Single mother: Not me

Rania Khallaf , Sunday 6 Aug 2023

The third part of Nadine Khan’s television series Why Not? was screened earlier this month on the streaming platform Shahid. The trilogy sparked widespread interest in the emotional suffering of single mothers in Egypt, but did it raise awareness of the issue in a way that might actually help such people?

Nadine Khan
Nadine Khan, Second Unit Director or Assistant Director


The burden of financial responsibility combined with the social stigma and being the target of predatory behaviour all make the topic far weightier and more complicated than the series’ focus on the protagonist Nelly aka Sherihan’s son Yassin opposing the idea of her marrying a second time.

This is partly to do with the clear inclination of Sard, the workshop behind the script, headed by Mariam Naoum, to focus on women from the upper echelons of society. Yet even for such single mothers the difficulty of fitting in with married couples or having a serious relationship are fundamental aspects of life the series ignores.

Directed by filmmaker Nadine Khan and starring the megastar Nelly Karim, the 15-episode series has obvious shortcomings despite its enthusiastic reception on social media. Sherihan — a psychology teacher with two teenage children, Yassin and Yasmine — divorced her irresponsible husband early on and raised her two children alone. As of the first episode it is clear that her love life is kept secret for fear of Yassin’s reaction.

The young man, played by Moataz Hisham, is selfish and arrogant, and when he discovers the existence of her lover Karim he is enraged. In a sense the entire series is Sherihan’s attempt to calm him down and persuade him of her right to marry the man she loves.

The children of others in all kinds of arrangements, including open relationships, are not dealt with as much as such issues as mental health and patriarchal society, but the reason behind Yassin’s difficult character remains unclear. Yasmine, brilliantly played by young Farida Ragab, is just the opposite.

She has developed an independent and strong character, but is also isolated from her mother, aunt and grandfather. She seems to represent another kind of divorce victim, having been deprived of the care of her father who lives with his second family in Alexandria as well as discriminated against by her mother who — like most Egyptian mothers — upholds the tradition of privileging the male child.

The number of episodes is only 15, which is a positive new trend in Egyptian television, but the script is not as gripping as the previous two parts (the first starring Amina Khalil and screened in 2020 and the second starring Menna Shalabi and screened in 2021).

Khalil played a young woman who refused an arranged marriage and moved out to live on her own while Shalabi plays an unmarried doctor who decides to adopt a child and face the social consequences (which in Egypt are considerable). Sherihan is less exemplary in that, though a psychologist, she has obviously failed to raise her two children in a positive way or maintain healthy relations with either of them.

The best parts were Sherihan’s well thought out conversations with Karim, played by Ahmed Tarek, and her best friend Noshka, played by Nadine, another divorcee who chooses to live freely without the headache of a stable relationship. But they do not make up for the lack of drama.

Over 15 episodes nothing much happens besides the slow daily routines of a typical middle-class family interspersed by repetitive platitudes along the lines of “you have every right to marry again” and “stop playing the victimised mother.”

Sherihan goes through with her engagement to punish Yassin, but eventually decides to prioritise her children and breaks it off. In an honest scene, it becomes clear that this decision has left her lonely and unhappy.

The closest thing in the series to a dramatic climax is the peak of Yassin’s delinquency, which involves insulting Sherihan and her father, played by the comedian Salah Abdallah, as well as befriending a drug addict named Sherbini (Youssef Omar).

At the same time Karim’s mother (Aida Riyad) does not want him to marry a divorced woman with two children, even though she herself ends up falling in love with and agreeing to marry a widower her age she meets at a summer resort, a trope Sard also utilised in The Seventh Itch even though marriage at that age is extremely uncommon in Egypt.

But perhaps the weakest aspect of Why Not III is how all the conflicts and difficulties in the face of Sherihan’s marriage are smoothly resolved in the last two episodes. Yassin is so transformed he takes his sister out to dinner and actively helps to reconcile his mother and Karim — a ridiculously unconvincing happy ending.

When Karim finally agrees to the “weekend marriage” Sherihan has been suggesting all along, I found myself exclaiming: “How sweet! Isn’t it strange that, as a single mother myself, I have been suffering for 20 years?”

* A version of this article appears in print in the 3 August, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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