Kim Longinotto and Ziba Mir-Hosseini’s documentary Runaway is best viewed as a companion piece to their 1998 collaboration Divorce Iranian Style. Fusing the intense humanism of cinéma vérité with the analytical powers of feminist anthropology, Divorce Iranian Style is a fundamentally optimistic film about a group of women who use the unfair and oppressive structures of Iranian divorce law to improve their lives. I call Runaway a ‘companion piece’ to Divorce Iranian Style as while the earlier film is all about working inside the system to improve your lot, Runaway is all about what happens when the system fails and women are forced to flee for the sake of their own security.
Like all of Kim Longinotto’s work, Runaway provides a fascinating and genuinely moving portrait of a group of women who are trying to protect themselves from the failings of their society. In this case, the failing that women are forced to contend with is a vision of gendered sexuality that is as old as the hills and twice as tricky to erode.
Much like Divorce Iranian Style, Runaway takes place entirely within the confines of a building in Tehran. This serves not only to focus our attention upon what the inhabitants of the women’s refuge have to say for themselves, but also to create a sense in which the arrival of the women’s families in the refuge constitutes some sort of trespass or eruption of reality into a safe space that had, up until that point, managed to keep the harshness of reality at arm’s length.
The first thing you notice about the women running the women’s shelter is that they are often quite harsh with the women and girls who are under their care. For example, while Western social workers often proceed from a stand-point of automatically believing the victims, Iranian social workers seem to proceed from the assumption that victims are best served by the truth even when this truth conflicts with their subjective perception of reality. The film does a really good job of exploring the practicalities of this approach when one girl is brought to them by the police unit in charge of something called ‘social corruption’.
Already in floods of tears, the girl claims to have been brutalised by her family and forced to flee her home. She claims that she spent some time on the street but repeatedly promises that she is still a virgin. Sceptical of what she considers to be a disconnect between the girl’s story and her emotional state, the social worker allows her to stay but puts her in the same room as another girl who was kicked out of her home and forced into sex work in order to keep herself off the streets. Initially, the new arrival is defensive about the older girl’s claims of solidarity and friendship but being confronted by a girl who literally did wind up on the streets convinces her to come clean about the reality of why she left home: It turns out that she failed all of her exams and was terrified that her father would either beat her or disown her. When the father does eventually turn up, he is delighted to see his daughter and promises not to harm her or humiliate her and so the girl is relieved and the family is reconciled.
Much like the Qadi in Divorce Iranian Style, the social workers in Runaway seem to believe that the best place for a woman is with a loving and supportive family and a number of the cases explored by the film involve the social workers trying to establish whether the problem is on the family’s end or the girl’s end and whether or not a reconciliation can be engineered by extracting promises from either one side or the other. However, unlike the Qadi who was largely indifferent to the suffering of the women in his court, the film’s social workers do know when to step in and urge people to keep their distance from their families.
The first case in which this happens involves a young woman named Atene who was forced to leave home when her step-father tried to rape her. Atene’s story is harrowing from the get-go as she casually mentions how her father lost his mind and now sleeps in a public park. Atene’s mother swiftly re-married and immediately set-about getting rid of her daughter by forcing her (at the age of 12) into marriages with people she barely knew. When these marriages did not work out, Atene returned home only for her step-father to take an interest in her. When Atene’s step-father finally decided to rape her, Atene’s mother accused her of ‘sleeping immodestly’ and forced her out of her home. Atene cuts a miserable figure: Unwilling to come to terms with the fact that her mother has no interest in looking after her and incapable of imagining a life without her family, she crawls on her knees and begs her mother to allow her to come home despite the fact that the social workers are telling her to move on. Unable to coax Atene into a more independent mind-set, the social workers extract increasingly horrible admissions of indifference from Atene’s mother only to give up and allow Atene to go home on the understanding that she will almost certainly wind up straight back at the refuge within a few weeks.
One of the most fascinating things about Runaway is the sheer variety of relationships that these women have with their families. For every woman like Atene who just wants to go home, there is a woman like Setareh who has not only given up on her family but also abandoned any hope of living the life of a normal Iranian woman. However, most of the women and girls featured in the film are located somewhere between these two extremes; either nursing long-standing grievances about how their families have failed them or annoyed and afraid as a result of a particular emotional flare-up. Understandably, it is these more nuanced cases that command the film’s attention as the inquisitorial nature of the social workers’ process often results in quite dramatic revelations about the women’s home lives. Longinotto reserves the film’s most dramatic case for its final act, allowing us to sit in on a quite lengthy interview involving a young lady by the name of Parisa.
Parisa first appears early in the film as a foil to the perpetually upbeat and optimistic Setareh. Manifestly intelligent and extremely articulate, Parisa is not only sceptical about her family’s capacity for change, she is also sceptical about the refuge itself on the grounds that their hands are ultimately tied by their need to defer to Parisa’s family. This downbeat pronouncement initially strikes something of a bum note as many of the film’s early cases end with the young women returning to their homes. The reasons for Parisa’s pessimism are only made clear at the end of the film when it emerges that her father both mistreats her and denies her the opportunity to go outside. When asked whether she has any friends or relatives she might be able to talk to, Parisa responds that she has never been allowed such freedoms. The terrifying thing about Parisa’s case is that while her complaints are similar to those of many women in the shelter, they are made infinitely worse by the fact that her father is a drug addict who supports his habit by dealing.
When Parisa’s family eventually turn up, the proceedings are completely dominated by an older brother who melodramatically proclaims his love for his sister only to slump into a nod the second he is left alone in an office. Obviously aware that the brother is high, the social workers try to get Parisa to express her hopelessness in front of her parents so that they can suggest that she stay on in the refuge. However, every time Parisa opens her mouth, her brother begins talking over her and when the social workers talk about Parisa possibly staying on in the refuge, he begins talking about hanging himself and cutting himself to pieces. These scenes are actually quite distressing as you can see the emotional pressure brought to bear on Parisa as her father and brother beg her to come home. Much like Atena, Parisa eventually decides to go home in the hope that things will magically improve but the father pointedly reiterates his desire to keep both mother and daughter under lock and key so you can’t help but wonder whether this might not actually have more to do with the practicalities of the drugs trade than any desire to protect the female members of his family.
While Runaway deals with a variety of different cases, every single case makes reference to the need to protect a daughter’s virginity and the fact that society is full of wolves. Though expressed in the form of concern for women’s welfare, this idea is frequently used to justify and excuse all sorts of mistreatment from not allowing your daughter to go to school to throwing your daughter out onto the streets because her step-father tried to rape her in her sleep. Many of the family meetings in this film are litanies of abuse and neglect and yet somehow everything winds up being the fault of the woman in the shelter. The absurdity of this line of thinking is made particularly clear in the case of Parisa when her brother tries to convince her to come home on the grounds that her mother’s seizures have caused her to injure her tongue: Well… why didn’t you give her something to bite on then? Why was that the sole responsibility of Parisa and, even if we accept that it was Parisa’s responsibility, why aren’t you responsible for driving your mother’s only carer out onto the streets in the first place?
The single most shocking thing about Runaway is the universal acceptance of the idea that men are in no way responsible for their actions: Beat your pre-teen sister till she ran away? Well… she should have been better behaved! Tried to rape your fourteen year-old step-daughter? Well… she should have been sleeping more modestly under bedclothes in the privacy of her own room! Don’t allow your teenaged daughter out of the house? Well… that has almost nothing to do with the fact that your drug-dealing has filled the area with jonesing smack heads!
The men in this film keep repeating that society is full of wolves and yet none of them seems willing to even think about changing the nature of their society: Concern for the safety of women is always used as an excuse to abuse women and never to confront the men who pose the danger in the first place. This fundamental injustice is made particularly clear in the scene where one of the girls is brought in by a police officer from the unit in charge of ‘social corruption’… because apparently checking that unaccompanied young girls are still virgins is a far more worthwhile use of police resources than actually arresting rapists or making the streets safe for unaccompanied women.
The idea that women are responsible for getting themselves raped is certainly not limited to Iran and Muslim countries. Back in 2011, a Canadian police constable stated that, as a precaution against rape and sexual assault:
Women should avoid dressing like sluts
These words prompted global outrage and inspired a succession of SlutWalks reminiscent of the Take Back the Night marches that began in the 1970s. While the Canadian police officer’s suggestion that women shouldn’t ‘dress like sluts’ may appear less extreme than Iranian fathers claiming that women shouldn’t go outside, both sets of opinions are rooted in ideas about sexuality that go all the way back to such foundational myths as the idea Eve gave into temptation and so cursed humanity with the burden of Original sin. We in the global North often use the treatment of women as an excuse to roll our eyes and look down our noses at Muslim culture but the attitudes used to justify the mistreatment of women by Muslims are exactly the same as those used by Westerners. It is terrifying how little we have allowed ourselves to change.