“Prison is not just a high fence and a locked door. Prison can be in a piece of clothing you don't want to wear, people you don't want to see, a job you hate. Prison is feeling broken and oppressed.”
These words spoken by Segn Al-Nesa protagonist Ghalia (played by Nelly Karim) perhaps best summarise the core of current Egyptian society and the issues facing it – which is just what the series portrays throughout its happenings.
Over the past two decades or so, Ramadan has become increasingly associated with a plethora of television series. However, few works stand out every year as enjoying high artistic quality, depth of research and brilliant performances by its actors.
This year, Segn Al-Nesa (Women's Prison) is definitely one such work. Directed by Kamla Abu Zekry, with a screenplay by Mariam Nawaem -- the same duo who transformed Sonallah Ibrahim's 1992 novel Zaat into one of last Ramadan's most critically acclaimed productions -- Segn Al-Nesa is based on a theatre play by the late feminist writer Fatheya El-Assal.
Segn Al-Nesa derives its content from real stories of prisoners and wardresses. The series is shot in the Qanater Prison, with the scenes in the wardresses' houses shot in Haret Al-Sagganat (Wardresses' Alley) in which they receive government housing. This has enabled the cast and crew to deal with the real-life characters that inspired this production and portray the story in an evocative way.
The characters are well rounded and believable; they surprise the viewers with how easy it is to relate to them.
While Segn Al-Nesa has been causing some stir – with some saying it is deliberately showing women and, more particularly, wardresses in a bad light – the crew maintain that some elements were dramatised for the sake of the story, as indicated by a disclaimer starting the 14th episode.
The first episode of Segn Al-Nesa kicks off with archival footage of Jean-Michel Jarre's millennium concert held on 31 December 1999 at the Giza plateau, giving viewers a clear temporary indication. We then find Ghalia and a group of women, all dressed in black, mourning her mother who died suddenly.
It is the death of the mother, a wardress at the Qanater Prison for Women, that forces Ghalia to abandon her current profession as a seamstress in a factory -- which she was passionate about expanding into her own business -- and take on the seemingly daunting job at the prison; she must, if she is to retain the state-sponsored apartment in the wardress' neighbourhood where she lives.
Her mother's neighbour, colleague and friend Intessar (Salwa Othman) walks her through the prison where viewers get a tour of the different wards and secondary characters that are to appear throughout the series. From the drug wards, encompassing large-scale drug lords and mere distributors, to the public embezzlement ward where high society women stridently demand disinfectants, to the fun and daring prostitution ward, Ghalia is overwhelmed with her new life, although her kind nature soon enough gives her friends in all the different wards.
Like most of the scenes in Segn Al-Nesa, this one creates a series of images allowing viewers to enjoy the story visually. Since the events are heavy, Segn Al-Nesa takes on a slow pace in each episode. This pace, however, does not take away from the work as it allows for the carefully crafted imagery to speak for the characters and the plot.
In this female dominated series, one male character, Saber -- portrayed by Ahmed Dawoud -- has an important role. Saber is Ghalia's lover, a charming and persuasive microbus driver who promises her marriage. However, he continuously cheats on her and extracts every penny that she owns.
Through Saber, the scriptwriter represents numerous men in contemporary Egyptian society, where more than 30 percent of household breadwinners are now women. Saber spends his wife's money on drugs and women. Ghalia's love for him blinds her from seeing all the indications pointing to the fact that he will eventually lead to her doom.
Dawoud's acting is sincere and manages to prompt viewers to utterly despise his character as he shifts smoothly from a “poor-me” drama to a sturdy and psychologically abusive husband.
A number of secondary threads intercalate Ghalia's story, revealing a multitude of narratives that lead several women to prison -- all of them victims of society pushed into their crimes.
Dalal, played by Dorra, is a young woman from a low-income family who supports her mother and two sisters. Behind her mother's back, she joins her aunt and cousins into prostitution. While she does not engage in sexual activities, she makes money from frequenting bars and cabarets with her cousin's clients. When she decides to leave this life behind and get married, greed and consumerism lure her back into that world until she ends up in jail.
When she vows to leave prison and set matters straight with her family and ex-husband, she is rejected by both and falls back into prostitution -- a fate which would have been different had she lived in a society that did not value a woman's chastity over her salvation from past mistakes.
The prison offers a refuge for many of the prisoners. A colourful, lively and dependable inmate throughout her stay in prison, the character of Zeinat (Nesreen Amin) leaves the prison and continues to prostitute herself for LE20 ($3). The actress captures the gloom that overtakes her character once she leaves the prison so well that she seems to be delivering two separate performances of the same character.
Another character worth mentioning is Hayat (Donia Maher), a working mother with two young children, who takes Ghalia's job at the sewing factory. Hayat suffers from an obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), a condition that her mother and husband do not understand.
Segn Al-Nesa is characterised by its luring scenes, many of which were unsteady cam or filmed from behind an object to give viewers the sense that they are spying on these women's lives. In one of the most memorable scenes, we see Hayat shot from a low perspective, with the sun glaring in the background, cooking dinner for her family. As she stirs the tomato sauce for the staple Egyptian koshari, we see her add a white powder – poison – in large quantity, while her children play cheerfully in the background. Hayat murdered her entire family to protect them from the harassment and injustice she is faced with everyday.
Another marvelous story is that of Reda, played surprisingly well by pop-singer and actress Ruby, who was famous in the early 2000s for her daring music videos. Reda, who comes from a small village in Sharqiya, is sent to Cairo by her family to become a domestic worker in a high society household.
After having been wrongfully accused of theft, she leaves the household and goes to work for a new family. Although the new family is warm and loving, and treat Reda with respect, they are not devoid of the classism that characterises Egyptian society.
Segn Al-Nesa touches upon many social issues particularly faced by women: from the pressures of work, to sexual harassment in public spaces and the struggles they face within their marriages. The cast and crew managed to weave these and many more ills into a powerful story, glorious imagery and impeccable performances. While many might feel the series' events are too slow, with some patience, everyone can manage to enjoy the sneak-peak inside the Qanater Prison.