Talk to Her: Deconstructing Taboos in Arab cinema

Egyptian pioneer film director Enas El-Dighade in conversation with Medical Humanities film and media correspondent, Khalid Ali

Enas Al Dighade

2017 was a significant year for women worldwide. The #MeToo and #Timesup campaigns caught international media attention by emphatically stating that injustice and discrimination against women can no longer be met with a blind eye. Women who publicly spoke about their sexual harassment in the Hollywood film industry were hailed by Time magazine as the personality of 2017, ‘the silence breakers’.

Women’s voices demanding justice in Hollywood are a timely reminder to reflect on the journey of pioneer women from the Arab world who ‘broke the silence’ back in the 80s. One of those women is the Egyptian director Enas El Dighade. After graduating from the Higher Institute of Performing Arts, and working for ten years as an assistant director, Enas directed her first film, Apologies to the Law, in 1985. In that film, Enas challenged the double legal standards prevalent in Arab society where a man is spared a prison sentence if he committed ‘honour killing’ while a woman is imprisoned if she kills her husband in similar circumstances.  That landmark film was the catalyst behind changing the discriminatory law in Syria and Lebanon. Enas states that: ‘Unfortunately that law is still enforced in Egypt. It was discussed twice in the Egyptian Parliament, but still not amended’.

Enas went on to tackle several social taboos and cases of abuse of women in subsequent films. Time of Prohibition (1988) exposed drug addiction amongst medical students,  The Killer (1991) analysed the root causes for gender-based and domestic violence, Cheap Meat (1995) denounced underage marriage, and Diary of a Teen Aged Girl (2001) discussed sexual relationships outside of wedlock.

El Dighade rejects the assumption that all her films are women-centric; ‘My films are a portrayal of the lived injustices against men and women. I never campaigned for better alimony pay for women or any other financial gains. I was driven by the social and cultural baggage in some parts of the Arab world where attitudes and practices are mostly anti-women; a woman is perceived to be a soulless creature that is not entitled to any human rights. A woman is solely disadvantaged by the fact that she is a woman, and is expected to sacrifice her wellbeing and happiness for others, and even be accountable for others’ wrong doings. I am also intrigued by the relationship between men and women in its appealing dimensions of love and kindness, as well as by its repulsive aspects in cases of abuse and discrimination.’

Always a swimmer against the tide, Enas argues that ‘women rights’ is a misnomer; ‘Women’s issues are much more complicated than material rights. It is about social justice and fairness, and women being recognised as having an equal identity to men with shared duties and responsibilities.’ Enas attributes some of the prevalent practices against women to economic and political reasons; ‘One cannot dismiss the economic impact of the free market that befell Egypt in the mid 80s. At that time, the image of the leading star changed to glamorize criminals and thugs who were always men. Slang language became the new vocabulary of film. Furthermore, sensitive subjects such as polygamy, explored and challenged in my films One Woman is Not Enough (1990), and Lace (1998) were guaranteed to upset some men. Some of my films were savagely butchered by extreme critics, but at the same time they were warmly welcomed by public audiences of both sexes. I tried to tackle hard-hitting subjects such as rape, and gender-based violence in The Killer, subjects that are still explored in today’s cinema as evident by the Oscar-winning film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.’ 

While her films remain compelling social documents to this day, Enas relishes the fact that she is a big believer in the magic of film: ‘Films are powerful entertainment vehicles as well. A film such as The Greatest Showman can act as a potent antidepressant with its uplifting music and charm.’

The staunch director wants to explore more ‘off-limit’ subjects; ‘There are still taboos that warrant our attention and exposure in film such as legalizing prostitution, pre-marriage sexual experimentation, and incest.’ She denies stirring controversy for the sake of publicity; ‘A sound state of health and wellbeing of individuals and societies cannot be reached unless we talk openly about the darkest corners of the human being.’ 

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