Needing women’s literature that can be turned into film
The depiction of the Arab woman in Arab cinema is not much different from her reality in public life; she is marginalised and erratic. Cinema is the visual story of the 20th century and the 20th century is the story of the rise and fall of women in Arab cinema.
From its beginnings, those involved in Arab cinema knew the importance of women to the medium. A film would not be complete without women.
The first wave of Arab films was aristocratic in spirit. These films were meant for the aristocracy and about the aristocracy. They were loaded with women who served as decor for the hero or the heroine and who were typically elegantly dressed in evening gowns, cigarette in hand and sipping champagne. The heroine always played the role of the desired object and the rest of the female cast had no story to tell. From time to time, we would find the stereotypical character of the stern and domineering mother and that would practically round up the presence of women in the world of the rich and wealthy.
Very quickly, however, the average moviegoer had enough of the world of glamour in films so the film industry injected doses of poverty into their productions. These poor characters generally lived on the fringes of the lives of the rich. In a typical film from this period, there was a poor girl who would fall madly in love with the hero and then usually would give him a painful lesson in morality, after he had jilted her of course.
Next came the wave of populist films of the 1950s and ‘60s. They included plenty of female characters. There was the poor girl who overcomes her social condition, the loving mother and obedient wife who is always cooking for her family, the rural woman victimised by the male-dominated society of her village, et cetera.
Yes, women became more present but only in a limited number of films and that perhaps reflected the limited female presence at the workplace and in positions of responsibility in Arab societies.
With the end of the ‘60s and beginning of 1970s, a new wave of films saw the light in which women were glamorous and playful. The stories took place on the beaches of Alexandria or the streets of Beirut. Our heroines were beautiful and free-spirited but remained marginalised and materialistic and found no problem with being treated as objects. Films of the period were crammed with thinly clad women but were desperately short on women’s issues.
Our journey through history finally reaches the gloomy days of our period. Women were certainly present in the films of the period that focused on the ideological, economic and political convulsions that rocked Arab societies but these female characters had minor roles in the changes being depicted. In fact, female roles regressed from the stereotypical roles of the popular girl or that of the show girl.
Of course, women were present in greater numbers in public life in modern Arab societies and modern Arab cinema reflected that by showing more female characters. The problem, however, is that the image of women being shown reflects the regression towards religious conservatism and isolation that afflicted Arab societies. For example, actresses who are veiled insist on keeping their veils even in scenes in which their character is having a conversation with her husband in the intimacy of their home. And viewers find that normal.
Censors suddenly discovered that they hadn’t censored kissing scenes in the films of the 1950s and ‘60s, so they duly cut them out from the reruns of these films on satellite channels. Yap! The female body is once again taboo in films and television programmes.
In fairness, we must point out that the film industry in some Arab countries did treat important feminist issues in the Arab world. After pressure from the Egyptian first lady, a film came out on the topic of divorce in Egypt. Furthermore, angry female Arab film-makers invaded the male-dominated film industry and gave us a few revenge films.
From time to time, a purely feminist movie from Tunisia or Syria hit the silver screens in the Arab world but, otherwise, we can safely say that there is no Arab cinema devoted to women’s issues. True feminist movies in the Arab world are no more than a handful.
Cinema is always inspired by literature, so let’s ask if there is a feminist literature in the Arab world. There is, in fact, a lot of literature celebrating passion and love but it is all produced by males. A film-maker can hardly be expected to turn that kind of literature into visual drama.
In general, men write about their world but from time to time they write about the world of women. They of course end up describing it through their eyes and not as it really is. Arab cinema has always emulated Western cinema. The problem is that cinema in the West describes women who are completely alien to the East.
The absence of women’s issues in Arab cinema will persist as long as Arab women do not take the initiative of writing about themselves first. It is as if Arab women have chosen to drop a literary veil about their cause similar in many ways to the real veil that has become an icon of our modern times. Without a written profound story first, there won’t be a film worth watching.
Defending women’s causes falls first and foremost on female shoulders. Female writers are the most suited to write about women’s reality especially in societies, that do not mind regressing to the time of harems.