No Headscarf, No Entry: Golshifteh Farahani’s Dilemma

MMW‘s Friday Links last week had within it three links about Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani (below), who has appeared in the recent Hollywood film Body of Lies. Apparently, from the news reports, it seems that Farahani has created quite a stir within Iran, or as the LA Times reported some “Middle East-style intrigue”. Middle East-style intrigue? What is Middle East-style intrigue? Are they referring to the issue some Iranians are having with her appearance in an American film? The comment comes across as quite patronizing of Iranian sentiment. So what is this “Middle East-style intrigue” about?

Golshifteh Farahani, as she appeared in Body of Lies. Via

Golshifteh Farahani, as she appeared in Body of Lies. Via IMDB; full credits unavailable.

Initially, the problems occurred with her appearance in an American film. The Daily News reported that Farahani was interrogated by Iranian intelligence many times, only to be finally told by a judge that once they had viewed the film they would decide what to do with her. In August there were even reports of her not being allowed to leave Iran for the Hollywood premiere of the film. As of late, The Daily News reports that a court in Iran is trying to decide whether or not she broke any Iranian laws by acting in the film.

However, eventually she was able to leave Iran and did in fact attend the Hollywood premiere, and, shock of all shocks, she did so without a headscarf (pictured below left). As a result, it seems from The Washington Post and The Daily News, now Farahani fears going back to Iran.

Farahani at the Hollywood premiere. Picture via Getty Images, by Astrid Stawiarz.

Farahani at the Hollywood premiere. Picture via Getty Images, by Astrid Stawiarz.

This is not the first time a prominent Iranian woman has appeared abroad without the headscarf. Iranian human rights activist Shirin Ebadi appeared without a headscarf when she went to Sweden to receive the Nobel Peace Prize she won in 2003, and created controversy then for appearing headscarf-less. However, she was able to return home, suggesting that perhaps returning home may not be a pipe dream for Farahani. A life of exile, as The Daily News predicts, may not be a reality for Farahani.

It seems reaction to Farahani has been mixed in Iran. The Washington Post article tells us that “[o]n the Internet, which is subject to less censorship in Iran than print media, Farahani without a scarf is a hot topic.” It then reports the various comments which are being posted online by both her supporters and her detractors. Among the comments listed in the article the sense one gets is that opposition to Farahani’s attire decision is based in Islamic religiousness. One angry commenter, Mahdavi, is described as a religious student (this is how he describes himself). He is reported as saying “[h]er being without a head scarf means she belongs to the rude and inconsiderate young generation that has no respect for Islamic values.” The other commenters, who support Farahani, are given no religious distinction.

The Washington Post article also points out the report of a pro-government newspaper which criticized not Farahani, but Western media for Farahani’s scarfless appearance, calling it a media conspiracy. Now I do not doubt this claim was made, but I do wish another perspective from another newspaper or magazine had been reported. I did my own search and did not find any articles from Iranian English language newspapers on the issue – supportive or otherwise. Maybe this incident isn’t as big a deal in Iran as it appears to be from the American articles. At this point, it’s important to remember that last we have heard the judge had wanted to view the film before making any decision. We have yet to hear the final decision. They really may not care.

But according to The Daily News it is a big deal. They say “[i]t’s hard to see what would bother them. Farahani plays a nurse who treats DiCaprio’s character, but is wary of his advances, insisting that he first meet her family. She won’t even shake his hand.” What The Daily News forgets is that perhaps it is not what she does in the film but rather the political implications of working in a film of the country that constantly threatens to bomb you. This is the same country that currently has a man, John McCain, running for president who in the recent past sang a song about bombing Iran. A song about bombing people. This may have something to do with their discomfort, along with perhaps Farahani’s removal of the headscarf in the film.

The Daily News also makes the odd conflation of a Saudi Arabian judge’s threat to “execute satellite broadcast providers who import “deviant” Western movies” and Farahani’s fear to return to Iran. Iran and Saudi Arabia are different countries, Daily News. And they don’t see eye to eye. This is yet another example of seeing all Muslims as the same, or perhaps all people “over there” as the same.

Although Farahani’s fear should not be minimized nor trivialized, we also have to keep things in perspective. Being fully aware of Western media’s depiction of Iran’s treatment of women, we cannot be sure that the coverage presented thus far has been fair and has not inflated the issue. Perhaps we need to wait this one out a little and see if the fuss continues and its outcomes.

Now, I haven’t viewed the film yet and would welcome comments from those who have viewed it. Is the upset worth it?

  • Sara

    I think that Golshifteh does have more ground to be worried than Shirin Ebadi. She is an actor, and she has appeared in a Hollywood movie. Ebadi can almost be considered as just any other Iranian woman that does not wear a scarf, but is forced to wear it in Iran due to the regulations, but not outside Iran. People do not generally get into trouble for that.

    The difference with Ebadi is that she became a public figure because of winning the Nobel prize, and her photos got posted everywhere, and well, the officials don’t like that.

    There is more sensitivity from those who would care about this stuff about actresses since they are much more well-known for the general public, and role models for youngsters, and i guess (like it or not) get a lot of attention for their beauty. Still there have been Iranian actors that have appeared in various film festivals and the like without a scarf, even with pictures on the internet, and they have not had any problem returning to Iran (I know of Niki Karimi and Leyla Hatami who are both as highly regarded and famous as Golshifteh).

    The thing about Golshifteh is that she has appeared in a Hollywood movie, and Hollywood is generally considered by many as sexualizing women and all that stuff… The Hollywood premiere is much more about showing off and looks than some artsy festival, and it gets much more news coverage. The other actresses were also much more covered up than her, just putting aside the headscarf.
    I really hope that she could go back with no problems, and think it still may be possible. Although the chances are not that high (the terrible Keyhan newspaper has run a column comparing actresses that go to Hollywood to human sex trafficking!!! (Cover this one MMW!)
    The news she has made is pretty much working against her, but inevitable since she was in a movie with de Caprio and Russel Crowe.

    This was just some perspective form someone who follows Persian news and society and stuff … I personally think that the whole hijab obligation thing has been one of the worst things that happened in the Iranian society, effecting those that choose to wear it or not alike, and it will take a long time to get over it, this is just the story of one of the person from the millions.

    About Golshifteh, I think she is gorgeous anyway :), she even chose a pretty modest dress considering the circumstances (not that it would have been important otherwise), and I was impressed that she spoke English pretty well in the short interviews she had in the premier, and sounded intelligent, saying that people should try to understand the beautiful ME and not give in to stereotypes.

    Wow! I wrote so much!
    You know, I have to hand in my thesis in 2 days … I guess that’s why I’m here blabbering! :D

  • Ameel

    I saw the film a couple of days ago and don’t think there’s that much of a story here. Farahani’s character is a nurse who, along with her sister (played by Lubna Azabal), left Iran during the Iran-Iraq war and now lives in Jordan. She neither touches DiCaprio’s character nor does she completely uncover her head in the film (though in some scenes she’s wearing more of a cap than a full headscarf). In fact, the only times they’re even alone together (for less than a minute each, I think) is when she’s treating him by giving him rather painful anti-rabies shots in the stomach.

    There may be political implications for her acting in an American film of course but, once you watch it, you realize the film is very much about Americans (specifically, Crowe’s character) not “getting” the Middle East at all. In fact, there’s a brilliant line during the second-last scene of the film which shows you just how completely clueless and arrogant Crowe’s character is and how DiCaprio’s character is the polar opposite of the sentiment that’s just been expressed. (I don’t want to spoil the film by saying what that line is but you’ll know what I’m talking about when you watch it.) Also, Azabal’s character is very anti American interference in the Middle East which is fun to watch because it puts DiCaprio’s character on the defensive.

    All in all, I don’t think this is going to be that big a deal. Granted I only lived in the Middle East for three years so my estimation of everyone’s reactions might be a little off, but I do think that it’s the media in both countries that is inflating the issue before either of them has really watched the film. (As usual…*sigh*.)

  • Fatemeh

    Great post, Sobia. I think Sara & Ameel bring up great points, too.

    I’d really love for MMW to cover Keyhan (wanna right for us, Sara? ;) but I really, really, REALLY want us to cover this movie, and how Farahani’s character is portrayed. I hear there is a lot of colonial gender stuff in it, but my broke ass doesn’t wanna fork out a ticket.

  • Ferial

    I think she is very talented and very beautiful. I saw the movie and as an Iranian, I didn’t see anything that would prevent her from going back to Iran.

    But again she said the Iranian officials gave her a hard time and they’ve seen her without her headscarf. Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian activist was seen w/o headscarf outside Iran and she argued that no where in Iran’s constitution is mentioned that you should wear one outside Iran and she got away with it. She is an amazing brave women, lawyer, activist and noble peace prize winner. More power to her. It takes guts to do what she is doing in Iran.

    I think Golshifteh should act cautious if she wants to continue acting in Iran. Unfortunately, the fact that she is a celebrity in a public eye is causing a bit controversy; otherwise, In Iran, I see girls with their scarfs sitting low on their heads with bleached hair hanging out of it, wearing tight low cut uniforms walking around streets of Tehran all the time and they’re not bothered by the law enforcement very much.

    It is difficult for Iranian women to obey the islamic dress code and they look for any excuse to shorten their uniforms and show as much hair and make up as they can to oppose it.

    They never assumed in their wildest dreams that voting for an Islamic regime during a revolution meant giving up their freedoms. When Ayatollah khomeini was elected and forced women into wearing head scarfs, they protested, but it was too late and many got killed during the protest.

    Anyway, The Ayatollahs have become more liberal in the past decade and they don’t whip and stone women as frequent as they used to 20 yrs ago.

    The economy is good, people are doing their own thing and they’re not in mood for another regime change. So they’ve learned to put up with this regime and fight their freedoms slowly from within.

  • Broomstick

    why would she want to go back to Iran anyway? I heard she’s living in Paris. I’d take Paris over Tehran anytime, anyday.

  • rochelle

    My feeling about this is that the Iranian regime is just so erratic and unpredictable that there’s no way of knowing how serious the situation is. You never know what those people are going to do. That’s what makes it so scary. It’s pointless to try to judge whether the movie warrents this kind of reaction, because the Iranian regime does all sorts of stuff that isn’t warrented. They’ll arrest a girl fully covered for “bad hijab”, just to freak people out.

    It’s the unpredictability and instability of the situation that should make us all scared for Farahani.

  • Celeritas

    Golshifteh Farahani character seems typical of Iranian women who live outside of Iran and she tends to not be strict with her headscarf but is still a very modest lady. I think that it is reasonable to conclude that Golshifteh would face some difficulties in Iran however I doubt she would be killed (inshallah). Many Iranians leave their country so its pretty normal for her to want to.

    My perspective of the story was that Leo’s character staying in Jordan indicated he wanted to convert to Islam, live like an Arab and marry Golshifteh’s character. I think this was a really nice ending and showed that Muslims are real people both good and bad (contrasting with the terrorists in the film).