Egyptian women’s lives are enriched by the social and economic pressures they have to face on a daily basis; the intimate details of their personal struggles have been beautifully portrayed by young filmmaker Hanan Abdalla, in her first documentary, In the Shadow of a Man.
The film revolves around four distinctly different women from contrasting backgrounds, who talk about their personal lives, marriage and divorce. Each carries the burden of society but nonetheless resists that burden at the same time, whether proactively or within their personal domain.
"I wanted to get women from different age groups, backgrounds and social classes so that viewers would not say that such problems only occur in Cairo or that they happened ages ago," says Abdalla.
Commissioned by UN Women, the film was supposed to include testimonies from a large number of women to be as representative as possible, yet Abdalla defied that concept.
“Early on the editor and I decided that the documentary would be story-led. Initially I was looking for six to seven women."
In the end she settled for four: Badreya from Upper Egypt; Suzanne from Cairo; Shahenda, a political activist and farmers' unionist; and Wafaa, a particularly well-travelled housekeeper from Cairo.
Despite the vast differences between the women, one could feel the same thread running through all their lives: each is a fighter in her own way. “A woman cannot be independent in a country that is not independent. She cannot be effective in a country that is plagued by inefficiency. And she cannot be free in a country that is enslaved. It is impossible to separate the demands of women from social reality," Shahenda Maqlad says in the film. Abdalla could not agree more.
Maqlad, one of the leaders of the farmers’ struggle in Kamshish, a small village in Menoufiya, tells the poignant story of the murder of her husband, the communist activist Salah Hussain, who led the farmers’ mutiny against feudalism only to be killed in 1966. Flipping through old photographs, Maqlad recalls the time when she struggled alongside Hussain with tears in her eyes. Not until the day of his death, she says, did her feelings shift from those of a comrade in arms to those of a woman who has lost her lifelong partner.
A hint of nostalgia is present all through the film, but it is the kind of nostalgia that looks to the future. One of the most interesting scenes was of two women wearing the face veil (niqab) at the store where Suzanne works. Contrary to preconceived Western (and sometimes Egyptian) idea that women wearing niqab are oppressed, they joke around and talk about their views on society and Egyptian men. Their meetings at Suzanne’s store are a form of collective therapy.
"One of the women had very feminist views regarding the niqab," said Abdalla. "I don't necessarily agree with it but the women know their rights. Women's rights are not enforced on a legal level because they are not enforced on a social level. There needs to be a grassroots women's movement." And the signs of such a movement were very apparent after the military crackdown on the sit-in outside the Cabinet, Abdalla points out.
Even though political participation by women was evident in the documentary, Abdalla consciously concentrates on social pressures. "At first I asked general questions like what freedom means to them and naturally I got uninteresting responses. That's why I started asking them personal questions regarding their childhood and marriage," Abdalla said.
It is this approach that makes the documentary so personal.
"I wanted to study fine arts," says Badrya from Upper Egypt, "but then there was marriage and children…" In one of the most heart-wrenching moments in the film, she tells Abdalla how she watches television programmes that feature women suffering in order to reassure herself that some are worse off. "I think Suzanne is the bravest," says Abdalla. “She's a real fighter."
She had been an apathetic citizen prior to the revolution, but was quickly involved in events. By then she had already left her family house for a life of independence, refusing to be married. "My friends are shocked that I’m happier when I'm out of a relationship," she says in the film. "It feels like I could breathe again." Suzanne was engaged six times and she recounts her ordeals, many of which are humorous... Each woman has her own fascinating character and a plethora of stories to tell.
Abdalla is currently editing a second documentary that she co-directed with a fellow activist film maker. The new film features three different women who ran for the parliamentary elections: Bushra El-Semny, who ran on the electoral list of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party; Gamila Ismail, who ran as an independent; and Amal Mamdouh, who ran on the electoral list of the Revolution Continues.
A number of topics are tackled including the low representation of women in Parliament and the relations between revolution and politics: how far each should take dominance.
"Each of the women viewed the situation differently," Abdalla says.
In the Shadow of a Man was screened at the Berlinale Film Festival last February in the Panorama section and is currently showing at the Istanbul Film Festival.