I have an article posted on a site I really do like, but the editor edited it quite a bit.  I’m fine with the way it is for the purposes of the site, but I do like my original version very much, so here it is!

For many people, particularly those who live in liberal Western cultures, the concept of religious uniforms is as simple as a black burqa: the pious pare down their clothing to the least colorful and individualizing pieces in order to humble themselves before their God.  As is widely decried by feminist scholars, women in religiously observant societies are more often the ones affected by these sartorial limits.  But like most practices viewed as wholly restrictive, the rules of modest dress for religious women, and the way these women operate within the system, often illuminate more than they hide.  Instead of just eliminating choice, the limits highlight it; the echoes of the smallest fashion decision reverberate and we discover the arena of costume, even for the Chasidish or Muslim female, is not a void but a canyon.  Perhaps no other film in recent history has harvested more meaning of the subtlest of costume differences than Ashgar Farhadi’s A Separation.  In this sense, the movie says more about clothing in film (and the world in which we live) than any ornate period drama or futuristic war story populated by metal-clad aliens ever could.

In the second scene of the movie, Simin, played by the excellent Leila Hatami, is packing up her belongings.  She’s moving to her parents’ house because her husband Nader (Peyman Moadi) refuses to leave Iran in order to give their young daughter Termeh a better life.  Termeh stands at the threshold of what was until that very moment her parents’ bedroom and watches as Simin counts money and stuffs books in her bag, then unceremoniously exits.  The final shot of her departure is simple: a steady view of her profile as she drives her car away from her family home wearing a hijab and a pair of sunglasses to shield her eyes from the Tehran sun.  The sunglasses are a standard brown with big, rectangular lenses –– nothing terribly noteworthy, but there is one remarkable thing about them.  Blink and you’ll miss it: in casual, tiny script on the arm is written the name Ray-Ban.  Already, this brand name has communicated to the audience a great deal about Simin’s character.  We know she is middle-class, relatively modern, and adventurous, or at least she wants to appear that way, as if she is calmly but certainly following the command dictated by the Luxottica Group: “Never Hide.”

Simin is almost immediately contrasted with the figure and clothing of Razieh (played by Sareh Bayat) who has come to interview for a position as a caretaker for Nader’s senile father.  Whereas Simin’s outfit, aside from the head covering, could pass for that of a Bryn Mawr sophomore who shops for simple, earth-toned clothing at Madewell, Razieh’s is more of what we in the west think of typically as Islamic garb.  Her hijab –– black and without embellishment compared to Simon’s fern-colored crepe de chine one –– is carefully folded so as to not reveal even a sliver of her neck or a stray strand of hair.    We at once recognize her as the gloomy, oppressed woman in contrast to the enlightened, liberated one.  (Indeed, even Razieh’s facial features are more stereotypically Arab, whereas Simin, with her sharp cheekbones, light complexion and few strands of red hair peeking out from beneath her hijab, looks physically Aryan.)  Razieh listens timidly as Nader explains the tasks that comprise the job.  Next to her mournful figure stands her four-year-old daughter, Somayeh, who wears a white hijab (child-friendly and easily held in place thanks to an elastic insert.)

It is jarring and yet humbling to watch the film as a Westerner; what is most shocking, when one considers oneself a liberal citizen of the world, is to find that ignorance can still lurk within.  Throughout the movie, the hijabs and chadors (enveloping cloak worn on top of the hijab that usually is long enough to reach the ground) of the women oftentimes seem to be perched precariously atop their heads.  Sometimes they don’t wrap the long ends of the scarves around their necks but let them dangle toward the ground as if Rapunzel-esque strands of hair themselves.  Occasionally they even use them as props for dramatic effect.  When Simin storms out of the house after one particularly bad row with her husband, she takes one end of her colored hijab and tosses it over her shoulder the way a mean girl in a high school cafeteria may “flip” her tresses to assert her dominance, her lack of caring.  It can be thrilling, and a little scary, to watch those thin pieces of cloth threaten to whip away with the wind and leave the woman’s hair uncovered.  One is surprised that nary a male in the whole film ever chastises a female for being immodestly dressed or not tying their hijab tightly enough, but then one chastises one’s self for such a strict view of Muslim society.  Of course not all women are subservient.  Of course jeans are allowed.  Of course they can wear Ray-Bans.  (These sunglasses, interestingly enough, have a long history in Iran.  They were so popular, particularly in the port city of Abadan, that in the southern region of Iran “ray-ban” became the generic term for sunglasses.)

Indeed, the female characters are the most mesmerizing; the male characters, though integral to the plot and brought skillfully to life by the actors, are mostly negative space.  Part of the reason for this is the garb the women wear and the attention that it ironically draws.  In attempting to subsume, to blight out the form of the female, in many ways, the traditional Muslim tenet to cover the body with as many layers as possible just ends up dramatizing and emphasizing the body underneath and the movements it makes.  Take the example of Simin’s hijab, above, or of Razieh when she storms out of the house after an altercation with Nader.  In this pivotal scene, Termeh, a seriously perceptive young girl, opens the door and sees, from above, Razieh as she rushes down the stairs, her long, night-black chador streaming behind her.  The chador’s rippling in the air gives Razieh the appearance of a boat speeding through the water, leaving a wake behind it.  The women, therefore –– who ought by religious and civil law to be as close to non-entities as possible –– become partially by virtue of their dress the most compelling figures.  One searches for clues to their lives, private and societal, in their clothing –– the nearly-indigo luminescent hijab worn by a cold Simin as she confronts her husband, the layers of what appear to be hospital bedding that a shameful and afraid Razieh swaddles herself in during a confrontational moment with her husband, the deep blue school uniform worn by the budding teenager Termeh, even the glimpse of the ever-recognizable signature Burberry tartan lining a teacher’s jacket at Termeh’s school.  The variety of clothing worn by a group considered to be oppressed in a country considered to be the harshest of theocracies upholds, in this case, the film’s thesis: that life, wherever and whenever, is complicated, unpredictable, and above all, layered.

Perhaps one of the most sartorially interesting moments for these actresses occurred not in the film at all, but on the red carpet.  This past February, A Separation became the first Iranian film to win Best Foreign Language Picture at the Academy Awards.  Leila Hatami and Sarina Faradi, who played Termeh, were both present at the ceremony.  Both wore modest, long-sleeved gowns, Leila in sky blue and Termeh in black.  Both of them wore their long hair down and their hijabs pushed way toward the back of their heads, and as the women clapped when writer/director Ashgar Farhadi collected the award, it seemed inevitable that the hijabs would slip off, but they never budged at all.




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