Arab women and the ‘big screen’

Sophie Ghaziri
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In the Middle East, many women are still struggling to find their voice in society in order to obtain the respect they deserve politically, culturally and socially.

Arab women are suffocated by tradition, religion and lack of representation. Yet self-expression can take shape in many ways and some have found an outlet through a myriad of art forms.

It's no wonder that movie making with its power to reach such a wide audience is now used to bring about political and social awareness.

Sophie Ghaziri

Such women are reaching out across a spectrum of generations through their creativity in film making. Inspired by the surge of female directors, young women are taking up film and script writing to highlight the challenges that plague them as Arab women.

If we think about it, females have practiced storytelling for generations as they relay social values and morals through a bedtime story to their children or round a campfire.

The art of story-telling is the medium through which knowledge and history has been passed down through centuries. It's no wonder that movie making with its power to reach such a wide audience is now used to bring about political and social awareness.

Nadine Labaki, a Lebanese director, incorporates the challenges that women face in her home country into all of her films. She indirectly – and sometimes directly – points to sexualized violence, gender inequality and the inane fact that most women in the Middle East are slaves to their environment, society and culture. She attempts to raise the point that women have the right to stand up for what is truly theirs.

Through the cinema lens

Labaki’s movies unfold physically, psychologically and distinctly, in a feminine space. However, she doesn’t necessarily see herself as a ‘feminist’ but rather a ‘humanist’ bringing the plight of women to the forefront of everyone’s mind in an amusing and provocative fashion.

Labaki told the New Yorker “I have learned to do what I want without hurting anyone.”

Women in Lebanon are under the impression that they are liberated, but this is due to the materialistic culture driving the country (lavish nightlife, plastic surgery, the latest gadgets, sexy celebrities and freedom to dress as they choose). the reality is that they are simply conforming to what they believe MEN want.

Lebanese women’s rights are not actually being addressed. Females are severely underrepresented politically and the Lebanese parliament has recently rejected a law criminalizing domestic violence which includes marital rape. Lebanese women are not even at liberty to pass on their nationality to their children. Therefore, it's fair to deduce that women's liberation in Lebanon is actually a cosmetic façade.

Labaki portrays the struggle of the individual woman in search of her independence, while battling against this superficiality which dominates Lebanese society.

On the other side of the spectrum, in Iran, women do not enjoy the same freedom that Lebanese women tend to relish. One leading female film director by the name of Pouran Derakhshandeh, however, has proven herself bold enough to tackle difficult and taboo subjects such as women’s rights through the cinema lens.

“In looking at women, we should pay attention to their position, to their presence, not to their gender. A woman is not a tool, she is a human being with an elevated attitude” she told the Associated Press.

This echo’s Labaki’s way of thinking by not running the feminist route but discussing and portraying the plight of women through a humanist perspective.

“I don’t believe in such separation between men and women. I mostly value human beings and their dignity,” said Derakhshandeh.

Another film director, Hanan Abdallah, from an Egyptian background but born and raised in the United Kingdom, also looks to shed light on women as human beings in search of respect and their right to equally exist among men in the Middle East.

Hanan concentrated her latest film on the changes in Egypt during the 2011 revolution through a series of intimate conversations with four women from different cultural backgrounds and generations in their pursuit to determine their own desires.

She highlights the pressing issues of family, marriage, divorce and domestic violence.

“The main obstacle I faced was approaching the subject matter of women’s needs in the aftermath of the revolution,” she told the Doha Tribeca Film Festival in 2012.

She added, that while making this movie, she was reminded of how women’s limits lie in the structures and beliefs that hold them back; the frustration, the longing, the triumphs and the inconsistencies of being a woman in Egypt.

Women in the Arab world are simply looking to obtain their dignity and worth in a culture that has taken their rights and freedoms. Arab women filmmakers are just starting to bridge the gap between genders by expressing themselves through artistic licenses. A gap which is widely known to all in the region. We can only hope that success will be fruitful and imminent. Those who fight for what they truly believe in will always make an impact, no matter on what scale; it is the only way forward.

Sophie Ghaziri is a Shift Editor at Al Arabiya English. She has previously worked as a producer, presenter and a writer at the BBC, Al Jazeera and she was Head of English at Future News in Lebanon for 2 years. She can be followed on Twitter on: @sophieghaziri

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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