Structured as three loosely linked stories about Iranian women, Marziyeh Meshkini’s The Day I Became a Woman is at once haunting and immediate. Working from a script by her husband, Mohsen Makmalbaf, and with starkly potent cinematography by Ebraheem Gahfouri and Shahrzad Pouya, Meshkini displays the oppression and resilience of women in a fundamentalist religious state. But these images also speak to a more general sense of resistance, offering hope in beauty and understanding.
The Day I Became a Woman begins with the tale of a girl who, on her ninth birthday, “becomes” a woman. That is, Havva (Fatemeh Cheragh Akhtar), whose name means “Eve,” will from this day forward never leave the house without being covered in her black chador, and she will no longer be allowed to play with her male friend Hassan (Hassan Nabehan). She measures her final hours as a child with a stick that she carries with her, planting it in the ground periodically to see how long a shadow it casts. At noon (the time of day when she was born), the stick will no longer cast any shadow, at which time she will “be” a woman, restricted in behavior and aspiration.
Until that moment, not quite understanding what’s at stake, she stands outside Hassan’s window while he must remain inside, literally behind bars, assigned by his own mother to finish his homework. Havva brings a lollipop, and they share it by taking separate licks, one by one, in shot-reverse shots, until her time is up. When her mother (Shahr Banou Sisizadeh) comes to fetch her, Havva looks back at Hassan, and we watch her leave, from his tiny window. The meaning is clear: the boy is also limited by the limitations placed on girls.
The second section is comprised of a singular visual lyricism. A young woman, Aloo (Shabnam Toloui), whose name means “Gazelle,” is competing in a bicycle race for women. The camera tracks her and her many competitors, their chadors billowing as they pedal away for miles and miles. Soon, Aloo is pursued by a man on horseback (Cyrus Kahouri Nejad), her angry husband. When she refuses to give up the race and return home with him, he retreats, then returns, with fellow male tribesmen, all threatening her, all insisting that her place as a woman is by her husband’s side, not pursuing some goal of her own.
The third episode is also named for its protagonist, Houra (Azizeh Seddihi), meaning “Black-Eyed Beauty.” An old woman, she has finally accumulated enough money to buy for herself all the niceties that she was denied as a younger woman. She hires a group of boys (led by Badr Irouni Nejad) to cart her and her new purchases—a refrigerator, bed, mirror, vacuum cleaner, washing machine, pots and pans, teapot, etc.—to the beach. There she has them unpack all the boxes so that she can take stock of her possessions, to see what is missing. The resulting surrealish image, a household laid out on the sand, surf sounding in the background, says as much about the fantasy offered by commercial culture as it does about the difficulties of a life without such luxuries.
Each of the three stories moves at its own pace—in Havva’s segment, the camera follows her from place to place, flitters and dodges, alive with a childish unevenness and irresolution, while Aloo’s story feels more driven and focused, impelled by the sound of the bicycle wheels turning and legs pedaling for miles and miles, interrupted by the clattering of the horses’ hooves, bearing down on Aloo like weather—relentless. The last moments of this section, shot from the point of view of another woman bicyclist who pulls further and further from Aloo, as she is blocked on the road by yet another set of horseback riders—she becomes smaller and smaller, and her fate is not entirely clear.
And in the last part of The Day I Became a Woman, you see the infinitely patient, indescribably weary Houra, now so determined to enjoy her possessions, to own her remaining time on earth and assert her sense of herself as a person deserving of such simple pleasure. As she and her possessions are finally strapped to small boats made of barrels, floating out to a ship somewhere on a distant horizon, Aloo and young Havva appear on the shore, watching. It’s a harrowing but also inspiring image.