When I was 11 or 12 years old, my sister Martha arranged for me to take a babysitting job in her stead. I approached the job casually, arrived on time, turned on the TV, and relaxed on the couch. The next thing I remember was being woken by the child’s parents with the baby crying violently in the background. Needless to say, it was my first and last babysitting job.
Caring for a baby is serious business because the baby is helpless and relies on the caregiver, i.e. the babysitter, to take care of the child in an emergency. A similar incident occurs in A Separation, in which a caregiver is careless about taking care of an Alzheimer’s patient and there are consequences for the caregiver. First, some background.
A Separation begins with a divorce hearing before a judge in an Iranian court. The adversaries are Nader and Simin. They love one another but have issues that are driving them apart. They both had planned to move to Europe to provide better educational opportunities for their daughter Termeh. However, Nader’s father suffers from Alzheimer’s and his situation is deteriorating. He no longer recognizes his children and needs 24-hour care. When Simin remarks to Nader “your father does not even know you,” he responds “but I know him.” This is the crux of the dilemma. Nader does not want to abandon his father, even if the consequence is divorce from his wife.
Simin leaves home with her daughter, compelling Nader to hire a caregiver for his father. The caregiver is Razieh who accepts the job reluctantly. She needs the money; but, in view of her strict religious upbringing, she does not feel comfortable cleaning Nader’s father when he has an accident in the bathroom.
On one particular day when she has to run an errand, she ties Nader’s father to the bed to prevent him from walking out of the apartment. Nader makes a surprise visit and discovers his father on the floor in distress. Nader sees Razieh as irresponsible, and in anger pushes her out of the house. As a result, Razieh falls down the stairs and has a miscarriage.
This leads to more complications. Nader is accused of killing Razieh’s unborn baby. Now Nader has to deal with this accusation in the courts in addition to dealing with his father’s deteriorating condition at home. Both families are struggling with challenges: economic, religious, and familial. There are no easy answers as each person is trying to navigate a complex reality that deals with accepting responsibility for one’s behavior and being truthful in one’s social interactions. Watching the Iranian family court system dealing with the child custody case in the light of numerous other issues is illuminating as it attempts to blend the letter of the law with what is in the child’s best interest.
Determination of custody is a common topic in most legal systems. The Talmud lists three guiding principles: (1) Custody of all children under the age of six is to be given to the mother; (2) Custody of boys over the age of six is to be given to the father; (3) Custody of girls over the age of six is to be given to the mother.
However, these rules are viewed with flexibility. Rabbi Michael Broyde, professor of Law at Emory University, observes: “Jewish law never understood these rules as cast in stone; all decisors accepted that there are circumstances where the interest of the child overwhelmed the obligation to follow the rules in all circumstances.” This nuanced view also appears in Iranian courts as depicted in A Separation, a film that presents a balanced view of justice with unpredictable outcomes.