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.
Iranian-Armenian women have a history of being unconventional and progressive in many ways. In the arts, many first pioneering cultural events in Iran were made possible by the efforts of Armenian women. In dance, song, music, painting, miniatures, theater, and cinema, it was Iranian-Armenian women who paved the way. One of these women was a shining star in theater and cinema. And when the name Irene Zazians led the billing for a film then cinemas would be dominated by screenings of that film.
Irene Zazians, an Armenian actress, was born in Babolsar, northern Iran, on August 12, 1927. In 1943, when she was only 16 years old, her family moved to Tehran; at the same time, she married her teacher, Mohammad Asemi, a journalist, poet and the editor of Kaveh magazine. The couple later separated but Asemi played an important role in setting Zazians on her path as an artist.
In high school Irene performed in student productions – paving the way for her career as a professional actor.
Zazians first appeared on stage in a play called Honorable Employee. The role was given to her by Loreta, the wife of Abdolhossein Noushin, the founder of the New Theater in Iran. Noushin, a founding member of Iran’s communist Tudeh Party, was arrested and imprisoned after the attempted assassination of Mohammad Reza Shah in February 1949. Loreta and Zazians had visited Noushin in prison – from where he cast Zazians in the role. She later performed in Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan in 1950 at the Saadi Theater in another production by Abdolhossein Noushin.
Noushin escaped from prison in 1949 with other Tudeh prisoners and fled to the Soviet Union. The Noushin theater group disbanded as a result and Zazians had to either join another group or let go of her dreams of becoming a star.
Mohammad Ali Jafari was one of Noushin’s most dedicated students. Jafari, who had also been in prison, was released in 1954 and began gathering together his former colleagues. Zazians had an opportunity to join the Jafari arts group and continue her artistic activity with women artists such as Turan Mehrzad and Shahla Riahi.
Zazians’s brilliant theater performances prompted Mohammad Ali Jafari and Ataollah Zahed, another directors, to cast her in their films. She first starred in the film The Man Who Suffers directed by Jafari and then in film Awaiting directed by Ataollah Zahed.
Iranian cinema in the late 1950s was dominated by Italian films. But the release of Messenger of Paradise, directed by Samuel Khachikian and written by Hossein Madani, released Iranian cinema from Italian dominance.
Zazians had previously said about her film roles: "My acting was different in different roles. Each role had its own characteristics and I tried to understand the women I was playing. It was very interesting for me to try to understand these women and to study them. I have always said that playing other women helped me to evolve as an actor."
One of the most famous and controversial films starring Zazians before Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution was a film called Mohalel, or “temporary husband,” a romantic comedy produced in 1971 and directed by Nosrat Karimi. The film satirically critiqued issues of sharia law around divorce and remarriage for women as well as the role of clerics in the practice.
Mohalel is an Islamic practice in which a woman, after being unilaterally divorced by a man, marries another man, consummates the marriage, and divorces again so as to be able to remarry her former husband.
Karimi was arrested after the Revolution for making Mohalel and spent several months in prison. The film was denounced by clerics, including Morteza Motahhari, and led to Nosrat Karimi being banned from working and teaching in addition to his prison sentence.
Zazians was also banned from working after the Revolution, She went to Germany in 1983, joining her sister, who had previously emigrated from Iran and lived in Germany.
"I was accustomed to the life of cinema for many years, and I lived on my income from movies I acted in, and because I had no husband or children, cinema was my whole life," Zazians later said, referring to her life in Iran and the upheaval of leaving the world of art and cinema. "I needed to replace cinema with something in my life. In 1983, I went to Germany to visit my sister, and I told myself that, now that I could no longer work in cinema, I had to think of a solution. With the help of friends in Frankfurt, I enrolled in an intensive language class, and I took a 14-month course to become a beautician. I did not want to seek refuge in a foreign country and to ask help from a foreign government. Despite my sister's insistence, I preferred to return to Iran and to be with people who saw my films. In 1985, in the midst of the bombing of Tehran [during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War] I returned and immediately resumed work."
Zazians starred in two post-revolutionary films – Award directed by Alireza Davoudnejad and Red Line directed by Masoud Kimiaei – but both were later banned. She also appeared in several episodes of the enduring series Hezardestan directed by Ali Hatami. But all the scenes in which Zazians played were cut by the censors. A popular actor of Iranian cinema – like so many other artist – was effectively banned from working and from artistic activities by the new Islamic Republic.
In 2008, after many years away from cinema because of the censorship in Iran, Zazians played a short role in one of Abbas Kiarostami's films, Shirin. Later she also appeared in a film called Rooster by Shapur Gharib.
“I like all my roles and I cannot prefer any of them or I cannot even say which director or which actor was more important to me," she said of the roles she played. "But what is certain is that I liked Rooster more because of the different roles I played."
Rooster, directed by Gharib and produced in 1973, saw Zazians star alongside prominent actors such as Davood Rashidi and Saeed Rad.
Her performances in popular films such as Goodbye Comrade by Amir Naderi, Baluch by Masoud Kimiaei, Rooster by Shapur Gharib, and Naked Until Noon with Speed by Khosrow Haritash, as well as her role as Mahd-e Olia, Naser al-Din Shah's mother, in the series Soltan Sahebqaran made by Ali Hatami, have since been immortalized in Iranian cinema.
Irene Zazians died on July 28, 2012 in Tehran, at the age of 85, due to complications from lung cancer.
"Ms. Irene was my pioneer and she was a very kind and respectable lady. Now that she is gone, everyone praises her," the Iranian actor Jamshid Mashayekhi said of her.
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