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Zarrinkolah's Cleansing: The Contested Female Body in Women Without Men and its Political Parallels in 1953 Iran

Ceara Ione Webster[1], School of Cross-Faculty Studies, University of Warwick


Literature and art are spectacular mediums. They can depict and influence, bring to light injustices and evoke emotive responses from reader and audience alike. This article analyses how Shirin Neshat and Shoja Azari's film adaptation of Shahrnush Parsipur's novel Women Without Men symbolises political instability and tension in Iran in 1953, by using the female body as a site of contestation. It systematically evaluates the director's decisions, shot by shot, relating to diegesis, mise en scène, cinematography, and editing in Zarrinkolah's bath scene, in order to present the argument that the abuse and trauma inflicted on the female body is representative of the tumultuous period around the 1953 coup d'état.

Keywords: Women Without Men, Iran, film analysis, the female body, political instability, 1953 coup d'état, contestation.

Full Article

Shirin Neshat and Shoja Azari's Women Without Men demonstrates the female body as indicative of the political contestations within Iran in 1953 at the time of the coup d'état. This article explores how this is achieved through the cleansing of Zarrinkolah's body in the public bath house. Zarrinkolah's body is presented through cinematography, especially salient shot types; editing, specifically overlapping editing and its impact on rhythm; sound, including the effects of diegesis; mise en scène, in particular décor, space, and lighting (Prunes et al., 2002). Given the practical constraints of this article, only these film techniques, of all those utilised, will be subject to analysis here. The physical treatment of Zarrinkolah's body allows the audience to infer the impact of psychological traumas and how they physiologically manifest in ways which allow Zarrinkolah's cleansing to represent certain aspects and impacts of the 1953 coup d'état. The coup itself is immeasurably more detailed than will be discussed in this article, as its focus is how Neshat and Azari represent aspects of it symbolically through the experience of the female body.

An initial panning shot establishes the context of the cleansing, which depicts Zarrinkolah (Zarrin) creating distance between herself and the other women. To apply Yi Fu Tuan's conceptions of 'space' and 'place' (King, [2001]: paragraph 1) in a basic sense, Zarrin attempts to establish a place in the bath house by attaining a sense of security through distancing herself physically and, inadvertently, psychologically from the other women. Her larger objective is to attain a comfortable space (through physical separation and the ensuing cleansing) where she can become emancipated from constraints imposed by men. In Iran, Mossadeq's wishes for the transferral of 'political power from the royal court to the parliament […] and a desire to increase Iran's control over its oil industry' (Gasiorowski, 1987: 262) were at odds with those of the British. Thus, there was contestation regarding the control of Iran's natural endowments, and a division between the popular and the 'other'. Zarrin's natural endowments are owned by the head of the brothel and the men to whom she is a source of utility; moreover, Zarrin is 'otherised' by others and herself, much like Mossadeq is 'otherised' by external American and British forces who devised and implemented the coup d'état. In both cases, there is an establishment of power relations – the 'other' is stripped of power (in Zarrin's case, literally in both profession and cleansing), and while both are the victims of other's actions, Zarrin contributes to her own isolation. Taking her body to be representative of Iran, the comparison of exploitation and utility of natural resources – such as oil – could be representative of the desire to exploit Iran's spaces and places by conquering contested sites.

The general mise en scène of this section includes low-key lighting. This regulates the mood of the scene, engendering a sense of foreboding and oppression, which is apt as Zarrin's ensuing action is both a violent performance and an attempt to regain control over her body. Equally, the political climate was fraught with violence around the time of the coup, in an attempt to force Mossadeq's resignation. This began with kidnappings of officials and the kidnapping and murder of General Mahmud Afshartus (Katouzian, 2004: 15). Clearly, periods of uncertainty presuppose the pinnacle of conflict in politics, in this context at least.

These violent beginnings, however, did not translate into the explicit interaction in government. Rather it remained comparatively diplomatic; the Shah provided a notice for Mossadeq's removal and Zahedi's appointment to CIA planners (Katouzian, 2004: 17). However, what Zarrinkolah's scene symbolises is the building and mounting pressures, as can be seen in close-ups of her face, the use of oppressive lighting, and a lack of her own diegetic contribution (which will be explored in further depth later) which all contribute to a struggle between her current body and her aspirations, in semblance with Mossadeq's struggle to attain national control over oil, which, as mentioned above, ultimately, fails.

Neshat's use of décor further highlights the 'othering' of Zarrin, as she isolates herself from the central fountain in favour of a smaller sink. This action also draws attention to different interactions that may, and do, occur between women in social situations; thus, demonstrating the different social experiences of women in Iran, and reinforces the isolated narrative of Zarrin's escalating struggle to overcome the power of men. In a broader sense, it demonstrates the ability of different types of people to utilise resources in different ways; Zarrin compromises her ability to reintegrate into normative social groups and Iran compromised its levels of control of oil for economic development, which was ultimately denied, due to the Majles rejection, and left the country in a 'desperate state' (Axworthy, 2014: 35–36).

The film is thus able to transcend the ways in which the female body is representative of a larger body (in this case, a polity) much in accordance with the magic realist genre of the novel Women Without Men (Parsipur, 1989; 2011), upon which the film is based. This is, again, reinforced by the 'anonymous' body. The men's bodies are anonymised in the film (Women Without Men, 2009), the faces of her clients are physically blurred out at one stage. The women in the bath house are anonymised too with the use of inaudible discussion, uniform appearance, and conforming to normative behaviour patterns. In these contrasting identities, lies the stark sense of dysphoria between the functional and dysfunctional; the perceived control and out of control. The collective body represent the functional external world, and Zarrin represents the increasing instability in contemporary Iranian politics and society, seemingly dysfunctional and degenerating.

The first shot of the cleansing is an over-the-shoulder shot from the perspective of an anonymised woman, who is representing normative behaviour (Bicchieri et al., 2014: paragraph 5–6). The focus shifts from shallow focus to a shallow depth of field (Prunes et al., 2002: paragraph 12–15) to demonstrate the comparative non-normative behaviour of Zarrinkolah, and thus how distinct, idiosyncratic, behaviours are conducted in separate places. For example, washing and nudity are permitted; however, she deviates from convention due to the aggression with which she scrubs her emaciated body, in addition to the difference in physique between herself and the other women in the hammam. Revealing Zarrin's naked body to the audience introduces the notion of the concealed becoming inevitably revealed. Reflected in the mirror of Iran's politics, where the removal of Mossadeq was revealed to be a coup d'état (Gasiorowski, 1987: 261).

The fifth shot of Zarrinkolah's cleansing is a medium close-up of her face, demonstrating evident discomfort – her teeth are clenched and eyebrows furrowed as she scrubs furiously at her skin. Moreover, the lighting fabricates a noticeable contrast, her left side illuminated while the right is partially or entirely obscured. This may represent cultural contestation as it has been noted that 'culture can be experienced as […] a site of struggle and contestation over social meaning (in this case, the meaning of "woman")' (Steans, 2013: 88). Depictions of the culture experienced by women in Women Without Men is largely created through hegemonic, patriarchal ideologies. It is apparent that Zarrinkolah is enduring a kind of internal, psychological struggle which is manifesting physically.

This contestation may exist because of Zarrin's experiences (such as abuse through prostitution), or because the meaning of 'woman' is physically different from her in this context; i.e. socially, prostitutes suffer ostracism. Physically, she is different, malnourished, and therefore the 'meaning of "woman"' differs on social and physical levels, determined by the conception of the female form. Either way, contestation is destabilising and instability leads to a lack of power. Zarrin is clearly unstable, psychologically, physically and economically (as she has abandoned her profession). Iran's instability around the time of the coup came about mainly as a result of the intrusion of external powers. This undermined the Shah and left young Iranians in the community feeling alienated (Ebadi, 2007: 21). This is similar to Zarrinkolah's alienation from the women in the bath house, as a result of external violation from men. More specifically, the film is able to capture the disparity between the treatment of citizens, compared to perceived political threats. Citizens could remain in a comparatively fair and incorrupt legal system, whereas military courts charged dissidents with vague charges such as 'jeopardizing national security' (Ebadi, 2007: 23). Zarrinkolah – a perceived threat to the normative social establishment – is 'otherised', while the other women are treated as 'regular citizens'. Moreover, supporters of Mossadeq were also affected and otherised; some were allegedly 'forced out of [their] job' (Ebadi, 2007: 13). The film demonstrates this in the sense that the actions of others – men, particularly – on Zarrin force her to suffer, just like the actions in the coup forced other citizens to suffer, and, rather ironically, actually jeopardised their standards of living under the pretence of protecting them from political threats that would supposedly cause them harm.

Neshat and Azari utilise overlapping editing when composing the shots of the attempted cleansing of Zarrin's body. This can be 'temporally disconcerting' (Prunes et al., 2002: paragraph 32) for the audience. Distorting the time span increases tension, discomfort, and anxiety the audience may be experiencing. Showing the act of cleansing multiple times from multiple perspectives parallels the development of the discovering of Iran's powerlessness resulting from decisions made by the Shah. Overlapping editing, in combination with aforementioned techniques, engenders a rhythm, which, at the beginning of the scene (a panning shot of 20 seconds), is long, compared to the short consecutive overlapping editing towards the end. This results in enhancing discomfort and disorientation during the anxious cleansing, and leads to interpretation of this revolutionary moment in Zarrin's life as an attempt to 'erase the imprint of men who have used her' (Holden, 2010: paragraph 4). Indeed, rhythm and editing combine to contribute towards this growing impression and sense of urgency as events approach climax.

Following this interpretation and extrapolating to a representation of Iran, this may also parallel metaphorical abuse Iran suffers at the hands of men, such as Churchill, Eisenhower and the Shah. This representation is enhanced by the filmmakers' use of sound. The sound of the scrubbing is most likely diegetic; however, it is also plausible that during the editing process, postsynchronisation non-diegetic enhancement (Prunes et al., 2002: paragraph 6–17) has been added. Thus, the scrubbing sound becomes louder and reinforces the abrasiveness and force exacted upon the body, which elevates the level of discomfort and anxiety previously mentioned.

It is plausible that these techniques were used to encourage the audience to sympathise with Zarrin. It also, skilfully, allows the audience to share physically (albeit on a dramatically reduced and abstracted level) the anxieties of the people of contemporary Iran, as the sensations achieved from acknowledging art reporting the coup engender a zeitgeist that allows the audience to identify with and localise sets of relations between public, government, and the role of 'woman'. These anxieties are also mirrored in the women's adverse reactions to Zarrin's non-normative behaviour. The lady who attempts to help Zarrin wash herself calls her crazy and therefore draws attention to her, which increases her isolation as others increasingly repudiate her socially.

Similarly, the directors choose to keep Zarrin silent throughout the entirety of the film, which interestingly parallels the narrative; just how the cleansing does not work, Zarrin cannot recover, due to her individually induced social isolation. Thus, she was both voiceless, as the result of traumatic abuse, and silent out of choice, which the audience can, in part, see materialised on her malnourished frame and bloodied body. Zarrin's silence in the bath house makes the lady's reaction seem all the more audible, and the contrast between the audible and the silent is always important in politics. Mossadeq too was comparatively silent in the political sphere around the time of his removal, compared to the Tudeh and National Front, who attacked 'symbols of the monarchy and demanded its abolition' (Behrooz, 2004: 119). Thus, their silence exacerbates the level of violence and conflict until it reaches its optimum, because though they may speak they are unheard by themselves (in Zarrin's case) and their people, and other political players (in Mossadeq's case), rendering their attempts at control unsuccessful.

This optimum can be seen in the toll this unrelenting cleansing takes. Interestingly, it is claimed that 'the orifices from which blood […] come[s], represent the vulnerable points of the body, exposing a community to unforeseen dangers' (Afary, 2011: 26). Zarrin is bleeding from the entirety of her body which suggests her entire being is currently vulnerable. She has to deconstruct herself completely in order to reconstruct herself, much like the breakdown of politics in 1953 in an attempt by the British to re-establish the Shah, and the inevitable breakdown of the Shah's regime in 1979 – perhaps this was the Shah's 'unforeseen danger'. The toll is also demonstrated in the final long shot. Zarrin remains collapsed on the ground with laboured breathing that is both visible and audible (likely enhanced non-diegetic sound through the editing process). Such strenuous activity is mirrored in the increased 'fiscal and economic strain' (Axworthy, 2014: 49) in Iran, as an economic repercussion of the British placing an embargo upon Iran's oil supply that persisted. However, the larger context of the film allows the audience to know that this cleansing was not an inadequate saviour. The effect of abuse that Zarrin had suffered was too permanent – much like the failure of the coup d'état and its contribution to a resulting permanent grudge set between the West and the people of Iran (Ebadi, 2007: 21).

In conclusion, Zarrinkolah's physical and psychological discomfort in engaging in the normative behaviour of going to the hammam parallels proceedings in 1953 and indicates ontological contestations of country and body and the result of their intersection. The filmmakers localise political instability on to a single body, and thus demonstrate the effects of exogenous structures. However, it may be worth considering that 'bodies are produced by a variety of practices' (Wilcox, 2015: 11). Thus, 'the body' is created through choice, and biology, and structures. Therefore, the politics of Iran in 1953 cannot simply be reduced to a female body, much the same as the state body cannot be reduced to just an emperor. The female body is representative of a certain aspect of the politics at the time, and different bodies would reflect different aspects of the political climate. Though, in this case, the 1953 coup d'état helps to explain the resulting Islamic Revolution in 1979 (Gasiorowski, 1987: 261), something which the contestation, instability and violation of Zarrinkolah and Iran in the artistic medium of film illuminates.


[1] Ceara Webster is currently studying Liberal Arts at the University of Warwick and will continue to look at relations between the Middle East and North African countries and the West in further study from a multi-disciplinary perspective


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To cite this paper please use the following details: Webster, C.I. (2017), 'Zarrinkolah's Cleansing: The Contested Female Body in Women Without Men and its Political Parallels in 1953 Iran', Reinvention: an International Journal of Undergraduate Research, Volume 10 Issue 2: Featuring the Eramus+ BLASTER Project, Date accessed [insert date]. If you cite this article or use it in any teaching or other related activities please let us know by e-mailing us at Reinventionjournal at warwick dot ac dot uk.