DIVORCE IRANIAN STYLE

Kim Longinotto
Great Britain 1998 | 80 Min. | 16 mm, OmeU
Q&A with:
Ziba Mir-Hossini

Iran­ian women seek­ing divorce meet with strong oppo­si­tion. Often, they stand help­less while their hus­bands win in law-suits and get the cus­tody of their chil­dren, even if they abuse them or attach little value to the edu­ca­tion of their daugh­ters. Film­mak­er Kim Longinot­to and the Iran­ian anthro­pol­o­gist and writer Ziba Mir-Hos­sei­ni observed three law-suits in Teheran in which the dig­ni­ty of women and jus­tice are the big losers. Jamileh is mal­treat­ed by her hus­band, Maryam fights for the cus­tody of her chil­dren, and 16-year-old Ziba wants to divorce her 38-year-old spouse. If she suc­ceeds, she will have to go through life as out­cast, due to the loss of her vir­gin­i­ty. Judges rec­og­nize argu­ments like »my wife leaves the house with­out my per­mis­sion«, and they think that chil­dren should be allowed to marry as soon as they have reached puber­ty, »even if they are nine years old«. Under Islam­ic law, men can divorce their wives at will but women must first obtain their hus­bands’ con­sent. If the divorce is con­test­ed, Iran­ian women must be able to prove in court evi­dence of impo­tence, insan­i­ty or lack of finan­cial support.

»(…) After our arrival, with let­ters of intro­duc­tion from the Min­istry of Guid­ance, and aided by the Public Rela­tions Sec­tion of the Min­istry of Jus­tice, we vis­it­ed sev­er­al Judi­cial Com­plex­es. There are six­teen of these, scat­tered around Tehran. Each con­tains a number of courts, and deals with dis­putes filed by local res­i­dents, which differ in nature, given Tehran’s geo­graph­i­cal divi­sion on socio-eco­nom­ic lines – broad­ly, the middle class­es in the north, the work­ing class­es in the south. This posed a prob­lem for us. Our Min­istry guides wanted us to show the diver­si­ty of the courts, and the range of dis­putes heard; they were keen for us to film in courts headed by both civil and reli­gious judges, and to cover mar­i­tal dis­putes in dif­fer­ent socio-eco­nom­ic strata – to do a kind of soci­o­log­i­cal survey. But we wanted to work in a single court, to cap­ture some­thing of the life of the court itself. We knew that in Tehran, with a pop­u­la­tion of over ten mil­lion, no court could be rep­re­sen­ta­tive, and we did not want to do a ‘soci­o­log­i­cal survey’ on film. We wanted to focus on char­ac­ters and devel­op sto­ry­lines. We also knew that our project depend­ed much on the good­will of the judge and court staff, so it was impor­tant for us to work in a court where they wel­comed us, under­stood our project and were will­ing to be part of it.

This was dif­fi­cult to explain to the offi­cials, but final­ly we set­tled for the Imam Khome­i­ni Judi­cial Com­plex, the largest one, locat­ed in cen­tral Tehran near the Bazaar. It housed some Min­istry of Jus­tice offices, includ­ing the Public Rela­tions Sec­tion, as well as thirty-three Gen­er­al Courts. Two courts dealt with family dis­putes, both headed by cler­i­cal judges: Judge Deldar, who sat only in the morn­ing, and Judge Mah­davi, who sat only in the after­noon. We were intro­duced to both judges; both said we could film in their courts.

At first we filmed in both courts, but soon we con­fined our­selves to Judge Deldar’s, which we found more inter­est­ing. As Judge Mah­davi dealt only with divorce by mutual con­sent, that is, cases where both par­ties had already worked out an agree­ment, there was little room for nego­ti­a­tion: the dynam­ics of the cases heard were rather uni­form, and the cou­ples rarely revealed the real rea­sons behind the break­down of mar­riage. Judge Deldar, on the other hand, dealt with all kinds of mar­i­tal dis­putes, thus we found a much wider range of sto­ries and a more spon­ta­neous envi­ron­ment. Besides, the court staff were also fas­ci­nat­ing char­ac­ters in their own right, espe­cial­ly Mrs. Maher, the court sec­re­tary, who had worked in the same branch for over 20 years. She was an extreme­ly capa­ble woman who under­stood our project, and her daugh­ter Paniz was a real gift. Both soon became inte­gral to the film. After a week, we too became part of the court life. The pres­ence of an all-woman crew changed the gender bal­ance in the court­room; and undoubt­ed­ly gave sev­er­al women courage. Like­wise, the fact that the crew had both Iran­ian and for­eign mem­bers, I believe, helped tran­scend the insider/outsider divide. The camera was a link here too, as well as between public and pri­vate. We never filmed with­out people’s con­sent. Before each new case, I approached the two par­ties in the cor­ri­dor, explained who we were and what our film was about, and asked whether they would agree to par­tic­i­pate. I explained how we wanted to make a film that for­eign audi­ences could relate to, to try and bridge the gap in under­stand­ing, to show how Iran­ian Muslim women, like women in other parts of the world, do the best they can to make sense of the world around them and to better their lives. Some agreed, others refused. On the whole, and per­haps not sur­pris­ing­ly, most women wel­comed the project and wanted to be filmed.

We filmed for four weeks in Novem­ber-Decem­ber 1997. Back to London, we start­ed edit­ing our over 16 hours of footage. (…) In going through the mate­r­i­al, rather than focus­ing on the exotic and the dif­fer­ent, we tried to focus on com­mon­al­i­ties: how dif­fi­cult mar­riage can be and the pain involved in its break­down. We also tried to show what it is like inside a Tehran law court, and to give glimpses into the lives of ordi­nary people. Although clear­ly some ‘con­tex­tu­al infor­ma­tion’ was essen­tial, we were anx­ious not to over­crowd the film with facts and fig­ures, not to tell view­ers what to think, but to allow them to draw their own con­clu­sions. Above all, we wanted to let the women speak, to show how they are strong indi­vid­u­als going through a dif­fi­cult phase in their lives, and to com­mu­ni­cate the pain – and the humour – involved in the break­down of mar­riage.« (Ziba Mir Hosseini)

Extracts from ISIM Newslet­ter 2; March 1999; p. 17 

Kim Longinot­to: PRIDE OF PLACE (1978); THEATRE GIRLS (1979); CROSS AND PASSION (1981); UNDERAGE (1983); FIRERAISER (1985); EAT THE KIMONO (1989); HIDDEN FACES (1991); THE GOOD WIFE OF TOKYO (1992); TRAGIC BUT BRAVE (1993); DREAM GIRLS (1993); SHINJUKU BOYS (1995); ROCK WIVES (1996)

Ziba Mir-Hossi­ni: DIVORCE IRANIAN STYLE (1998)