A Separation: Religion, Class, Secularism

Always a little behind the curve in Syracuse, I finally watched Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, the first Iranian film to win an Academy Award, a week ago. The movie is exquisitely well made, rhythmically weaving a set of intricate ethical questions into a plot that at the same time manages to respect the fragility of the film’s finely drawn central characters. (What follows is a short essay on the film, not a review, so please expect spoilers.)

The film depicts the aftermath of a middle-class Iranian couple’s decision to separate. Where the wife, Simin, wants to take advantage of a recently-awarded visa and move abroad with her husband, Nader, and their pre-teen daughter, Termeh, Nader feels compelled to stay in Tehran and tend to his ailing father. With his wife gone, Nader hires a pregnant, working-class woman, Razieh, to look after his father during the day. When they argue over Razieh leaving the house while on the clock, Nader pushes her, and she accuses him of causing her to miscarry her fetus. She presses charges against Nader, and her husband, Hojjat, an unemployed laborer with a firecracker temper, begins to intimidate Nader’s family and the witnesses involved in the hearing. Simin and Nader argue back and forth on how to respond to the case, with Simin suggesting that the damage that Hojjat can do to their reputation and their daughter’s life outweighs Nader’s insistence that he is innocent. In the end, Nader prepares to pay blood money, but only if Razieh agrees to swear on the Qur’an that he caused her miscarriage. She refuses to do so, saying she “has doubts” about whether or not he was actually responsible. Hojjat, in debt, grieving, and desperate, disappears. The final scene of the film is a divorce court where Termeh is called on to choose which of her two parents she would like to live with. Rather than answering the question, Farhadi rolls to credits while the parents sit, separated by a partition, in a waiting room outside. We never learn Termeh’s answer.

Some commentators have suggested that the film plays out a parable in the contest between religion and secularism, but I think the film is actually offering something much more subtle–an exploration of how religion maps incompletely and imperfectly onto class, and how the signifiers of religion are manipulated and exchanged to negotiate social and personal worlds.

Interestingly, these signifiers can be almost invisible to a western audience. (It was only after the battle lines between the two families had been drawn, and the conflict between them was reframed in terms of a broader “we” against a plural “you” that exceeded the rectangle of the four main characters that I began to notice it at all.) Both Simin and Razieh wear hijab, for instance, the Persian form of the veil. But the way they style their scarves is radically different, laden with indicators that communicate religious and class-based identity markers. Simin’s hijab is colored, and it is pushed back to reveal her brightly dyed hair; Razieh’s veil is black and consistently covers all of her hair–and is often covered again by a chador, a second sheet of fabric that cloaks her upper body. Simin prefers to let her body be seen, often wearing western-style jeans. Razieh’s veil is a constant and intimate companion for her, a garment she derives comfort and security from, sometimes holding it closer to her face by pursing it between her lips. She frequently reminds her daughter to put hers back on. Simin is aloof towards hers, even disdainful, and has no interest in policing Termeh’s casual attitude towards it.

Although the fascination of western culture almost invariably attaches to Muslim women’s bodies, the male bodies in this film are also communicating their religious identity through their clothing. Nader often dresses in t-shirts and shirts partially unbuttoned, showing the top of his chest. Hojjat, by contrast, is always shown wearing a long-sleeve shirt, with a plain t-shirt underneath. Nader’s hair is coiffed and long–designed to attract attention; Hojjat’s hair is close-cropped.

Layering on top of these religious markers is an array of class indicators. These are more subtle and I don’t claim to have perfect familiarity with them. It is clear from the quality of their houses, the fact that Hojjat is unemployed and a cobbler, that Razieh is clearly desperate for money, that Simin is able to bail out her husband (Razieh is not), that Nader and Simin have a car (Razieh and Hojjat have just a single scooter between them), and that Nader is always negotiating from a superior bargaining position, that there is a class disparity between the two families. Nader and Simin are not wealthy themselves, but seem to have access to luxuries, security, and geographical and social mobility that is not available to Razieh and Hojjat. Hojjat at one point laments “My problem is that I can’t speak like them.” At another moment he blasts Nader for asking Hojjat’s daughter if her parents fight, demanding to know if “you think we beat our wives and children like animals?” (Indeed, we learn at the end of the film, Hojjat does not beat his family–he beats himself.)

What is interesting is how religious identity and class identity merge in these characters to form new, more complex figures. This is most striking in the characters of Hojjat and Razieh. Although it would be easy to label Hojjat and Razieh as “devout” and leave the analysis at that, this overlooks the crucial discrepancy in how they actually use religion. Hojjat is profoundly devout. He takes genuine offense to the suggestion, repeated throughout the movie, that he is only interested in needling Simin and Nader for blood money. He insists on having one of the witnesses in the case swear on the Qur’an, chasing her around her workplace until she agrees. When she swears an oath that contradicts his case, a flicker of terror passes across his face: he doesn’t know whether to take her seriously or if he has just witnessed a false oath; both possibilities are horrifying to him. Yet at the end of the film, in the depths of desperation and shame, Hojjat encourages his wife to lie in her oath–to violate the Qur’an by bearing false witness over it. Religion at this moment becomes heuristic to him–an organizing identity principle that he uses in his daily life, but which breaks down in moments of crisis.

Razieh, by contrast, follows a reverse trajectory. Although she demonstrates her devoutness by, for example, calling a religious authority to ask whether she is allowed to clean up the old man who is in her care after he soils himself early in the film, her narrative in this film is built on a lie–that Nader caused her miscarriage (while the film is deliberately tolerant of some ambiguity on this point, to my mind it is clear that when Razieh goes to the doctor in the afternoon before she is pushed, she has already been told that her fetus is no longer viable.) But over time, she comes to fear this lie as an unholy thing: this is why she refuses to swear on the Qur’an in the film’s penultimate scene. For her, religion comes to name the embodied anxiety she feels about having committed an immoral act: framing an imperfect but innocent man for a crime he did not commit.

Hojjat indignantly accuses Nader in the hearing room of not believing in God, to which Nader shoots back with “Because only your type believes in God?” This exchange (which is actually a common accusation in Iranian society) encapsulates a contemporary myth about the relationship between secularism, urbanization, and globalization: that the rural and working classes are more devout than their middle class and urban counterparts, that religious identity maps cleanly onto class identity. Yet rather than being simply “devout,” religion for both Razieh and Hojjat is technological: it is used to create meaning in certain contexts, and abandoned in others. Neither of them is “pure” in their encounter with the set of religious symbols and markers that runs through their hands. Like the separation between Simin and Nader, the separation between the two families is predicated on a competing set of priorities, not a straightforward clash of “the religious” and “the secular.”

Even though this film dodges overt criticism of the Iranian regime that has held the country hostage since the stolen election of June 2009, it points to one of the constitutive tensions of the contemporary Iranian political scene: the dominance of the country by a ruthless group of pragmatically religious military men whose primary base of support is in the provinces (many of the security forces who suppressed the Green Movement uprising in 2009 and 2010 with a campaign of rapes, torture, and murder were said to have been bused in from rural areas, or were members of the predominantly working-class Basij militias). The military-religious government (and “military” is always first) traffics liberally in the myth, neatly unwoven by this film, that the urban middle classes in Tehran are irreligious (hence the women of the Green Movement are often referred to as “whores” by the basiji) and the working classes are morally and religiously pure. With Republican presidential candidates like Rick Santorum stirring this same myth by trading off the “rural-urban divide,” or Sarah Palin quoting Westbrook Pegler at the 2008 Republican National Convention that “We grow good people in our small towns” (~11:00; cf. ~14:00), it would seem that A Separation is not so far from us.

My thanks to Afshin P. for helping me fact-check some of the details of this article.

This entry was posted in Donovan Schaefer, Politics and Religion, Religion and Popular Culture, Religion and Society, Theory in the Real World and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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