The Woyingi Blog

Documentary Review: These Girls by Tahani Rached (Egypt)

Title: These Girls

Director: Tahani Rached

Year: 2006

Country: Egypt, Cairo

Language: Arabic

Genre: Documentary

These Girls by Egyptian Canadian filmmaker Tahani Rached is an intimate portrait of the lives of several street-involved girls in Cairo who range in age from 10 to 22. The film opens with a shot of a teenage girl in jeans and a t-shirt riding a horse in the middle of day time downtown Cairo traffic. The girl riding the horse is named Fatma, but her nickname is Tata. Tata is really the star of this film. She is a vibrant, obnoxious bad-ass who makes it clear that she will fight with whoever gets in her way or threatens her friends. She doesn’t care if it’s police or a father dead-set on committing an honour-killing. All the girls in Rached’s film are tough and sometimes downright brazen in their assertions that they can defend themselves against violence with violence. And violence is a daily reality of their lives on the streets. The girls face violence from each other, their parents, the police, and particuarly men who want to rape them. The girls live with the constant threat of being kipnapped and gang raped and share stories of girls being taken and held captive for days by men who have dragged them off the street.

A lot of the violence these girls face is similar to what street-involved youth around the world, and even here in Canada face. A significant difference is that if these girls become pregnant out of wedlock, they face the possibility that a member of their family might hunt them down and kill them in order to maintain the family’s honour. Abeer, who doesn’t know who the father of her baby is because she was gang raped, ends up having to hide from her father, who Tata attacks with a razor to protect her friend. Abeer’s baby is born without a birth certificate because Abeer can’t produce a marriage contract indicating who the father is.

Abeer’s situation is one of the many problems the girls face that Abla Hind, a middle-class woman who, desipite not being a social worker (she states she only has a dipolma in tourism), is in many ways an important support for the girls and someone they turn to for advise when they are in trouble.  Hind’s relationship with the girls is quite fascinating and she admits that she feels she needs them more than they need her. The girls are clearly struggling with poverty, lack of family support, and violence much of which they try to cope with by smoking joints, sniffing glue, and popping pills. But it is clear that they love and support one another and so have become a make-shift family. Although the film is heartbreaking, the girls’ fiereness and resilience is inspirational.

However, as with many documentaries of this type, I had the sense of being a voyeur and wondering if, even unintentionally, if documentaries like this are not unavoidably exploitational unless they are used to concretely address the social problems they depict. As Jennie Jediny writes in her review of the film:

These Girls is a nauseating experience, and understandably so — these women appear not only powerless, but destined for an inevitably short and miserable life. They live in poverty, have little chance of escaping the street and give birth to children who are recognized by neither the state nor their families. Rached doesn’t avoid this reality — by the end of the film, many of the girls have admitted they are relentlessly sad and depressed, and that their laughter comes from a very hollow place — but she backtracks too often to a false sense of hope. Perhaps it’s easy to see the girls’ bond with each other as encouraging or as a symbol of unity, but it is also rather inevitable that a connection will be made between people forced into any particular situation, whether positive or negative. The repeated shots of Tata, one of the strongest personalities, riding in the Cairo streets on a stolen horse, is not necessarily an image of joy or freedom, but rather the very lack of it.

The subject matter documented in These Girls is undeniably crucial, and Rached’s effort at not only finding these girls, but also gaining their trust and their stories is commendable. What remains in question is her ability to convey not only the dire situation of these women, but also the political implications involved in presenting a cultural issue that affects women on a global level. While the women in Rached’s documentary had my complete attention, I had not so much the feeling of participating in a dialogue as that unfortunate tendency of not being able to avert my eyes from a car wreck.

As someone who works in the social services field with Arab girls and young women struggling with issues of violence, I found the film educational and quite relevant to my work. But I also understand where Jenny is coming from in her review. However, as the film was produced by Studio Masr, an Egyptian company, I feel that the target audience is Egyptians and the filmmakers’ intent is to humanize Cairene street girls in their eyes. As Tahani explains in a 2007 interview about the film:

Because I meet these girls in the streets like everyone else in Egypt does and I see them, I wanted to decode their private world and I started to prepare for that movie from 1997 and began filming in 2004. It was produced by Studio Misr.

Prior to the filming I did a field study with the production group that lasted for six months in order to build trust between us and the street girls. Through them I came to know a lot about the charity organizations that provide for them as well as the psychological support they receive through organizations such as Amal (Hope) to which Abla Hind was one of its members. She is featured in the film with her compassionate personality radiating love and humanity; she assumes the multiple roles of friend, surrogate mother and gives them all the love that they have missed.

In my mind, I wanted the viewer to interact with the girls, to come to love them and empathize with their down-trodden condition. These girls live hard lives; they are victims to circumstances such as broken families which they escaped from the moment they could get a chance.

After that another set of circumstances spirals into effect and that is the oppression of society to these girls and we are all responsible for that. In a sense, they are victims of a society that also suffers from poverty and need, a society where making a living has become difficult as is the preservation of one’s humanity and dignity.

Unfortunately, because of the girls use of “bad language” in the film, it was banned in Egyptian cinemas. But Tahani felt that she should not have been expected to censor the girls’ speech. She explains:

When I shoot a documentary, a realistic film, I cannot ask the girls to speak in a limited vocabulary, these are words we hear on the streets every day. I believe that reality and truth should be exposed without any intervention or censorship. I am happy that my film is being shown in festivals and various cultural centers throughout this country which proves that there are venues and other possible options to show the movie apart from the commercial outlets.

In the same interview, Tahani reflects on the girls’ plight and what is needed to improve their lives.

Personally, what they lack is love; these girls need love and warmth such as one would find in the character of Abla Hind; she does not attempt to change the circumstances of these girls and offers pragmatic advice. These homes and welfare organizations should basically change the way they operate; they also need funding from the government and support from society at large beyond the mere slogans. Each one of us should reconsider the way we treat these girls; the film screams to solve their problem.

These Girls has won critical acclaim and made the official selection of the Cannes Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival, and New York Film Festival.

Director Tahani Rached was born in Egypt in but settled in Quebec in 1966. She worked as a National Film Board of Canada staff filmmaker form 1980 to 2004. Rached never studied film but learned by doing with the support of other filmmakers.

Further Reading:

Review of These Girls in Slant Magazine available online

Review of These Girls in Al Ahram Weekly Online available online

Interview (2012) with Tahani Rached by Mai Serhan available online

Interview (2007) with Tahani Rached by Nelly Youssef available online

Essay Review: Women in Egypt by Angela Davis

Posted in African American Feminists, Angela Davis, Countries: Egypt, Egyptian Feminists, Essays, Reviews by the woyingi blogger on September 10, 2010

I have recently reread the essay Women in Egypt by Angela Davis, which is available in her essay collection Women, Culture and Politics. The article was originally written in 1985 and published in Women: A World Report.

This essay is an account of Davis’ trip to Egypt and the discussions with women’s rights activists in the country. It also includes her reflections on how to work in solidarity with women’s movements in developing countries without succumbing to the sensationalism, paternalism, and sometimes downright racism of Western feminist movements that claim to want to “liberate” and “save” women in developing countries from their sexist male counterparts. Western feminists often do this without knowing much about the societies in question and not taking into consideration the dignity and agency of the women they claim they want to help. As Davis writes:

When I initially agreed to travel to Egypt for the purpose of documenting my experiences with women there, I did not yet know that the sponsors of this project expected me to focus specifically on issues relating to the sexual dimension of women’s pursuit of equality. I was not aware, for example, that the practice of clitoridectomy was among the issues I would be asked to discuss. Since I was very much aware of the passionate debate still raging within international women’s circles around the efforts of some Western feminists to lead a crusade against female circumcision in African and Arab countries, once I was informed about the particular emphasis of my visit, I seriously reconsidered proceeding with the project.

As an Afro-American woman familiar with the sometimes hidden dynamics of racism, I had previously questioned they myopic concentration on female circumcision in U. S. feminist literature on African women. The insinuation seems frequently to be made that the women in the twenty or so countries where this outmoded and dangerous practice occurs would magically ascend to a state of equality once they managed to throw off the fetters of genital mutilation or rather , once white Western feminists (whose appeals often suggest that this is the contemporary “white women’s burden”) accomplished this for them. (Davis pages 117-118)

It is important for those reading this essay to know that Angela Davis is politically positioned on the left and so most of her encounters are with Egyptian women who are also politically on the left. However, Davis is very frank about the fact that she is meeting mostly with women who are from the socio-economically privileged and urban classes and regrets that time and language barriers do not permit her to connect more with peasant and working class Egyptian women.  Just as Western societies are complex so are non-Western societies, so assuming that the perspectives of the most privileged of a society are the norm is counterintuitive.

Davis has an opportunity to meet with several of Egypt’s prominent progressive intellectuals and writers such as Sherif Hetata, husband of Egyptian Feminist, novelist and founder of the Arab Women’s Solidary Association (AWSA), Nawal el Saadawi; artist Inji Eflatoon, one of Egypt’s first socialist feminists to link gender and class oppression, who we learn has painted a portrait of Davis; Dr. Latifa al Zayyat, who wrote the acclaimed novel Open Door (that was turned into a film starring the legendary Egyptian actress Faten Hamama (ex-wife of the more internationally renowned Egyptian actor Omar Sharif-he converted to Islam in order to marry her); Fathia al Assal, one of Egypt’s first female playwrights and head of the Progressive Women’s Union.

Davis emphasizes the economic oppression experienced by Egypt’s women, particularly after Sadat’s reforms to Egypt’s economy moving it from Nasserite socialism to free market capitalism. This has resulted in increased unemployment in Egypt. This process was called Infitah. As Al-Ali explains:

Infitah not only constituted the declared economic policy of privatization and open markets, but its laissez faire undertone also extended into the realm of the government, administration, migration, foreign policy etc. (Ayubi, 1991). In other words, infitah did not exclusively refer to economic liberalization, but also entailed a neoliberal reform of the state sector and a realignment of international alliances, that is, a rapprochement with the United States.  

As Davis and most of the Egyptian women she interviews are Marxists, they constantly link Egyptian women’s oppression to Sadat’s economic liberalization and the forces of global capitalism. For readers who are sympathetic to Marxism this connection might seem forced. However, I recommend the readers reflect on the fact that several Middle Eastern countries that are well-integrated into global capitalism and have strong ties to the United States are also incredibly behind in terms of women’s rights, for example Saudi Arabia, where women are not permited to drive, and Kuwait where women only got the right to vote in the last few years. Capitalism and close political ties to the West do not equal women’s empowerment or liberation.

Davis and the women she encounters also see that sexual liberation does not automatically equal women’s liberation. Davis reflects on the West’s sexual revolution due to the availability of The Pill and how although this made it easier for women to control their reproductive health it did not necessary create equal romantic relationships. Davis reminds Western readers that women in the West still face many barriers and this is humbling and helps the reader see the Egyptian women Davis writes about as equals who we can learn from and not victims to be pitied.  I think we in the West need to consider the ways in which sexual liberation without real political and socio-economic liberation for women have actually put women at a disadvantaged and played into patriarchy.

It is clear that it is impossible to focus on Egyptian women’s sexual oppression without addressing their socio-economic and political oppression. The fact that several of the women activists Davis interviewed had been imprisoned under Sadat for their political dissidence makes it quite clear that women’s oppression in Egypt goes beyond sexual oppression based on religious fundamentalism.

Angela Davis was visiting Egyptian women activists during a pivotal moment, as it was during the 1980s that women’s organizations developed out of politically leftist organizations in Egypt. As Al-Ali writes:

In an article on feminist activism in the 1980’s, Akram Khater argues that the movement was divided into two main camps: Nawal El-Sa’dawi and the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association (AWSA) on one hand, and Fathia Al-Assal, the head of the Progressive Women.s Union, on the other (Khater, 1987). However, the narratives of several women activists involved in forming a coalition at the time provide evidence of a much broader spectrum and more diversified movement than that described by Khater. The coalition called Committee for the Defence of the Rights of the Woman and the Family consisted of leftists, Nasserists, Wafdists, enlightened Islamists, women from the Arab Lawyers. Union, AWSA and other interested individuals (Hi-jab, 1988). The committee included mainly party affiliates and independent organizations, while charity groups have been increasingly absorbed into the growing NGO movement.

She continues:

The very act of forming the emergency coalition, when the constitutionality of the Personal Status Law was challenged in 1985, represented a break from prevalent nationalist- and liberal-modernist discourses in Egypt that only focused on women’s rights in the public sphere as part of creating new societies. (Hatem, 1993:42).

Davis was visiting Egypt at a great moment for observing Egyptian women’s political engagement on women’s rights issues. The resistance of Islamist social and political forces to the amended Personal Status Law, which manifested into a challenge to the amended laws constitutionality, created an opportunity for Egyptian women’s rights activists to directly challenge women’s oppression in the private sphere. The Egyptian Personal Status Law had been amended officially in 1979, the first major amendment and revision since 1929. As Al-Ali explains:

Under the influence of the president’s wife, Jehan Sadat, reform of the Personal Status Law (governing marriage, divorce, custody, etc.) was proposed. The reformed law, labelled Jehan’s Law, granted women legal rights in marriage, polygamy, divorce and child custody; it was implemented in 1979 by presidential decree along with another law that introduced changes to women’s representation in parliament.

In 1985, women’s rights activists had to fight to maintain these amendments as the Mubarak government was being pressured to scrap the amendments due to the Islamists’ challenge to its constitutionality. Egyptian women’s rights activists would end up winning this battle as Al-Ali explains:

The early years of the Mubarak regime were characterized by a search for stabilization and consolidation. In 1985, the Personal Status Law, which had been at the centre of the debate on the state.s legitimacy, was amended due to strong opposition from the Islamists who perceived it to be anti-Islamic. The revised law abandoned many of the rights that women had attained in the earlier version (Bibars, 1987). A strong women’s lobby used the 1985 Nairobi Conference.marking the end of the decade for Women.to protest and pressure the government to refor-mulate the law. Two months after its cancellation (just prior to the Nairobi Conference), a new law was passed that restored some of the benefits the 1979 version had provided.

Unfortunately, it would take the death of 12 year old Badour Shaker during her circumcision at the hands of a doctor for Egypt to offically ban female circumcision in 2007.

This essay is a great introduction to the secular leftist Egyptian women’s movement in the mid-80s and give interested readers some direction in pursuing further studies into Egyptian and Middle Eastern women’s movements.

The Woyingi Blogger’s Personal Reflections:

As a veiled practicing Muslim woman, the only real difficulty I had with Angela Davis’ essay was the dismissal of women’s engagement in religious leadership as a way of promoting women’s rights. I believe the fact that Davis and the activists she most closely identifies with are working from secular ideologies is a barrier to them truly engaging with the diversity of Egyptian women. (It is important to note that Egypt does not only have Muslims, although they are the majority. There are also Christians and Baha’is. Egypt also used to have a significant Jewish community but with the escalation of antagonism between Egypt and Israel, many Egyptian Jews were forced to leave Egypt.) Although Davis and her Egyptian counterparts connect the wearing of the veil/hijab with middle and upper class conformity because they observe that many peasant and working class women do not veil, they seem to underestimate their own class privilege and its influence on how they perceive the veil. My own personal experience with Egyptian and other women and men from Muslim majority countries has been somewhat challenging as they often equate my wearing of the veil with ignorance, lack of education, and lack of career ambition. Davis, through how she recounts her exchanges with veiled students, seems to connect wearing of the veil with a desire to stay at home and not work. I don’t agree with this and I don’t believe that the achievements of veiled Muslim women in academics and various careers around the world supports such a connection.

That said, there are obvious limits that taking a religiously based approach to Muslim women’s rights will impose and many of these limits cannot be tolerated in a truly free society. For example, an issue that has arisen in several Middle Eastern countries, most notably Lebanon, is a Muslim woman’s right to marry someone outside her faith. This is forbidden in Islamic Law, however it is a reality that women are doing this. Only a secular approach could address a reality like this. However, with the issue of female circumcision Islam can and has been useful in its eradication, particularly in Muslim diaspora communities. For example, when members of the Somali communities began to immigrate and meet other Muslims from countries where female circumcision is not practice it became clear that the practice was not religious but cultural and therefore not a requirement. I must note that female circumcision is not only practiced by Muslims but also by several other non-Muslim communities in Africa such as the Kikuyu of Kenya.

The veil is not inherently oppressive I believe. However, it is not inherently liberating either as some Muslim women have attested. I believe that the symbolic significance of wearing the veil changes based on one’s national, political, social, and economic context. As a Muslim woman living as a suspect minority in the West, my wearing of the veil could be interpreted as a form of resistance against Islamophobia and the pressures of Western conformity. However, if I were living in a country in which the veil was mandatory and one was forced to wear it by the government, this would not be the case.

Further Reading:

The Women’s Movement in Egypt with Selected References to Turkey by Nadje S. Al-Ali (study available online)

Feminism in a nationalist century by Margot Badran  (article available online surveying the Egyptian women’s movement over the 20th Century)

Website of the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association (AWSA)

The Hidden Face of Eve by Nawal El Saadawi

Daughter of Isis: an Autobiography by Nawal El Saadawi, translated by Sherif Hetata

Women and Gender in Islam by Leila Ahmed

A Border Passage  by Leila Ahmed (Memoir) Excerpt available online, Penguin Reading Guide available online

Western Eurocentrism and Perceptions of the Harem by Leila Ahmed (Essay available online)

Review of  Latifa al-Zayyat The Open Door by Al Ahram Weekly available online

Website dedicated to the life and work of Latifa al-Zayyat

Khul-Khaal: Five Egyptian Women Tell Their Stories by Nayra Atiya

Check out my page on Egyptian Literature

Website for Women Living Under Muslim Laws

Website for Women’s Islamic Initiative for Spirituality and Equality (WISE)