They Call Me Muslim. Directed by Diana Ferrero. New York: Women Make Movies, 2006.

Divorce Iranian Style. Directed by Kim Longinotto and Ziba Mir-Hosseini. New York: Women Make Movies, 1998.

Reviewed by Mitra Rastegar

Diana Ferrero’s They Call Me Muslim and Kim Longinotto and Ziba Mir-Hosseini’s Divorce Iranian Style both address the state’s relationship to women and Islam, focusing on the unique cases of France and Iran. Through profiles of two women, They Call Me Muslim effectively juxtaposes French laïcité to the policies of the Islamic Republic of Iran on the issue of women’s Islamic dress. Samah Mazouni is a Parisian Muslim who, as a result of the 2004 ban on “conspicuous religious symbols” in public schools, was forced to remove her head scarf. She experienced this as a violation of her sense of self, explaining that wearing the head scarf was a choice she made independently as a religious act. She and other young Muslim women challenge the discourse of victimhood applied to them and instead scrutinize the French obsession with their choices. As Samah says, “whoever said that freedom means wearing nothing on your head?

K., a thirty-three-year-old homemaker in Tehran, resists the state’s imposition of a particular definition of Islamic dress by wearing a translucent scarf barely draped over her head and shoulders. She describes the dynamics of resistance in a context where “they are not always watching you… But if they see you and they want you, they can cause you problems.” The film places K.’s actions in the context of a changing Iranian society, where women are the majority of university students and young people create spaces of greater freedom at private parties, in the mountains and even on the streets. However, unlike the segment on Samah, here the film suffers from not including more voices, instead focusing too much on a single rebellious woman and not the dynamic youth movement of which she is a part.1

These two cases create a neat contrast to demonstrate how each state circumscribes women’s choices. In contrast, a U.S. brand of secularism seems to be the ideal compromise; indeed, Samah’s friend exclaims after moving to the U.S., “Here, I found freedom!” Such an individualistic analysis unfortunately misses how choices are created and delimited, including in a context where such religious practices are nominally protected.

In contrast, Divorce Iranian Style provides a more complicated examination of the concepts of choice and agency by showing how women seeking divorce work through and against a system that seems to offer them very few options. The state is not epitomized in a single law, but rather in a set of practices and relationships that purport to execute the law. The documentary was shot in the mid-1990s, primarily in the courtroom of a judge who acts as arbiter, therapist, and moral guide to distraught couples. While the details will seem foreign to most U.S. students, the process of debate and negotiation with an amiable, if paternalistic, judge bears some resemblance to daytime television’s courtroom shows.

The film profiles several women seeking divorce who face an exceedingly unkind legal context where a woman is only granted divorce with the consent of her husband or if she meets a few narrow criteria. Women, however, do have some bargaining chips, including a marriage gift required of the husband in the event of divorce; this gift is often relinquished in return for the husband’s consent of divorce. In addition, women are shown to use other tools, such as accusation, public shaming, and simple dogged persistence, to try to leverage their power, as most clearly demonstrated in the story of sixteen-year-old Ziba, who seeks both a divorce and the marriage gift. However, the limits of working within this system are also demonstrated in the devastating case of Maryam, who after remarriage is at risk of losing custody of her second child. Finally, the film beautifully captures the daily life of the court, a typically maddening bureaucracy made up of a cast of characters and most interestingly punctuated by a spirited girl, the court secretary’s daughter, who spends her afternoons in the courtroom providing a kind of social commentary.

Both They Call Me Muslim and Divorce Iranian Style could be effectively used in the classroom to challenge common stereotypes of Muslim women and to initiate conversation on the secular/religious distinction, the operations of state power and conceptions of choice and agency. These films could be effectively paired with a number of scholarly readings, including Joan Wallach Scott’s analysis of the French head scarf controversy, Roxane Varzi’s ethnography of Tehran’s middle-class youth, Arzoo Osanloo’s study of divorce courts in Iran, and Ziba Mir-Hosseini’s research on the diverse and competing Iranian religious views on the status of women.2

1 This movement has since played a key role in Iran’s recent extraordinary election protests.

2 Joan Wallach Scott, The Politics of the Veil (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007); Roxanne Varzi, Warring Souls: Youth, Media, and Martyrdom in Post-Revolution Iran (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2006; see especially Chapter 8, “Reforming Religious Identities in Post-Khatami Iran”); Arzoo Osanloo, “Islamico-Civil ‘Rights Talk’: Women, Subjectivity, and Law in Iranian Family Court,” American Ethnologist 33, no. 2 (2006): 191-209; Ziba Mir-Hosseini, Islam and Gender: The Religious Debate in Contemporary Iran (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999).

Mitra Rastegar is a doctoral candidate in sociology at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, where she is writing her dissertation on tolerance and sympathy in U.S. discourses on Muslims since 2001. Her most recent publication is “Managing ‘American Islam’: Secularism, Patriotism and the Gender Litmus Test,” The International Feminist Journal of Politics 10, no. 4 (2008): 455-74.