Breaking the Silence

While the stories of the cunning storyteller Sheherazade from One Thousand and One Nights are entertaining, the tales of the modern Sheherazade are painful: at least that how we experience them in a new film "Speak, Sheherazade," which explores various forms of male violence against women. By Nelly Youssef

While the stories of the clever storyteller Scheherazade from One Thousand and One Nights are entertaining, the anecdotes of the modern Scheherazade are painful: so we experience it in the new film "Speak, Scheherazade" which explores various forms of male violence against women. By Nelly Youssef

Movie poster 'Speak, Scheherazade'
Relentless vivisection of Egyptian society: the Egyptian film "Speak, Sheherazade"

​​ As the film opens, the main character awakes from a nightmare in which she is living with her husband in an apartment with no doors; at the end of the film we see her, half beaten to death by her husband, walking with a swollen face to the TV talk show she hosts.

And between these two powerful scenes in the film "Speak, Sheherazade" we learn a good deal more about the hardships and difficulties experienced by Egyptian women.

Even before its release, TV commercials promoting the film provoked fierce debates. They showed the main character, played by Mona Zaki clad only in a short negligee, in a passionate kiss with her husband.

Feeling was so strong that a Facebook group named "It's a Shame About Mona" was formed to deplore the fact that the actress has apparently abandoned her policy of acting only in films with no erotic or indecent scenes.

"In the end everything is political"

Scene 'Speak, Scheherazade'
Talk show hostess Hiba soon realises that there are more similarities between her own marriage crisis and the problems of her female guests than she cares to admit

​​ ,By addressing the extremely sensitive subject of the various forms of physical, psychological, and mental violence perpetrated by men against women, the film itself has added even more fuel to the controversy.

Screenwriter Wahid Hamid and director Youssri Nasrallah tell the story of talk show hostess Hiba Junis, who raises controversial political issues on her late-night talk show. Her behaviour is a thorn in the side of her husband, a journalist hoping for promotion to editor-in-chief.

As the price for his career he faces tremendous pressure from above to stop his wife from discussing politically sensitive topics on her TV show.

In a desperate attempt to save her second marriage Hiba agrees to her husband's demands and begins a series on women's issues, although she is fully aware that even women's issues can raise political questions. She assumes, however, that the programme will not be too controversial. Her husband, on the other hand, warns her with the remark: "In the end everything is political!"

But Hiba certainly never imagined even in her wildest dreams that there would be more similarities between her marriage crisis and the problems of her female guests than she would care to admit.

Intrigues and parallel worlds

There is, for example, the old virgin Amani, a psychiatric patient, who boasts she is still a virgin because she has never found true love. Men have approached her only with conditions – that she wear the veil or hand over her whole salary, for instance.

Then there is Safa, who spent years in prison for murdering her lover. After the death of her father he cheated on her with both of her sisters.

And the physician Nahed, who was arrested after an abortion as she demonstrated alone in public against the man who left her in the lurch when he got a job as a minister.

And Salma, who lives a double life: she doesn't wear a headscarf when she works as a sales-clerk in a perfume shop, but in the afternoon, when she goes back to her part of town, one of the many rapidly growing slums in the big city, she obediently puts on the scarf.

As well as the insights that Hiba offers us on her show with its relentless vivisection of modern Egyptian society, viewers learn more about the life of this conflicted woman herself: her husband tyrannises her, eventually beating her, as he blames her for his failure to be promoted.

Behind the "intellectual veil"

Screenwriter Wahid Hamid told that his film has been criticised because certain powerful decision makers in Egyptian society -so-called "éminence grises" - want to maintain the status quo of women's subordination. The film, however, is intrepid in portraying a new type of modern relationship and exposes the double standard of a society which hides its true face behind an "intellectual veil".

Violence in the movie (photo: Nelly Youssef)
The film is Hamid's call to all modern Sheherazades to rise up against the despotic masters who shamelessly exploit their privileged position as men


The film is Hamid's call to all modern Sheherazades to rise up against the despotic masters who shamelessly exploit their privileged position as men.

Men in particular should render outstanding service through fair, honourable, and moral conduct and not - as unfortunately is too often the case in Egyptian society - primarily through proving their masculinity by despotic behaviour.

The film also clearly shows some of issues surrounding the headscarf. The main character does not normally cover her head, but she feels compelled to do so when on public transportation in order not to attract attention.

Hamid explains that this phenomenon has now escalated to the point that women who do not wear a headscarf feel considerable social pressure to do so.

But he stresses that he doesn't want to to deny women the right to cover themselves; he just does not think it is right to brand women as immoral for not doing so.

Regaining self-esteem

One cannot bargain with religion. This holds true all the more, since, in reality, approximately half of working women like Salma go to their jobs without a headscarf and then put one on when they return to their neighbourhoods.

The film's title, in turn, was deliberately chosen for its allusion to "One Thousand and One Nights". Every story in the classic tale ends with the expression: "And Sheherazade fell silent." With his film, however, Hamid wants to encourage the modern Sheherazade to break her silence. This is the only way she can become emancipated, or at least regain her self-esteem, at a time in which she can be silenced with a reference to "morality", with the tarnishing of her reputation or the like.

What especially appealed to director Youssri Nasrallah about the screenplay is that it is "about people who pull themselves together after devastating defeats." They don't remain stuck in the role of victim, but come out fighting as rebels.

Although many of the events in the film are disturbing, such as the abortion, the murder of the lover, or the scene in which Hiba is beaten, for instance, the effect of the whole is hardly plaintive or depressing.

Nasrallah explains the inner contradiction, the hypocrisy of Egyptian society: in that people here can live a different life from what they propagate with words. For example, in Egypt it is possible to see young veiled women wearing T-shirts that announce: "I love sex".

The effect of the social pressure has been to lead women to wear headscarves in order to escape it. They know that if they wear a headscarf, they will be seen as irreproachably moral. They will avoid being harrassed – but such behaviour inevitably leads to contradictions within the individual instead.

A vicious circle of all-round oppression

Nasrallah points out that the film is by no means hostile to men, but in fact shows how men also suffer as victims of oppression - in their case, from careers, ambition, and the demands of society. Men vent their frustration on women in the form of violence: it's a vicious circle of all-round oppression.

'Scene with Mona Zaki (photo: Nelly Youssef)
Leading actress Mona Zaki (left) points out that although nowadays many laws exist that are favourable to women, many women are still not aware of their rights in everyday life

​​ Leading actress Mona Zaki points out that although nowadays many laws exist that are favourable to women (such as a new quota system for parliament), many women are still not aware of their rights in everyday life.

"Our film speaks to women – it encourages them to approach and speak openly about their problems. I think this is an ideal way to support women's struggle for more emancipation", emphasises Zaki.

Film critic Alaa Taufik, on the other hand, agrees with the criticism about the excessive representation of sexuality in the film: "The film reduces women to their existence as sexual beings. The female protagonists are victims of oppression because they have been seduced into betrayal and sexual acts in the name of what they believe is love".

In this respect the film does women an injustice, and is even a part of the their oppression. It's easy to talk about emancipation, but it's an empty word that does not seriously address the issue, explains Taufik.

Moreover, male dominance and sexuality in society are currently favourite topics among Egyptian directors, because they are politicaly harmless. The government takes no offense, and even favours such subject matter, because it conveys an impression of progressive openness to the West.

Vehement criticism and full-on enthusiasm

Film critic Hazem al-Hadidi holds a very different point of view: The film portrays women's real problems and society's double standard. Indeed, the film's reception suggests that there really is a double standard: on the one hand, it's been vehemently criticised; on the other, people have flocked in droves to the movie theatres, producing box office revenues of more than 15 million Egyptian pounds in only two weeks.

Several female viewers have verified that the film portrays very realistic scenes that they know from their own experience. Women in Middle Eastern societies must subordinate themselves to the will of men, first to that of their father, later to that of their husband.

Whenever they try to free themselves, they are subjected to even greater social pressure: morals and customs or the religious term "sin" are used to discourage behaviour.

Nelly Youssef

© 2009

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