Filmmaker Mina Keshavarz Explores Economic Status of Rural Women in Iran

Elahe Amani with Mina Keshavarz – WNN Interviews


(WNN) Tehran, IRAN:
While it has been said that art is the currency of the 21st century, many artists around the world are facing insurmountable challenges. Women artists, especially in Iran, must overcome cultural, social and historical obstacles in exercising their freedom of expression. They must walk a very fine line to ensure their voices are not being silenced in the name of concepts such as decency, morality, codes of conduct and even national security.

In an interview conducted on Oct. 22, 2015 about the challenges of documentary filmmaking Justine Nagan, the new executive director of American Documentary Inc., said, “Finding a story you’re really passionate about will carry you a long way. Documentaries are such labors of love. Even if they’re funded, they’re not funded as well as they need to be. The tenacity to get a film done- having that passion for the story goes a long way.”

In her latest documentary, “Will She Win the War?,” Iranian filmmaker Mina Keshavarz challenges the status quo placed on today’s Iranian women. Through the of story Roghieh documentary filmmaker Keshavarz shows the struggle for a young woman in southern Iran who is trying to secure jobs for women through a local community bazaar, as threats by a local politician grow.

To make her film Keshavarz followed Roghieh for over two years where she lives, 1,750 km (1,087 miles) from Tehran, the capital city of Iran. With very few resources, as a woman filmmaker working inside Iran, Keshavarz has dedicated herself to this project despite all the challenges and security risks she and her cameraman are facing. Once while they were filming a scene of Roghieh arguing with the mayor, police arrested both Roghieh and the film crew and broke the film crew’s camera.

With an initial hearing in Iranian court in June 2015, the last stage of the film production is currently being worked out to complete the documentary so that it includes Roghieh’s story before and after her court appearance.

“As a woman who is living and working in Iran, a conservative and male-dominated society where a woman’s share of job opportunities is less than one percent, I know how difficult it is to be successful in a chosen profession. I always think, ‘How can I show an Iranian woman’s efforts to reach her goals, to realize her dreams, and to receive equal opportunities in her lifetime?’ I want to show Iranian women as powerful forces, not as victims,” says Keshavarz.

However, this is not Keshavarz’s first set of issues regarding her work as a filmmaker. Women filmmakers in Iran experience difficulties to not only fund and produce their work but they are also limited to where their work can be shown within the country. Despite winning first prize for Best Documentary Film in the March 2012 at the independent film festival known as Tasvir-e-Sal Festival, Keshavarz’s third documentary film, “Unwelcome in Tehran,” did not get screening permission from the Cultural Ministry in Iran.

In an exclusive English language interview with WNN – Women News Network staff journalist Elahe Amani and filmmaker Mina Keshavarz discusses, “Will She Win the War?” and its significance to the representation of women and the arts in Iran.

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Elahe Amani (EA): What are the challenges of making a documentary movie in Iran? What social barriers do women have to overcome?

Mina Keshavarz (MK): Well, this requires a number of structural changes within the context of Iranian society followed by substantial changes in the constitution and related laws. My personal experience as a documentary filmmaker and recent experience in the documentary related to the work of a woman entrepreneur in Iran allowed me to come to the conclusion that even with improving the situation of women in the areas of economics, trade and employment, we still need to transform the societal view on women and gender equality in all spheres of women’s lives. When I talk about changing the laws, I mean that it will be considered acceptable for a woman to be elected as a president, a judge or secretary of an administration, and more broadly to a decision-making position. This is how societal changes happen. We can believe that society will appreciate the role of women entrepreneurs when an institution such as family general equality is achieved.

EA: Why did you choose the topic of economic isolation for your documentary?

MK: In a society where you are legally considered a minority and a second-class citizen, living is a day-to-day struggle. You are preparing yourself for a battle when you wake up each morning! In such an environment, making strikes in the economic sphere means a serious battle is awaiting you. Why do I call this challenge a “battle”? Because Roghieh, like other women living in small villages who are divorced with limited literacy, possesses few options in terms of providing for herself. She does not have any choices unless she embarks on a battle with a number of men who are mayors, judges, prosecutors and city council members and have money and power in her city of residence. Such gender discrimination causes women to be isolated from the economic cycle. Still, I think the most prominent form of discrimination is the fact that you don’t see many women in positions of power due to the patriarchal structure dominating the administration and political spheres of Iran. As an example, how many members of Parliament do we have? How many women do we have in the president’s cabinet? How many as mayors? This is the type of discrimination that isolates women from the economic sphere of a country.

EA: What chance does a single woman have to find a job?

MK: Fortunately, in the public and private sectors, men and women in similar positions get equal pay for equal work and their salary changes based on their ability. Of course in the private sector and even in the public sector, gender bias influences the rate of pay or promotion. It may surprise you that in a country with significant gender discrimination, women and men formally have equal rights in terms of employment, though gender engineering has set priorities for employment. The first priority is given to married men with children, then married women with children, then single men and finally single women. So, the chance of a single woman finding a job is slim. In the private sector, if the woman is not the owner of a business, they feel very insecure in terms of their worth. So, if a woman overcomes all the above barriers, they will be paid equally for the same job.

Obviously women living in the big cities have a better chance in being an active part of the economy or having their own business and that is one of the reasons that we have to analyze the situations of urban and rural women independent of each other. In the past few decades, the gap between both has been huge. Of course I am referring to the time that women in the rural areas were being forced to marry at an early age and their sole responsibility was to take care of their husband and their family.

Unfortunately, despite the high rate of women attending higher education, the employment rate of women is very slim. That is why many educated women, in order to have economic independence and support themselves, seek employment in a field unrelated to their education. I have to say that at this juncture, even in small cities, younger women and girls are striving to have financial independence so that they don’t have to accept any unhealthy/ abusive situations at home and have the choice not to accept violence at home. Of course economic independence does not mean that there is no barrier to progressing in their career.

Filmmaker Mina Keshavarz
Filmmaker Mina Keshavarz

EA: How does your documentary address the issue of rural women and their employment prospects?

MK: In recent years, more girls are being educated because satellite TV and Internet are present in even the most remote villages, so the situation for rural women to express themselves is much better. Of course I have to mention that rural women in various parts of Iran have always been an active part of the agricultural economy, they just never had control over their income since their fathers and husbands were the ones who were making decisions about their money. Roghieh was born in a remote village and she was married at the age of 14. She always questioned why she could not have gainful employment like her father or brothers had and that was the reason that she chooses the path less traveled with many challenges. The province where Roghieh lives has one of the highest rates of violence against women in Iran and she reached the conclusion that she cannot defeat the violence without economic power. I think rural women in various parts of Iran in recent years were successful in their economic empowerment.

EA: How has the women’s movement in Iran aided this situation?

MK: Fortunately, the women’s movement in Iran is powerful with a long history and that is why, despite all the discrimination and pressures, women are still present in the public sphere and struggle to move their position forward.  According to the latest statistic, the rate of women’s unemployment is twice that compared to men and in a recent employment test for the public sector, women were less than one percent of the workforce.  Women active in the economy are predominantly those who started their own businesses and just like Roghieh, they also face many challenges from dealing with their team members who don’t take their role seriously because of reasons like gender biases or dealing with discriminating laws.

EA: How did you finance your documentary?  Are there any resources or support available for young directors such as yourself?  What difficulties did you encounter?

MK: Whether you’re a businesswoman or a female filmmaker, you’re an Iranian woman who is working and participating in the economic cycle. In other words, you are struggling to enter and find your place in the economy because the economy is a male dominated area in Iran as in many other places in the world. Obviously, just like Roghieh, I also face many challenges in reaching my goals. We, as Iranian women, share many challenges. I am a woman director and the main character of my film is a woman. These two factors are enough to deprive me of receiving any support in the circle of documentary filmmakers. My film has feminist perspectives and clearly my work cannot be supported by the government organization that supports documentary films as all the decision makers are men. Women’s work in the film industry, like other professions, is being ignored. Even the women film festivals in Iran are completely run by the state and not even one woman is in a decision-making position. I think this clearly portrays the environment that we work in and the barriers we are facing. All these issues are not good news for me as an Iranian woman film director. However, the beauty of the issue is that because I am a filmmaker and have a curious mind, I can discover Roghieh and through her get to know a wide range of women who are very valuable to me.

Conservative societies such as that of Minab where Roghieh lives dictate that women should stay at home and have no rights to work outside the domicile. Minab has the highest rate of domestic violence against women in Iran and many men are drug addicts and have more than one wife. Roghieh is trying to change this status quo by doing the work that she does.

By exposing this story to the entire country of Iran and to the world, this film will help Roghieh and other women expose the corruption of the municipality under which they live.

The Iranian male-dominated system doesn’t accept women as businesswomen, but Roghieh is fighting to earn the respect of society in such a role. Without empowering women in the economic realm, we cannot fight for women’s equal rights in Iran. Thus, on an even larger scale, this film will raise Iranian women’s voices while fighting for their basic human rights.

Basically, the feeling that I have been able to play a very modest role in such an important issue like the role of women in economy and the employment of women and being able to show through my film the resilience and strength of Roghieh, is a great feeling. I feel very good about it!

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Visit the website to read more about this documentary and to support Director Mina Keshavarz.

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Peace activist and WNN special reporter on Iran, U.S. based Elahe Amani has kept a strong pulse on human rights for all women since her early days of activism in Iran in the early 1970s. Today she works with immigrant women who are part of South Asian, Iranian and the Middle Eastern ethnic communities in Southern California to help them build peace at home and in society. In 1995 Elahe was an active organizer and delegate at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China. At present she is the co-chair of Global-Circles for San Francisco based Women Intercultural Network (WIN), a global women’s organization with consultative status at the United Nations. Working with grassroot circles in Uganda, Japan and Afghanistan, as well as a leadership role in the dynamic CEDAW for Cities campaign, Elahe has also lectured through the Women’s Studies Department and is also on the advisory board of The Women Center at CSU – California State University in Long Beach, California.

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