“Mr. President, Mr. Future President,” says Mahboubeh Abbasgholizadeh, a researcher and women’s rights activist, “For crying out loud, we have minds, we have powers of discernment, we know how to live, how to spend, how to behave with our husbands, how to dress.” Her assertion is one of many made in We Are Half of Iran’s Population, the documentary that Rakhshan Bani-Etemad put together in the months just before the 2009 elections in Iran. The hope was that women’s voices might be heard by presidential candidates, that their concerns would be addressed. The filmmaker explains that she had been asked many times before why she made films, and who saw her work. And so she made a film with a specific audience in mind.
The film—which premieres on Link TV on 28 February—offers talking heads, asking questions and pointing out injustices. It also includes shots of meetings and conversations, as well as of viewers watching women on screen, images that underline how films are means of communication, effective when they are shared. Some interviewees note problems in need of attention: the objectification of women, the constraints on women’s rights to speak or be seen in public, to organize, receive medical treatment, or be educated. Some note the effects of censorship (journalist Jia Abni-Yagoub says, “I run into problem when I try to use the phrase ‘women’s movement’ in newspapers” and journalist Shahla Sherkut observes, “The word ‘woman’ has been blocked by the Iranian government on the internet, so even if you want to research women’s illnesses, you can’t”). Others point out the scarcity of women in official positions, women’s lack of access to education or business opportunities.
One after another, women observe the limits on their speech and even their thoughts. “I have one question for the future president,” says Nasreen Sotoudeh, a lawyer and women’s rights activist, “In these conditions in which women are under extreme social and legal pressure because of their civil demands, and we have had heavy sentences of one to even five years of imprisonment, given that the executive branch has no right to interfere with the judiciary, what measures do you propose to stop all of these pressures against women’s rights activists?”
The film closes with an epigraph revealing that “permission was not granted” to release We Are One Half of Iran’s Population before the elections. And so Rakhshan Bani-Etemad copied it and distributed it among the people. This epigraph notes as well the extraordinary vote count that allowed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reelection. “People’s questions and doubts about the election results have remained unanswered,” the film maintains, before it lists participants who are now imprisoned.