Women of the Revolutions: The New Faces of Arab Feminism

By 
Angele Ellis

 

Feminism Inshallah: A History of Arab Feminism
Directed by Feriel Ben Mahmoud
Women Make Movies, 2014

Nada’s Revolution
Directed by Claudia Lisboa
Women Make Movies, 2014

 

Two recent documentaries directed by women provide connected narratives – in wide-angle and close-up – of feminism in the Arab world. Together, they illuminate not only the uneven history of Arab feminism, but also a few years in the professional and personal life of one contemporary young Egyptian feminist. These films demonstrate the strong parallels and critical divergences between feminism in the Arab world and feminism in the West.

“Feminism Inshallah” encompasses over 100 years of history, starting with male feminists such as the Egyptian Qasim Amin (1863-1908), whose nationalist aspirations for Egypt fueled his assertion that the Qu’ran supported women’s rights. A feminist essentialist, Amin believed that women’s moral superiority, nourished by education and civil rights, would prove crucial to Egypt’s throwing off the yoke of colonialism and thriving in the modern world.  (This paralleled Western feminists and suffragists making a similar argument for improving the health and strength of their nations.)

Tunisian nationalist Tahar Haddad (1899-35) adopted Amin’s position, and his work greatly influenced Tunisia’s leaders. Despite the fact that history credits Egyptian feminist Huda Shaarawi as the first Muslim woman to publicly – and dramatically – cast off the veil, at a Cairo train station in 1922, Tunisia granted more far-reaching rights to women after independence than those Egyptian women attained. When Gamal Abdel Nasser, in a meeting with Tunisian president Habib Bourguiba (who called the hijab a “miserable rag”), praised Bourguiba’s accomplishments – public education for all, divorce rights for women, legal contraception and abortion – Bourguiba asked why Nasser couldn’t do the same. Many attribute Nasser’s “I can’t” to his wariness of the Muslim Brotherhood, already a powerful counterweight to pan-Arabism.

Ben Mahmoud, a Sorbonne-educated scholar whose previous films include a history of Tunisia and a biography of Umm Kulthum, acknowledges the liberalizing influence of Kulthum’s performances throughout the Arab world, as well as the influence of the glamorous Egyptian film industry of the 1950s and 60s. Performers such as Samia Gamal celebrated the beauty and sensuousness of the female body – prefiguring a contemporary generation of feminists in the Arab world and in the West, who make the liberated body a focus of their work.

Today, the satellite dishes that co-exist with minarets in the skylines of Arab cities tune into different channels. Conservatives and Islamicists saw the crushing defeat of the 1967 Six-Day War by a state founded as a religious entity as a turning point, a punishment and rebuke to modernists. (In a similar way, American conservatives and fundamentalist Christians interpreted the United States’ defeat in Vietnam as a punishment and rebuke to liberalism, a position that strengthened their ongoing opposition to feminism and women’s rights.) The increasing power of Saudi Arabia in an oil-based world economy also propagated that nation’s Wahhabism throughout the Middle East.

Historian Sophie Bessis, one of a number of scholars who appear in “Feminism Inshallah,” asserts that Saudi influence, as well as the continuing revolutions and struggles for self-determination in the region, transformed “that miserable rag” from a shackle into a symbol of political liberation, and then into a generalized social and religious norm. (Not so ironically, many in the West see this transformation as reversed.)

Ben Mahmoud finds hope in the work of younger feminists –including “Dialy,” a Moroccan play that recalls “The Vagina Monologues,” and a broad social networking project engineered by two Lebanese feminists. She ends “Feminism Inshallah” with a montage of screen shots of smiling young men and women from a number of Arab countries, holding signs declaring their support of women’s rights.

“Nada’s Revolution” focuses primarily on one face: that of Nada Ahmed, a young woman from Alexandria determined to create political theater for children and to negotiate a marriage on her own terms in the years following the Arab Spring. The film portrays Nada, her face sometimes framed by a hoodie, as anguished and haggard more often than smiling. (Her traditional mother treasures a photograph of a younger, plumper Nada in a hijab.) Lisboa, a Brazilian-born director based in Amsterdam, harbors a fascination for the politics of the body, and filmed her first documentary, Beauty Refugee (2009), as a study of her own rejection of her family’s dependence on plastic surgery.

As Nada fends for herself on the mean streets of Alexandria and Cairo, looking for permanent housing and funding for her projects, she could be a struggling young woman artist in, say, New York City or London – but then Lisboa shifts perspective, reminding the viewer that Egypt remains a nation still in revolt, where Nada not only faces harassment, but also lives in constant danger of rape from thugs who now have freer rein after Morsi deposed Mubarak. Lisboa shows protestors in the streets, angry at being denied housing for which they have vouchers, as well as protestors on television. Nada may use actors dressed as lions, frogs, and sheep in her plays, but as political allegory, her work proves sharp and daring.

Equally daring in her personal life, Nada only returns home when ravenous for food and affection, even though her family laces both with criticism of her choices and nostalgia for the past. When Nada, nearly 30, feels she has found love and acceptance in Cairo with a colleague named Mahmoud and his family, she must make a hard decision about what marriage and domesticity would entail, aided by an unexpected and fascinating ally – Mahmoud’s mother. Although similar to Nada’s mother on the surface, this woman reveals herself to be a quiet revolutionary, even more tough-minded than Nada herself.

“Nada’s Revolution” ends with its protagonist – having triumphed with two different plays – on the move again, still committed to her art in an Egypt now ruled by el-Sisi. Nada’s future, like that of all women in the Middle East, remains uncertain.

This review is scheduled to appear in Al Jadid, Vol. 19, No. 69, 2015

Copyright 2015 AL JADID MAGAZINE©