Circumstance: Gender, Sexuality and the Power of Men in “Fundamentalist” Iran

Circumstance: Gender, Sexuality and the Power of Men in “Fundamentalist” Iran January 4, 2012

After reading a couple of reviews (on FilmJabber and about Circumstance, a recent film by Maryam Keshavarz, I decided to give the film a shot. Circumstance is a drama set in Iran, where gender and sexuality are heavily controlled by the political regime. The film depicts the story of Atafeh and Shireen, two sixteen-year-old friends, whose friendship extends to the sexual and romantic in an environment of underground adventure in contemporary Iran.

The story is also complex due to the differences in the characters. While Atafeh is portrayed as a wealthy, wild adolescent, Shireen is the daughter of two disappeared anti-revolutionary professors. As an orphan, Shireen has been raised by her grandmother and uncle, who are trying to get her engaged.

In their attempt to challenge the regime, and what Atafeh calls at some point “that  revolution of yours” (calling out her father who participated in the pre-revolution protests), both girls are shown to engage in heavy underground partying, drinking, drugs, sex, and dubbing “radical” films like Milk and Sex and the City.

Spoiler Alert for what follows.

Atafeh and Shireen are two friends and classmates who are very close. A big part of their relationship is their desire to escape to a place where they can dance, listen music, smoke, and enjoy their youth. Their friendship eventually extends to the sexual and romantic, but it is threatened after Atafeh’s brother, Mehran, comes back home from rehab looking for a new path. An accomplished musician, Mehran meets religious authorities at the mosque and starts working for them. Simultaneously, Mehran falls in love with Shireen, who spends a lot of time in his house and with his family, due to her relationship with Atafeh.

After informing the religious police of an underground party and, on a different occasion, enabling them to arrest Atafeh and Shireen for driving while smoking and listening rock music, Mehran is able to take advantage of Shireen’s fear, and proposes her to marry him in order to get her record clean.

Circumstance film poster. Via

As the film progresses, Atafeh starts seeing unusual but clear signs of danger within her family. Mehran brings religion into a household that was by no means religious. What begins as prayers here and there is quickly transformed into Mehran’s rejection of Atafeh’s “dirty” body, control of Shireen as his wife, and a sick need to observe and record everyone’s activities.

Atafeh finally decides to leave after seeing her own father, who until then was resistant of Mehran’s new attitudes, praying with her brother. After a failed attempt to convince Shireen to leave with her and continue their relationship, Atafeh is seen leaving alone to Dubai.

The movie itself has received mixed reviews. Some Western observers (like and seem to be skeptical about Iranian young women’s ability to navigate underground Iran while engaging in such a “westernized” relationship, while others see it as a strong response to religious dogma. Nonetheless, I see it as neither. The film is more concerned with the politics of gender and sexuality than with teenager adventure and commentaries on Islam as a belief system. The film depicts the power balance favoured by the political system where a man, if in the right position, may acquire power not only over women, but over other men who seem to overlook the power of political-religious affiliation.

The film is also interesting in that it points out that the Iranian revolution happened in the past and does not necessarily reflect today’s Iranian youth and their realities. However, at the same time, it is the same revolution that gives power to some and takes it away from others until this day.

The movie has received mixed feedback. Some comments and reviews focus heavily on Atafeh and Shireen’s erotic relationship due to the hyper-sexualisation of both characters, especially Shireen. They also tend to focus on Iran as the “other” and the issues that women “over there” face on a daily basis (for example in here). To some degree, the reviews tend to be simplistic in seeing this film only as the story of a teenage lesbian romance or women’s oppression due to enforcement of the veil and being banned from smoking or music. This all forms part of the film’s commentary on the politics of gender and sexuality. The relationship between both girls, who also held heterosexual relationships, shows an “extra” identity layer that complicates their interactions with a system that favours heterosexuality within marriage.

Similarly, the movie portrays the political importance placed on the female body. The ability of Mehran to gain control over Shireen’s body is significant in that it allows him to manipulate her identities, including her sexuality.

Circumstance has a lot more to offer than wild, sexualized, erotic girls partying in underground Iran. The film may not directly challenge the Iranian government and may not necessarily allude to a specific path for change, yet it provides a powerful commentary on the power of political affiliation, gender and sexual orientation in contemporary Iran.

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