A few years ago, I read an article entitled The Feminization of Art printed in the Herald Tribune. The writer of the piece had looked into the fact that in France and England there are by far more women theatre-goers than men. They read more novels and attend more films and concerts. At the same time, men watch more TV and spend more time on the computer. Thus, there have been shifts in the cultural behaviours that dominate among men and women. This caused me to cast my eye upon women’s relationship to Culture & Art in Iran. Iran is an Eastern centre possessing lasting traces of various dictatorial rules that have had a deep impact on Feminism. Consequently, my article is as follows: (1) Insights on Feminism in Iran, as well as the conditions of women in Iran, in general. Iranian Feminism up to present time; (2) the impression of Iranian Feminism on Art and Theatre; the struggle among Iranian women against dominating forces; (3) the difference between the implication of Feminist Theatre in the East and West, and the East and Iran.
The Iranian Feminist Movement began 150 years ago. In 1852, the government of the Ghajar, one of the dynasties of Persian history, killed Tahereh Ghorratolein, the first Feminist Movement leader.
From that time, Iranian Women entered a new stage of life in a free society.
In 1906, a revolution known as Mashrooteh was born in Iran: women independently supported the Domestic Industries, constituting the Central Bank and creating Secret Communities and Publications, developing World at One Glance and Progressive Ideals.
The Pro-Liberty Women established the first Girl Schools and presented their own special demands, such as: Training, Voting and Banning Polygamy, etc., in the form of Newspapers, Night papers as well as personal letters presented to the Parliament.
In the following years, during the Pahlavi I & II Dynasty, these women realized their demands, such as the Right to Vote, to Divorce and to have Surrogate Children. Thus, the percentage of trained women increased and social contacts developed.
This progress continued until 1979, when the Iranian Islamic Revolution took place. The women who had fought their utmost for victory, and who had tried to achieve their so-called Women’s Wasted Rights, thereby eradicating the culture of Patriarchy, were hence compelled to rebel against the imposed Islamic Attire. Thus, the third Iranian Feminist Swing began.
Now the aim was for the Veiled Women to be the symbol of Islamic System. The Legislative and Civic laws were amended and constituted in the form of Islamic Advocacy. A conservative morality was imposed, and rights women had achieved with great difficulty were all discarded. The Marriage Age for girls was reduced to thirteen and then on to nine. Women’s perspective on matters was rejected. A great number of women were discharged from office due to their wearing the wrong attire.
However, the Iranian women started their activities again, not in an organized form but as individuals, often going unrecognized. They progressed as far as working in various academic fields, and were even able to reach ministerial positions. All of these were attained through simplicity, through years of peril.
The Iranian women, throughout the years of different systems of domination, tried very hard to attain their Primary Rights; many such attempts are still in progress. The Iranian Women are still doing their utmost to change these legislations.
The Women’s Rights activists in Iran, independent of any political links, try to curb the Superpowers from poking their noses in their social affairs. This move for independence has included Secular Women as well as a few Moslem Women who have feared religious turmoil.
Nowadays in Iran, Women make distinctions on matters of law, and struggle against pickets, traditions and degrading implications regarding women—though very careful and continual follow-ups are staples of their meetings. This is one big step forward. Such problems at the beginning of Revolution were not digested and, due to some other more important affairs, were set aside or even ridiculed.
More importantly, the follow-ups of such demands promote the general awareness, challenging all the beliefs and socio-cultural values which dilute women’s thoughts.
Feminist Theatre Activities started prior even to the initiation of Iranian Feminism. These Feminist challenges in the theatre created a labyrinth.
After the introduction of Islam into Iran, the first woman actor, Azadeh, acted in the presence of the Sasani King 1300 years ago, and was killed, The king was called Bahram The Grave, known for his extensive animal hunting. This actress criticized him greatly in one of her performances; thus, she was destroyed on the order of the Sultan.
Preceding Azadeh, there were quite a few other women actors of a kind—performers of the Rhapsodes, or of Singing or Acting. The most famous of these was the wife of Ferdowsi, the Legendary Poet of Iran, whose poems were all recited by her.
However, modern drama was introduced into Iran in 1884 and continued to be staged along with Iranian traditional plays, all of which were entirely Masculine. Women at that time were not allowed on the stage and were substituted with men. In fact, Women were not admitted into the Theatres until 1916,when the Iran Minister of Culture received the license to initiate Iranian Comedy, which was thereafter performed at The Grand Hotel.
For a decade, Jewish, Turkish and Armenian actresses could be seen on stage. Although this was a great step in the history of Women Performing, nevertheless, only non-Moslem and non-Iranian nationals were allowed to participate, and never, ever—not even one Iranian woman actor was admitted. Consequently, the Taboo of being on stage for Iranian Women had not been eradicated.
During the Mashrooteh Revolution (the liberal movement for achieving Democracy during the Rein of Ghajar Kings), the liberalists realized the impact of the Theatre on society. Hence, the Theatre Art became one of the best means for training people by familiarizing them with “Yester-Year’s deficiencies as well as Modern Properties.”
One of the concerns among the performing groups was Women’s position at home and their social stances.
The performing groups tried their best, by way of Theatre Art, to attract their audiences, who were strictly men, to reviewing their own behaviour toward women and to aid them in achieving Women’s Rights. They were successful enough in this that one Iranian woman was able to set foot on stage for the first time in the history of Iran After Islam. She acted along with the male actors in the presence of an audience of 250 men in Le Marriage Forcé, by Molière. The performance was held by the Armenian Group at the Tehran Armenian School.
Needles to say, the Iran Armenian Society has done its best to raise up the art of Iranian Feminist Theatre, whose efforts rest on all Iranian theatre.
Later, a great many theatre groups and societies were established in which Men and Women, shoulder to shoulder, performed various forms of plays. However, the main problems and demands of Women constituted their main subjects. Nevertheless, these achievements were not easily gained, for there were quite a few religious men who wanted to ban most performances—and at times, would even degrade Women actors by violently disrupting the performances.
Despite the agony and misery incurred, Women did not surrender, but rather carried on their mission. This phenomenon continued up until 1926, when The Iranian Women’s Opera Group began, in which a great many Female actors and vocalists participated. Subsequently, all the Women were brutally attacked by Dogmatic, Fanatical Religious men.
However, the wild attacks did not prevent Women from pursuing their themes, and they continued staging them. They were met with stones, rocks and obscenities. Fathers would expel their daughters from their family; Groups of Hooligans would barge into Halls, and would stab and slash the women with daggers.
From 1932 on, gradually women were able to take positions in theatres where the performances were enforced. Thus, The Male Society reluctantly admitted them into their circle. Women were able actively to enter the fields of Playwriting and Directing, where they also opposed Male Society and expanded their Feminine Demands.
1939 marked the first Acting School, in which twelve Women participated along with 40 men, later becoming very well known.
Proceeding to 1960, the cultural atmosphere of Iran took on a different colour, and the Iran Theatre and The Iran Women’s Theatre came to be.
The University of Theatre was established in 1963, where both men and women were able to start their training and education.
From 1967 to 1977, The Cultural Arts Festival was held in Shiraz, and proved to be a boon for cultural events of its kind, all over the globe. The main aim of this Festival was to elevate the Iranian Traditional Art as well as Iranian Cultural Standards. In this Festival, various Theatre groups could be seen from all over the world, be they Traditional or Modern.
Hence, the Iran Women’s Theatre Group became familiar with different fields of Theatre that proved to be quite effective in its movement.
One of the plays staged was Orghast, which was a collaboration of Peter Brook, Arby Avanessian and Andy Sherban.
Finally, in 1978, the Iranian Kingdom was deposed and replaced by the Islamic Regime, during which time, despite many disruptions, Theatre did not come to a halt—although it went quite slowly at the beginning—but continued its pace, and Women carried on in their aims in spite of new limitations. The Theatre Women (with the aid of Men) altered the imposed Islamic Attire and other impositions in artistic ways. The prohibited subjects pertaining to Religion, Sex and Politics were softened in ways that they could be performed.
In the past three decades, Men as well as Women have been under a certain pressure. Women have had limitations in their attire, but Men have not been exempt.
Therefore, in general the Feminist Movement and Theatre Feminism have not expanded as much as they should have. In a society where both Men and Women are deprived of their social rights, gender becomes immaterial and gives way to Humanism. In order to oppose for Freedom, you need to have a liberal government. Where there is no such atmosphere, the Chapter is closed.
Here, I would like to look upon certain different Iranian Feminist Movements and Iranian Feminist Theatre, in comparison with other countries, the Western countries in particular.
Feminism in the West, both in its formulation and its maturity, has had intense emphasis on Women’s Economic Discourse. To this end, the introduction of Women into the Job Market brought about their Economic Independence. This will promote the position of Women in the family and society, opening gateways to equal economic, social and political rights.
In the past decades, one of the subjects of Feminist Theatre in progressive countries has been the guarantee and the maintenance of Women’s Economic Independence. The struggle for the increased Women’s participation in the Job Market, eradicating discrimination in the Work Place, struggling for equal wages and against Sexual Harassment, struggling for Women’s Job Promotion, struggling to transfer part of Maternal Responsibilities to Society—all these have been its bases, and some of them are still in motion.
Iranian Feminism and Theatre Feminism have remained behind Women’s Social Independence. There is no trace in Women’s Economic Demands at the various levels in actual programs. No campaign regarding the increase of Women in the Job Market has been enacted.
Iranian Feminism disregards Women’s Economic Independence. This is true while millions of Iranian Women are trapped in poverty, under economic pressures and inflation, with a great many of them awaiting a gloomy future, single and divorced Women in particular. Some of these women have been seen staged by Theatre Feminism.
These theatres usually stipulate such matters: Banning discrimination against Women in all Judicial Laws, Family Laws and Criminal Laws; initiating lawful social and political ways and means; reducing family inequalities in Socio-political laws; creating equal opportunities in all Political administrative and managerial areas for Women; banning all segregation and sex discrimination imperatives at universities and in social arenas; securing the liberty for peaceful activities regarding the achievement of Women’s Rights; the freeing of Political Prisoners; banning of all existing anti-Women laws such as: laws regarding Marriage, Divorce, Polygamy, Child Sponsorship, Inheritance, Testimony; Certifying Women Rights based on upon Physic and Self-Intelligence including Freedom of Attire, Freedom to Choose a Spouse, Freedom of Sexual Deviation.
Needless to say, Iranian Feminism has been, by and large, the privilege of educated women.
If Iranian Feminism had considered Women’s Economic Independence, it could have relied on it as a great, challenging strategy. The woman who enters the Job Market experiences social conditions and circumstances. Work, as well as other economic activities, destroys the narrow Home Framework, thus creating various openings and increasing Women’s social and personal self-confidence. In neglecting this point, Iranian Feminism has been deprived of millions of united people the world over.
 Katy Salmasi graduated at the Art University of Tehran in 2001 and is currently studying for her PhD in Philology at the International University of Tajikistan. She is also teaching Theatre at the Art and Agricultural University of Tehran. Salmasi has written 15 plays, including The Next Train, Well and Room Number 113, among others, some of which have been published. Since 1992, she has also directed 13 plays, such as Ten Minutes at the Train Station, Faust, Medea, The Absentness of Soluch (Well). Since 1993 she has written essays, criticism, notes, and done interviews and translations in publications such asJavan News, Hayat e no, Resalat and other Iranian newspapers. Her published translations include:The Apartment, by Billy Wilder, Tone Clusters, by Joyce Carol Oates, The Man in a Case, by Wendy Wasserstein, Halma & Reina , by Isaac Ismaell Isaac, The Sand Box, by Edward Albee, The Stronger, by August Strindberg. Salmasi’s published original plays include The Next Train, Hour, Before Expectation,After Expectation, among others. She has been a member of the Directive Board of the Iran Association of Theatre Critics since 1998, and a member of the IATC Executive Committee since 2008.
Copyright © 2010 Katy Salmasi
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