Global and Iranian history are both closely intertwined with the lives and destinies of prominent figures. Every one of them has laid a brick on history’s wall, sometimes paying the price with their lives, men and women alike. Women have been especially influential in the past 200 years, writing much of contemporary Iranian history.
In Iran, women have increased public awareness about gender discrimination, raised the profile of and improved women’s rights, fought for literacy among women, and promoted the social status of women by counteracting religious pressures, participating in scientific projects, being involved in politics, influencing music, cinema… And so the list goes on.
This series aims to celebrate these renowned and respected Iranian women. They are women who represent the millions of women that influence their families and societies on a daily basis. Not all of the people profiled in the series are endorsed by IranWire, but their influence and impact cannot be overlooked. The articles are biographical stories that consider the lives of influential women in Iran.
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The Iranian actress, film and theater director and screenwriter Susan Taslimi was the first non-European to play the lead role on the stage of a national Swedish theater. In 2002, she ran as a candidate for the ministry of culture for a Swedish political party.
Taslimi was born in 1950 in Rasht, the provincial capital of Gilan in northern Iran. Her father Khosro Taslimi was a movie producer and her mother Monireh Akhundnia was a highly popular film and theater actor. In 1955 her mother won the award for best actress for her role in the movie Bloody Moonlight but before she could accept it, she died at the age of 29. Taslimi, who was then less than six years old, attended the ceremony, going on stage to collect the award on behalf of her mother.
She graduated from Tehran University’s School of Fine arts and started her professional activity with a theater workshop under the director Arby Ovanessian. She describes her experience with Ovanessian as “formative” in terms of her style of acting.
During this time she came to know Dariush Farhang, a theater actor and director. They were married, but separated after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, although they remained friends.
After the revolution, but before women were forced to wear hejab, Taslimi appeared on stage in a production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle by Bertolt Brecht. A group of religious zealots, threatened her because she was not wearing hejab, sending her a message that read: “If this production goes ahead, we will shoot you on stage so you will not think that you can do as you want.”
Threats and pressures on the artistic community increased. A year after the threats against her, Tehran’s City Theater fired her after she wrote a letter protesting against the fact that she had not been paid for a month. The officials described her letter as “insulting” and her manner of her dismissal was very public. From then on she was not able to appear on stage.
Up to 1982 Susan Taslimi appeared in two films, both of which were banned by the Islamic Republic’s censorship board. The 1979 Ballad of Tara was her first work with Bahram Bayzai, the renowned playwright and director. The movie was never screened in Iran but received special mentions at the Cannes Film Festival and the San Sebastian International Film Festival. The second film, Death of Yazdegerd, which was also directed by Bahram Bayzai, was completed in 1982 but was banned even though the stage version had been performed earlier. One reason for the ban was that, between the theater production and the film, hejab had become mandatory. Women in the movie appeared without hijab because the story was set in 651 A.D.
The next collaboration between Taslimi and Bayzai was the 1986 Bashu, the Little Stranger, which became one of most popular films in Iranian cinema. In November 1999, 150 critics and movie professionals described it as “the best Iranian movie of all time”. It was made during the Iran-Iraq war and portrayed the upheaval caused by the war through the story of a boy from the war-torn Iranian south who finds refuge in northern Iran. The film, however, was not allowed to be screened in Iran until 1989, after the war was over.
Following her last film in Iran, she was hounded by the censorship board. “They told me not to look into the eyes of my male counterpart; to look down when I talked to him,” says Taslimi. “I replied: ‘How is it possible? I can’t look away from the person to whom I am speaking.’ My minder kept an eye on this situation, as well as on my costumes. He even dictated that the camera angle be ugly and the color of my costume be dark and drab, all of which you see in the film.”
That same year, with several banned or censored films behind her, she left Iran for Sweden. She continued her theatrical activities and in 2001 played her first role in Swedish theater by appearing in a production of the Greek classical tragedy Medea by Euripides. At the time she was still not fluent in Swedish but this did not stop her. She worked for nine straight months and mastered her lines.
After her appearance in Medea 2, the Swedish Academy selected Taslimi as best actress of the year.
In 2002, she made her directorial debut with the movie All Hell Let Loose, which was selected as the opening picture at the Gothenburg Film Festival, the largest film event in Scandinavia. She later directed a television series and theater.
She was a member of the board of Swedish film Institute 1999 to 2002. She has also worked as a theater advisor to the Swedish Ministry of Culture. Taslimi has said that her 2010 production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night has been the highlight of her career.
Although Taslimi left Iran many years ago, her place in Iranian cinema is assured. “It is not possible to board a plane and seven hours later uproot yourself,” she says. “Iran is in you. It is where you were born and where you exist. You emigrate but you carry your homeland with you.”
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