In Shirin Neshat's beautiful debut Women without Men, the year is 1953, and four Iranian women are living very different lives in Tehran. Some of them wear veils; some of them do not; one is political and engaged, one is the westernized wife of a powerful general, and another is a prostitute who, in the film's most disturbing scene, goes alone to the communal showers and scrubs the skin on her emaciated arms and legs until it bleeds. Meanwhile, Iranian citizens agitate in the streets, resisting as American and British interests conspire to overthrow Iran's relatively progressive, democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh. (Mossadegh made the mistake of nationalizing the oil industry—hello, British Petroleum.) It is a resistance organized by men, against men; the dreamy nature of this film and its recurring symbols—an underground stream; a long road—contextualize a female experience that's at once subversive and strangled.
It's possible I'm reading too much "magical realism" into a script that I simply didn't fully understand, but the events of the film unfold with the illogical certainty of a dream, rather than any narrative imperative. (One woman, kept prisoner by a brother who insists that she entertain suitors and find a husband, jumps to her death from the roof of her house. Her brother buries her in the yard; later, a friend hears her whispering from the dirt and digs her up—she goes to clean herself in a fountain and emerges reborn, to join the resistance movement.) What firmly underpin the intersecting stories of these four women, however, are the historical circumstances in which the characters find themselves—caught between nationalism, imperialism, and the remnants of a social and religious tradition that insists that an unmarried woman might as well be a dead one.
A Persepolis comparison is inevitable here—Iran is a country that has been through "westernization" and back again, and one has to imagine it's the country's women who suffer the most from the schizophrenic value shifts entailed therein. Like Persepolis, Women without Men offers a chance to see that world through the eyes of a smart, accomplished female artist. Take it. Buy tickets here.
(Also, check out this Guardian article about Neshat, in which Neshat "praises the ingenuity" of DVD pirates who have made copies of her film available in Iran: "[Pirated] DVDs are likely to be the only way anyone in the country will see her film. Neshat is confident it will never get past the censors. 'Every Iranian artist dreams of the black market,' she laughs.")