Prostitution behind the veil

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Part II

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Prostitution Behind the Veil
"Prostitution Behind the Veil" is the intriguing story of two young women in modern-day Teheran. Cosmo Doc presents the film.

By FILM (ed.)
Published in FILM #39, November 2004

Married for a day

Minna and Fariba are neighbours and good friends. They support one another. Both have to live under the pervasive curtailment of women's rights and the double standards of today's Iranian society. They make a living walking the streets looking for men. They have a choice between leaving their small children at home alone or bringing them along when they have sex with men.

The film is a sympathetic portrait of the two women, exploring their day-to-day life and the workings of prostitution in a country that bans it and prosecutes adulterers, sometimes with the penalty of capital punishment.

Many of the clients find a way to buy sex and still comply with Muslim law: they marry the women in what is called 'Sighe', a temporary marriage sanctioned in Shia Islam. Sighe can last from two hours up to 99 years. Both Minna and Fariba enter into Sighe with clients, and Fariba is in a Sighe marriage with a neighbour, Habib, that lasts six months. Giving his perspective on temporary marriage, Habib says that Sighe is a way to help poor women, it is an act of mercy in the name of Allah.

The film follows the two women for more than a year. It describes their middle-class backgrounds and their submission to treacherous men and drugs. We see how Fariba manages to quit drugs and prostitution, only to find herself temporarily married to a man who will not let her leave the house.

The film is narrated by the director, Nahid Persson, who fled Iran 20 years ago. Her commentary adds her perspective and contextual information to the film's events. An element of the film is the difficulties faced by a female director shooting a film. Filming prostitution in the street was hard and dangerous, as is evident in the film. The director has to submit to the same restraints as the film's two women in a ludicrously patriarchal society marked by religious restrictions, oppression of women, and social decline. The story of Minna and Fariba mirrors the greater story of Iranian society.

Director of "Prostitution Behind the Veil", Nahid Persson
Director Nahid Persson

Dogged by the security police

In an e-mail interview with FILM the Swedish-Iranian director Nahid Persson discusses the background for "Prostitution Behind the Veil" and the difficulties of shooting in Iran.

"When I left Iran years ago, it was a country in chaos. When I returned after 17 years of exile in Sweden, I was shocked by the state of affairs. That people have a hard time is well known, but it was very depressing and upsetting to see how bad it really was. The most obvious problems I saw were widespread prostitution and a huge drug problem. Most people in the western world have no idea what it is like. Despite severe punishments, drugs are almost everywhere. When the Islamic government took power, alcohol was banned, but drugs took its place.

"The authorities have lost control of the situation. Maybe they act this way knowingly. Drug addicts are passive. They do not protest social injustice.

"I know that I won't be able to return to Iran for many years because of this film. The most important thing for me is making the sad state of Iranian society known worldwide."

- What was it like to shoot in Iran?

"I met Fariba by chance. Downtown, I met a man who sold prophecies. He had a couple of birds pull cards out of a box for him. I was fascinated and decided to make a film about him and his birds. We filmed him (Habib) for a few days. One day we followed him back to his place, and there I met the two women that I eventually became close with. At first, they were afraid to open up to me, of course, but after a few days it got out that they were prostitutes and drug addicts. They let me film them in all kinds of situations, even when they were with a client.

"As long as we were shooting inside the house, everything was fine, but there was always trouble when we went out in the streets. Once the security police picked us up. They wanted the tapes. With some sleight of hand, I managed to put the tapes in my pants pocket, and instead I gave them some old tapes I had brought from Sweden. Iran is a Muslim nation and men are not allowed to search women, so they led us to the police station where female officers would pat us down. When we got there, they went inside, leaving me in the car. I got the tapes out of my pocket and hid them under the car seat. A short while later, they returned. They told us that the female officers had gone home for the day. So now I had toget the tapes out again and put them back in my pocket. It wasn't easy, but it turned out okay. I was politically active before and after the revolution and I know how to deal with stupid police.

"The reason I continued shooting even though we were stopped so often by the police was that I had been abroad for so long and didn't understand how dangerous it really was. The two women with me wanted to leave on several occasions, but stuck around because they were curious to see how I handled the situation. There were several funny moments. Once, the police ordered us to turn off the camera. I switched off the display and told them the camera was off, but kept right on shooting (it's in the film). When the police talked to me, I turned the camera on them. They were right in the frame, but they didn't get it."

- You shot and directed the film yourself?

"I did most of the camerawork, but I always brought along two other people: a man as driver and bodyguard and someone with an extra camera. Often there was so much going on, it was good to have two of us shooting."

- What effect would you like the film to have?

"When I was in the revolution along with so many other young people, we wanted to change the world, but now I am at an age where I would be content to change just one thing. But I need to get close to the people in my film. I feel for them. They are not just characters in my film - they are my friends, my sisters.

"When I got to know Mina and Fariba, I felt a big responsibility. Mina is the same age as my own daughter. I had maternal feelings for both of them. And once in a while, I felt guilty that I was in the revolution but fled to a safe country, and now I had to say goodbye to them. Everyday I said goodbye to them was terrible.

"It is my hope that this film will make the world respond to the situation in Iran. Human rights are nonexistent there. People don't matter in Iran. They have no hope left.

"More than half the population are children and young people who have never known what freedom or a normal life is like.

"My film should not just show how Iran changed after the revolution. The film will be shown in a number of countries and I hope the world will respond, not just watch.

NAHID PERSSON Born 1960, Iran. Studied microbiology in Sweden and founded a local radio station during this period of time. Started studies at Film- och TV Skolan in 1993 and attended master class education in 2003-2004. Her previous films include: "Me and My Cousin" (2003), "The Last Days of Life" (2002) and "End of Exile" (2000). Has won several prizes - among others for her most recent film, "Prostitution Behind the Veil", which won first prize at Marseille Festival International du Documentaire.
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Frank Kitman