Last weekend’s Khayaal Festival in Lahore showed a very important piece of work: a documentary by Iranian filmmaker Mina Keshavarz.

Titled ‘Unwelcome in Tehran’, it shows Keshavarz navigating the waters of her own divorce. The parallel story arc follows a friend, who has moved from a small city to live in cosmopolitan, modern Tehran, where she can live life on her own terms. Azer is fierce and determined. She lodges in a hostel with other young women like her, working a mid-level job and coming home to a shared room and communal kitchen. There is a sense of community; women eating together around a dastarkhwan, women in Keshavarz’s flat, talking, a group of friends figuring out how to shape the trajectories of their lives.

The documentary is powerful because it is so direct. While Azer is always shown free, out and about, Keshavarz is hemmed in by the domestic. She sweeps, she puts out and then brings in the laundry, she tidies up. She works, but always in the bedroom, sitting on her bed while her husband sits at the desk in the study. She knows this is not what she wants, that she married too soon and her youth is passing her by, but she struggles to find the words to express this to the people she cares for most: her parents and her husband. It’s the struggle of the woman of today: finding the words.

For we have words for the big things. There is a way to say “he beats me”, or “there’s someone else”. Those are words that are hard to articulate, but they are immediately, if not always sympathetically, understood. But in a world where women are constantly made to feel that the protection of a man is vital to their existence, at whatever cost, how does one find a way to say “I am unhappy”? To say “I feel my life being taken away from me”, to say “I want to be free”. In the documentary, Keshavarz is repeatedly told, with varying levels of incredulity, “But you are free! Your husband never stops you from doing what you want!”, echoing the sentiment everyone trots out without a second thought to women without realizing one vital thing: humans are all supposed to be free. Freedom is not a favour granted to you by your father, brother or husband. Freedom is every human being’s fundamental right. To say one is fortunate to be “allowed” to wear certain clothes, or go to college or pursue a career is deeply and seriously problematic. Has anyone ever told a man he is lucky that his wife allows him to stay out late? Has any man ever sought permission after marriage to pursue higher study? No. Because patriarchies operate on the inherent and basic premise that freedom, like social standing, naturally belongs to men. Women are generously granted these things once they have earned it by being beautiful, useful and compliant. Opinionated, independent and ambitious do not figure anywhere in the equation.

Agency then becomes something one has to wrest out of male hands. Women have to jump through hoops in order to just be barely at par with their male counterparts, who sally forth with the confidence of the privileged. Men, across class and culture, will be patted on the back for being generous and kind for tolerating their women behaving like normal human beings should, without second thought. Permission-seeking has been bred into women, reinforced repeatedly until we don’t even give it a second thought. And that is why ‘Unwelcome in Tehran’ strikes such a chord, because it pulls a veil aside. It is important to be happy, but women in our cultures are told that happiness is equal to a happy husband, polite children and delicious dinners. There is nothing in that definition that includes personal fulfillment, only meeting the needs of others in the best way possible. What have you got to complain about? is the frequent refrain. Other women have it so much worse. And so agency and self-fulfillment is framed inside a rhetoric of guilt and selfishness. As a woman your life is defined within your social role, the pinnacle of which is marriage. Everything after that should be a lifetime spent in gratitude to the man and children who have justified your existence.

When marriage is unequal in this way, even the merest desire for self-actualization becomes enormous, an expression of renegade tendencies that must be quashed lest all the women go mad and there is nobody home to give the men their dinner and do homework with the children. Women who are dissatisfied by the way the chips fall for them are viewed with confusion and suspicion because they don’t fit into the cosy narrative of ‘Nice Loving Mama Whose Prayers Got Me This Car’. It’s pretty messed up, to say the least, to live in a society where being happy and loved is some special magical thing that may or may not happen to you, depending on your mysterious and unchangeable naseeb. That is utter, outrageous poppycock. It is nobody’s lot in life to be miserable, man or woman. Seneca had the right idea: (s)he who is brave is free. Keshavarz, taking her life back from the approved orthodoxy, is the bravest one of them all in her film. If only more women could be that sort of brave, the kind of brave you need to be to rescue yourself.

Sitaron se aagay jahan aur bhi hain.