Observing a foreign culture using the example of "The Circle"

by Jennifer Geiser on November 3, 2014 - 3:46pm

After watching the movie "The Circle", it becomes more obvious than ever that in Iran, women are treated differently than they are in our society. This makes the viewer think about this specific culture more intensely and compare it to the society we live in. Sabine Levet talked about this comparative approach in oder to understand a culture. This leads me to the question: How can the film "The Circle" and the main issues of Sabine Levet's presentation be brought together?

The film "The Circle" by director Jafar Panahi is banned in Iran [1] which makes it seem especially important to watch. It shows aspects of the lives of several women in Iran. Throughout the film, the obvious discrimination of women can be observed. In Iran, this discrimination is highly institutionalized. Thus, the film raises a lot of questions to the western audience. The film shows several situations in the lives of Iranian women in which they are discriminated. The female protagonists are often treated in a way which would not be tolerable in our western societies: Women have to be accompanied by men to travel across the country, they have to wear a Chador (a full-body-length cloak) in order to get into the hospital, or they must fear a divorce because they get a baby girl instead of a baby boy.

The fact which strikes me most about the film, however, is that women get imprisoned for trivial offenses. One woman, as an example, gets into jail for prostitution, another woman in jail has given birth to a girl instead of a boy (which had been announced before). Compared to our society, women would never be imprisoned for such offenses. This fact makes it very difficult to understand the oppressive regime in Iran. After having seen the film, I tend to generalize my view on Iran because I do not have a comparison with any other Iranian case instead of the ones presented in the movie or the common media. 

Sabine Levet and the concept of Cultural Understanding

This is where Sabine Levet comes in. In her presentation, she stated that a comparative approach is important in order to understand a foreign culture. In this case, you can say that you should not judge on a culture by just having seen one film but first, you have to get several impressions of Iran. 

Sabine Levet also remarked that we always have a very specific perspective when observing aspects of foreign cultures. We will never be able say that our view is the right one. In order to reduce the complexity of the world around us, we try to bring our observations down to what we are used to. We unconsciously compare the foreign culture with our own culture and judge on this base. Unfortunately, this process in most cases brings bias with it. This is why it is so important to be aware of the specific view we have on foreign cultures. 

"Being outside", as Sabine Levet put it, is a very powerful factor in understanding a foreign culture. You can observe this when you hear or read something about your own culture from a foreigner's point of view. You are not able to judge about the culture you grew up in unless someone tells you about the differences between your and his or her culture or until you yourself make these observations. Only when you are able to compare your culture with others, you find that your culture has its peculiarities which you otherwise would not have taken notice of. 

As we see, we need a comparative approach in order to interpret a culture. On the one hand, this approach gives us a powerful source to make sense of a culture (be it our own's or a foreign one). But on the other hand, this tool can also be harmful when we use it to make a judgement about a culture. Therefore, we must never lose sight of the fact that we judge on our own experiences which themselves are a product of our culture.



Reflecting Culture(s): Guest Lecture by Prof. Sabine Levet, MIT Boston

[1] Peter Beaumont, Vanessa Thorpe: "Jafar Panahi 'may soon be freed' ". The Guardian.



About the author

Hello everyone,

my name is Jennifer and I'm 23 years old. I'm studying Sociology and Business Administration at the University of Potsdam.