Speaking Straight: "Four Women of Egypt"

Margot Badran

Four Women of Egypt
By Tahani Rached
Office National du Film du Canada, 1997

The film opens with four middle aged women-who could be your mothers, your aunts, your friends - walking on a bridge at the barrages south of Cairo. It is an idyllic scene: soft light falls on the causarina trees and Nile waters. This is al-Qanatir, the Women's Prison, where the strolling figures spent time is off camera. Later, we see the women in their homes in different quarters of Cairo. We see them relaxing at a kebab house near the Hussain Mosque in the Musky. We see one holding forth on Abbassiyya Street recalling the neighborhood of her childhood. One wends her way through the streets of the Delta village of Kamshish pointing to the site of her husband's assassination. Another rummages through the personal archives of her activist past; yet another lectures to students at Cairo University. We see them talking, laughing, teasing, agreeing and disagreeing-being vibrantly Egyptian.

"Four Women of Egypt" is more than a film; it is an event, a public conversation. The four women speak animatedly about the nation, politics, culture, and Islam. They connect the politics and ideologies of past and present with the adhesive of their own experience. The women saturate their conversations with humor, that quintessentially Egyptian vernacular, and with irony, that most delicious of deconstructive devices. They speak with refreshing candor and hard-hitting honesty as they rake over the past and muddle through the present.

The four are friends. They are nationalists and progressives; one among them is a veiled Islamist. The women defy the stereotypical notion that "fundamentalists" and "secularists" do not talk to each other, that they do not have shared experiences or common concerns. They assault the barriers of rigid ideologies. No wonder the film-deftly directed by Tahani Rachid, a Montreal filmmaker who grew up in Egypt-has touched a nerve in audiences in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world, as well as in the West.

Safynaz insists that the four women are "united by [the same] human values"... Amina agrees: "We share the same human values," and adds, "Love of country is not an abstract relationship." Shahenda says succinctly, "We are all engaged in the same struggle." It was during Sadat's regime that the women were thrust into prison...Hundreds of nationalist women were tossed like a salad on top of one another, as Safynaz put it, socialists upon communists upon Nasserists, upon Islamists-Christians upon Muslims.

The four women, who were born into a world under colonial occupation and forged in the fire of nationalism, shuttle us back and forth through five tumultuous decades. Three were born in the late 1930s, one in the late 20s. They came of age with the Revolution of 1952. Wedad Mitry has been a lifelong journalist. A student activist, she was the only woman elected to the Student Union at Cairo University in 1951. That same year she joined the Women's Popular Resistance Committee (founded by the feminist Saiza Nabarawi). Safynaz Kazem, a journalist, theater critic and writer, is the author of many books. In the 1960s she was a graduate student in the United States-in Kansas, Chicago, and New York. Shahenda Maklad was active in student and nationalist movements, running as a candidate in parliamentary campaigns. She continues her tireless fight for peasants' rights and other populist causes. Amina Rachid, a committed leftist, was born into the old upper class, the granddaughter of Ismail Sidki (a former prime minister). She completed her studies in Paris where she was active in the Arab Student Association in France and worked for several years at CNRS. Her political commitment brought her back to Egypt where she teaches French literature at Cairo University.

Wedad and Shahenda met through their resistance work in the 50s. Shahenda and Safinaz met in the 60s on the steps of Dar al-Hilal publishing house (where both were on their way to see the now late Ahmad Baha al-Din) after the assassination of Shahinda's husband Salih Hussain, an activist for peasants' rights. Wedad met Safynaz in the 60s when she returned from work in Iraq where she first encountered Safynaz through her writings. Safynaz, Shahenda, and Amina all met in prison in 1981.

Remembering and living the nation evoke pride and pain. Nationalism has been the mother tongue of the four women, the language of their childhood, girlhood, and young adulthood. Three Muslims and one Christian, they spoke a common language. British colonialism and Western imperialism were the enemies. The revolution of 1952 was a national turning point. The old class system was being dismantled, new social justice-for class, ethnicity, and gender-seemed to be on the horizon. The year 1956 was a high point in the history of the nation, with the final expulsion of the British from Egypt, the nationalization of the Suez Canal, and the vote for women. The year 1964 witnessed the inauguration of the High Dam. The four women were young adults and full of hope, living the revolution. Shahenda and her new husband, taking President Gamal Abdul Nasser's land reform seriously, were fighting for peasants' rights when, in 1966, Saleh Hussain was gunned down by a landowner's thug in a state that could not, or did not care to, protect those who took too much of the revolution in their own hands. The defeat during the war of 1967, for the four women as for other Egyptians, brought pain and searching. The dream was fading. With Nasser's death in 1970 an era had ended. Arab socialism, which all four women had embraced, was over and "open door" capitalism was in.

How does one narrate national history? How does one incorporate Nasser into one's rendition of the nation? What does memory do, how do we use it? The film narrative captures women's memories of the moment and their reflections years later. Safynaz recounts, in an animated voice how as a girl in 1952, giddy with joy, she was looking out from her balcony as the triumphal procession of the Free Officers passed down Abassiyya Street (historical footage is spliced in) and believed Nasser looked directly at her. The film pans forward to four middle-aged women watching, with wry expressions, old clips of Nasser in the 60s expounding on the promises of social and economic reform and on national security-years after disappointments and defeat set in. The women argue over Nasser: Was he good or bad, how was he good or bad-or good and bad? Shahenda, the exuberant nationalist who suffered terrible personal loss, continues to appreciate Nasser and his project, while not forgetting the treacheries and tragedies. When the film cuts to the country in anguish as the dead leader's coffin was borne through the streets of Cairo, the women express the pain of loss and abandonment they experienced at that moment.

In the zigzag through history, the film makes palpable how memory, as a re-experiencing of the moment itself, and memory as a mode of processing the past, serves up "multiple truths." The film lays bare the archaeology of individual lives-those layers and sediments of which we are composed. If one loses the discourse of nationalism-and the discourse itself fades-one does not lose the imprints it made. In Wedad's words: "By your past people know you." The film illuminates this, producing aching feelings and discordant sentiments.

As Sadat was setting out to move the nation away from Arab socialism, the four women remained loyal to the ideals of social justice it espoused. Wedad, Shahenda and Amina continued to employ a secular discourse of social justice (the discourse of the secular nation) while Safynaz, back in the middle 60s, had embraced an Islamic discourse of social justice. Safynaz insists that the four women are "united by [the same] human values," although "my ideals come from my commitment to Islam," whereas theirs "spring from their way of thinking." Amina agrees: "We share the same human values," and adds, "Love of country is not an abstract relationship." Shahenda says succinctly, "We are all engaged in the same struggle." It was during Sadat's regime that the women were thrust into prison (Safynaz and Shahenda more than once). Hundreds of nationalist women were tossed like a salad on top of one another, as Safynaz put it, socialists upon communists upon Nasserists, upon Islamists-Christians upon Muslims.

While the four women are bonded by common values, they also acknowledge their differences. Three are adamant about their desire for the continuation of a secular state-a state with space for religion, but not a religious state. Safynaz alone among them wants an Islamic state. Under conditions of confusion and disappointment and in search of meaning, people-Christians and Muslims alike-are turning to religion, as Shahenda reminds us. Amina, worrying about the implications, believes, "We are suffering from obscurantism." She continues, "This may be more dangerous than physical violence." Many cast Islamism in the context of cultural politics, often calling it a form of cultural nationalism in the face of Western intrusion. Amina dismisses this idea, insisting that it is a matter of power politics; if the Islamists gained power and acted in the West's interests, the West would embrace it, she insists. Shahenda says, along with many others, that the West needs to create an enemy and Islam is it. Speaking across all divisions, Safynaz insists: "I've discovered that deep down in every human culture the values-freedom, justice, tolerance, and human dignity-are the same."

The present is troubling to the four. The revolution of 1952 did not produce the expected results. "Things have gotten worse [since then]," Amina laments. "Maybe we were not able to do the job; maybe others will do it." A member of the new generation, Wedad's daughter Reem says: "We're stuck in an impasse. We are bogged down with painful memories." When her mother Wedad points to "the continuity between generations" she seems to be expressing a hope that some of the old dreams will one day be realized.

This review appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 4, No. 24, Summer 1998.

Copyright © 1998 AL JADID MAGAZINE