“The Day I Became a Woman” - Marzieh Meshkini (2000)

The Day I Became a Woman (Roozi ke Zan Shodam, 2000) offers a thematic perspective on the plight of women (in Iran, presumably, and similar societies) in three separate allegorical segments. Each of the segments shows a woman at a different stage of life and the way societal restrictions severely confine her.  These three 24-minute tales were allegedly planned as three short films, since the approval process for short films made in Iran is more relaxed than that for feature films [1].  But collectively, they offer a more disturbing picture. What is distinctive about this film, though, is the surreal nature of the presentation.  Although the events depicted are physically realizable, there is a dreamlike feeling to each of the stories.

The film was directed by Marzieh Meshkini, the wife of noted Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, who also had a significant hand in the production.  After establishing himself as a major film director, Mohsen Makhmalbaf founded the Makhmalbaf Film House in 1996, which is both a film school and a production house.  Among its graduates are Mohsen’s wife and his three children, all three of whom received major film production credits as teenagers. His wife Marzieh has worked as a film director, cinematographer, and scriptwriter.  His daughter Samira is a director and scriptwriter  (The Apple, 1998; Blackboards, 2000). His daughter Hana is also a director (Buda as Sharm Foru Rikht, 2007). And his son Maysam is a film editor. It is not surprising then that most of the films they have produced have involved family collaboration. In the case of The Day I Became a Woman, Mohsen was the producer, Marzieh and Mohsen were the script writers, and Maysam co-edited the film (with Shahrzad Pouya).  Because the experienced Mohsen was involved in all those films, some people believe that he is the real director and auteur behind all the films coming out of Makhmalbaf Film House; nevertheless, there is evidence seems to refute that claim and to credit the family members with real contributions [2].

All three segments take place on Kish Island, which is an Iranian resort center and international trading post in the Persian Gulf.  Because of its location, the island’s native population features a mixture of ethnic peoples and colors.  But race is not so much an issue here; gender is.
1.  Hava (Farsi for “Eve”)
The first segment involves a young girl, Hava, who wakes up on the morning of her 9th birthday and is informed that she has now “become a woman”. That means that she can no longer associate with her boy playmates in the neighborhood and that she must now begin wearing the chador, a full-lengthed veil for women in Iran. After some discussion with her mother and grandmother, Hava learns that she was born at 12 noon, so she argues that she isn’t really nine years old until noon of the present day.  Thus since it is now about 11 o’clock, she has one hour of freedom left.

Hava rushes off to play with her best friend, Hassan, but she finds that he has been grounded at his home for not doing his homework.  She goes off to buy some sweets for him, and returns just before noon to hand him some sweets through his window.  Their innocent childhood intimacy is highlighted by a scene showing them alternatively licking the same Tootsie-roll pop that she holds out to him with her extended arm.

Finally the high noon time arrives, and Hava’s mother arrives to cloak her with a chador and whisk her away forever from her previously open and fun-filled life.

2.  Ahoo (Farsi for “deer”)
The most arresting of the three tales shows a number of women, fully clothed in chadors, engaged in a long-distance bicycle race.  Apparently Kish island is (at least at that time) the only place in Iran where women are allowed to ride bicycles in public. But even there, the idea of women riding a bicycle is not fully accepted by everyone.  As the women cyclists race down a country ride, a man on horseback rushes upon them looking for his wife, Ahoo, who is one of the riders. He orders her to desist from this disgraceful activity, and when she persists with her racing, he rushes off to get a mullah.  When Ahoo’s husband soon rejoins the racers, he is accompanied this time by a mullah, also on horseback.  Losing no time at all, the shouting mullah pronounces an on-the-fly divorce, even as Ahoo continues racing down the highway.

Later Ahoo’s elder family members also ride up on horseback and insist that by participating in the race, she is ruining her family’s honor.  But Ahoo continues on in the race anyway.  Finally her brothers arrange an ambush for the poor woman and force her to stop so they can confiscate her bicycle.

All through this segment Ahoo has very few spoken words.  Her situation is expressed visually by the racing cyclists, the intrusive horseback riders, and Ahoo’s facial expressions.

3.  Hoora (Farsi for “nymph”)
Because Kish island offers duty-free merchandise, it attracts lots of bargain hunters and has a large shopping center.  An elderly spinster, Hoora, arrives at the airport and hires one of the numerous young boys looking for work to wheel her around the shopping area in a wheelchair.  The woman has just come into a large inheritance, and her goal is to buy all the nice household items that she had missed out on in her life.  In short order Hoora has a parade of young boys trucking her vast range of purchased items, which includes a refrigerator, a stove, a bed sets, dressers, and chairs.

Since she wants to look at what she has bought to see if she has forgotten anything, she arranges for the boys to take all her purchases to the beach and set them up for display.   But it is natural for anyone to ask what does this old and enfeebled woman want all this stuff for?  It would seem that the real thing that she missed out on in life was not furnishings, but being a mother.  In fact she asks her boy hireling if she could adopt him as her son and, reminiscing about her past, says to him,
 “If that lousy bastard had married me, I would have a son like you.”
But the boy has parents of his own and is unavailable to be the woman’s adopted son.

Near the end of this segment, two of the bicycle racers from the Ahoo segment arrive and gaze at Hoora’s merchandise arrayed out on the beach. 

Eventually all the boys are engaged to repack Ahoo’s merchandise and put it all on their makeshift rafts so that they can transport her goods to a ship anchored off the beach.  At the very end we also see Hava, now clad in her chador, watching wistfully from a distance.

Ultimately Hava winsomely just wanted to play; Ahoo determinedly wanted to participate; and Hoora feistily wanted finally to have a life.  All three women just wanted to be and to do.  But severe social restrictions got in the way. An Iranian friend complained that this film did not present a realistic portrayal of how women live in Iran.  But the point here is not to present strict realism but to evoke an atmosphere, a mood.

Of the three tales of The Day I Became a Woman, the first two are the more successful, mainly  because they offer compelling visual metaphors of women in confinement.  There isn’t so much dialogue; it is the situational circumstances, themselves, that hit home. The final tale, though, is a bit too ludicrous for my taste.  The elderly Hoora is innocent in her own way – her confined life has left her with no vision of life’s richness beyond household appliances.  But she doesn’t evoke our sympathies the way Hava and Ahoo do.

In this regard it is interesting to consider the aesthetics behind The Day I Became a Woman and how they relate to the general production style of Makhmalbaf Film House.  The beauty of this film lies in its imagery, not so much in any narrative movement of the story.  The film dwells visually on fascinating situations, which don’t really evolve much.  Yet these situations are elegantly portrayed.  This might lead one to imagine the contrast between visual imagery (which might suggest paintings) and written text (which might suggest stories, hence narrative movement).  Does this imply that Makhmalbaf Film House focuses on the visual image over text?  Not necessarily. It’s a bit more complicated than that.  In fact film critic Jonathon Rosenbaum has compared Mohsen Makhmalbaf to Abbas Kiarostami and noted that Makhmalbaf started out as a playwright and has published many of his film scripts, while Kiarostami started out as a graphic artist and rarely uses a script [2].  Yet the films of wordsmith Makhmalbaf are more static, while Kiarostami’s scriptless films have more narrative evolution.

This is where effective collaboration may have come in.  It seems that Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s script contributions to The Day I Became a Woman were merely sketch outlines, while his wife Marzieh Meshkini filled in the visual details [2].  And it in this area, particularly in the first two segments, where the film excels.  So the authorial stamp of the film may come primarily from Marzieh.

Included with the DVD of The Day I Became a Woman that I saw is a “director’s statement” about the film, so let us let Marzieh Meshkini have the last words [3]:
“Eastern societies face a number of elementary problems in spite of their rich cultural backgrounds and their exotic charm.  Being a woman constitutes one of those problems – so much so that people begin worrying about a baby girl from the moment she is born, and at times the mother is consoled with the expression of hope that her next baby will be a boy. Women are given minor roles in society, and consequently they are transformed from producers into mere consumers and burdens to the productive segment of the society.  That is why the birth of a girl is considered an increase in the number of consumers of the family income. 

At the same time, the attitude of society toward women is emotional; women are either mothers or mistresses, and that is why every man tries to gain exclusive possession of his mother and his mistresses. As a result, home becomes the safest place where women can be preserved.

The Day I Became a Woman depicts the position of women for whom their gender poses a social problem.  The film focuses on the lives of women who are imprisoned in the house, not because they are hated but because they are loved – women who have to forgo emotional attachments in order to gain individual independence and active social positions.”
But of course it is not text like the above, however eloquent its expression may be, but those visceral images in the film that long linger in the mind after seeing this film.

  1. Marrit Ingman, “The Day I Became a Woman”, The Austin Chronicle, (18 May 2001).
  2. Jonathon Rosenbaum, “The Day I Became a Woman”, Chicago Reader, (6 April 2001).
  3. Marzieh Meshkini, The Day I Became a Woman, Olive Films, 2005.

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