Dressed in a blazer and pants, no trace of makeup on her face, hair tied back severely, Golshifteh Farahani bears none of the trappings of the global movie star. Despite her classic beauty, she blended right into the crowds at THiNK, where she was part of a session on women and the body as a weapon in occupied territories. On stage, Farahani displayed the searing honesty and intelligence that have made her a spokesperson for women’s rights in Iran. A role she chose as much as it was thrust upon her.
In Iran, women’s bodies are controlled by either the state or the men, but not by women themselves. As a young girl, Farahani decided that her body would not keep her from freedom. She shaved her head and taped her breasts when she was 16 so she could freely roam around the streets of Tehran. That was the beginning of her life-long rebellion. She later appeared without a veil on the red carpet for the premiere of her Hollywood film Body of Lies, was exiled from her homeland and now lives in Paris. Last year, she broke another, and perhaps the greatest, taboo in Iran when she posed in a French magazine with her breasts covered by her hands. Her parents faced dire threats; if their daughter ever returned, her breasts would be amputated and presented to them on a plate. Since last year, Farahani has been caught in the eye of a storm, reviled and revered in her own country, and held up by the Western world as a beacon of light from the darkness that engulfs Iran.
But Farahani is too intelligent to be boxed in by the easy precepts of the West. “The worst thing about exile is that everyone thinks you’re finally free, but it is at that point that all the sufferance starts. The world makes you out to be a victim and then you victimise yourself without realising it. It took me years to realise I do not want to play the part of a victim for Western countries. I’m a warrior, I’m so happy and lucky to be on exile. It has opened me to many new experiences, and I use it as my force, my inspiration. It’s a constant pain, like a lost child that you never forget, that pain can drag you down but you can also fly with it.” Exile is the price she has paid like many of her compatriots. “Iran, for me, is poetry, it is music and it is beauty, and we as artists are trying to keep the fire alive, the fire of art and culture, which is at the heart of our society, the heart of Iran.”
From the age of 14, when she appeared in her first film (The Pear Tree), she has been the most loved movie star of Iran. Marjane Satrapi, the Iranian author who directed her in Chicken With Plums said of her, “She was not just Iran, she was the mother of Iran.” Her choice in films reflects her choice in life to be “pushing, always pushing the barriers”. This year, she appeared in Afghani director Atiq Rahimi’s much-acclaimed film, The Patience Stone. The film tells the story of a woman who confesses her deepest secrets and sexual and romantic desires to her husband as she takes care of him when he falls into a coma. “While acting in The Patience Stone, I learnt that when you discover your body, and you (begin to) accept it, especially sexual pleasure, doors open so that you can know yourself better and your soul better,” she says.
An article in the New York Times says of Farahani that in Iran, she is someone who can never be called a good girl. This is something she readily accepts. “I may not be a good girl from the point of view of the government or the fantasists, but I am a good girl for the people. A good girl for most Middle Eastern societies is a passive girl, a girl who studies, gets married, and then has children. It’s not only the government, we women have this thing, we are prisoners to the shadow of tradition. An individual girl is a bad girl, a girl who has ideas, a girl who wants to do all the things they tell you as a girl you cannot do. I was a really bad girl, I was trying to do everything they were saying I could not do.”
Some of the rebellion in her personality can be traced to her socialist and artistic roots. The daughter of Behzad Farahani, a theatre director and actor, she grew up with an intellectual circle of family and friends that shaped her unconsciously. It made her aware of art and its possibilities, that being an artist is the highest level of being, both humanly and socially. A trained pianist, at the age of 17, she gave it up to pursue acting. She jokes if everything goes wrong, she won’t starve as her love for music will sustain her. Or else, she can travel the world with her instruments.