Shirin Neshat’s ‘Women Without Men’: A Post-Colonial Critique

This essay was written for my final project during my first year of university. I was studying Illustration combined with Contextual Studies so this is the contextual side of the course… The fact I enjoyed the contextual side more than the practical side is exactly why I quit and intend to pursue Art History or something similar later on.

It’s quite a long essay but I’m proud of it. I’m analysing Shirin Neshat’s film ‘Women Without Men’ which I highly recommend you watch. I delve into several themes but mostly feminism, post-colonialism and Orientalism. Enjoy!

Shirin Neshat’s ‘Women Without Men’: A Post-Colonial Critique

Iranian artist, Shirin Neshat, is widely recognised for her portrayal of Iran and its politics to an international audience. Having moved from Iran as a young adult to the United States, Neshat offers a unique viewpoint regarding Orientalist stereotypes and highlighting the significance and consequences of historical events still in place today. Neshat’s 2009 film, ‘Women without Men’ – based loosely on Shahrnush Parsipur’s Feminist novel, looks at the lives of four very different women living in Tehran at the time of the coup d’état. Neshat focuses on the influence of the West and emphasises the more political focus of the storyline, unlike the book which revolves more personally around the characters and their relations with one another. The tension between the east and west does not stop here in Neshat’s themes. She brings to light the roles and representations of Iranian women before the Islamic Revolution and opposes the preconceived idea the west may have of them although somewhat ironically as she is also looking at Iran and its history with a western- tinted glaze herself.

The 20th century brought many changes in Iran. 1953 brought the coup d’etat, initiated by Britain leading the CIA to overthrough Dr Mosaddegh’s government. Mosaddegh intended to bring Iran to a full democracy and to nationalise the oil reserves, much to Britain’s dismay who relied on the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (now BP). In the film, Neshat is clearly very anti-Shah/Britain with the argument that she finds it amazing how “the west have the idea that Iran cannot have democracy when they were the ones to destroy ours [Iran’s] in the first place Women without Men’ focuses on the lives of four women living at the time of the coup, portraying four very different lifestyles and personalities who eventually come together in an orchard just outside of Tehran and find solace in each other and nature. Her intention to contrast these stereotypes formed after she left Iran to study in the US just before the Islamic Revolution, reacting to her shock and nostalgia upon returning to Tehran and seeing how much had changed. Neshat reconstructs scenes of the coup and anti-Shah protests in Casablanca, Morroco, in a highly-stylised manner through nostalgic muted colours and elegant dance-like fighting.

The main publicity image (see Fig 1) was used for promotion and cinema advertising, suitable when summarising Neshat’s main focuses where the female figure (Munis) is physically at the centre of image and also amidst a political protest. Munis is the activist of the story, who committed suicide after her oppressive brother (Amir Khan) broke her only connection with the outside world – her radio. It is only after she is reincarnated (see Fig 2) where her new life as an activist leads her to join protests with a group of Communists. Her brother is portrayed as very religious and tyrannical with little context or development of his character, similarly for nearly all of the male characters in the film. This distances the viewer from the men, in the same way the women physically do when they retreat to the orchard.

Amir’s approach to his sister and women in general is an extreme portrayal of a religious mindset at the time, somewhat metaphorical of the impact of the Islamic Revolution which further supports Neshat’s argument. In conjunction with this, Faezeh, Munis’ friend and another one of the four women to join the orchard, is in love with Amir Khan and eager to marry him when she talks with Munis at the beginning of the film. Faezeh is represented as a timid and religiously-aware woman, submissive with men in general and conscious of the differences between them. The turning point in Faezeh’s story is when she follows Munis after her resurrection and is raped after being near an all-male café. Ashamed, Faezeh leaves Tehran to join the orchard where she is forced to re-evaluate her life and her decisions. She is eventually emancipated after her time at the orchard, which Neshat described as a “paradise, acting like the feminine skeleton in paradox to Tehran’s masculine and conflict-ridden skin.  Faezeh rejects Amir Khan’s marriage proposal later on in the film, reiterating the power of choice women had before the Revolution.

Neshat defined her work as “paraxial, always comparing one to the other… black/white, men/women, emotional/rational, religion/politics…” in this case, ‘Women without Men’ compares the roles and representations of women before and after the Islamic Revolution whilst simultaneously showing Neshat’s opinion on the Shah. She relies on modern interpretations of Iranian women to juxtapose the images she creates of them on screen. Fakhri, a middle-class woman who buys the orchard in which these women rehabilitate, has the power to leave her husband when he says how “a man has the right to look elsewhere for a wife if his is not satisfying him” looking towards a more western, and seemingly idealised lifestyle after being reunited with an old flame who frequently travelled in America. This glamorisation of his mindset and lifestyle distances the cultures of Iran and America, hinting towards the ‘ideal other’ Edward Said coined in his novel ‘Orientalism’.

Fakhri portrays a more lavish lifestyle, always with glamorous clothes and hairstyles typical of a more western culture. She has a more comfortable life than the others where she has money to be an independent woman despite her obvious displacement within herself. Fakhri’s character is important when considering the gap between eastern and western cultures and society’s reaction to it. Neshat portrays Fakhri as a caring but narcissistic character, tending to Zarin (a prostitute searching for redemption) in a maternal way although it is suggested that this is only when it relates back to her own personal loneliness. This vanity encourages Fakhri to host a party to open the orchard to the public which breaks the spell of it and separates the women once again. The scene where the Shah’s forces interject the party in search of Communists physically sabotages the barrier between the situation in Tehran and the utopian orchard which is presented in the death of Zarin.

Probably the most direct reference to Orientalism in the film, Zarin is pictured in a bath house having fled her brothel. Neshat’s depiction of Zarin is the most hostile towards men whilst metaphorically revealing the approach to women in the Orient for centuries rather than just after the Islamic Revolution. Neshat’s use of colour and chiaroscuro when Zarin is in the bath house is directly reminiscent of 19th century Orientalist paintings (see Fig 3). As seductive as the lighting and pastel colours are, Neshat obliterates the Orientalist stereotype of a harem with Zarin who abrades herself so vigorously that she becomes raw and bleeds. Zarin’s character is the most tormented in the film, the only one of the four women to have representations of mental illness on top of her troubled relationship with men and, more profoundly, society. Neshat explains how Zarin as her favourite character, being “the most torturous but the most saintly… the most sacred” which she depicts in oversaturated surrealist imagery around Zarin throughout the film.

Neshat enforcing this imagery to create an argument against modern stereotypes is a peculiar approach. Her audience seems to be focused on the west, with the main releases being at International Film Festivals (one in which she won a Silver Lion award) in Western Europe and the USA. Parsipur’s book is banned from Iran and allegedly the Iranian government attempted to get the film version banned from public exhibition also. Although unsuccessful, it brought more attention to the release causing impressive box office figures. Neshat coincided the release of ‘Women without Men’ with the Green Movement (see Fig 4) against Ahmadinejad after the political elections in Iran. The Green Movement was a series of peaceful protests to remove Ahmadinejad’s government who won by a landslide in the elections, despite Mir Hossein Mousavi’s popularity. Mousavi and his supporters were successful and the Green Movement was classified as the biggest political protest in Iran since the Iranian Revolution of 1979.

One of the main messages Neshat wanted to broadcast with ‘Women without Men’ was the idea that history repeats itself and to highlight how Iran is still fighting for democracy just like they are in the film. Neshat said that she thinks ‘Women without Men’ “is not an Iranian story but an American story. It shows Iranians as they struggled for democracy and fought against dictatorship and imperialism. It is also an American story, as it reveals how this country intervened in another country’s politics for its own self-interest”. Neshat’s views are very prominent within the film as it is clear that she is resentful towards America and Britain for what they did, although in a warped portrayal where the audience is western and is sated with these preconceived stereotypes of Iranian women. Neshat uses this Orientalist imagery to contrast the images of Iranian women before and after the Islamic Revolution, manipulating the preconceived idea to express her ideas instead.

Unfortunately, she is observing this transition from a western-tinted point of view as she did not experience it first hand and has a more liberal approach to the political and social situation in modern Iran. For example, Neshat observes the black chadors enforced by the Islamic Revolution as oppressive and dehumanising. Whereas Leila Ahmed, prolific Egyptian writer on Islamism and Islamic Feminism states how the hijab and the chador “… plainly signalled the presence of Islamism: a particular and very political form of Islam that had been gaining ground in Muslim societies since the Islamic Resurgence of the 1970s.” Although Neshat is anti-Shah generally, her views of the chador are in sync with his pro- western approach with which he thought the traditional aspects of wearing the chador would not coincide well with his modernisation/westernisation of the nation. It caused issues regarding personal religious identity which was what resulted in so many women supporting Ruhollah Khomeini as the Supreme Leader. Neshat seems to ignore this within ‘Women without Men’ and instead the chador is used more as an aesthetic rather than to symbolise political revolution and barely as a reference to religion either.

Women without Men’ focuses on the negative impact of western imperialism in Iran, indicating that Iranians are capable of democracy but it’s in fact the west who are barbaric in their approach after incapacitating Iran’s democratic government. This contrasts the Orientalist assumption of the east being more primitive, shedding light on a new point of view for the west to see. In conversation with Sheryl Mosley, Neshat said about ‘Women without Men’: “I could be talking to Iranians about Iran, but I am also talking to Americans about America. So what am I? I am a person who is inbetween, I am not American and not Iranian, and so the work is also inbetween.” Although a valid argument from Neshat, the impact living in the USA for so long has had on her creates an Orientalist piece, as it seems she deliberately portrayed two different messages to two different mindsets and cultures, further enhancing the gap between the east and west.  She almost seems to disregard Iran and the east as her audience as if they would not understand and be able to achieve democracy again on their own, without some sort of western input. Her apparent call to the west to bring a more liberal approach to Iran ironically mirrors the issues that were caused by the coup d’état in the first case, making her argument seem much less rational.

Despite being focused on one key historical event in Iran, ‘Women without Men’ acts as more of a personal reflection of Nehsat’s identity struggle regarding her homeland. Not only by directly showing her opinions on the situation but also with the metaphor of a conflict in juxtaposition with a utopia, mirroring her personal identity struggle with both her homeland and America. Neshat looks at Iran and its history from an outsider’s stance which results in her relying on preconceived stereotypes to bring the core context and meaning to the film.


Fig 1: The scene pictured in the publicity poster released by Artificial Eye in 2009 portrays the scene where Munis, now emancipated after her resurrection, is amidst an anti-Shah protest in Iran. She is surrounded by men, symbolising the equality and intergration possible at the time although striking in her black chador against their white swarm. Neshat uses the chador more aesthetically than religiously in this film, emphasising the importance of it then and now regarding the roles of women in Iranian society.
Neshat still 3
Fig 2: Munis in the howz after her burial. This scene focuses on the process of Munis being buried alive and physically reborn again from the earth. Both Neshat’s film interpretation and Parsipur’s book focus on the importance of nature and how synchronised the women are with it, hence why the orchard later on in the film is so significant to their revivals.

The orchard not only acts as a solace for the women but it also represents a mirror, a state of there-but-not-there often used in magic realism. Foucault’s heterotopia theory lends itself to the orchard and Neshat, as it also represents Neshat’s own experience of vacancy from her home country and her state of being living in America. This quote by Foucault summarises the idea of a mirror utopia:

In the mirror, I see myself there where I am not, in an unreal, virtual space that opens up behind the

surface; I am over there, there where I am not, a sort of shadow that gives my own visibility to myself, that enables me to see myself there where I am absent: such is the utopia of the mirror. But it is also a heterotopia in so far as the mirror does exist in reality, where it exerts a sort of counteraction on the position that I occupy. From the standpoint of the mirror I discover my absence from the place where I am since I see myself over there. Starting from this gaze that is, as it were, directed toward me, from the ground of this virtual space that is on the other side of the glass, I come back toward myself; I begin again to direct my eyes toward myself and to reconstitute myself there where I am. The mirror functions as a heterotopia in this respect: it makes this place that I occupy at the moment when I look at myself in the glass at once absolutely real, connected with all the space that surrounds it, and absolutely unreal, since in order to be perceived it has to pass through this virtual point which is over there.” Foucault, M. (1986). Of Other Spaces

Film still taken directly by myself from DVD version of ‘Women without Men’.


Fig 3: Image of bath house available online via Artificial Eye at http://www.artificial-

The Turkish Bath (Le Bain Turc) 1862 painting by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. One of the most prominent Orientalist paintings and a good example of comparison between Neshat’s cinematography. Several critics believe that Neshat deliberately chose a blue and white colour scheme to directly refer to Ingres’ Turkish Bath rather than red and black which is more typical of a Persian bath house. It is available for viewing at Room 60, the Louvre in Paris, France.



Fig 4: Shirin Neshat and cast members at the premiere of ‘Women without Men’ on September 9th 2009 at the 66th edition of the Venice Film Festival wearing green in support of the Green Movement. Photograph courtesy of Associated Press, Venice, Italy.



Neshat, S., Azari, S., Women without Men, (2009) film



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4 thoughts on “Shirin Neshat’s ‘Women Without Men’: A Post-Colonial Critique

  1. speakingpolitical says:

    This is amazing! I really liked your essay, especially when you mentioned preconceived ideas – which is what we’re learning in English right now. I hope I can write like you when I go to college.


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