A striking number of the films coming out of Iran are preoccupied with women as the bearers of cultural signification. I was surprised by this common theme that emerged from the seventeen films I viewed at the 2016 Fajr Film Festival in Tehran. In contrast to the Western gaze that looks to Iranian women to explain the oppressive Islamic system, these films cast women as signifiers of the modernization and feminization of society. Even when the films were reactionary, their depictions of girls’ and women’s subjectivity and agency challenged the traditional patriarchy. The films reflected how, despite legal and social limitations, women are more involved in the public and private sectors than ever before in Iran. More women than men attend college, and in cinema more women than ever are protagonists and directors.

Established in 1982, the Fajr...

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