The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged feminism
On feminism in Tunisia

I visited Tunis last month and one thing I was interested in finding out more about was what kind of discussions Tunisian feminists are having in the aftermath of the Ben Ali regime -- and of the detailed and horrifying revelations of human rights abuses against women (particularly Islamist women) that took place in this most "feminist" of Arab countries, one that does have the most progressive legislation on women's rights in the region. I find the questions raised by state feminism and the divide between secular and Islamic feminists fascinating. I wrote about it for Al Fanar

Meanwhile, independent female activists who criticized the regime faced harassment and vilification. And, as has been revealed by recent testimony collected by the country’s Truth and Dignity Commission, women associated with the Islamist movement were subjected to shocking abuse, including rape, torture in detention and forced divorce.

“Was the Tunisian regime ‘feminist’ out of political necessity and to mask a democratic deficit…or out of modernist conviction? Does it even deserve to be called feminist?” writes Bessis. “What’s certain is that the regime was masterful in its ability to use women.”

It was also successful in dividing women. Under Ben Ali, says Mahmoud, Islamist and secularist women “might as well have existed in two different universes.” Secularist leftist women “were engaged in a political struggle with Islamists” and “did not do much to document or help Islamist women with what they were going through.”

“The dictatorship broke relations between women,” Abdellatif told me.

Shahrazad on TV, telling Egyptian women's stories

Mona Zaki in "Ehki Ya-Shahrazad" Mona Zaki in "Ehki Ya-Shahrazad"


Last night I went to see the latest film by Yousri Nasrallah--the former Youssef Chahine protegé, the director of the quite good film adaptation of Elias Khoury's باب الشمس  ("The Gate of the Sun") and of early films المدينة ("The City") and سرقات صيفية ("Summer Thefts"), which I often hear are excellent, but have consistently failed to find anywhere on the market in Cairo. 

The new film is called احكي ياشهرزاد ("Tell, Sheherazade") and stars Mona Zaki as a popular TV presenter who, just like the Thousand and One Night's heroine, fills the night-time hours with her stories--she has a late night talk show entitled نهاية المساء، بداية الصباح ("The End of the Night, the Beginning of the Morning"). Asked by her ambitious new husband--who is in line for a promotion to editor-in-chief of a national newspaper, and is getting heat from his higher-ups to reign in his wife--to tone down the political content of her shows, she decides to focus for a week on seemingly safe "women's issues."

But one of the ironies of the film is how difficult it is to discuss anything of import in contemporary Egypt without touching on politics. The women Heba invites onto her show inevitably say things that anger the establishment, even as they recount their specific romantic and sexual disappointments and betrayals. "Ehki Ya-Shahrazad" is firmly based on the principle that the personal is political. 

The film was described to me as "feminist" and it certainly is focused on the injustices women suffer (and fight back against--none of the female characters are prone to victimhood). The relationship between the sexes is portrayed as inevitably adversarial, often violent--with men consistently at fault. 

You can see the trailer here

The film's plot has some weak points--the women's stories are a bit far-fetched at times (and one of them owes an obvious and unacknowledged debt to the Youssef Idris short story "House of Flesh"). But it is definitely worth seeing--it's subtitled in English, and playing in many Cairo cinemas at the moment. There are many strong performances, and a few lovely visual moments, such as the scene in which Zaki--dressed to the nines for an upper-class shopping spree--ends up riding the metro, surrounded by veiled women giving her the stink-eye. Or the long shot in which the actor playing the young Saad--channeling Ahmad Zaki's original shaabi sex appeal--is filmed, from the waist up, floating dreamily through the streets of his neighborhoods (he's standing on the back of a pick-up truck that is left out of the frame). 

For a long interview with the director, screenwriter and Mona Zaki (in Arabic), see here.