Behind the veils and screens

As if the situation in Iran couldn’t get any more perplexing (and that’s from the perspective of a total outsider; I can’t even fathom what it’s actually like to be there at the moment), the Iranian legislative body has reportedly approved the country’s first female cabinet member in 30 years: “hard-line conservative” Marzieh Vahid Dastjerdi, who will serve in President Ahmadinejad’s newly formed government as health minister. (In fact, Ahmadinejad nominated three women to serve in his cabinet, two of which were rejected.) Dastjerdi apparently supports a segregated health care system (male doctors for men, female doctors for women), though she also, somewhat paradoxically, seeks to increase and intensify the involvement of Iranian women in domestic politics, particularly on issues like health care reform. The way Dastjerdi tells it, men and women work very well together everywhere but the doctor’s office, for that is a sacred space where religious ideology should be allowed to keep on keepin’ on.

This story seems especially interesting to me because I watched a remarkable film last night: Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Kandahar (2001), a film about an Afghan-Canadian journalist who sneaks into Afghanistan across the Afghan-Iranian border in order to visit her sister in Kandahar, where the oppressive rule of the Taliban has driven her to the brink of suicide. One of the film’s most striking scenes is set in a doctor’s office, where an Muslim American emigre posing as a native (“played by Hassan Tantai A.K.A. David Belfield [who] is under indictment in the United States for the murder of Iranian Diplomat Ali Akbar Tabatabai in 1980.” – IMDB) consults a patient through a sheet draped over a rope with a small hole in the middle and with the assistance of a child serving as a verbal mediator. Granted, Kandahar is set in the Afghan desert, and the scene in question is not an example of the segregated health care that Dastjerdi supports; but I did think it was interesting that Makhmalbaf, himself an Iranian, seemed to recognize, through the expressiveness of his camera and through the overall tone of the scene, how backwards such an approach to medicine truly is.

Through the work of Makhmalbaf’s fellow countryman Abbas Kiarostami we know that Iranian artists have a certain sensitivity to the very real and very troubling consequences of aspects of Muslim culture, a mode of perception which manifests itself as an understated critique conducted through cinematic metaphors. If only such a sensitivity were more prevalent, then perhaps the present situations in Iran and Afghanistan (where, believe it or not, the recent presidential election is looking more and more like a complete fraud) wouldn’t be so profoundly screwed up.

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