By Tom Dale
Commissioned by UN Women to make a film about women in Egypt, Hanan Abdalla felt the need to tell a story with “a sense of responsibility to two worlds.” It is most important that such a film would speak accurately to an Egyptian audience, but it must also make sense to a Western one.
“In the Shadow of a Man” is simple in form, but moving; by turns sad, funny, raw, and always gentle in its relationship with the four women whose stories it documents.
Wafaa is now retired and living in Cairo. She worked abroad for a long time, including a spell in which she looked after the young Hanan in London. She doesn’t like men, she says, and doesn’t mind letting them know it. Badreya looks after a young family and a farm in Upper Egypt. She once dreamed of joining art school, and life as a painter. Shahinda looks back on a life as an activist. Suzanne runs her own business in Damietta, but periodically travels to Cairo to be involved in the Tahrir Square protests. She also finds time to bat away a string of unsuitable suitors and host an informal salon in her shop where, amongst other things, women discuss life, men and sex.
This “labyrinth of stories,” as Abdalla puts it, speaks well enough for itself. She started off by asking the characters what freedom meant to them, but in the end the answers arose naturally as each recounted the narrative of their lives. The implicit questions behind the film are: In what particular sense are Egyptian women in the shadow of the men around them? What do they need to step out of that shadow?
A comparison of the four women’s lives suggests that answers to these questions can be structured around several themes.
Perhaps the most important of these is work. For Wafaa, work abroad allowed her to escape an abusive husband and a controlling family in Cairo, to forge a life for herself and her child on her own terms. Suzanne found independence through work as well. At one point she was somewhat timid and unconfident in her ability to do things; but, she says, pitching herself into her business toughened her up.
Badreya is not employed, as such, but works at least as hard as Suzanne, both in the home and on the small farm adjoining the house. But as well as generating a meager income, it’s not the sort of work that can provide autonomy from her partner, with whom she argues frequently. It certainly does not allow her the time or money to paint. It’s more than 18 years since her husband got his diploma, and 12 years since she got hers, but neither can find a job.
As Abdalla puts it, “for Badreya, it’s a question of ‘tell me where the jobs are and I’ll work’. It’s not a question of her husband telling her not to work. It starts with — ‘there are no jobs’.”
“The socioeconomic relationship to women’s rights is crucial, in that unless women are integrated into the economic system, they won’t be able to claim their rights and that’s why there has to be a great struggle for the self-determination of Egypt as a whole before there can really be the emancipation of women. That can’t be something that you avoid talking about if you’re talking about the emancipation of women,” she says.
Badreya doesn’t think much has changed since the revolution, except the elections. But then, she didn’t vote. Her cow was giving birth that day.
“None of these stories are particularly extraordinary. They are extremely ordinary. You don’t want to feed into this, ‘women are victims, isn’t it awful to be a woman in the Middle East’ kind of discourse that you can end up getting. They’re fighters as well, so don’t attach this victim complex to them because that’s not accurate. That’s why the socioeconomic factors are important,” says Abdalla.
Often, she adds, figures speaking up for women’s rights in Egypt, such as Hilary Clinton, have undermined their position by also implicitly defending administrations which pursue economic policies deleterious to the jobs-led growth and social justice which may well provide the key to real change.
The shadows made by the men who intrude upon the narrative of the film are in many cases cold and abusive; but this isn’t true for Shahinda, the life-long farmers’ movement activist. Her father brought her up to believe that she was strong, important. Decades after she lost her husband Salah, a leftist intellectual with progressive views on gender who led farm workers demonstrations in the 1960s, she still clearly loves him immensely. Several men proposed marriage when she was young, but she waited until Salah was released from prison. She had a sense of self-worth which allowed her to hold out for someone who would respect her, and who she respected.
“I really believe that if you’re making a documentary, you’re making it to learn from the people who you film, and that’s the way you should approach it,” Abdalla says. For her own part, before she began to make the film, and after the 2011 International Women’s Day March, she felt pessimistic about whether there was any broad support amongst Egyptian women for change. But in making the film, she changed her mind.
“I think through this film you start to realize the consciousness of this injustice does exist. It’s bubbling up now. It’s the genesis of a new consciousness towards women’s rights by the women themselves. There are grassroots struggles that are happening, and are happening in the home, and in breadlines everywhere. And I think I didn’t appreciate those small acts of resistance.”
“In the Shadow of a Man” premiered at the Berlinale film festival in February and will be screening at various other festivals in the near future.
Kamilia, Suzanne and Heba.