Essay / Flavia Dima

reveal, revel, rebel

READ TIME / 15 min

While thinking about this piece - and the ways I should go about it - I started playing a little mental game which I've been fond of ever since I was a child: I started to piece together a so-called "word family" - in this particular case, that of the word veil. I started counting them off: veil. veiling. veiled. thinly-veiled. unveiled. unveiling.  I then thought of the corresponding term in Romanian - văl - and began playing the same game, while trying to think if there are any differences in their meanings and usages: văl. învălui. învăluit. dezvăluit. dezvăluire. For the better part, the two languages seemed to align în meaning. I then looked up the common Latin root that the two languages shared in the case of this particular term: velum. Meaning "«a cloth, covering, curtain, veil,» literally a «sail»".

I have always been fascinated at how concrete objects and physical actions concerning these objects have been transformed into subjective, yet universal(ized), abstract notions, and I feel that this is one of those particular cases - while defining "veil" as a verb, the same website indicated the following: "Figurative sense of <<to conceal, mask, disguise>> (something immaterial) is recorded from 1530s.", where yet another object of attire related to one’s visage - the mask - is used to transport abstract meaning. Upon returning to velum, I discovered another one of its pathways into language: reveal. revealing. revelation. And then back into Romanian: revela. revelare. revelație. Just by looking at my own, almost unconscious use of language, I notice myself using concepts that rely upon the appropriation of an aesthetic process in order to denominate an abstract processuality - to piece together, to shape. 

I Day I Became a Woman, D. Marzieh Makhmalbaf

A veil quite literally turns into a sail in the first vignette of Marzieh Meshkini’s triptych, The Day I Became A Woman (2000), written by her partner, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, banned upon its release in its native Iran. In it, we witness Hava, a young girl waking up on her ninth birthday, the same day the laws decree that she is to be henceforth considered a woman. Her mother comes home with the girl’s very first chador, a veil that covers most of one’s head and upper body - which the little girl has difficulties understanding concerning her own body, as she is confused as to the reason why she is no longer allowed to play with her best friend, Hassan. She is offered a short reprieve by her grandmother, who gives her the right to live a final hour of childhood - and as Hava waits for Hassan to finish his homework, she trades her chador in for a toy fish at the beach, where two boys are constructing a makeshift vessel. The symbolism of the moment weighs heavy - especially as it is reflected in the film’s final vignette, this time of an elderly woman, Hoora, who is finally free to escape the social constraints of womanhood, literally by the sea, and under the unwitting gaze of Hava. Not only does it show how an object (or sign) can have multiple usages and, thus, meanings - but it also shows how said objects can be gendered, gender-bent, imbued with an opposite significance (significant): liberty, instead of oppression.

The Day I Became a Woman



The symbolism of the moment weighs heavy – especially as it is reflected in the film’s final vignette, this time of an elderly woman, Hoora, who is finally free to escape the social constraints of womanhood, literally by the sea, and under the unwitting gaze of Hava.

The Day I Became a Woman

In “Displaced Allegories”, Iranian scholar Negar Mottahedeh writes that, for Ayatollah Khomeini, the pre-Revolutionary Iranians were in a “state of estrangement”, having been “contaminated” by Western(ized) media - and that it is evident that “the site of contamination” were “women’s bodies”. Thus, the infamous “modesty system” was imposed - which obligated women, “both on and in front of the screen” as Mottahedeh puts it, to be covered in veils - lest they be perceived as “naked”, provoking “carnal thoughts”1. What better combination of two films to probe the theory of the female body as a political locus, to be hidden or shown by others towards the ends of certain agendas, in, than in the double-feature of The Day I Became A Woman, whose female gaze subverts these requirements, and the long-lost 1976 masterpiece of Mohammed Reza Aslani, Chess of the Wind? Critic Hossein Eizadadeh calls it “the Holy Grail of Iranian cinephiles” - and it is easy to see why: combining an eclectic array of references to the grand maestros of the gilded ages (Ophüls, Buñuel, and Visconti, just to name a few) to more recent masterpieces (Paradjanov, Kubrick), Chess of the Wind is still very much a product of its time and place, and even acts as a premonition of the upcoming social unrest and, ultimately, change in regime.

Chess of the Wind, D. Mohammad Reza Aslani

Its heart (of darkness) beats, if barely so, in the figure of a young heiress fending off the men who are trying to depose her of her late mother’s immense fortunes - and who, on one occasion, make comments on her “indecent” attire. Relegated to her wicker wheelchair, her descent into paranoia (wielding a small ornate flail and an antique pistol, nonetheless) is abetted by her closest and most faithful handmaiden (or is she?), with whom sexual tensions frequently flare, in a sickly power game acting both as female defiance and sickly codependency. Yet, beyond its main plot, the film is ultimately a commentary on class - and should it then be of any surprise that only its maniacal matriarch is the only woman in the film to not wear a veil (save for a scene in which she dons a transparent, tulle khimar that barely covers the top other head and shoulders), joined only by her handmaiden in their moments of intimacy? It is ultimately the latter character who acts as the most poignant sign of the ages to come - as she escapes the lavish villa in which the characters are encased for the entire duration of the story, she cloaks herself in a chador, as if to shield herself from the atrocities that she has just witnessed, and of the hand that she had to play in them.

Words, transported through performative speech acts, produce realities - as Judith Butler pointedly reminded in a recent interview for The Guardian - realities which are in turn shaped by apriori political stances and circumstances. The relationship between the three is all the more sensible as a woman, where all of these converge onto our bodies turned battlegrounds of the ideological, oftentimes without our consent, without our input, our will. And recent months, with their shattering news coming out of Afghanistan, have brought the veil back into the limelight of political discourse - the (mandatory) veil seen as a tool of political oppression, of suppression of fundamental rights, of gender essentialism, of suffering, of subjugation. However, lest we forget, in past years some European countries have, too, enacted their strict laws regarding the veil, albeit in the opposite direction, by banning the usage of certain types of Muslim religious clothing in public. European countries, where a different kind of veil is worn by women to signify the day into which they take a vow of lifelong monogamy, more often than not involving a man - underscoring the usage of the veil as an object that pertains to the perception of women in conjunction to masculinity, by masculinity. Many female Muslim activists have since reclaimed their right to donning the veil without facing stigmatization: just as other Muslim women opt to forego the veil (and would wish to do so, in countries which enforce its usage), they, too, would like to choose to wear it, without being accused of backwardness, of regressiveness, of obedience towards a system rooted in patriarchalism and oppression.

Blanche, D. Walerian Borowczyk

The European veil is a subtle point of contention in Walerian Borowczyk’s 1971 Blanche - where the titular character briefly appears in the nude in the film’s opening scenes, having just bathed herself, only to spend the rest of the film under wraps, mostly in a drab, grey dress with its assorted headdress, which only reveals her face and the tip of her red-headed braid. Blanche is, essentially, a tragicomedy underpinned by Shakesperean narrative motifs - the lady of the castle, wedded to an elderly castellan, becomes the object of the desires of all the main, male characters (her husband, her step-son, the visiting king and his page), and, despite her innocence and her protests, the words, emotions, and actions of the men surrounding her are shifted onto her, turned into her responsibility, thus setting her up for a useless, causeless demise. Power - political and symbolic - as words, words as ultimate fate: concentrated in the hands of the men in Blanche’s life, battling over the possession of her body and of herself, they are the ones with the power to spell its trajectory. 

But words can also be put in the service of good forces: towards the creation of worlds in which cruelty, while still very much present in the world, and at its most wanton and chaotic, is counterbalanced by the forces of adventure, of freedom, of empowerment - be it sexual, political. In Pasolini’s Arabian Nights (or, to translate its original title, The Flower of the One Thousand and One Nights), his uniquely queer perspective blends in with what he claimed was the feeling of reading the stories of Sheherezade as a child - a character he removes from his adaptation, as he also forgoes some of the more popular of the tales (such as the ones of Alladin, Ali Baba and the 40 thieves, or of Sinbad the Sailor). It is Pier Paolo’s third entry in his acclaimed Trilogy of Life - following his free adaptations of Giovanni Boccacio’s Il Decameron (1971) and Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (1972) - was also the last of his films to be released during his lifetime, as his November 1975 murder on the beach at Ostia took place just three weeks shy of the premiere of his audacious masterpiece, Salò, at the Paris Film Festival. 

Arabian Nights, d. Pier Paolo Pasolini

If, in the two previous entries, Pasolini was still working on European soil, albeit with stories set during medieval times, here, his love for faraway, ancient mythologies is left to run free in terms of sets and props. Flourishing in its lavish, oftentimes monumental backdrops - Pasolini shot the film across two continents, travelling from the deserts of Ethiopia to the gates of San’a, from Esfahan to Kathmandu and back again - along with its riveting costumes and jewelry, reflecting all of the cultures that he and his film travelled through, not fully freed of the exoticized gaze - yet still gazing at them with loving eyes. Both men and women appear frocked in various headdresses - but often only to discard them at one point, as they indulge themselves in sexual encounters often orgiastic, often queer(ing), bodies that can easily pass from one gender to the other, or anywhere inbetween. Each of the tales, beyond its fantastic elements, is one of love, first and foremost carnal - and as the story of lead characters Nurredin and Zumurrud comes full circle, with the latter revealing herself after having hidden her womanhood in the aftermath of being crowned the king of a Turkish city-state, one can only wonder at how radically (in every sense of the term) different of a representation they have seen of the so-called “Far East”, one where the women are often the ones to rule, instead of the ones being ruled.

female. feel male, Patti Smith famously wrote in 1967. What better moment in time to unveil and reclaim her words, to queer them, to give them political meaning, than now?

1 Mottahedeh, p. 1-7.