Nahid Persson’s “Prostitution Behind the Veil”

This post was written by Farah Banihali and originally published at Nuseiba. For another perspective on Persson’s documentary, check out Alicia’s article from a few weeks ago.

Iran has always been a country I’d love to sit down and read up on. When I first started university, I wrote a (terrible) essay on the causes of the Iranian Revolution and I got too caught up in names, dates and places and I never really learned anything. So my knowledge of the area is a little limited, but I try to read/watch/listen when I can. A couple of months ago, I read about documentary film-maker Nahid Persson, an Iranian exile who fled from Iran to Sweden after the Revolution. I *cough* downloaded *cough* her documentary, called Prostitution Behind The Veil with the intention of posting my thoughts, but watching it made me a bit…. ambivalent. Alicia over at MMW has posted up her thoughts, so I thought maybe it was time.

My first problem with the documentary is the title. It really wasn’t necessary to perpetuate the public/private Orientalist discourse, and neither is the music that the documentary opens with. There other problems that I have with the documentary are how Persson has chosen to construct her subject matter and her voiceover.

From left to right: Mina and Fariba. Image from the film.
From left to right: Mina and Fariba. Image from the film.

Initially we are introduced to Habib, a man who sells fortunes using birds. The story then follows two heroin-addicted prostitutes who live in the same bedsit, Mina (20) and Fariba (24) (pictured left). Both their husbands are in jail and they have to support children alone. Persson’s documentary follows Mina and Fariba through their daily routine; we are shown around their homes, introduced to their children, watch them getting high, and follow them onto the street and watch clients pick them up. My main issue with the documentary is the lack of information we are given regarding their situation. Fariba shows us photos of her life six months prior to shooting the documentary; it is clear she was living a middle class lifestyle. Later on, it is suggested that she was involved in prostitution while she was still married to earn money for the family. Similarly, Mina tells us that her husband got her addicted to heroin and was jailed when Mina was two months pregnant. Considering her daughter is still a baby, that wouldn’t have been that long ago. Now, prostitution and sex trafficking is a big issue for a lot of countries. A number of factors contribute to its perpetuation, including lack of social welfare, continuous warfare, lack of employment opportunities, weak government–but Persson does not address any of these issues. Instead, if you rely on her voiceover alone, she suggests that the whole problem can be boiled down to the Revolution. She tells the viewer that

“the Iranian Revolution started as a dream for a better society. The enormous oil wealth would be distributed. Democracy and freedom of speech would be implemented. But it didn’t happen. Instead, a new religious hierarchy developed. And a bureaucracy fuelled by bribes. Today, 25 years later, there are no dreams left.” (at 10:02 – 10-23)

Persson’s voiceover simplifies the social and economic conditions of women both prior to and after the Revolution. She pushes the viewer to make a number of unhelpful assumptions about the contemporary state of Iran by framing her documentary solely within the scope of the Revolution. This includes assuming the negative impact on women under Islamic law and undermining the strong role women played in ousting the Shah. Indeed, the Revolution did change the social, economic and political make up of Iran. However, a number of other events have occurred since then which probably haven’t helped to improve the status of women. The Iran-Iraq war, economic sanctions (which have further isolated the country economically), and the spate of anti-Islamic rhetoric in recent years further marginalized the government. All these contribute to the current situation of Mina and Fariba, and other women in the same situation.

Nahid Persson. Image via Payvand News.

My second major problem with the documentary is that she has structured her subject matter around an obvious Orientalist discourse. I’ve already mentioned the title (and the music) above, but it goes beyond that. The way certain scenes are presented really plays into a public/private dichotomy. Inside the house, Mina and Fariba are shown as sexual beings, laughing and joking with each other about sex and condoms, they get high in the privacy of their house, and they dance and sing for their temporary husbands. On the outside of the house they are demure, head bowed, wearing a chador and hijab. In an early scene Mina takes off her hijab laughing as she says “Damn veil.”* If this reflects the way in which women live in Iran (which it may), then say so. Identify the power structures women are subjected to and tell us the wider problems that women face. Don’t just tell me unhelpful generalisations like “men and women can’t shake hands.” And above all don’t let your own documentary participate within the same structures which subjugate women.

I am acutely aware that I am the same age as Fariba and live in circumstances totally removed from her life. And even with its faults, Persson did highlight a major issue in Iran, the extent of which I didn’t know about. But at the end, the documentary leaves you with really nothing to grab onto (well, it does have a very poignant close up of the ladies only entrance at the airport). Yes, there are marginalized and disempowered women in Iran, but I would have appreciated both a fuller discussion of the reasons behind their descent into the sex trade and a toning down of the Orientalist assumptions.

*Note when Mina says “Damn veil” she is referring to her hijab, I watched a sub-titled version which translated “hijab” as “veil”.

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