By Dan de Luce
Thursday, May 20, 2004
Iranian film may be renowned for its sympathetic, nuanced portrayal of women, but the country's state television has come under sharp criticism for promoting polygamy as an acceptable practice and reinforcing sexist stereotypes.
TEHRAN, Iran (WOMENSENEWS)--In a country where polygamy remains a taboo for many, the television series "Another Woman" has provoked outrage.
The mini-series that aired in March tells the story of a middle-class, married woman secretly suffering from terminal cancer and unable tobear children. She suggests her husband take her friend as his second wife. The second wifepromptly becomes pregnant, but shortly after, sodoes the first wife.
Several hundred female activists last month staged a protest near the Tehran headquarters of the state television the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting condemning "Another Woman" and other programming that they say conveys a false, denigrating picture of Iranian women.
"Stop broadcasting series with anti-women content and make a serious attempt to reflect the real picture of women's activities in different fields and in the rest of the world," the protesters said in a statement.
The protesters called for public supervision and accountability at the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) organization, a media monopoly controlled by the office of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The crowd also urged the establishment of private broadcast outlets to offer an alternative to IRIB, something the regime has ruled out.
Marzieh Mortazi-Langhroudi, a political activist who writes about women's issues, said the programs such as "Another Woman" send a dangerous message that polygamy is an acceptable practice and that women are second-class citizens.
"IRIB provides funding to directors who make films according to IRIB style. The basic view behind this is to portray women as inferior," Mortazi-Langhroudi said in an interview with Women's eNews.
State security agents in plain clothes stood by monitoring the protest and arrested several participants. They were released the same day. Activists said the arrests were meant to intimidate protesters from speaking out.
An official at IRIB dismissed the protest and critical commentaries published in newspapers. "Why do they have this reaction to one single show on television?" Shahab Esfandiari, a manager, was quoted as saying.
"There are many films in movie theaters that deal with second marriages, love triangles and prostitutes," he said.
Esfandiari, who oversees the channel that aired "Another Woman," said protesters were just using the issue of polygamy as an excuse to protest because they are disappointed with the ascendance of the right-wing in disputed parliamentary elections held in February. The clerical establishment banned more than 2,000 reformist candidates from appearing on the ballot in the vote, ensuring a conservative majority in parliament.
Esfandiari said critics of the program were over-reacting. "We are ready to have a debate with them and answer their questions. If they ask us officially, we will respond to them," he said.
Ordinary women, however, find it hard to dismiss the mini-series as harmless. "If the series was meant just to entertain people, it would okay, but it was promoting a supposedly appropriate culture," said Rafat, 48, a mother of four shopping at a Tehran market, who did not want to use her last name.
The program ends with the husband and second wife happily enjoying a picnic, as the deceased first wife looks on smiling from heaven. And in a sub-plot of "Another Woman" that is meant to provide comic relief, a man who is constantly berated by his two wives seeks out a third wife to make his other wives jealous and put an end to their nagging.
"Why should a woman undergo ultimate humiliation to share her home and husband with another woman just to have a baby?" Rafat said. "The producers of this series wanted to normalize the practice of polygamy."
She said it was alarming that the authorities felt it necessary this week to ban the film "Lizard," which pokes fun at Islamic clergy, while allowing a television series that portrayed polygamy in such a sympathetic way.
Social critic Mehri Suvizi said IRIB was trying to conduct social engineering and was jeopardizing family life.
"There is a strong tendency in many television programs to promote temporary marriage and to prepare the conditions for society to accept second wives and polygamy," she wrote in the monthly magazine, Eastern Woman. "Such programs . . . threaten family foundations."
Polygamy was discouraged under legislation adopted during the Shah's era in the 1970s, requiring a court order and the approval of the first wife. Since the revolution of 1979 that overthrew the former monarchy and imposed a strict interpretation of Islamic Sharia law, approval for additional wives has become easy to obtain and now the practice is more widespread in rural areas and lower-income families. Now men can seek a second wife without a court order or gaining consent from their current wife.
Under Sharia law, a man can legally have up to four wives as well as an indefinite number of "temporary" marriages. Shia Moslems are allowed to enter into "temporary" unions for any length of time in contracts that essentially grant religious sanction to adultery. The practice is still frowned upon in Iranian society and tends to be kept secret.
The story line of "Another Woman" condones the idea that polygamy was a reasonable response if a wife could not bear children, Mortazi-Langhroudi said.
"Why don't they suggest adoption? This is humiliating for women," she said. "Under this interpretation of Sharia, women are merely seen as baby-makers."
Fatemeh Aliya, a female parliamentarian from the conservative bloc, Developers of Islamic Iran, said accusations that IRIB programming was "anti-woman" went too far. But Aliya did say that the presentation of polygamy in "Another Woman" was regrettable.
"The way they present the issue should have been modified," Aliya was quoted as saying in the Iranian press, though she didn't elaborate.
Aliya defended polygamy as playing a useful role for women without financial security. "The philosophy behind polygamy is ultimately advantageous to women . . . Polygamy as defined by Islam doesn't mean men are just having their fun," she said.
The idea may seem upsetting for women, she said, "but if you put yourself in the shoes of a woman who is the (sole) breadwinner who needs support, then you see the advantages in this."
In a commentary published in an Iranian newspaper, Mortazi-Langhroudi described stock female characters that appear repeatedly on state television. The most common is the "traditional woman," a plump, subservient wife with a sad face wearing the chador, the black garment that covers a woman from head to toe. She cooks, cleans and sleeps in the same chador and is always insisting that the father be obeyed.
At meal time, the father sits in a special place as the traditional wife serves out the food with a big spoon. She has an ugly name, such as Zaif, which means "weak." Her husband has a strong, manly name, is well-respected in the community and has wise things to say.
According to Mortazi-Langhroudi, another stock character is a less traditional woman who works as a nurse, seamstress or secretary. She wears make-up and more colorful clothes. Her husband is unhappy with her and she has arguments with her children. Then there are female artists and writers who are usually the object of ridicule, always portrayed as emotionally unstable, depressed and irritating.
In current affairs programs, female anchors are often relegated to hosting shows on cooking, handicrafts and sewing, she wrote. "Is this all that Iranian women are? Is this the reality of Iranian families?"
If a majority of university students were women, Mortazi-Langhroudi asked: "Have they picked a minority to represent the majority?"
The preamble to Iran's constitution promises to uphold the rights of women and acknowledges women's suffering under the rule of the former monarchy. But Mortazi-Langhroudi said IRIB has failed to live up to this ideal.
"They should apologize to the honorable, hard-working women of Iran."
Dan De Luce reports from Iran for The Guardian and Observer and previously worked for Reuters in Belgrade and Sarajevo during after the conflict in former Yugoslavia.
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