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The Other Side of Burka

2004
Distributed by Cinema Guild, 115 West 30th Street, Suite 800, New York, NY 10001; 212-685-6242
Produced by Mehrdad Oskouei
Directed by Mehrdad Oskouei
VHS, color, 52 min.
College - Adult
Gender Studies, Women's Studies, Human Rights, Middle Eastern Studies


Reviewed by Kayo Denda, Rutgers University

Highly Recommended  Highly Recommended   
 
Date Entered: 6/6/2006

The Other Side of Burka focuses on women of the southern Iranian island of Qeshm in the Persian Gulf, who wear a “burka,” a pinching mask, in addition to the headscarf. The “burka,” consists of a frame of black bands around the eyes covering the eyebrows and the bridge of the nose ending in a point just above the mouth. This cultural documentary offers insights into the unquestioned tradition of patriarchy and the dimension of deprivation and suffering women experience. These limitations are further intensified by poverty and often lead women to despair and suicide.

The film opens with interviews with friends and family after Samireh, a young woman, committed suicide by hanging herself from the ceiling fan leaving her husband and children behind. Her parents and the widower mourn her loss and talk openly about the lack of freedom and hopelessness she experienced in a life controlled not only by her husband, but also by her brother. The superfluous rights enjoyed by men in their rights to control women result in removal of all privilege including mundane activities such as going outside the house independently. Young and middle-aged women wearing the “burka,” speak directly to the camera of their restrictive culture that includes forced marriages, perpetual subjugation, lack of support for education, and a total absence of individual rights.

Despite the privileged position of power bestowed on them, the men interviewed are underscored by hardship. Fishing, their sole source of earning, has become increasingly difficult due to foreign competition. One older man articulates his bleak predicament in supporting a large family with four wives and seventeen children presenting the complexities of a polygamous tradition alongside his inability to imagine change. Enduring a life of oppression, some women participate in the Zar ceremony, a "healing cult," where intense drumming and dancing allow them to transcend their problems and seek cure for their afflictions, suggesting a form of empowerment for women in this impoverished community. The film presents with confidence a multi-dimensional view of a community where tradition, historical memory, and lack of resources are deeply intertwined and agents of constructive change are either elusive or extremely slow to arrive.

The Other Side of Burka is carefully structured, beginning and ending with a close-up of a woman wearing the “burka” looking silently askance. The testimonials, at times similarly framed and conducted indoors, are contrasted with scenes of the island: fishermen working on boats or fixing their net, women gathering tree branches on the beach, waves breaking on sand, moon-lit sky, and everyday village scenes with people cooking their meals or strolling down the streets. The sum of these elements provides a poetic quality and communicates a profound sense of misery shared by all underprivileged fishing communities throughout the world. In addition to the “burka,” colorful clothing and headscarves worn by interviewees, scenes of weddings and funerals, and fishermen’s work songs are all representative elements of local culture. Highly recommended for discussions on Middle Eastern studies, gender equality, women’s rights, patriarchy, and women and Islam.