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Women in Iranian Cinema
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
by Mehrzad Danesh

  When cinema was introduced to Iran at the beginning of the 20th century, traditional norms in the country were still based on feminine relationships. With the emergence of Reza Shah, who had plans to introduce Western modernism to the Iranian society next to Iran's historical nationalism and oriental despotism, cinema's position on women was also altered. Reza Shah believed in getting rid of hijab and encouraging women's presence in the society next to men just like Western societies. The Iranian society's traditional structure could hardly accept this imposition. For this very reason, on the one hand, women in films appeared to have sexual attractions similar to modern Western women, but the role they played in the society was quite marginal in comparison to men. This was in accordance with the oriental patriarchal relations.
The first Iranian sound film, Lor Girl (Ardeshir Irani / Abdolhossein Sepanta, 1931), is an interesting example of this situation. It is the story of a government official who falls in love with a village girl who is coerced to dance at a roadside cafe. The officer saves the girl from the clutches of bandits and brings her to Tehran to live a modern life. The real life of the film's leading lady, Rouhangiz Saminejad, was affected by traditional reality. She was banished by people of her town who thought a woman's presence in the movies was against her chastity. She was only 17 when she acted in that movie. She said in an interview: "Every time I left the filmmaking company, I had three bodyguards to prevent attacks by those who threw bottles and other things at me and my car. I had to cover my head to prevent identification by sinister individuals. That was why I gave up acting. People even harassed my mother, my sister and the whole family. Then my uncles and my dad pressured me to give up acting. I had to hide in my small hometown of Kerman so that nobody would identify me. My cousins still claim that they were harassed at school just for being my relatives." Rouhangiz, however, appeared in another film by Sepanta in 1935: Shirin and Farhad. That was when her husband divorced her and she got married to a prominent actor named Nosratollah Mohtasham. Shortly after that she left for India where she stayed for 18 years. Back in Iran, her family was still opposed to her acting work. Iran's traditional society did not accept Rouhangiz as an actress and for all that she went through, she gave up acting for good after appearing in only two movies. She had no children and lived the final thirty years of her lifetime in solitude. When she died in 1997, many thought that she had passed away many years before that.

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