Shabnam Tolouei

By Katayoon Halajan

Shabnam Tolouei is an Iranian-born actress, stage director and playwright who moviegoers will remember as the lead actress in Shirin Neshat’s movie “Women Without Men” (winner of the Venice Film Festival’s top Golden Lion award in 2009). Tolouei is now back in the spotlight with a documentary on an extraordinary woman whom many consider Iran’s first feminist. The film is being screened at London’s Regent Street Cinema on Sunday November 19th.

The subject of “Dust Flower Flame” is the audacious female poet Fatemeh Zarrin Taj Baraghani Qazvini, known as Umm Salma and later as Zakiyyah [the most intelligent] and Tahereh [the chaste] Qorrat al-Ayn [the solace of the eye].

Qorrat-al-Ayn was strangled to death and her corpse thrown into a well, buried under stones. More than a century and a half after her passing, her life is still a mystery. Historians and even members of her own family have attempted to deny her existence. Yet they have not had an easy task, as others have written about her and documented her poems, her life and her legacy.

Tolouei’s film looks back on Tahereh’s life, relying on the writings of historians and scholars to piece together her biography. Kayhan London interviewed the director.

shabnam-tolouei-lightKL: What made you decide to make a documentary about Tahereh Qorrat al-Ayn?

ST: I had always thought of making a documentary about Tahereh Qorrat al-Ayn, even while I was living in Iran. The project finally materialized two years ago. After reaching agreement with the producer, I started doing research and gathering the source materials for the film. Before writing the screenplay, I put together a list of questions for the scholar working on this project, Dr. Saghar Sadeghian.

I wanted this documentary to be as objective as possible and as close as possible to reality. That’s why scholars and researchers with differing views played an important part in the narrative. At the same time, I didn’t want the film to be a compilation of expert or academic interviews. As a result, the filmmaking process took almost two years.

All of the images relating to Iran were actually filmed in Iran. Many Iranians do not know about Qorrat al-Ayn, and those who do, have differences in opinion. For some, she is a revolutionary and a rebellious figure. Others only know her as an author. Others accuse her of heresy. Still others see her as a mythical and sacred figure.

KL: What is the point of exploring the life of such a figure today?

ST: The status of women in Iran is unfortunately the same as it was 170 years ago, when Qorrat al-Ayn paid a price for her freedom of opinion. Still today, in the year 2016, a lawyer like Mehrangiz Kar is not allowed to live in Iran. Nasrin Sotoudeh is imprisoned and banned from working as a lawyer. The human rights activist Narges Mohammadi is once again sentenced to ten years in prison. And numerous imprisoned mothers in civil liberties campaigns suffer huge penalties.

Even as a journalist, you cannot live and work freely in your country; I am not allowed to work there; and many people have been pushed out or imprisoned on the charge of choosing truth and human rights. So in fact, now is the ideal time for us to speak of Qorrat al-Ayn.

KL: What were your sources in making this film?

ST: When Qorrat al-Ayn was strangled or secretly hanged, historians say, her family – fearing disgrace – destroyed all documents and records that they had of her to remove any trace of the poet. She was born into the famous Baraghani religious family in Qazvin. Most of her family were and still are Shia Muslim theologians. Part of her family lived in Karbala, and another part lived in Iran.

shabnam-tolouei-boyTo this day, their family ties with Tahereh Qorrat al-Ayn are a source of trouble. Dr Ali-Akbar Salehi, the ex-Foreign Minister who now heads the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, was, for a long time, subject to attacks by conservatives simply because of his direct family connections to Qorrat al-Ayn.

The first person to write a biography of Qorrat al-Ayn was an American woman by the name of Martha Louise Root. She travelled to Iran, met Tahereh’s family – especially those who had known Tahereh during her lifetime – and recorded everything in a book published in 1938.

Considerable research has been done since then. It’s been akin to an archaeological exploration. Someone might find a document or a piece of writing that completes or contradicts parts of another investigation from ten years earlier. There are a few contemporary researchers I can mention: Dr Abbas Amanat, Dr Farzaneh Milani, Dr Moojan Momen or Mr Mohammad Hosseini.

KL: What is the relationship between Tahereh Qorrat al-Ayn and the feminist movement? Is there a relationship?

ST: The feminist movement is a very contemporary idea. When Tahereh Qorrat al-Ayn removed her face veil or ruband and revealed her face, women in Europe and America had only just started to fight for their rights. With her behavior, she came out of the home’s inner sanctum, or andarouni, and entered the world of men. This carried a huge penalty in the late 19th century and was a bold and revolutionary act.

Qorrat al-Ayn is said to have told her husband: “Not only do you not give me support, but you are a cause of disturbance. So I divorce you and you are henceforth illegitimate.” Coming from a woman, this act would be impossible in today’s Iran. A woman who makes such a decision about herself has surely been thinking about the freedom of other women as well.

Tahereh Qorrat al-Ayn’s actions and her short life have had a great impact on the status of women today. Her life is the subject of research and lectures at major universities around the world. Despite the Iranian regime’s efforts to discredit or disregard this woman, Qorrat al-Ayn has reached beyond narrow Iranian circles and gained world recognition. When men and women seeking gender equality put together Iran’s One Million Signatures, they used Qorrat al-Ayn’s poem as a symbol, declaring that they would go “from house to house, door to door, street to street, quarter to quarter” to raise awareness in women.

“Dust Flower Flame,” trailer