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The Uncivil Servant: Sexual Repression in Iran

Mitchell Abidor
February 13, 2018

Discussed in this essay: Tehran Taboo, a film by Ali Sooznadeh

IN ALI Sooznadeh’s Tehran Taboo, a film visually bright yet tragically dark,  we are offered an Iran eaten away with moral and sexual hypocrisy. The film demonstrates that a society and government constructed as an Islamic state cannot control to control the unruly instincts roiling within men and women everywhere, even if religion is omnipresent. The morality police can arrest those with offending urges; they can’t, however, arrest the urges.

This tale of a prostitute who goes everywhere with her mute son, of a musician who, after a one-night stand, struggles to find a replacement hymen for the woman he has had sex with in the club bathroom, who needs to be intact for her upcoming marriage, and of a middle-class couple undergoing a pregnancy that is accentuating the flaws in their marriage, takes us into corners of Iranian life to which we are seldom privy.

The chador is just a small part of the daily repression. A married woman can only take a job if her husband signs an authorization; satellite dishes are (selectively) removed; subway cars are segregated by gender; a man is arrested for holding his girlfriend’s hand as they stroll through the park; girly mags are illegal and lead to arrest; government authorization is needed to record or release an album. Corruption, too, is everywhere: a well-placed bribe, ‚monetary or other, gets you out of police custody, and the imam in a court is willing to consider the prostitute’s request for a divorce on condition she allow herself to be kept in a spare apartment and available to him for sex.

It’s not just on big issues that Iran is presented as a grim place. Suspicion hovers over everyone and everything, and there’s hardly a scene in which someone isn’t listening in on a conversation for some nefarious end. Bank clerks can’t be bothered dealing with their clients; a janitor can casually kill cats while wishing he could meet the same fate.

This grim film is strangely lightened by being animated, or, to be more accurate, a rotoscoping animation film, with live actors and action converted to drawn images (as in Richard Linklater’s Waking Life). The filmmaker has attributed the colorfulness of the film to its narration by the mute son of the prostitute, a child unfazed by what he experiences and taken to instantly by all who meet him.

In the U.S. media, Iran is presented to us as a central locus of political evil, a threat to the earth’s existence. Tehran Taboo is perhaps even harsher, for in this original, absorbing, prize-winning film, we are given a country that is unlivable for its inhabitants, for whom the Islamic revolution has run out of steam, leaving only falsehood and repression.


Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.