As she opened the door and welcomed me into her home on a snowy morning in Tehran, K. (her name is withheld to protect her anonymity) – a 33-year-old mother – appeared to me as an unexpected epiphany. A brunette, speaking fluent English in a surprising American accent, she was wearing only skimpy shorts and a clingy tank top, showing her bare skin and her boyish haircut.
That day, K. talked to me on camera for three hours straight. She spoke freely, without hesitation, giving me the most outspoken, courageous and defiant interview I could ever hope for as a journalist in Iran.
No, I am not afraid she said at the end – while I was rolling my last tape. These are my thoughts, and there is nothing I said that I cannot take the consequences for. … I am actually very happy I told you about myself.
I only had two weeks in Iran. I traveled there alone with my Italian passport, hoping to shoot the second part of my first documentary, “They Call Me Muslim, a project I undertook as a Fulbright fellow at Berkeley s Graduate School of Journalism.
But it s tough to make a movie in Iran – especially for a woman. I had to wear a hijab, or Muslim headscarf, and remain inconspicuous as I gathered footage. Shooting scenes on the subway, on the street and at illegal late-night parties was risky, because the Iranian police patrol the streets and watch women closely to enforce the dress code.
The toughest part was in fact access: finding women who were willing to tell me their stories.
Before my departure, I had lined up several interviews through Iranian-American contacts in California. But when I got to Iran, my main source was too scared to participate in the project, so I started conducting private meetings with other women – lawyers, filmmakers, journalists, bloggers, photographers – and finally K., a woman who felt a documentary could move beyond stereotypes and give the Western world an accurate portrait of Iranian women.
But Iran was only half of the story.
They Call Me Muslim is a tale of two women struggling for their individual freedom – one who wants to wear the hijab, another who wants to take it off.
Samah, a French Muslim girl in Paris, feels naked without her hijab, but was banned from wearing it in the classroom. K., on the contrary, wouldn t wear the hijab if she weren t forced to do so by the regime.
I shot the film from December 2004 to January 2005. The idea for the project struck me about a year before when France enacted a controversial law banning religious symbols, including the hijab, in public schools. The law generated only minor interest in the United States but sparked a fiery debate in France. I started imagining the dilemma some Muslim girls were going through as they faced a dramatic choice between religious belief and education.
Having lived in Paris myself as a teenager, I was intrigued by what was going on in France. The law on religious symbols affected some 800 Muslim girls, and a few who refused to take off the hijab were even expelled from school. It seemed paradoxical that a country like France – one of the true models of democracy in the West and a country so deeply rooted in the revolutionary principles of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité – was expelling girls from public schools for exercising their Liberté on a personal matter. France seemed to be denying its people one of the basic principles and foundations of democracy.
Through this film, I wanted to explore freedom of choice in both cultures, East and West, though neither is of course monolithic. I wanted to give voice to a minority, fighting against discriminatory laws. In France, girls who wanted to wear the hijab were seen as rebels. But in Iran, the rebels were girls who dared to walk down the street wearing tiny, transparent and slippery headscarves. I wanted those women to speak for themselves. And the final message – if there is one – is the need for women to be free to choose, to find their own voices, and to dialogue with each other for a better understanding.
After seeing the film, both K. and Samah expressed respect for each other s position. While Samah didn t see Iran as a model for Islam because in her opinion women should not be forced to wear the hijab, K. felt French secularism – as a foundation of democracy – could be better appreciated if one lived in a country like Iran. In fact, she even hinted about the desire to move to France one day.
Diana Ferrero, a native of Rome, is a reporter and producer currently working in Washington, DC for Al Jazeera s new English-language channel. This article is part of a series on freedom of expression written for the Common Ground News Service, www.commongroundnews.org.