempt to wash away the abuse she has received at the hands of various men. At the conclusion of the film, following Fakhri’s grand party that is interrupted by pro-shah forces, Zarin dies in bed, never uttering a word. 

There are several symbolic elements in this film that make it at times difficult to watch, but extremely powerful. The house that Fakhri purchases to leave her husband is ethereal and mystical. It is quite obviously a previously wealthy home, but when she arrives it appears dusty and old. This can be viewed as a comment on the state of Iran in 1953: the obvious former grandeur of the house is reminiscent of the tales of past grandeur that modernizers during the Reza Shah era would tell about Iran’s pre-Islamic past. However, the internal decay and the threatening exterior tell a different story, one of institutional weakness within and foreign imposition without. The long dusty dirt road that is continually shown throughout the film could symbolize the long and uncertain road ahead for Iran even before but certainly following the coup which would topple the popularly elected government. As Iran searches for its national identity, for a way forward towards modernity, the women in the film wander aimlessly down this dirt road with no end in sight. 

There is a long history in Oriental studies to portray the Orient as soft, weak, and feminine. In Women Without Men, Neshat uses the women in the film to portray the Orient as British imperialists saw it then: weak, soft, and easy to take advantage of. Zarin’s desperate attempts to scrub herself clean represents constitutionalists’ and nationalists’ attempts throughout Iranian history to rid the nation of greedy foreign hands who would wish only to take. The public bath scene is specifically set to resemble Ingres’ painting in order to demonstrate how damaging is the European eye on the Orient. Similarly, Faezah’s nightmarish recollection of her rape by two men could be taken to symbolize either the British and Soviet incursions into Iran, or the British and Americans who were seeking during this time to rip away Iranians’ right to self-determination. Thus, the film asks the question of not only what women could be without men, but also what Iran could be without foreign imposition throughout its history, and especially in August of 1953. 

[1] Brew, Gregory, Jason Healey, Robert Jervis, Kim Zetter, and Emily O. Goldman. “The Collapse Narrative: The United States, Mohammed Mossadegh, and the Coup Decision of 1953,” April 22, 2020. https://tnsr.org/2019/11/the-collapse-narrative-the-united-states-mohammed-mossadegh-and-the-coup-decision-of-1953/. 

[2] Ibid.