Women Without Empire

“Our strategy should be not only to confront empire, but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it. With our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness – and our ability to tell our own stories. Stories that are different from the ones we’re being brainwashed to believe. The corporate revolution will collapse if we refuse to buy what they are selling – their ideas, their version of history, their wars, their weapons, their notion of inevitability. Remember this: We be many and they be few. They need us more than we need them. Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”- Arundhati Roy

While reading about globalization and cultural imperialism, I was struck by this Arundhati Roy quote. I feel that this accurately posits the creation of media in the anti-imperialist struggle. Mirlees traces the struggle against cultural imperialism back to Fanon, who advocated for formerly colonized peoples to cultivate their own stories, and begin the difficult work of representing themselves, after decades of viewing themselves through the eyes of the colonizer.

The ability to represent oneself is an ongoing struggle for marginalized people. For this reason, I wanted to explore Shirin Neshat’s film Women Without Men as an example of an authentic representation of Iranian women in the context of the revolution. Shirin Neshat is an Iranian feminist visual artist. Her art examines the relationship between women and Islam, as a cultural insider, rather than from a paternalizing Western gaze.

Women Without Men follows the lives of four Iranian women navigating political turmoil, divorce, and other issues of identity and desire. Neshat’s background as a visual artist is evident while viewing the film; it’s visually stunning.

A still from Women Without Men.

A still from Women Without Men.

The women navigate traditional gender roles that limit their abilities to move freely and pursue their desires, as well as a class system that compounds upon this. The characters’ lives converge in a cottage outside the limits of town, a third space in which the women can heal from trauma and build powerful bonds. Fakhri, a military general’s wife unhappy with her marriage and in love with another man, purchases the cottage, which can be viewed as the start of the “other world” that Roy describes. In the cottage, the women heal from traumas inflicted upon them by men; from rape to forced prostitution, to the inability to leave the home without male permission. In this space, the women work together to not only tend to the home, but also heal from society.

Faezeh walks towards the cottage, where she heals from sexual assault.

Faezeh walks towards the cottage, where she heals from sexual assault.

In addition to this vision of a third space outside of society, the film is radical in the nuance and humanity its characters are given. None of the women appear as victims, despite the difficult situations of their lives. Religion is not blamed as the sole root cause of all of their problems, as Western media tends to do.

In Women Without Men, Munes defies her brother's rules as her male guardian, and becomes a political revolutionary.

In Women Without Men, Munes defies her brother’s rules as her male guardian, and becomes a political revolutionary.

Thinking about Women Without Men reminds me of some of the issues we talked about last week in regards to independent cinema. Shirin Neshat’s background as a visual artist puts Women Without Men in the tradition of art cinema. It was shown in limited release, mostly in independent theaters. These authentic representations are not reaching a widespread audience. Perhaps as Western viewers, we must commit ourselves to seeking out authentic representations from other countries, outside the mainstream. Just as Fanon views the creation of these media as a form of anti-imperialism, we can resist the imperialism of our own country by actively seeking out these representations outside the mainstream.


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