‘Under the Shadow’ Review – Feminist Horror Stories and the Veil

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‘Under the Shadow’ is Iranian born director Babak Anvari’s first feature length film. This horror film is set in Tehran during the Iran-Iraq war and has been hailed by Mark Kempdes of the Guardian as ‘a feminist fable’. Apart from being a gripping, entertaining and stylish piece of cinema, the film uses horror to capture an emotive glimpse into women’s experiences in post-revolution Iran during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980’s.

Through Shideh and Dorsa, that mother and daughter protagonists, Anvari offers a perspective on women’s agency in navigating the challenges of internal changes in Iran in the establishment of an Islamic Republic in Iran in the wake of the 1979 revolution. At the same time, Iraqi missiles are landing in Tehran. This underlines the irony of the double enemy that Shideh and Dorsa face. Shideh’s pro-American cultural tastes, symbolised in her escapism into Jane Fonda exercise videos, as well as her reluctance to wear a veil, are indicative of her resistance to the policies of the newly established Islamic Republic.

The motives behind the Iraqi invasion of Iran are complex and include territorial and oil-based interests, but were also a reaction against Iranian attempts to incite an Islamic revolution in Iraq, and Iraq was supported by the US with billions of dollars of aid and military training. The film offers a snapshot into the contradictions of this situation for Shideh, who is stuck in the middle of it, and the way that the front-lines of war extend beyond the battlefield and intimately involve women and civilians.

This is a timely film in relation to debates about the hijab, which is still obligatory wear for women in public in Iran. However, in the wake of the shocking footage of French police making a Muslim woman remove her head wear on a beach in France, the problematic way that women’s clothing has become a site for perpetuating US and European discourses on saving brown women from brown men is very visible. By presenting the hijab as an object of horror in the film Anvari chimes with some Western liberal feminist attitudes to Muslim women that are used to justify international military intervention, and also to police Muslim population in Europe and the US.

‘Under the Shadow’ is a film which will make you jump out of your seat in shock and keep you in suspense, but it also has a lot to say about the complexities of war and the often overlooked way that war effects women. The fact that it aligns with an adoption of liberal feminist discourse about oppressed Muslim women in it’s criticism of the hijab is countered by the way that Shideh’s agency as a Muslim woman is developed throughout the film. I hope that this film will be one among many films that tell the multiple stories of women’s experiences that we need to have a full dialogue about war, feminist or otherwise.

AliceEngelhard