How Lesbians Live in Iran


A controversial new movie explores the lives of lesbians forced to live in the shadows. Omid Memarian talks to women in Iran who say the movie doesn’t do their predicament justice.


A still from the film, 'Circumstance', courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Four years after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared there are no gays in Iran during a speech at Columbia University, an Iranian-American filmmaker courageously portrays an unusual story of two Iranian lesbians who struggle under religious and cultural repression to explore their sexuality.


Iranians are, in general, culturally hesitant to publicly talk about their private lives and sexuality, so the sex scenes between two schoolgirls Atefeh (Nikohl Boosheri) and Shireen (Sarah Kazemi) in Circumstance,  take the viewer to the most extreme parts of Iranian underground lifestyle.

While Maryam Keshavarz’s portrayal is bold, and addresses a major taboo in Iran, many lesbians who actively live and love in the shadows there say the movie is not necessarily a true portrayal.

The young Iranian-American director, who grew up in the United States, filmed the movie in Lebanon, away from the eyes of Iranian authorities. But even in Lebanon it was a daring project to tackle as the film’s subject was unbeknownst to Lebanese authorities. Still, it seems that security concerns may have limited her in creating an Iran that feels real—especially for those who know the country and the culture. Choices of locations, set designs, clothing, dialogues, and even makeup often appeared unrealistic and artificial. The actresses, Atefeh and Shireen, clearly grew up in the West, with strong accents, and although they try to talk like Tehrani girls, they remain hard to believe. 

“The scene where the woman she loves [Atefeh] marries her brother, and she suffers for this is very real for me, as I experienced it in my own life,” Maryam, a lesbian told me from Iran under condition of anonymity. “But, overall, an Iranian lesbian would not enjoy watching this film, or find herself in it, though other viewers might find it interesting.  As a lesbian who is quite familiar with the lesbian lifestyle, I can say that instead of showing the hidden sides of the lesbian romance, this film is closer to a porn film, as it lacks depth and mostly shows the physical aspects of the relationship. Even the love-making scenes between the two girls seem to be more for making the film sexy than to discuss a social taboo.” she said.

Still, Circumstance is a very smart movie that is able to create a conversation about homosexuality and Iran’s underground lifestyle—something that Iranian activists welcome. Some say the Islamic Republic’s strict policies on gender segregation—from separate schools to men and women sections on the bus has created a lot of sexual confusion in girls. What can a girl do when she spends all her time with girls, and is not allowed to interact with boys without raising eyebrows?


“I saw for myself, in high school, that girls got close to each other for friendship, but at some point, some of these relationships could go beyond friendship,” Negar Mortazavi, an Iranian journalist told the Daily Beast adding that, “You could even see among students from the more traditional families that some of them had feelings for each other, but they didn’t know exactly what these feelings were.”

Other Iranians feminists aren’t so nuanced about the topic, or the movie.

“The relationships appear exaggerated and this confused storytelling makes the film unbelievable to the point where it seems that squeezing sex and the government’s suppressive violence and similar subjects is intended to make the film more exciting, as opposed to trying to approach a serious subject in Iran,” said Mahboubeh Abbasgholizadeh, an Iranian feminist and rights activist told the Daily Beast.

“If John Smith of Montana made this film, it would never get noticed.”

“A number of Iranian feminists and women activists who saw this film were angry about it.  They said that they really need films to be made about the marginalized lifestyles of lesbian women, but these films should show the reality of these relationships,” Abbasgholizadeh said. “I know that finding two young girls inside Iran who are either lesbians or who would not mind playing the roles of lesbians may have been impossible, but this limitation has seriously damaged the film, at least for those who have traveled to Iran or who know Farsi well.”

But in a society where homosexuality is punishable by death, the movie is thought-provoking.

A young woman from Tehran told the Daily Beast that she is impatiently waiting to find an underground copy of Circumstance in Tehran. “Right now, there are a lot more people who are confused about their sexuality, asking themselves what their orientation is and the film will encourage them to follow their curiosity” she said. “In some big cities and in more modern households, in order to make sure of their sexuality, a lot of these girls have tried having relations with same-sex partners at least once in their lives,” she added
Click to see the full article at The Daily Beast


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