As March brings along Women’s Day and Mother’s Day, the Egyptian stage should do its part. But how can we pay tribute to women in a performative culture that has stigmatised women and created clear borders for their representation? One should really ask if the representation of women in Egyptian theatre is still controlled by the patriarchal mentality of our culture and society?
On the whole Egyptian woman stage artists deny that any control is being practiced against them by male artists and artistic leaders, but to what extent do they belong to a patriarchal mentality? This question is seldom asked. Are the female artists truly tackling women’s issues, or are they serving the status quo by recycling the same old stereotypes?
Some Egyptian female theatre makers have the rare stamina to carry on with their special signature style and their issue-oriented topics, like Effat Yehia, Abir Aly and Rasha Abdelmoneim. Others are quickly satisfied by the representation of the seductive woman portrayed as a kind of vampire. One can easily imagine a theatrical landscape of those seductive vampires fighting with the characters of Effat and Abir. Nonetheless the characters presented by those theatre directors will never be part of mainstream theatre, nor of the state theatre concept of female characters and issues.
It seems the theatre world in Egypt is divided into two very different and distinct visions of women as if of two Egypts. In the mid-1990s Salwa Mohamed Aly had already spoken of female genital mutilation, as part of her monologues playing a unique character in Sahraweyya (Desert Women), Effat Yehia’s adaptation of Churchill’s Top Girls. After almost 20 years nobody dares to speak out in the same way.
Effat’s desert women did not only speak out against their oppression and physical abuse, they also spoke out about their fantasies about love and sensuality. They spoke out in their own female and authentic tones, with nothing fake nor forced. Nowadays we miss this natural delivery and this authenticity in the delivery of female actresses. While Effat is still working and creating new work, she does not seem to be invited to the official Egyptian stages. After an exceptional career in theatre making, this one of a kind artist cannot does not occupy the space that she deserves, but is this discrimination against women or against a revolutionary discourse of women?
I must admit I am no fan of statistics of how many women are directing in state theatre nowadays or the critical topics they are dealing with, but I have no doubt that such statistics would reveal glaring inequalities in representation. Besides the two eternal roles of the sacred mother who sacrifices everything for her family and the docile virgin who falls in love with and keeps chasing the hero, the Egyptian stage gives no indication of what Egyptian women are living and the kind of struggles they experience. Neither their hardships within the patriarchal system nor their achievements within professional fields are clear. And while reality offers many examples of other female characters and lives, the Egyptian stage insists on carrying on with an illusionary portrayal of women.
In 2003 Mohamed Abou El-Seoud’s Fedra (directed by the brilliant Hany El-Metennawy and produced by the Hanager Arts Centre) was staged in Jordan at a big regional festival where the performance attracted several critics to discuss the portrayal of the main female character. Abou El-Seoud had written a very powerful monologue that was delivered by the character of Fedra to criticise the marriage institution. The play was significant for all Arab societies and brought a lot of attention to independent theatre in Egypt as a model of criticism. Nobody else had written such a brave criticism of the most sacred social construction in Egypt. It was revolutionary. And the amazingly talented playwright was adopting a feminist perspective that was definitely part of his overall political and social discourse. How far are we now from such discourse in playwriting? How far are we from the rebellion of Saadallah Wanooss?
The Guaranteed Way to Get Rid of Stains by Rasha Abdelmoneim was and remains a violent take on the way patriarchy views female sexuality. A topic that is hardly present on the Egyptian stage, female sexuality is at the core of women’s issues. Yet it is very difficult to find plays that directly deal with this issue. Rasha made the courageous initiative of launching a discussion that unfortunately nobody cared to pursue. Female sexuality is part of female humanity, part of humanity and humanness in general. Female sexuality is part of identity and of being.
Rasha tried to liberate this crucial topic from the taboo that had been encaging it throughout the history of Egyptian theatre, which is full of the demonisation of female sexuality. Nonetheless, Rasha also brought on the necessary aspect of violence which the female character adopts in order to exact vengeance and settle things for herself. The image of the solo female character killing a man during a long scene is a horrifying image that leaves the traditional stage unsettled. Maybe the spectators had made their own balance against the play by condemning the woman, therefore condemning the play itself. In the end Rasha Abdelmoneim managed to present what was deliberately absent from the Egyptian stage. It is a level of courage one has to salute.
In response to the expected commentary about how unnecessary women’s issues are to the Egyptian stage now, considering the other social and economic issues we are surrounded with, I say that women’s issues are always necessary. They form an ideal model of the history of oppression in our society and worldwide, nothing competes with discrimination against women except racism. If we support our female artists and their critical stage discourse, we can be certain that we are supporting change in general and better art and life for everybody.
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