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In the shadow of a man

The documentary by a young Egyptian director explores the lives of four women in Egypt

Director Hanan Abdalla answers questions after a screening of the documentary (Photo by Thoraia Abou Bakr)
Director Hanan Abdalla answers questions after a screening of the documentary
(Photo by Thoraia Abou Bakr)

There is an old saying in Egypt which suggests that being with a man, any man, is better than being alone. The literal translation goes something like this: “A man’s shadow is better than a wall’s shadow”. Hanan Abdalla’s documentary explored the idea by interviewing four women from Egypt, each with her own struggle with society’s archaic concepts.

The film opens up with Badreya, a young woman from the village of Bani Mazar in Minya, who is married and has four children. Her husband does not work even though he has a diploma, and was never appointed in a governmental position. They live on a small farm, where Badreya raises some animals and sells them for profit. She got married at the age of 18, which stopped her from pursuing her dream of studying art. Her father wanted her to enroll in the nursing institute, but her fiancé at the time refused. When asked about the differences in the society since the revolution, Badreya answered: “Almost nothing has changed”.  She could not participate in the 2011 referendum because her cow gave birth on that day.

The second woman is Wafaa, an old woman who was also married at a young age, despite her objection to it. She was forced to take a virginity test by her own mother before her marriage. However, after she gave birth to a daughter, she realised that she did not want to continue with her marriage, she left her home and forced her husband to divorce her. She then started working as a cleaning lady to earn enough to support herself and her daughter. She was able to travel to work in the Gulf and eventually London, where she took up permanent residence. “Divorce is freedom,” she said.

The third woman is Suzanne, from Alexandria, who seems to have problems in reconciling her modern views with the traditional ones she was raised with. She is in her early 30s and remains unmarried. She owns her own business and finds empowerment in being financially independent. As a child, she was sexually harassed by a relative, which forced her to run away from home. When she came back, the rest of her family refused to believe her and so she rebelled.

The fourth woman is a feminist and workers’ rights activist, Shahenda Maklad, who credits her father for being progressive and teaching her independence at a young age. She adopted the issue of workers’ rights at an early age. She fell in love with her cousin and communist activist, Salah Hussein, and married him against her mother’s wishes. Her husband was murdered in 1966, but she continued the fight to this day, and is politically and socially involved. “A woman can’t be free in an enslaved country,” Shahenda said.

The director explained that these women are ordinary: “They are wonderful women, but you will find hundreds of stories like that in Egypt.” When asked how she was able to get them to open up about such personal issues, she explained that she got to know them over a long period of time, which made it easier. She also said she got the advice from Tahany Rashed to encourage the women to do something while they were filming, like cooking, so they would not feel self-conscious in front of the camera.

Abdalla explained that the fight for women’s rights is not new, as shown by Shahenda’s life as an activist. “This is a struggle that has been going on for decades and we still haven’t grasped what we wanted,” she said.

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