Four Wives – One Man (Women Make Movies, 2007)

dvd_four-wives.jpgThe husband always favors the most recent wife, because "if you buy a new sweater, you won’t wear the old one any more."







Polygamy, or more properly polygyny (a man may have multiple wives, but a woman may not have multiple husbands), is allowed in Islam and legal in Iran. It’s not exactly the norm—reportedly only 14% of Iranians live in polygynous households—yet 14% of a nation of more than 70 million means that polygyny affects the lives of quite a few people.

Western people often react to mentions of polygamy with a wink and a leer: all sex all the time! Imagine the catfights! The poor husband must be worn to a frazzle keeping all those wives happy! The reality is something quite else, and is portrayed clearly and without preconceptions in Nahid Persson’s documentary Four Wives – One Man.

Persson focuses on the social relationships of a rural family in northern Iran. The head of the household is Heda, a successful farmer who sees the opportunity to obtain multiple wives as an entitlement and expression of his prosperity. But his mother pegs him early in the film: "The only thing my son thinks about is pussy!" None of the supposed justifications often quoted in defense of polygyny apply to this household: Heda did not need the first wife’s consent (applying the standard that consent may not be coerced), nor was she barren, nor were any of the subsequent wives widows lacking any other means of support. Nonetheless, he has four wives—Farang, Goli, Shahpar and Zibar—and acquires a fifth before the end of film.

There’s nothing sensational or lurid in Four Wives – One Man. As in any rural household, most of the time the wives are busy working: there’s always food to prepare, floors to sweep, children (20 in this household) to care for, sheep to herd. They also talk about each other, not always in the kindest terms—no surprise, considering that they and their children are entirely dependent on the shifting whims of Heda. The politics of the household at times seems as involved as that of a medieval court, and just as fickle: The women are courtiers hoping to retain their place in the sun as long as possible, while realizing that ultimately they have no control over their own fates.

One thing they all agree on: The husband always favors the most recent wife, because "if you buy a new sweater, you won’t wear the old one any more." Heda offers another explanation: He keeps acquiring younger wives because they haven’t yet developed a mind of their own. Whatever the reason, the consequences are devastating for the previous wives, and we’re not talking about mere alienation of affection. As one wife puts it, "A new wife takes your husband away and everything you own. You no longer have any power."

Persson, born and raised in Iran but now working in Sweden, is no stranger to controversy; she first gained international recognition for her documentary Prostitution Behind the Veil, which looked at the lives of two prostitutes in Tehran. The film won several international prizes, but also resulted in her brief imprisonment by Iranian authorities, who dislike seeing the less noble aspects of their nation portrayed on film. I doubt they’ll be any more pleased with Four Wives – One Man, which is a fine tribute to what an effective film it is.  | Sarah Boslaugh

Four Wives – One Man is distributed by Women Make Movies (Catalog). Further information is available from the company website: or by calling 212-925-0606.

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