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Taking On Iran's TV Taboos For Women: Cucumbers, Earlobes, And The Chuckle

Iranian actresses face considerable restrictions on their appearance and behavior on both the big and small screen. (illustrative photo)
Iranian actresses face considerable restrictions on their appearance and behavior on both the big and small screen. (illustrative photo)

Censors for Iran's state-controlled broadcasters routinely go to considerable lengths to prevent audiences from seeing anything they might consider un-Islamic, offensive, or politically sensitive.

Women and the female form, including the ears, are one of the most frequent targets, say actors and actresses who have taken to social media in response to a recent push from a well-known thespian and screenwriter to highlight censorship on state television.

Amir Mahdi Juleh launched his pushback against censorship earlier this week under the hashtag #Me_and_thecensor to encourage his peers to share their encounters with seemingly heavy-handed censors.

Juleh recalled in one post that while filming the popular comic soap Barareh Nights, censors objected that the "ear volume" of one of the actresses was visible under her scarf.

"We never understood what irritating element they had discovered in the ear volume of an actress under her scarf or what exactly comes into their minds when they think of ears," Juleh wrote on August 27 on his Instagram account, which is followed by nearly 2 million people.

Juleh said he has so many "bitter and funny" memories of dealing with censorship over the years that he thought it would be a pity not to share with his fans.

In response, award-winning actress Mitra Hajjar shared a video demonstrating the way she and other women in the business use clear adhesive tape to hold down their head scarves.

"This is how they glue our ears so that, God forbid, they're not seen," Hajjar says in the video, which has been widely shared on social media.

The strict dress code imposed by the clerically dominated regime after Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution requires women to cover their hair and body in public. Those who don't follow the so-called hijab rule face warnings, harassment, fines, and even jail time.

Foreigners are encouraged to do the same, and even required to comply at certain kinds of official events.

Some women push the boundaries by using makeup or wearing colorful scarves, short or form-fitting coats, or tight pants, and Iranians have sporadically risked official backlash by waging public campaigns against the dress code.

In the past year, dozens of women have challenged authorities by removing their head scarves in public to protest the hijab rule, resulting in jail time in a number of cases.

Women who appear on state television, which like many Iranian institutions is controlled by religious conservatives, must follow a strict dress code that also bans them from wearing makeup or exposing their neckline.

They also have to respect restrictions on how they behave.

Juleh said that women are asked to wear "thick pants" under their coats and long dresses -- whatever the weather -- to obscure the shape of their legs.

He also said actresses appearing in soap operas are not allowed to "shout, whistle, laugh out loud, or make certain jokes."

"On a recent show, a new [directive] said that women should not eat cucumbers in a scene," Juleh said.

The censors' caution would appear to stem from concern over bawdy parallels that viewers might infer from such a scene -- many Iranians eat cucumbers unsliced -- but the actor did not elaborate.

Others who joined the challenge confirmed censors' sensitivity to women's ears being visible.

Actress Parastoo Salehi claimed to have had to resort to surgery on her ears, which she described as unusually large and difficult to hide under her scarf.

"Covering those ears under a scarf so that they don't incite the public while filming the show Under the City's Sky was quite an adventure," Salehi wrote to more than 1 million followers on Instagram.

She added that she still harbored questions about the censors' rules regarding what women can and can't do on state television.

"I've never understood the answers to two questions: why shouldn't women be filmed while climbing the stairs and, secondly, why is a woman leaning against a wall while playing a role [considered] erotic?" she said, adding, "and many other questions that I have been too shy to ask."

Iranians often criticize state television for its censorship practices, including manipulating U.S. and Western movies and removing sensitive images like women sitting too closely to men, or alcohol, which is banned in Iran.

Earlier this year, Iranian TV censored the logo of Italian soccer club A.S. Roma by blurring the teats of the Capitoline Wolf, the mythical she-wolf who is shown suckling Romulus and Remus in connection with the Italian capital's founding myth.