Female Arab directors tell of ideological and religious battles peeping out from personal stories and hidden tensions

This article was published in Oasis 26. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:57:25


They are women looking for trouble, the ones who ride the irresistible wave of renewal running through Islamic culture and passing from the screen out onto the street, from Tel Aviv to Sana‘a, from Algiers to Beirut: women In Between, as stated in the title of a debut film shot by a Palestinian woman in Israel and enjoying great success in Europe. They are courageous women: directors in countries such as Saudi Arabia, where girls are forbidden even to ride bicycles; actresses in Iran, often punished or forced to emigrate for having shown themselves without covering their heads; professionals in Pakistan, where going to school can actually cost you your life; and divorced wives in Yemen, where girls get married even at the age of ten. They are women and it makes a difference because they differ from men in their way of recounting the same things. In their films, wars, ideological conflicts and religious battles peep out from little personal stories, hidden tensions and forms of malaise that start with the individual and hit the family first, then public life and sometimes even institutions, laying secrets and hypocrisy bare. Their films tell of true experiences, often lived personally. And the stories are sad ones of humiliated existences and unresolved destinies.


These stories have a key word in common that cuts through differences of tradition, generation or culture: freedom. It means so many different things: often it is freedom from something – an escape from men’s bullying, from forced marriages, from prohibitions having a greater or lesser religious element – rather than freedom to be or choose one’s identity. But even if the term is ambiguous, it serves as a litmus paper for judging life, suggesting solutions (nearly always inadequate ones) and speculating about a redemption (including a social one) that does not seem imminent. It is a magic word that embraces many things – now that “communism is dead and buried,” as Salma, one of the bad girls in the Palestinian film, says – particularly if used with reference to the condition of women: even when one avoids coming into direct conflict with some of Islam’s rules, the term reminds us of the century that is progressing, the hopes that drowned with the revolutions in 2011 and the expectations that persist.


The phenomenon is not a new one and there are, by now, many films communicating malaise and historic paradoxes. The original title of In Between, for example, is significant: Bar Bahar, which means “neither here nor elsewhere” i.e. “neither at sea nor on dry land”. A sort of manifesto for the new trend emerging; one that inevitably has a hint of a 1970s aftertaste here in the West. But we are not in Europe, as a boy in the film reminds us, even if in Tel Aviv Salma and Laila live discontented lives by day and hallucinatory ones by night, what with all the drugs, sex and Islamic-style rock ’n roll. The former a homosexual in a family of Christian origin and the latter a highly secular lawyer who rebels against every form of imposition, they witness the arrival of a third tenant, Nour, a veil-wearing Muslim, with dismay. She comes from Umm al-Fahm, an Arab-majority city where, in real life, the mayor has called for a boycott of the film and has launched death threats against the director and actresses, whilst stating that the female student who is raped at the end of the film is doubtlessly a bit of no-good. Obviously, the person to stigmatize would actually be Nour’s violent fiancé, who is always citing the Qur’an, doesn’t give a hand to women considered to be impure and would like to forbid his girl working: “Remember what the Prophet says. Do not prevent your women from going to the Mosque. Even if…” “their home is the most appropriate place for them”, she finishes for him, resignedly. At the end of the day, the protagonist in this story, as in others, is sisterhood, friendship between women or the new female solidarity that gets the better of stereotypes and prejudices. As for the men, they are irredeemable: “Do you think you can change the world in a day?” the fiancé asks Laila. “Well, don’t count on it.”


There are also more limited goals; a different kind of upbringing to propose to families. As the Yemeni director Khadija al-Salami recounts, for example, her parents had given her in marriage when she was only eight. The same thing had happened to her mother, who then did not have the strength to fight her daughter’s destiny. An extreme story but one that is very widespread: “Worldwide, a girl child is being given in marriage every second,” the director tells us. In the film I am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced – taken from Nojoud Ali’s autobiography of the same title (Three Rivers Press, 2010), a best-seller translated into 15 languages – a little girl makes an appearance before the Court in Sana‘a. She looks the judge in the eyes and says, “My name is Nojoud, I am ten and I want a divorce.” Between the lines of the film and of so many novels (two titles can represent them all: The Locust and the Bird, by the Lebanese Hanan Al-Shayk, and Rosso come una sposa [“Red as a Bride”], by the Albanian Anilda Ibrahimi), there is an explanation of the reason why Islamic law does not forbid these marriages (whilst imposing deferment of sexual relations until the young brides attain puberty, however): one of Muhammad’s wives, Aisha, was allegedly only nine years old. And it is curious to see how the Yemeni film’s didactic finale attempts to hold modernity and tradition together by laying the accusation against the tribal law: “No law prohibits premature marriages, but the issue ought to prick our consciences,” says the judge, who is young and keen. “Sharia’s founding principle is to forbid evil and we all have a duty to defend victims of evil.” Amen.


One last paradox should be mentioned. It appeared at the Venice festival, where the Lebanese film The Insult (directed by Ziad Doueiri) won the prize for Best Male Actor. When he got home, the director was arrested and put on trial for having filmed in Israel, five years earlier: Lebanon considers the country an enemy. And never mind if the Lebanese government had put the same film up for an Oscar. Dramatized by the director’s wife (he is a Sunni Muslim, she is a Christian), the Insult tells an individual story in order to come to a universal conclusion: the freedom to bet on another person’s humanity paves the way to a hope of peace. The film tells of an unstable society, a cumbersome past and an uncertain future through the story of two normal people with satisfying lives, good jobs and families. They are a Palestinian refugee and a Lebanese Christian: an argument about a trifle, one word too many – an insult – is enough to make the simmering conflict boil over. And so a broken gutter becomes a national case. Once again, it will be the women’s way of looking at things that resolves the situation, but without any feminist ideology. This time it is a man’s voice that explains the feminine strength that manages to stop the spiralling violence: and it speaks of freedom, reason and love.