‘Our Summer in Tehran’ connects women across cultures

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‘Our Summer in Tehran’ connects women across cultures

Human Rights Program film series examines life for women in Tehran

by Sophia Stid on Monday, August 20, 2012 - 3:00pm

movie poster“I wanted to meet Iranian mothers in their homes before our sons met on the battlefield,” American filmmaker Justine Shapiro explains in her documentary "Our Summer in Tehran." The movie was shown at Stanford this summer, part of the university’s Human Rights Program. The film series, entitled “Camera as Witness: Dialogue through Culture,” explored the realities of life in places with restricted access to the outside world.  

As Shapiro’s documentary begins, she wakes her six year-old son Mateo for an early flight to their unlikely summer destination of Iran. Shapiro and Mateo spent six weeks in 2007 getting to know three Iranian families: the religious Torabis, the secular Farahanis and Leili Rashidi, a single mother. Shapiro hoped to show what she didn’t see in the mainstream media—as she puts it, the “inside of someone’s bathroom, what’s in their kitchen cabinets.” This desire grew out of Shapiro’s role as a mother, raising her son “to be a mensch in this world.”  She wanted a project that would show Mateo the commonalities across cultures, because “what we’re seeing on TV is the extreme.” Thus, she began planning for "Our Summer in Tehran."

Problems with the media and the Middle East

While media often reduces intricate issues, its portrayal of Middle Eastern women is particularly fraught with complications. Barbara Petzen, an advisor on "Our Summer in Tehran," works to educate the media and the larger public on these gendered intricacies as Education Director at the Middle East Policy Council, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. Petzen studies both the history and present concerns of women in the Middle East. “In order to understand the religion and politics [of the region],” Petzen says, “You have to understand history and culture as well.” In lieu of that understanding, she says, “We have these tropes that we tend to fall back on.” Those tropes frequently concern the relationship between gender and Islam.

There are two main problems: oversimplification and an obsession with the veil. Both Shapiro and Petzen point out that Islam is a very personal religion, and each believer—male or female—finds private meaning in it. Petzen critiques Western society for not granting Islam this individuality: “If we totally understand that all Catholics, a hierarchical tradition, are different, why can’t we assume that about Islam, which is actually much less hierarchical?” In Tehran, Shapiro met women who were anti-government, but wore the chador as a religious symbol. Simply blaming a universal interpretation of Islam for the problems in the Middle East overlooks the extensive political crises. As Petzen says, “Islam is not what governs women’s status, it’s about the law of the nation state. And the law is not about Islam, but local culture and surroundings.”

“...this is about more than Islam…it’s about patriarchal institutions everywhere, including ours.”

What about the laws forcing women to cover up? Because America is such a visual society, Petzen says, “the veil envelops everything we think about Islam and gender.” The veil even confounds liberal American view points. “When you’re talking about women,” Petzen says, “people on the left want to have strong support for women’s rights everywhere.” She includes herself in that group. However, Petzen believes that such support becomes troublesome when “the people …assume that [the veil] is a problem women have. That Islam is a problem.” This perspective assumes that women’s right activists in Islamic cultures want the same outcomes that women want in their own culture. In a way,our perspectives on the very question of a veil is masked in our own ideas about equality.

Petzen goes on to consider global gender issues and says that “this is about more than Islam…it’s about patriarchal institutions everywhere, including ours.”

Correcting false stereotypes

two women hugging good-byeBoth Petzen and Shapiro work to counter common perceptions about gender in the Middle East. In "Our Summer in Tehran," all three Iranian women featured in the film have professions. Marjan Torabi studied pharmaceutical sciences, Leili Rashidi is a successful actress, and Maryam Farahani works full-time while attending grad school. Shapiro says that over 60% of Iranian students are women; due to economic challenges, an increasing number of couples take on dual careers. She reflects on her own stereotypes, noting “I expected that the women there would be much more submissive, subjugated. What I found, time and time again, is that women run the house and they’re really dominant.” Maryam, for example, is hardly seen in the film; her husband and mother-in-law take on most household responsibilities. 

In a surprising twist, Shapiro formed a close bond with Marjan Torabi, the most religious and conservative woman in the group. Marjan’s husband is a member of the Revolutionary Guard, an elite branch of the Iranian military. “I immediately liked her,” Shapiro says. “She was so kind and selfless. You could tell being in the film really mattered to her, that she thought it was important for people to connect around family and motherhood.” Marjan showed her commitment by studying English six months before Shapiro started filming. Despite a continued language barrier, the two are still in touch today.

Petzen’s outreach and scholarship corroborates Shapiro’s time in Tehran. Her experiences have shown her that “women in the Middle East are not passive.” She mourns the way “we rarely listen to women who are fighting for feminism on their own terms.” Focusing on surface issues like the veil neglects the dilemmas Middle Eastern women face every day, dilemmas that surface in American debates about work-life balance. 

Focusing on surface issues like the veil neglects the dilemmas Middle Eastern women face every day, dilemmas that surface in American debates about work-life balance. 

Petzen laughs as she recalls a conference call with “all these Saudi soccer moms. They have the same issues we’ve faced…lack of opportunity, employment, equality and daycare.” Like Shapiro, Petzen wants to see a change in how the Western world views the Middle East. However, she cautions against naïveté: “It’s not about saying Islam is peace and women aren’t oppressed. It’s about specificity, it’s about nuance.” Most important of all, she says, “it’s about giving people agency.” In other words, we should let the women speak for themselves instead of telling them what their problems are.

Petzen points out the double oppression Middle Eastern women face. They’re oppressed by their own governments, and by Western society, which refuses to look past the veil and see them for who they are.  

A personal look

Sabereh Kashi, who co-edited and co-wrote "Our Summer in Tehran" with Shapiro, offers a personal perspective. Born in Iran, she immigrated to Canada for film school after growing up during the revolution. She left Iran for many reasons; one, she says, is because “as a woman, and as a person, in Iran, I wanted to explore beyond what was available to me in my surroundings..”  

Kashi recounts restrictions on relationships between two sexes both by families with severe consequences for both men and women. Things have changed nowadays, but when we were growing up, even a simple walk with a male friend, or wearing bright colors could lead to scrutiny and sometimes punishment.

She sought a freer environment, and organized a conference on women and sexuality in the Iranian community once she was in Canada. After hearing women speak on formerly taboo topics, Kashi 
was encouraged to address her own internalized barriers. Now, she thinks that “the most important thing women can do is explore femininity: who are we as women? What do we have that is our own?” 

Considering the legacies of patriarchy, Kashi says, “I think women should judge themselves by different criteria, by what is in their guts and hearts, instead of what they are told and shown.”

"Our Summer in Tehran" is clearly a project close to the heart of all three women who worked on it. The film guides audiences to look beyond the veil and into the kitchen cabinets of a society, where unexpected connections and surprising truths can be found. 


Gender News published 'Women, Marriage, and Job Opportunity in the Muslim World" in April 2011. It offers additional information on this topic. 


More Information: "Our Summer in Tehran" was screened as part of Stanford’s Human Rights Program. The documentary was made by Promises Films, a nonprofit based in the Bay Area.

headshotSophia Stid is an English major at Georgetown Universityand a member of the Clayman Institute Student Writing Team.