The title of Kim Longinotto’s documentary Divorce Iranian Style appears to be a tip of the hat to Pietro Germi’s Divorce Italian Style, an award-winning comedy from a time when being in a language other than English was no barrier to success at the Oscars. Germi’s film concerns an Italian nobleman who, despite having fallen out of love with his wife, is unable to get a divorce under the Italian legal system. Desperate for a way out, he concocts a plan to manipulate his wife into having an affair so that he can burst in on the lovers, kill his wife and then escape with a slap on the wrist after claiming that it was a crime of passion. While the outcome of the nobleman’s scheming is neither here nor there, the film suggests that people will always find a way to liberate themselves from an un-loved spouse… even when the legal system makes divorce a practical impossibility.
Longinotto’s Divorce Iranian Style is shot almost entirely inside one of Teheran’s family courts where Islamic judges known as Qadi preside over divorce proceedings that heavily favour the husband and the institution of marriage. However, despite the presence of horrendous structural inequalities, Longinotto’s subjects fight for their emancipation using any and all tactics at their disposal.
Divorce Iranian Style begins by allowing its audience to soak in the atmosphere of an Iranian divorce court: Men enter from one side of the building where they are searched for weapons and mobile phones while women enter from a different side where they are searched, reminded to wear a chador and ordered to take off their make-up by a group of elderly women. From there, we move to the courts themselves which, rather than using lawyers, make use of petition-writers who sit in the lobby and help petitioners to fill in their forms and frame their complaints in an appropriate legal manner. With no lawyers present in the court, couples are obliged to argue their corner in front of a judge who uses a combination of religious Sharia law and secular state law so impenetrable as to seem almost completely arbitrary.
Iranian divorce law gives the husband considerably more power than the wife: Husbands have the power to divorce their wives but wives can only divorce with their husband’s consent or upon proving that their husband is either insane or incapable of fathering a child. Faced with the reality of living with a woman who desperately wants to be free, many husbands are happy to grant their wives a divorce but only on the understanding that they will keep the ‘marriage gift’ that allowed them to marry their wives in the first place. Marriage gifts are essentially large pots of money that husbands put aside in order to protect their wives from destitution. The women in the film are desperate to hang on to this marriage gift because it would allow them to re-build their lives. Divorce Iranian Style follows four women as they try to find a way to use the legal system to force their husbands to set them free, surrender the wedding gift and let them keep their children. The result is a film that is both depressing in its depictions of sexist institutions and inspirational in the way that its subjects refuse to give up even when the entire legal system is skewed against them.
My enduring memory of Divorce Iranian Style is of a mildly-addled elderly man being harangued by angry female relatives: Iranian divorce proceedings are surprisingly informal and petitioners argue their own corners while the Qadi sits in judgement. Well… I say judgement but the Qadi mostly sits in silence, occasionally opening his mouth only to either urge reconciliation or stipulate a point of law as a means of resolving a factual dispute. The Qadi’s impassive demeanour seems designed to provoke frustration and his frequent reminders that Islam disapproves of divorce suggests that his primary role is to let the couple argue with each other until they either reach an agreement or abandon their divorce proceedings in disgust and give their marriage another try. Knowing full well that the court would rather they stay married to their husbands, the film’s subjects are forever trying to use the power of the court to compel their husbands to grant them a divorce: Husbands are accused of being impotent, insane, abusive and unfaithful with varying degrees of cynicism and every time the Qadi closes down a line of attack, the women circle around to find another angle until they either get their way or the Qadi and his court become so annoyed that they throw their weight behind the husband.
The first woman we meet is stuck in a marriage with a man she obviously considers to be her social inferior. Full of coy smiles and quiet entreaties, she urges the judge to compel her husband to take a fertility test only for her cool to slip when the judge’s file clerk professes to have lost her papers.
The second woman we meet is arguably the most subtle of the cases as she seems to be using the divorce proceedings to bring her wayward husband back into line rather than to gain her own freedom. Given that her husband has effectively left her without saying a word, the woman quite reasonably suggests that she should either get a divorce along with her entire wedding gift or remain married and supported by her absentee husband. Backed by her teenaged son, she argues her corner so effectively that the husband winds up seeking reconciliation and promising to remain at home. In effect, she now has a legal stick with which to beat her husband: Keep spending your nights with another woman or fail to support me and we’ll be right back here with this piece of paper saying you promised to get a job and stay at home.
The third woman is only in her mid-teens and is seeking a divorce from a much older man to whom she was married by her parents. Furious not only with her husband’s lies but also with his refusal to let her continue her education, the young woman throws everything she has at the Qadi before eventually trying to seek resolution through family arbitration. Aside from being quite moving, this segment also shows the extent to which the Iranian justice system has a different relationship with the general public to Western judicial systems. Part of the Qadi’s conservatism seems to come from a genuine belief that the power of the state should not be used to break-up marriages. Thus, the Qadi will either urge reconciliation or encourage the parties to reach an agreement as he is reluctant to step in unless the man is either demonstrably insane or demonstrably incapable of fathering a child. This means that, in cases where the husband is neither insane nor infertile, the wives wind up trying to use the state as a means of frightening their husbands into giving them what they want. For example, the second subject used the threat of divorce to get her husband to come home while the third subject uses her husband’s abuse as a means of gaining leverage over him and forcing him to reach an agreement that will be beneficial to her: Give me the wedding gift and I will drop the assault charges.
The final case is even more moving than the third as it shows a woman who is undeniably on the losing side of her battles with the divorce courts. Already divorced, the woman has custody of her youngest daughter until she remarries, at which point her husband claims custody of the daughter as a means of getting back at his ex-wife. Perfectly aware that the law is on her husband’s side, the woman engages in a subtle game of brinksmanship in an effort to delay the paperwork ordering her to hand over her daughter. Amazingly tense, these sections find both petitioners getting increasingly desperate and agitated until Longinotto and her co-director Ziba Mir-Hosseini wind up getting dragged into a dispute that could land the ex-wife in prison and the ex-husband facing seventy lashes.
Like all of Longinotto’s films, Divorce Iranian Style is an intensely humane and intimate portrait of women working to build better lives for themselves in the face of grave structural injustice. However, while the litany of unfairness these women have to face may be more than a little bit depressing; their attempts to bend the system and force it to work in their favour are nothing short of inspirational. The film’s co-director Ziba Mir-Hosseini is an internationally renowned judicial anthropologist with a particular interest in gender and Islamic law and I happened upon some remarks by her that seem to perfectly capture the spirit of this extraordinary documentary:
Women want the same things that everyone wants. They want love, they want happiness, they want to be able to work, to be out in the world. And what’s happening is, as more of these women are educating themselves, the sheer groundswell of it coming from below is forcing a change. So it’s not a question of the government making concessions to these women — it’s women forcing concessions from below.
Divorce Iranian Style taps into this type of idealism when a little girl wanders into the court. A relative of a member of the Qadi’s staff, she comes to court every single day and is familiar with what goes on there. At one point, the Qadi heads off to pray and the little girl jumps into his seat and begins berating an imaginary husband for his failure to respect women. Maybe someday it’ll be more than a game.