Talk-show host Bill Maher believes that the way we live in the West is not just different from life in the Muslim world — it's better. This sounds pretty reasonable, rational, and true, particularly when focusing on the restrictions on Muslim women.
But good P.C. liberal Tavis Smiley argued on Maher's show last month that America, with its own checkered history of sexism, has no right to judge. "It's not about comparing," Smiley said. "It's about either right or wrong, how we treat people. And I think it's wrong there and it's wrong here."
The new documentary Salam Rugby goes a long way to dispute Smiley's assertion while verifying Maher's righteous feather-ruffling. Screening as part of the sixth-annual Women's International Film & Arts Festival, the movie critiques the universal through the specific, using a hardscrabble team of female rugby players in Iran as a microcosm of the nation's struggle for gender equality. It's not a perfect documentary — it jumps around thematically to the point of being a narrative scattershot — but it's full of revelations.
For the aspiring female athletes of Iran, access to the freedoms of their male counterparts is an uphill battle, a struggle that appears both Sisyphean and Kafkaesque in its endless absurdity. The conditions are a bit like those in the Jim Crow South: The women are mostly subjected to playing in segregated, indoor facilities, where they practice on unforgiving concrete floors, unable to even attend men's games on the outdoor fields.
The more that director Faramarz Beheshti's documentary expands, the more pungent and all-encompassing its polemic becomes. The women's rugby organization profiled in the film played all of two matches in seven years, and the same struggles have colored most sports procedures since the Iranian Revolution promised better conditions in the sporting world. The film delves into the hardships of female journalists whose attempts to cover major sporting events are stymied due to laws prohibiting women at games (the logic behind this, which sounds ironically sexist toward men, is that the males are savages and won't be able to contain their sexual urges around women; this is also why males are prohibited from coaching women's teams). In this way, Salam Rugby becomes a companion piece to 2006's Offside, a brilliant semidocumentary about girls who masquerade as boys to sneak into a World Cup-qualifying soccer match in Tehran. Jafar Panahi, director of Offside, was, like many activists in Iran, punished for his art; he was sentenced to a six-year prison term and a 20-year filmmaking ban late last year, to an international outcry from the global film community and Amnesty International.
Burying the lead more than halfway into Salam Rugby, Beheshti produces sobering statistics about Iranian patriarchy that make our own country's gender inequalities look like an unattainable fantasy: Men can escape conviction for murdering their wives, daughters, or granddaughters if they suspect them of infidelity; women's testimony in court is worth half of men's; and women do not have custody over their children. These kinds of facts should be better-known in the West, and not just as intellectual ammunition to debate cultural relativists. If distributed to and seen by enough people, documentaries like this bring us one step closer to international awareness and possibly even change.