OpinionIran in the World PressA banking giant's moral bankruptcy on Iran

A banking giant’s moral bankruptcy on Iran


Wall Street Journal: HSBC’s glib ad suggests that the Islamic Republic is hospitable to artists, especially women.

The Wall Street Journal

HSBC’s glib ad suggests that the Islamic Republic is hospitable to artists, especially women.



Once known as the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, HSBC wants to be known today as “the world’s local bank.” To convey the message, it plasters airport jetways, city blocks and glossy magazines with colorful, pithy advertisements. From the looks of one such ad, though, HSBC might be more accurately considered “Iran’s useful idiot.”

The ad features a photograph of a desert oasis. In the background are some electrical lines, and in the foreground a lone, robed figure stands behind an old-fashioned video camera. Beside the image is text: “Only 4% of American films are made by women. In Iran it’s 25%,” HSBC informs us. “We find potential in the most unexpected places. Do you?”

Just like that, the banking behemoth reveals the danger of bubble-gum corporate cosmopolitanism: Every now and then, you might suggest that a murderous theocracy is actually a progressive place.

One wonders what Jafar Panahi would make of the suggestion that Iran’s filmmaking environment compares favorably to America’s. We can’t know, however, because the acclaimed director and his colleague Mahmoud Rasoulof were just sentenced to six years in prison. There they’ll join, among others, the filmmaker Mohammad Nourizad, who news reports say is on a hunger strike in Tehran’s Evin Prison.

“The assassination of ideas and sterilizing artists of a society has only one result: killing the roots of art and creativity,” Mr. Panahi said at his trial. “You are putting on trial not just me, but Iranian social, humanist and artistic cinema.”

A theme of Mr. Panahi’s movies is the Iranian regime’s subjugation of women. Whereas the HSBC ad implies that women in Iran are particularly empowered or liberated, Mr. Panahi’s works—including “The Circle” (2000), about female prisoners, and “Offside” (2006), about young women detained for trying to attend a soccer match—demonstrate otherwise.

So do news reports about Sakineh Ashtiani and other Iranian women sentenced to death by stoning for alleged adultery. In Iran, girls can be married at age 13 (it was age nine in the first years after the 1979 Islamic revolution), women don’t have the right to divorce their husbands or to seek custody of their children in the event of divorce, and a woman’s court testimony is accorded half the weight of a man’s.

In an environment like this, is it possible that 25% of movies are made by women? Perhaps, although when I asked HSBC spokesman Robert Sherman, he wouldn’t say where the bank got its information (either about Iran or Hollywood). Iran does have an active domestic film industry, with women among its major players. One is Tahmineh Milani, a feminist who still works in the country despite having been imprisoned in 2001 on charges—”supporting factions waging war against God”—that could have warranted the death penalty.

In any case, the numbers in the ad are not what matters. Let’s say that HSBC’s factoids are true. They still convey a hollow, misleading message about the Islamic Republic. Imagine a 1939 ad pointing to Leni Riefenstahl—Hitler’s court filmmaker and a pioneering female artist—as evidence of the Third Reich’s unexpected “potential.” The company behind any such ad would have immediately impugned its perceptiveness and reliability—even its worldview.

HSBC insists that its ad doesn’t actually praise Iran. Rather, Mr. Sherman told me, it “deliberately make[s] no judgment and instead encourage[s] debate and discussion so that people make their own judgments.” This month a number of HSBC customers did just that, blasting the bank for its comparison of the Iranian and American records on women’s rights.

“We certainly did not intend to cause offense,” Mr. Sherman said in an email, so “we are removing the ad from our global campaign.” Travelers this weekend therefore will be among the last to receive the bank’s tutorial on Iranian culture.

As for HSBC, it’ll continue to do business in Iran, but “no new deals, no activity not permitted under existing sanctions,” Mr. Sherman said. Here’s hoping that the bank—the world’s fourth most admired, according to Fortune magazine—is financing Iranian artists, not the mullahs who oppress them.

Mr. Feith is an assistant editorial features editor at the Journal.

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