Islamic women are powerful ladies drawing on powerful mythological sources. My favorite is Shirin Neshat (1957-), from Iran. I just watched a film directed by her, Women without Men, which is available through Netflix. The surrealistic film is based on a surrealistic novella by Shahrnush Parsipur (translation available from Syracuse University Press, 1998)
Neshat’s story is about four women living in 1953 when a coup ousted the President Mohammed Mosaddeq in favor of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. (In case you haven’t heard of Mosaddeq, and I had to look him up, he was an elected leader in Iran, who the CIA and the British intelligence deposed, putting in the Shah of Iran with his repressive reign. And that is only one of the reasons the people in the Middle East are angry at the U.S. and Britain.)
One woman is a communist; one is a prostitute; one an older women who had been a singer, but her husband didn’t allow her to sing; and the last is a woman who is concerned about the importance of virginity.
Farrok, the older woman, leaves her husband and buys a house with a garden. In Islam, heaven is perceived as a garden so in a sense she creates a heaven for women to which the other three women come. The surrealistic scenes of the garden are eerie and breathtaking. It is both a political film, representing anger against the U.S. and Britain, and a mythological film, delving into the depths of women’s souls as they attempt to actualize themselves withn this sacred space.
Shirin Neshat's art is disturbing as it focuses on conflicting issues in the reader's mind regarding politics and Islam." Shirin Neshat has been famous in the West for a number of years for her photography and art films. In her photographs she juxtaposes the words of the Qur'an with guns. One of my favorites, "Faceless", shows a young women with Qur'anic calligraphy painted on her face and arms, with a chador on, pointing a gun at the camera. One sees the woman’s gracious face, the malignant gun, the covering chador, then under the chador the words of the Qur'an which illuminate Islam. Is it positive or negative? One doesn’t know, but it is disturbing, both as a statement on violence and a statement on women’s rights.
Her first art film, Turbulent, also juxtaposes two images one on each side of the gallery. On one side, a male singer, singing a love song by Rumi to a large audience, is contrasted with, on the other side, a female singer, singing her own composition to an empty set of seats.
In all her work, she digs at the roots of cultural perceptions on women and women’s perceptions of themselves. Her work is as groundbreaking as that of Judy Chicago and Cindy Sherman, going beyond the symbols those artists played with, to the inner mythological working of women’s mind.
(Shirin Neshat. Carta: Museo d'Arte Contemporanea Milan, 2002)
P. G. Misty Sheehan has been a UU for 35 years and has worked on Women and Religion since 1979. She teaches philosphy and religion at Northwestern Michigan College, including a course on Women's Spirituallity.