Women Without Men
City: Beijing
Duration: 2008-10-25 ~ 2009-01-18
Venue: Faurschou Beijing
Participating Artist(s): Shirin Neshat
Host(s): Faurschou Beijing

Faurschou Beijing is proud to present “Women without Men” – a monumental film opus by the Iranian-American artist Shirin Neshat. It’s her first exhibition in China.

“Women without Men” is a series of 5 films that Shirin Neshat has created between 2004- 2008. The film narratives are based on the controversial magical realist novel “Women without Men” from 1989 by the Iranian author Shahrnush Parsipur, whose entire literary oeuvre is banned in Iran today.

Basic description:

The novel is set in 1953, the year when the democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, vainly tried to avert a coup d’état mounted by American and British forces, whose task it was to reinstate the Shah as an absolute ruler in order to avoid the nationalisation of the country’s oil resources.

In her films, Shirin Neshat retains the magic realism of the novel and allows magic and the supernatural to interact with the realistic story. On the other hand, she deals freely with the novel’s action as she focuses on mood and tone in her work rather than seeking to create a straightforward film version of the novel.

It is the five main female characters – Mahdokht, Zarin, Munis, Faezeh and Farokh Legha – that Shirin Neshat portrays in a gripping drama about power and powerlessness. The women confront the lives they have lived hitherto in different ways and seek to escape from the city to a garden, where they for a time find a refuge. For these women, life is a struggle for freedom and survival in a society that lays down strict rules regarding religion, sex and social behaviour.


Mahdokht, 2004 [13:35]

The film portrays the lonely woman, Mahdokht, in a fanciful and magical story. She lives a life in fear of her own sexuality and is terrified of losing her precious virginity while at the same time being obsessed with the thought of her own fertility and her desire to have children. Split by this paradoxical dilemma, she seeks refuge in a luxuriant and mysterious garden situated in a barren desert landscape. Here, remarkably and magically, she chooses to leave her life as a human being and instead plant herself as a tree so that in this form, despite her virginity, she can nevertheless bear fruit and spread her seed throughout the world.

Images of a beautiful, surreal or nightmarish nature – in three juxtaposed projections – portray a woman tormented by obsessions and madness. Finally, however, she achieves a form of freedom and independence from the constricting bonds of society when – floating in the water like a corpse dressed in white – she becomes one with nature.

Zarin, 2005 [20:30]

In this film, we follow the young woman, Zarin, who, as a result of her bleak situation in life, suffers from anorexia and an urge to inflict harm on herself. She works as a prostitute in a brothel until one day when she makes the traumatic discovery that the men exploiting her have no faces.

She flees in horror through the winding streets of the city, away from the dreadful faceless men in the brothel, to a bathhouse. Here she attempts ritually to wash her sins away. She manically scrubs her thin, starved body with a rough loofah until she bleeds, while the other women and children present look on in horror.

When Zarin, now cleansed goes out into the street again, however, nothing has changed – wherever she turns, she is met by men without faces. Finally, she flees out through the city gate – towards an uncertain future.

Munis, 2008 [12:45]

While the 1953 Iran coup d’état led by the British and Americans acts purely as a secondary framework around the women’s personal dilemmas in Parsipur’s novel, Shirin Neshat’s film closely links the young woman Munis and her search for independence and freedom to the Iranian people’s attempts to preserve their democracy and independence.

While the country makes a vain attempt to liberate itself from the British control of its oil resources, Munis leaves her claustrophobic home – despite dogged resistance on the part of her conservative and very religious brother Amir Kahn. When, from the roof of the house, she witnesses a government supporter shot and killed by some of those carrying out the coup, she unhesitatingly leaps to her death. Lying on the street, Munis – magically – has a conversation with the similarly dead activist. So only in death is it possible for her to gather the courage, determination and strength to break out of the traditional woman’s role and come close to the political struggle marking the country.

Faezeh, 2008 [13:42]

In the fourth film in Women without Men, Munis accompanies her friend, Faezeh, to the garden where Mahdokht is already. Faezeh has no rebellious ideas, but merely dreams of marrying. A brutal rape, however, destroys the dream of marriage and a family life. This sexual assault robs her of the virginity that she has defended with such determination, and – according to the precepts of the religious society around her – she has brought shame upon herself, damaged the honour of her family and simply lost the right to a happy life.

In a fantastic mixture of real time, flashbacks and visions we see how Faezeh’s repeated meetings in the garden with a fleeing woman dressed in a chador (it turns out to be herself) drive her to madness.

Only at the moment when she recognises the traumas related to the fateful consequences of the rape on her life does she gain the ability to confront her internal and external demons and to experience peace in the garden together with Zarin.

Farokh Legha, 2008 [10.00]

The film about Farokh Legha rounds off Shirin Neshat’s monumental Women without Men.

In contrast to the other women in the work, Farokh Legha belongs to the affluent classes. When we meet her, her husband has just died, and she has bought the garden to which the women have resorted in their desire to find a refuge. The paradisiacal and luxuriant garden in the middle of the desert landscape is the symbol of the women’s freedom from male domination, and their ability to find themselves again outside the reach of a patriarchal society.

Because she has been married, the questions of sexuality, innocence and family honour are not central to her life. On the other hand, she quickly realises that her great ambitions to gain recognition as an artist and to assume a prominent place in society cannot be achieved in the garden. A peaceful life in isolation is not sufficient for Farokh Legha. So she opens the garden to the surrounding world – with fatal consequences for the women and for the utopia she has created in the garden.

About Shirin Neshat

Shirin Neshat was born in Iran in 1957 and had her artistic training in California during the 1970s and 1980s. On account of the Islamic revolution in her native country in 1979, she never moved back and now lives and works in New York.

The impetus to Shirin Neshat’s career came from a visit to Iran at the beginning of 1990s, during which she experienced the dramatic consequences of the clerical regime not least on the lives of women. She started with b/w photographs in which, dressed in the chador and with weapons and calligraphy to be seen on visible parts of her body, she directed her focus on compulsion, power, gender, life, death and martyrdom. Later came her large-scale innovative video works based on multiple projections; these included the work entitled Turbulent (1998), for which she was awarded the Golden Lion in the Venice Biennale in 1999. Essential themes in Shirin Neshat’s oeuvre are the relationship between man and woman, individual and society, power and powerlessness, sexuality and the conditions arising from exile.

Neshat starts out in her art from her Middle Eastern cultural background, but at the same time works with a universal, eternal and highly aesthetical idiom.


[Editor] Mark Lee