It is a curious anomaly in the male-dominated history of Middle Eastern cinema that female directors have been pioneers. The very first feature-length film made in the region was the Egyptian picture Laila in 1927, which was produced by and starred Aziza Amir. Although she did not officially direct the film – she would sit on the director's chair two years later when making Daughter of the Nile (1929) – no one doubted that she was the creative force. Talaat Harb, the founder of the Bank of Egypt, spoke for the Middle East when he told her: "You have done what no man dared to do."
It was a similar story in Iran in 1962. The film that put Iranian cinema on the ingenuous, humanist and metaphoric road that was so widely acclaimed in the 1990s was the short documentary The House is Black (1963), about a colony of people with leprosy, which was directed by the renowned poet Forugh Farrokhzad. Yet, afterwards, it was the men – Youssef Chahine, Abbas Kiarostami, Moshen Makhmalbaf and Yilmaz Guney – who became celebrated for defining the cinema of the region.
Two debut films, Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis and Nadine Labaki's Caramel, have once again put female directors at the forefront of Middle East cinema. Persepolis is an autobiographical tale that starts in 1969, when Satrapi was born in Tehran. It describes how the first years of her life in a liberal household in Iran are a vibrant time in which she can embrace pop music and fashion. The Iranian revolution of 1979 changes all that, and, after she's threatened with arrest for wearing make-up and becomes increasingly rebellious, her parents decide to send her to Austria to save her from herself. It is in detailing her life in Austria that the story steps up a gear; Satrapi struggles to cope in a society that has a more casual attitude to sex.
When I met the director, she told me: "The most difficult period in my life was living in Austria because I was unhappy. It was where I learned that happiness is not related to freedom. I lived there for four years; that was the darkest time in my life because of loneliness. You can live in a peaceful country, but from the moment that you are all alone and you are not loved then you can live in heaven but it will be hell. Even under the bombs it was easier because at least we had each other, or I could trust people and I was not misjudged. I didn't have to justify being born in the place that I was born. The most fantastic thing about this movie is that Westerners go and see this film and the most exotic part, even for them, is Vienna, despite the city being in Europe. The identification with the central character is such that when you arrive in Vienna you think, 'where the hell is here?'!"
But this is no revisionist tale of the Iranian Revolution. Satrapi returns to Tehran after her sojourn in Vienna and discovers that the country she missed no longer exists. She agrees to an arranged marriage that is the cause of further unhappiness. The film ends in 1994 when she decides to quit her childhood home.
Satrapi now lives in Paris. She has not been to Iran for eight and a half years, although her parents still reside there. They are central characters in the book, but Satrapi doesn't want to talk about them for fear of reprisals. When it was announced that Persepolis would be in competition at Cannes, the Iranian Minister of Culture protested to the Cultural Attaché of the French Embassy in Iran. The film has not been shown in Iran, although was a success when shown in other parts of the Middle East.
The irony is that Satrapi sees the film as a means to end preconceptions of Iran: "In these days we are completely stigmatised, reduced to some abstract notion: called terrorists. It's important people understand that Iranians are human beings before everything."
It was this desire to universalise the story that encouraged Satrapi to make Persepolis an animated film. On the surface the format seems the natural step for a story that was first published as two graphic novels in France. But Satrapi had other motives for choosing animation; "If you made this film live-action it would be a version of Not Without My Daughter [Brian Gilbert's 1991 drama about a Western woman trying to escape Iran], in which the Iranians would be unsympathetic. It would be the story of these Middle Easterners who are so far from us that they're not like us – they're crazy people. In Persepolis the characters are in the abstract; it could be you or me."
The desire to tell a universal story is also apparent in Nadine Labaki's bittersweet romantic-comedy Caramel. The director stars as the proprietor of a beauty salon in Beirut, having an affair with a married man and also the object of affection of a local policeman. She spends much of the film searching for a hotel that will allow unmarried couples to share a bed.
The 33-year-old Beirut native says: "It is not that easy to talk about these subjects there. For me, it was very natural to be talking about these subjects. I don't look at it as pushing the boundaries. I just wanted to talk about it because these are things that are really frustrating and somebody needs to say something about it."
A beauty salon is the perfect place for the action to take place as Lebanon is one of the world's hotspots for plastic surgery. In the Middle East, Lebanese women are seen as the most liberal of the region but Labaki argues: "This is the image that Lebanese women have but I think that this is only an appearance and it is not really true. I don't think we have got real freedom because we still have to keep within ourselves on a lot of issues. I wanted to explore the human side and see why Lebanese women act the way they do. I wanted to stop blaming them.
"All of us are a little confused. We have this image of the Western woman that she is free and we look up to her, because we think that she is doing what she wants. At the same time, we live in a place where we are very much attached to our religion, whether we are Christians or Muslims, so this creates a lot of limitations, a lot of boundaries and so we don't really know where we stand."
The desire to operate outside the limitations placed on them by society is why women from the Middle East are so invigorated by the possibilities offered by cinema. "I like to explore my different natures," she says. "I'm only allowed to explore them on film because it's the only place where it's legitimate for me to be someone else. In life you can't do this: you are labelled crazy."
This need to take advantage of the opportunity cinema offers has led to Middle East female film-makers being far braver than their male counterpoints in tackling issues often viewed as taboo. Mania Akbari starred as the female driver in Abbas Kiarostami's Ten. She then directed 20 Fingers, which took the template of a woman driving around Iran with various passengers and pushed the boundaries to talk about divorce, adultery and sex.
The list of female directors creating challenging works is growing. Haifaa Al-Mansour was raised in Saudi Arabia – a country with no cinemas – and had to travel to Bahrain to go to the cinema. Her documentary Women Without Shadows asks whether it is necessary for women to cover their faces in public in order to comply with Islamic teachings. Buthina Canaan Khoury is a Christian Palestinian film-maker from the West Bank. Her latest film, Maria's Grotto, which recently opened in Ramallah, deals with honour killings.
Arab women based in the West are also using cinema to explore their lives. British born Zeina Durra's New York Film School graduation film Seventh Dog, which stars Labaki, deals with the tragedy and comedy of being an Arab and living in post-9/11 New York.
Persepolis is out on April 25; Caramel is out on May 16