Egyptian directors show abortion, harassment, FGM in novel ways

Rowan El Shimi, Monday 8 Dec 2014

Three shorts by three female Egyptian directors on abortion, sexual harassment and female genital mutilation at the Cairo International Women's Film Festival

Still from Nada Moheeb's film Roar

As the seventh edition of the Cairo International Women's Film Festival came to a close on 4 December, three Egyptian directors presented three very different films that tackled issues women face in Egypt – but in entirely new ways.

Sarah Mourad showed a short narrative film titled Quietly that discussed abortion, Nada Moheeb's three-minute animation film Roar took on sexual harassment, while May El-Hossamy's short documentary In the Name of Tradition tackled female genital mutilation (FGM).

Mourad's debut film already took first prize in the Arab Women Filmmakers section at the Baghdad International Film Festival. The film is set almost entirely in an upper-middle class apartment owned by a young couple. The female protagonist finds out she is pregnant and feels trapped in an unhappy marriage.

The director manages in merely 10 minutes to convey the loneliness she feels. Using minimal dialogue and focusing on talented actress Samia Asaad's soulful expressions, we are able to see how she is emotionally disconnected from the idea of being a mother in her marital situation.

Despite great camera work and tying the couple's situation with present day politics via their television habits, the film does little to give the characters depth.

On the other hand, Moheeb's animation film Roar gives much of this needed context, despite having no dialogue. The film's one line style animation starts with a girl getting ready to go out as she ruffles through her wardrobe for something suitable to wear on Cairo's streets.

As she walks through the city, she is met with stares, cat-calling and groping. Her initial fear then turns into intense – perhaps even over the top – violence towards her male aggressors.

Moheeb manages to capture this instance, which probably happens to each and every woman in Egypt, where her fear turns into hurt and then to anger. The anger finally turns into day-dreams of murder and castration.

This is understandable given that over 80 percent of Egyptian women experience sexual harassment on a daily basis, according to a 2009 study by the Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights. However, this film – released a few years after the study – shows that the situation has become critical and that society needs to solve this issue before these day-dreams become our new bloody reality.

While Roar and Quietly tackled their issues in interesting ways, it was perhaps El-Hossamy's In the Name of Tradition that went the deepest with its take on FGM, in spite of not even being about Egypt.

El-Hossamy finished the film while attending a documentary workshop in Paris, so the film is in French and set in Paris. The director brings the issue of FGM beyond the scope of focus of Egypt, and contextualises it within questions of gender power dynamics and the commercialisation of women all over the world.

"I was inspired by the sex shops [in Paris]," El-Hossamy says, explaining that these shops were so focused on women's rights to sexual pleasure. In the film, she mentions how for her, these shops and the commercialisation of women's bodies and sexuality is not what sexual liberty is about.

She interviews an artist on how the Chinese ancient religion and tradition of Taoism makes women's pleasure a sacred endeavour. The artist speaks of the beauty of the sacred union between women and man, and the universal power comes as a result. We are then confronted by a woman from Mali telling her story tragic on how she was mutilated as a young girl.

The contrast between the two interviews fits perfectly with El-Hossamy's narration, where she shares her own research and thoughts on the issue of sexuality and how FGM is related to power and supremacy in a male-dominated world.

The film as a whole then becomes an eloquent representation of the grim reality of female sexuality around the world, showing its freedom, its commercialisation and its suppression.

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