The Not Without My Daughter Problem: How a Sally Field Movie Became an Iranian-American Headache

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Sally Field stars as Betty Mahmoody in Not Without My Daughter. Photo: Metro Goldwyn Mayer

By all indications, Not Without My Daughter should be a forgettable movie. It was a major motion picture when it premiered — 25 years ago today — starring one of the most-adored actors of the era, Sally Field, coming off the hit Steel Magnolias. But its $4 million opening weekend barely made a dent in the box office; it was largely critically panned for its Islamophobic undertones; and in re-airings, it could easily be mistaken for a Lifetime movie with a timely political pitch: Woman escapes from abusive Iranian husband, scary foreign country, and the evil clutches of Islam. In the larger cultural imagination, the film was consigned to oblivion.

But Not Without My Daughter has its own curious legacy. Over the years, it’s been shown in schools, re-aired on television, and notoriously played in Paris the night before the 1998 USA versus Iran World Cup match. One journalist responded to Iranians’ concerns over the World Cup airing with, “Oh, shut up,” arguing that the film was so unremarkable, grievances were “illogical.” But whereas some could easily disregard it, others were captivated by the film’s “woman in peril” narrative, with Field at the center. It endured in the years following its January 11, 1991, release as a troubling albatross for Iranians that, often, was presented as evidence of the barbarity of Iranian men.

“For Iranian men of my generation and American moms of my mother-in-law’s generation, this is a film that has seared itself into our consciousness,” says Reza Aslan, an Iranian-American author and religious scholar. Upon the film’s 25th anniversary, it’s an interesting case-study of how early misrepresentations of an ethnicity in popular culture — one that the American public previously had no concept of — never really leave them.

Not Without My Daughter is set a handful of years after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which turned the nation into an Islamic state, prompting a mass exodus of Iranians. Adapted from Betty Mahmoody’s memoir of the same name, the plot pivots on a sinister manipulation: Iranian-American Sayed, better known as “Moody,” convinces his wife to travel with him and his daughter, Mahtob, for a vacation in Iran, promising to return to their Michigan home two weeks later. Once there, his personality takes a 180. Moody, rededicating himself to Islam, reveals his intention was always for them to stay in Iran for good. He won’t let his wife and daughter leave, and becomes physically abusive toward Betty when she resists.

Alfred Molina (left) and Sally Field.

At the time of the film’s release, “Iran was our primary bogeyman,” Aslan explains. “The Cold War was over; we weren't made aware of China's rise in a significant way; there was no such thing as Al Qaeda or jihadist. None of that existed yet, so Iran had become the primary foil for America.” Prior to Not Without My Daughter, the Iranian hostage crisis was the most exposure Americans had consistently had to Iranians (aside from the Iron Sheik), and NWMD’s narrative fit neatly into the notion of Iranian-as-hostage-taker — except this time, it could happen right in your own home.

“Here's the thing that was funny about that movie: It's that the husband was such a great guy. He was so normal until he got to Iran, and then he became the evil villain,” laughs Aslan, who was 18 years old when Not Without My Daughter came out. It bears repeating that the film is based on a woman’s real-life experience, but the way it’s told, the story of abuse is inextricable from Islam and race. “When you do a movie like this, it allows the audience to go, ‘Wow, look, they’re all like that,’” says Iranian-American comedian Maz Jobrani. “Whereas when you do a movie with an American guy who is just as oppressive, you go, ‘Wow that one guy is crazy,’ but you don’t think all Americans are crazy. That’s the danger.”

For some, the movie scanned as a cautionary tale against Iranian men. Moody had lived in the U.S. for 20 years before his family “vacation.” At the start of the film, he gently tells his daughter he’s as “American as apple pie” — 20 minutes later they’re in Iran, and he’s beating his wife. Aslan says Not Without My Daughter “absolutely destroyed” his dating life because the mothers of women he dated feared that all Iranian men were abusive. “There was always this thought that, ‘Well, honey, Reza may seem like a nice guy now, but you know it's all an act,” Aslan explains. “His true self will soon come out.’"

“I am not joking when I say to you that at least on three separate occasions, when I met a girl's parents or immediately after I had met their parents, the girl would tell me how her mother brought up Not Without My Daughter,” Aslan continues. “There was this one case in particular where on the second date the girl said, ‘I can't really date you anymore. My mom doesn't want us to see each other.’ I said, ‘Why?’ and she goes, ‘Well, she saw that movie Not Without My Daughter.’ I have numerous Iranian friends who have the exact same story — it ruined dating for every male Iranian of my generation.” In Jobrani’s stand-up, he jokes that it’s “around this time a lot of Iranian men I knew became Italian because it was easier.”

It’s not just Iranian men whom NWMD gives a bad rap. It paints a severe, borderline grotesque image of the Iranian people, from the moment Betty and Moody step off the plane and a horde of men and women in full-length black chadors ominously surround the couple. What’s unique about the film is that it shows Iranians at home, the implication being: This is how they really are. “It’s all so primitive,” Betty remarks at one point as she absorbs the culture around her. The few good-hearted Iranians that help her escape are presented as exceptions to the norm, and only because they’ve had exposure to the West. In one almost comically demonizing scene, Betty pleads to her husband’s family for help and they bark at her in Farsi, none of which is subtitled in the film (though knowing what they say wouldn’t make it any better), as the camera zooms in on their furious faces.

Throughout the ’90s, this image was many Americans’ first introduction to Iranian culture. Dr. Nacim Pak-Shiraz, the head of Persian Studies at the University of Edinburgh, wrote about how formative the film was in shaping Westerners’ view of Iran in her book, Shi'i Islam in Iranian Cinema: Religion and Spirituality in Film. She remembers having conversations with Americans in her graduate program in Islamic Studies in 2000 that would “inevitably lead to invocations of Not Without My Daughter as if it were the only valid source available to understand the socio-political context of Iran and Iranian women,” which, as Jobrani notes, is a culture that definitely includes misogyny. That said, the film didn't attempt to capture the complexities of the situation in Iran, or its people.

Others were introduced to Not Without My Daughter in school, where it was screened for educational purposes:

The film was a part of a number of social-studies and religion curriculums, though it’s unclear with how much regularity. An Iranian-American girl, interviewed for an academic book on tweenhood, said she was “highly embarrassed and shamed” by a teacher’s screening of the film.

Nooshin* — an Iranian-American journalist from Florida who asked to remain anonymous — was in middle school when a teacher showed the film for a social-studies class. She attended a gifted-and-talented program that didn’t follow a typical curriculum — they took a more hands-on approach to learning, which sometimes involved showing a movie and discussing it afterward, as they did with Not Without My Daughter. “I don’t think I realized how fucked up that was until a couple years ago,” she tells me. “I can’t believe they showed that movie when there was one Iranian person in the class, and they let that sit on that person for the rest of the year. When she put it on, I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is about a country that my family’s from, and it’s completely not how I have experienced it.’”

Nooshin says her sister had a similar experience, but at a different school, and afterwards, her friends “got weird about Iran.” “We’re from a super white area, so often we’d be the only immigrants in the class,” she says. “When we were watching the film, it was an ‘all eyes on you’ kind of feeling.” Later, students would ask Nooshin if her dad was like Moody. “I’d be like, ‘No, my dad is totally normal,” she laughs. “I have never felt the fear of being kidnapped.”

For many Iranian-Americans, the details of the film itself are now a vague memory — one movie released a quarter-century ago does not stand out when piled upon with stronger rhetoric. Even at the time, Iranians may have been upset, but the responses were more to “turn your head the other way, put your head in the sand, try to ignore it, and hope that it goes away," Aslan says. “In those days, the notion of taking pride in your identity as Arab or Muslim or Persian didn't really exist because there wasn't sort of an overwhelming nationwide kind of demonization of an entire religion or race or culture that there was after 9/11.” Jobrani adds, “A lot of Iranians viewed it negatively, but they just laughed it off as Hollywood cinema.” If the film were to come out today, Iranians would be more likely to control the narrative around the film. “You would see a far different response from the Iranian-American community than you saw 25 years ago,” Aslan says.

I didn’t watch Not Without My Daughter for the first time until a few months ago. I’d best describe it as Iranian culture through the looking glass, distorted and stripped of all its warmth. Growing up, my only connection to the movie was that I could count on Sally Field’s face provoking a vocal, unhappy reaction from my parents, a sentiment that’s familiar among Iranians. “I remember that!” Aslan laughs. “It was like, ‘She was so sweet in everything else, and now look at her!’” Jobrani remembers the Field hate as well. “The irony of it for me is I got to do a little something with Sally Field, and she was super nice,” he says. “And when I first got into acting, I ended up taking a Shakespearean acting class with Alfred Molina, and he was a sweetheart. So, to meet the guy who played Moody and have him be super nice, you’re like, Oh he’s just an actor who took on a role. I’m not sure if he thought about the politics of it — he probably didn’t think about it the way an Iranian would.” (Neither Field nor Molina were available to comment for this article.)

Part of the lingering resentment toward Field was due to how overwhelmingly beloved she was — Iranians grew up with Gidget, too. A reviewer at USA Today praised “our gal Sal” for “a believable, heart-tugging performance” in NWMD. Jay Boyar at the Orlando Sentinel wrote: “When Field acts strong and determined, we think of her in Norma Rae and Places in the Heart. When she's confused, we think of her in Sybil. (And when she's dressed in a robe, her head covered with a hood-like chador, we remember her Flying Nun habit.)” He concludes, “if there have to be exploitative movies, they should all have at least this much going for them.” It’s a perplexing statement: that exploitative movies should be evocative, which is exactly what ensured Not Without My Daughter would resonate through the years.

Today, many would likely shrug the movie off and change the channel. But it's still heard echoing in corners of the internet and continues to collect positive reviews on Amazon. Aslan points out a crucial distinction between how audiences saw the film then versus now. “When you look at pre-9/11 movies in which Middle Easterners were the villains, it was mostly tied to their ethnicity or their nationality,” he says. “It really wasn't until the mid-to-late ’90s, and then certainly after 9/11, that ethnic identity became subsumed by religious identity.” These days, Not Without My Daughter isn’t so much shaping first impressions of Iranians as it is bolstering already-held prejudices toward Muslims:

“It doesn't stick around because people are like, 'Wow, that's a classic!' Aslan says. “It sticks around because people can point to it to make an ideological argument. Americans have always needed to define themselves against another — that's what we do.”

*This name has been changed.

An earlier version of this piece stated that the film's opening weekend grossed $15 million — that was in fact its lifetime gross.