Kiss sparks controversy at Cannes Film Festival

It had looked to be a good year for women at the Cannes Film Festival. Leila Hatami, Iranian actress and star of Iranian movies, was one of five women and four men to serve as judges at this year’s festival, in the first female-majority jury since 2009. Though being a judge is a prestigious honor, it wasn’t the reason Hatami made the news: instead, a cheek kiss earned her harsh criticism from her home nation of Iran.

Leila Hatami greeted the French president of the Cannes Film Festival with a kiss. (Credit: David Clark Scott)

Leila Hatami greeted the French president of the Cannes Film Festival with a kiss. (Credit: David Clark Scott)

The nation banned public displays of affection in 2007 and its legal system is based on sharia law, making other countries question Iran’s attitudes on human rights. If you are looking for a good research paper topic on women’s rights or human rights issues, take a look at the trouble caused by what Westerners perceive as an innocent kissbut, to conservatives such as Iran’s deputy culture minister, was an affront to Islamic culture.

The kiss at Cannes Film Festival

President of the Cannes Film Festival, Gilles Jacob, who is 83, gave Hatami the traditional two-cheek air-kiss that is “a usual custom in the west,” Jacob later described, reported by Damien McElroy and Ahmad Vahdat of the London Telegraph in the May 22, 2014, article “Iranian actress Leila Hatami faces public flogging.” Hatami, who has been in award-winning Iranian movies, including 2012 Oscar-winner A Separation, explained that she had tried to ward off the kiss, which is against Iranian law, by offering a pre-emptive handshake. Jacob did not seem to notice. Hatami released a statement explaining her actions, describing Jacob as a grandfather-like man who was also her host at the film festival.

After the controversy broke, Jacob tried to defer the blame to himself. “It was me who gave a kiss to Madame Hatami,” he wrote on Twitter, quoted in translation by David Clark Scott in Christian Science Monitor article “Leila Hatami: When a kiss is not just a kiss,” posted May 20, 2014. “At that moment, she represented to me all of Iranian cinema.”

Hossein Noushabadi, the deputy culture minister of Iran, was outraged over the event. “Those who attend intentional events should take heed of the credibility and chastity of Iranians so that a bad image of Iranian women will not be demonstrated to the world,” Scott quoted him as saying. Noushabadi is not the only one upset by the event; McElroy and Vahdat reported that a group of male and female students have issued a petition to have Hatami publicly flogged for the “sinful act of kissing a strange man in public.”

Sharia law

According to Scott, the uproar over Hatami is a reminder of a 2007 crackdown against public displays of affection in Iran. “At that time, a decree was issued that any unmarried couple was forbidden from appearing together in public and all couples were banned from kissing and holding hands in public.”

According to Reza Kahlili, a pseudonymous ex-CIA agent who worked undercover in Iran, that is only the tip of the iceberg. In a March 8, 2011, Christian Science Monitor article “Iran’s Brutality toward Women Should Shock West into Seeking Regime Change,” Kahlili listed a number of crimes for which women could be imprisoned, tortured, raped and executed, all within Iranian law. “Women who abide completely by the rules of the clerics are not immune to their cruelty,” Kahlili went on, stating how many young women are “stoned to death on bogus charges of adultery,” while the Islamic leaders look on in approval of the implementation of sharia law.

Human rights and Islam

Many Muslims around the world also criticize sharia law for its human rights violations; Shahla Khan Salter posted in Huffington Post Canada on May 22, 2014, “If Muhammed Was Alive Today They Would Arrest Him Too.” In the article, she notes other atrocities committed on behalf of “Islam” in May 2014: the kidnapping of 270 school girls in Nigeria, and the death sentence condemning pregnant mother Mariam Yahya Ibrahim Ishag to death in Sudan for converting to Christianity. Salter also highlights events of Muslim inclusion: such as a same-sex Muslim marriage ceremony and celebrations in cities including Cairo, Dubai and Tehran of International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.

“It may be a crime under shariah but it is the legend of Muhammad who befriended Christians, Jews and Pagans, gave women rights, never persecuted gays and lesbians and spoke out against the rich, established tribes of Mecca,” Salter wrote. “According to shariah law, Muhammad would be in jail, labeled an infidel.” Salter also wrote of the problems in expecting change to come from within oppressive regimes, when those working toward change are so harshly punished.

What do you think will happen to Leila Hatami? Tell us in the comments.

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