Women and the Road in the Middle East

Nadia Yaqub

A Female Cabby in Sidi Bel-Abbs

Directed by Belkacem Hadjadj

First Run/ Icarus Films, 2000

Iranian Journey (Bus to the Gulf)

Directed by Maysoon Pachachi

Women Make Movies, 1999

Among the many documentary films that have been produced about Middle Eastern women in recent years are two that seek to challenge our assumptions about women and work in the Muslim world. Both films focus on women drivers – one a taxi driver and the other a long-distance bus driver –  and both paint portraits of women who are simultaneously capable, respectful of the religious mores of their societies, and determined to continue in their non-traditional line of work. However, the markedly different contexts in which these women live and work, and the ways the filmmakers relate the respective contexts to their subjects, help us to appreciate the variety of experiences and opportunities that characterize women’s lives in the Muslim world.

In his documentary “A Female Cabby in Sidi Bel-Abbs,” Algerian director Belkacem Hadjadj uses the unusual career of Soumicha as a means of exploring the condition of women in Algeria today. Soumicha, a widow who was bequeathed a cab by her late husband, becomes a cab driver to support herself and her three children.

Through multiple interviews and conversations between her and her friends, Soumicha emerges as a complex and deeply sympathetic character, a valuable antidote to the passive and faceless image of Arab women so often portrayed in Western media. She is a devoted and, in many ways, traditional mother (she wants her daughter to learn to do all of her housework by hand) and a devout Muslim. On the job, however, she is a competent and outgoing cabbie who not only navigates the streets of Sidi Bel-Abbs with confidence, but also maintains her small Renault 4 and insists on engaging her fares in amiable conversation. The film effectively contradicts any assumption viewers might have that being female and Muslim in the Arab world must be incompatible with wage work and effective self expression.

As the film progresses, however, Sidi Bel-Abbs and Soumicha both begin to develop in complexity. Soumicha drives through streets and city squares clearly marked as male spaces; men sit on park benches and stand in groups, working, chatting, or simply watching passersby. In contrast, Hadjadj’s camera catches women as interlopers in these spaces, often covered and always on their way to somewhere else. The implication is that Soumicha, as a regular in these public streets, is an anomaly.

Soumicha travels to Telagh to visit friends employed in an electronics factory which was burned in 1993, an early target of Islamists in the Algerian civil war. We learn about the importance of this factory to its 650 female employees, and of their tenacity and perseverance in the face of the attack. She also travels with friends to ‘Ain Adden where 11 schoolteachers were murdered on their way to work in 1997. 

The film ends with a rumor circulating through Sidi Bel-Abbs that Soumicha herself has been murdered by Islamists. Although the rumor proves false, Soumicha is understandably shaken. These events, juxtaposed against the scenes of normal urban bustle through which Soumicha navigates daily, suggest the terror associated with civil war that had gripped the country for the previous 10 years. One realizes there are forces at play that Soumicha, even with her strong social network of loyal clients and female friends, cannot control.

Soumicha and her friends are portrayed as women fully engaged with life, ideas, families and work, but living under a perpetual shadow of threatening violence. Such dark tones do not underlie “Iranian Journey,” another recent documentary about a woman driver. This film, directed by Maysoon Pachachi, follows Masoumeh Soltan Bolghie, the only long-distance female bus driver in Iran, on a 22-hour trip from Tehran, where she lives with her husband and children, to Bandar Abbas on the Persian Gulf. Bolghie gave up a career in nursing and took up bus driving when her husband had a heart attack. Now that he has recovered, they work together as a team, relieving each other as drivers on the long-distance trips.

Filmed 20 years after the Islamic Revolution in Iran, “Iranian Journey” portrays a different kind of historical experience than we saw in “A Female Cabby.” Rather than offering a portrait of a strong woman surviving under conditions of civil war and gendered violence, the film works to dispel Western stereotypes of the muted and oppressed Muslim woman. Here, we learn not only of the anomalous female bus driver who is the subject of the film, but also of an established medical school in Qom which enrolls 1,000 women students. We hear the dreams of Bolghie’s teenage daughters who aspire to careers in law and filmmaking.

Like “A Female Cabby,” “Iranian Journey” focuses on personal relationships. However, whereas the former shows us Soumicha’s close-knit group of female friends and the warmth and support they provide one another, the latter shows us Bolghie’s relationship with her husband and driving partner. We see them in companionable silence and in conversation, exuding mutual affection and respect. Their interactions further belie the stereotype of the Muslim women as submissive and subservient to their husbands under Iranian patriarchy.

More than anything, however, “Iranian Journey” is a road trip. The film takes us on Bolghie’s bus through Qom, Kashan, Kerman, Yazd and finally Bandar Abbas, and with each stop, the director gives us a glimpse of the town. We learn of the women’s medical college and carpet-weaving in Qom, of the production of rosewater in Kashan, of traditional white-smithing as well as embroidery in Kerman, of Zoroastrianism in Yazd and of the fishing and oil industry in Bandar Abbas. 

The director intersperses the town vignettes with interviewing Bolghie’s passengers on the bus and in roadside rest stops, and also leisurely shots of the starkly stunning countryside through which the bus travels. As is the case in Pachachi’s other documentaries (“Voices from Gaza,” 1989; “Iraqi Women – Voices from Exile,” 1994; and “Living with the Past,” 2001), “Iranian Journey” focuses on the everyday activities of ordinary people to impart a sense of the social and political realities of a given place and time.

Soumicha (we never learn her full name) and Masoumeh Soltan Bolghie have much in common. Both are mothers who come to driving as a result of a family crisis. Both are Muslims (wearing headscarves and loose modest clothes) who are interested not so much in confrontation with socially conservative forces in their respective societies as they are with gently pushing the boundaries that affect their daily lives.

Of course, there are important differences between the two: Bolghie, trained as a nurse, had another means of supporting herself, one that in Iran is traditionally more acceptable for women. Moreover, Bolghie is not a widow, and we understand that her decision to continue working as a long-distance bus driver after her husband’s recovery is one based more on personal choice than on economic necessity. 

The main difference between the two films, however, remains their settings. In Iran, 20 years after the revolution and within the context of Islamic law and tradition, women are shown to be successfully challenging restrictions on their lives. Algeria, however, is still in the throes of an unresolved civil war, and the director has shown that 10 years of political violence has infringed on the rights and freedoms not just of women, but of Algerians in general.

This review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 12, nos. 54/55 (Winter/Spring 2006)

Copyright (c) 2006 by Al Jadid

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