Film as a scene of “Rupture”: religion, gender, and rights in Muslim communities

Milja Radovic

How Muslim communities are constructed in cinema and how it is viewed through the “camera eye” of “local filmmakers” has been the focus of international scholars for some time now. In this work, I discuss how the local filmmakers produce “open-ended” films by investigating the issues of religion, gender, and rights. Before moving on to a detailed discussion of the films, it is necessary to first provide the theoretical framework within which this work is placed.

I approach film as a scene of rupture' that is the “rupture” which creative acts of citizenship produce.2 This is the theory that I developed following theoretical work primarily of Engin F. Isin on acts of citizenship. So, what is it then that makes film a scene of rupture and what is an “open-ended” film? Filmmakers “create rupture by initiating something novel that is both ‘unexpected and unpredictable’3 by claiming (citizenship) rights.”4 The act of claiming rights (for self and/or undesirable and oppressed Other) produces activist citizens through the scene producing a political (and often aesthetical) rupture. These films are “open-ended” because the audience is invited to “continue” the debate or take concrete action. So in a way we can say that “an open-ended film” bears a potentiality to initiate an off-screen debate, or produce an off-screen (political) rupture. Whether this will necessarily happen or not in reality is of less concern, the focus is here rather on film itself: what makes it a scene through which creative acts (of citizenship) emerge.

The scene of rupture is visualized (and multiplied through the reel) in film, and it is transformative as it provides something that is novel and authentic that breaks with the main-stream political practices, standing or looking outside the oppressive system(s), both locally and globally. Thus, film becomes a rupture itself as filmmakers break existing boundaries and oppressive realities through filmic language: the ways they use the storyline and aesthetics to depict reality surpasses mere subversion and goes a step further, where the realities are transformed envisioning society that is yet to be. By visualizing something novel (or what already exists on a small level5), filmmakers rupture the given socio-political realities on-screen and off-screen. It is through the scene of film that acts of citizenship emerge,6

constituting the artists (filmmakers, actors, citizens, and “aliens” of their own societies) as activist citizens. Furthermore, by touching upon the issues of rights, these films communicate the complexity of reality(ies) of their own societies, often envisioning “citizenship that is yet to come.”7

Among a number of films devoted to the question of human rights in Muslim communities, I focus here specifically on two films by Iranian director Marzieh Meshkini, Stray Dogs (2004)8 and The Day I Became a Woman (2000),’ Saudi Arabian director Haifaa al-Mansour’s Wadjda (2012),10 Sid-diq Barmak’s Afghani film Osama (2003),” and Lebanese director Nadine Labaki’s Where Do We Go NotPi>(2011).12 All of the films are international co-productions, apart from The Day I Became a Woman, made by local filmmakers and actors. My aim is to look more closely at how the filmmakers explore rights, gender, and religion, and how these films embed creative acts of citizenship that are expressed through the filmic scene. In the selected films, the question of rights is closely bound to religion, both explicitly and implicitly, and religion is further closely tied with the issue of belonging, determining “who belongs to a specific group,” and who constitutes the second-class citizens and the outsiders. The issue of gender is central and inseparable from the question of rights, and consequently that of religion, and as such is largely problematized in the films. The filmmakers engage with the position of women in societies driven by religious laws, extremist groups, and war and terror inflicted on the basis of religious belonging. The films I selected illustrate my argument on the filmic scene as rupture: by interrogating the issues of rights, gender, and religion, and in claiming the rights for the oppressed, the films embed the acts of citizenship.13

Middle East or Middle Easts? Contextualizing the themes

The “Muslim World,” as it is often dubbed in Euro-American debates, is not represented in these films as a single entity: the complex histories and cultural specificities of each country are crucial for the films, being both the answer to and a result of these specific and diverse socio-political and cultural contexts. At the same time, the films (as film in general) operate on a transnational level, and the filmmakers recognize the similarities between different countries with significant Muslim communities.

While the intention is not to investigate the feasibility of these categories, it is important to understand that the filmmakers, while operating in their local contexts, reflect some of the specificities of the region as a whole.14 For instance, in representing the issue of gender and women’s rights, many of the filmmakers emphasize that this as a problem across Muslim societies, rather than of one particular country. Similarly, I is seen as one of the crucial players in the escalation of the conflict and in determining the position and rights of women and the minority groups. Interestingly, as we will see further, Islam while critically approached for its direct influence on understanding the question of rights, for the individuals - the oppressed it is also a vehicle that can be used against the oppressor.15 It is individualism and collectivism that are strongly contrasted in the cinematic representations and exploration on rights in diverse Muslim contexts.

The films which I discuss have been produced in Afghanistan, Iran, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia. They bear transnational dimension, not only in a sense that they bring forward the political problems common to the region, but also in the sense that they represent a “shared struggle” of their inhabitants (citizens and non-citizens). The films embed the lived experience of gender, religion, and rights (or rather lack of it) of the citizens and second-class citizens and excluded. The issue of citizen is at the focus of the filmmakers, with the underlying question of how the outside political circumstances (created equally by the local governments and the international community) directly impact the most vulnerable members of society.

The Iranian director Marzieh Meshkini compared the role of the artists to that of a doctor, the same way we have the “doctors without frontiers” we must have “the artists without frontiers”; in other words, arts cannot be limited to one country, one context, one ideology or norm. The films under analysis here speak not only about their local contexts but also have a transnational dimension by bringing forth and connecting the issue of rights with that of gender rights and religious laws, a common issue across Muslim communities. Moreover, they connect it to the transnational audiences across the world, in the ways that will be discussed further, and in that appeal they go beyond the geographical boundaries of Middle Eastern nations. The filmmakers create what I call the “rupture” on-screen and, in some cases, off-screen. For it is through the scene of these films that we can better understand acts of citizenship and the political actors - the claimants of rights produced through those acts.

Rupturing the oppressive: bicycle as a symbol of rights

Two films I discuss here are made by women, in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, the former by Haifaa al-Mansour and the latter by the acclaimed Iranian director Marzieh Meshkini. Both directors apply realism, inspired by Vittorio De Sica (Bicycle Thieves, 1948) and Cesare Zavattini (screenwriter and theorist of Italian neorealism). Al-Mansour is influenced by De Sica, she uses the techniques of cinétna vérité, with editing “of classical Hollywood cinema,” while focusing on women’s socio-political role in modern day society of Saudi Arabia. Meshkini on the other hand, uses “the invisible style of filming and editing to ensure realism . . . and respect for continuity of time, space ... in short, reality.”16 Through a combination of “improvisational practices” in dealing with lives of ordinary, marginalized people, Meshkini applies social criticism by depicting their lived experiences, thus reflecting the tradition of Iranian-style neorealism.

Stray Dogs (2004) is a film that deals with homelessness and the position of women and children in Taliban-destroyed Afghanistan, where religious laws in the war-devastated society still dictate the fate of women. Meshkini’s film is a fine example of “transnational cinema”: not only that Meshkini being Iranian made a film about a neighboring country, seeing its particular problems as “universal” but also because through her clear reference to Cesare Zavatini’s neorealist influence, she emphasizes the struggle of the suffering people as universal and unifying at the same time. While Meshkini’s film has been seen as a sort of homage to the suffering people, primarily children and their mothers in Afghanistan, Meshkini goes further than that. She is not a distant observer, a “concerned neighbor,” rather she uses the camera as a participant. The camera is an unobtrusive element of reality. Meshkini’s film at the same time induces reality through the aesthetics carefully crafted with the storyline. The story of Stray Dogs is that of exclusion, homelessness, deprivation of basic rights for the children and women, of a world where everyone is unequal and oppressed. However, due to the “religious laws” it is the women and their children that are most affected. The story follows two children, the girl Gol-Gothai and her brother Zahed, both “street children” of post-Taliban Kabul. Their mother, as many other women in Afghanistan, has been arrested under the charge of infidelity because she remarried believing that her first husband died in the Taliban war fighting against Americans. Her husband is found to be alive, imprisoned as well, but with no willingness to forgive her “infidelity” and thus condemning his wife to prison and his children to homelessness. The characters in the film “curse” both their own leaders and Americans: they feel to be “hostages” and “collateral damage” of both local and global politics.

Meshkini uses long shots in the real environment: cold and snowy, often deserted, landscapes are contrasted to the liveliness of the two children. The contrast between cold-whiteness of barren terrain to the warmth of children provides a sense of hope to the Afghan reality. While in similar European realist films, for example, the mise-en-scene reflects the hopelessness of both the situation and their characters, Stray Dogs shows that the real answer is in the main characters, Gol-Ghotai and Zahed. Meshkini’s film becomes a visual and political rupture: she creates a story, deprived of the subjectivity of a documentary, in which the real characters (non-professionals) can act, and their act is turned into that of demanding rights through their filmic characters. Meshkini gives a storyline as a framework, but what she actually does is enable the real Gol-Ghotai and Zahed to emerge as (second-class) citizens who act: guiding them through the major storyline, she allows them to express themselves naturally. Moreover, it is these spontaneous and purposive acts that produce “ruptures” throughout the film: homeless children emerge as political actors through film.

Gol-Gothai and Zahed are one of many homeless children, that Meshi-kini found in Afghanistan and cast to play “themselves,” without changing their real names and merely “adjusting” them to the main plot of the film. The film starts with the children finding a “stray dog” saving him from a “children’s mob.” The dog accompanies them in their daily lives in the

Film as a scene of “Rupture” 165 street and nights in the prison with their mother. He is a clear reference for the homeless children of Kabul as the title of the film suggests. The fate of the children changes once they are forbidden to spend nights in prison with their mother. From that moment, all their actions become an attempt at getting arrested so they can be with their mother again. In a number of cunning attempts, with often comical elements to it, intertwined with their struggle to survive in the cold nights, they finally discover the film Bicycle Thieves that represents a solution to their situation. Zahed steals a bike and is sent to jail but not to his mother’s, and Gol-Ghotai is left alone with her stray dog in the streets of Kabul. The last scenes almost blend into one: the scene of desperate boys in the prison making the “uprising” by stumping the floor with their feet, and that of Gol-Ghotai calling out to the police with the words: “Arrest me. I am a sister of the bicycle thief.” (Figure 12.1)

The transnational aspect of Meshkini’s film is not just in the fact that she creates a film about the burning problems of a neighboring country (and not her own), neither is it that she depicts the problems of homeless children, women without rights, and the limitations of freedom in the war-torn Afghanistan. Rather, Meshkini’s last scene with Gol-Ghotai’s exclamation “I am a sister of the bicyle thief” reveals transnationalism in its deepest form: as that of a shared struggle of the people.17 This cry of Gol-Ghotai at the end of the film resembles the cry for unity of all the oppressed people. With its clear reference to De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves - “I am a sister of the Bicycle Thief” - the artist here addresses the space beyond the Middle East: Gol-Ghotai’s ‘look’ turns toward Europe, reminding that the struggle of one geopolitical space is a shared struggle. Meshkini’s film surpasses descriptive narration: it is not a static ‘re-created scene’ of something past but becomes

“I am a sister of the bicycle thief” an on-screen rupture through which actors - claimants of rights - emerge in an active event that is happening ‘now’ as the camera captures it on the reel

Figure 12.1 “I am a sister of the bicycle thief” an on-screen rupture through which actors - claimants of rights - emerge in an active event that is happening ‘now’ as the camera captures it on the reel. In her earlier film The Day I Became a Woman, Meshkini also uses the bicycle race to instigate the issue of women’s freedom and rights. The bicycle, as with al-Mansour, literalizes the process of conquering freedom that is yet to be fully realized in cultural and political spheres.

Haifaa al-Mansour (Wadjda) makes a similar reference to De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. In Wadjda, the bicycle becomes a symbol of freedom for the main protagonist, the girl Wadjda. The bicycle is particularly related to one of the basic human rights: the freedom of movement. Through the story of a girl who ‘just wants to ride a bike’ al-Mansour reveals the complexity of life for women in Saudi Arabia: their freedom of movement is limited, they are deprived of the majority of rights that men have, and subordinated to the will of a husband or a father, and the strict religious laws carried out by the religious police. Al-Mansour uses a formalist aesthetic to visualize the oppression: she shows the women primarily through interior framing, conveying their physical restrictions in Saudi society, gradually eradicating the presence of women in public spaces. The free space appears only in the final scene when Wadjda is riding the bicycle, only to reach the cross-road and motorway where she stops and where the film ends, leaving the question of political freedom to the off-screen debates. The film successfully bears innocence in being filmed from the perspective of a child. Although constructed in closed, constricted spaces (walls, windows, narrow street paths), for al-Mansour, making Wadjda meant creating a hopeful and optimistic story, in contrast to (and in spite of) tragedies experienced by the people of the Middle East, which will inspire people to go out and make the changes happen.18 Moreover, for al-Mansour the very creation of Wadjda was a way of finding her own voice both as a woman and as an Arab, and creating a space that she could inhabit as a person.'9

The girl Wadjda attempts to buy and ride a bike despite the fact that girls and women are banned from this activity. In a number of attempts, which all fail, one of which even includes entering a competition in reciting the Qur’an, Wadjda remains a cheeky and playful girl determined to fulfill her goal. After her name is taken off the family tree and her father marries another woman to have a male heir, Wadjda receives a bicycle as a gift from her mother. Although, in al-Mansour’s words, the bicycle here is only a toy and as such should not be feared by the society, it also represents a symbol of freedom that is yet to be achieved. It is a “metaphor for the freedom of movement” and thus Wadjda literally represents a (second-class) citizen in motion: the first-time actress Waada Mohammed was the first girl to ride a bicycle in the streets of Riyadh. (Figure 12.2)

For the young actress, it was both her and her filmic character Wadjda that accomplished this, and the rupture produced through this acceleration of movement is both an on-screen and off-screen rupture: it takes place in ‘real-life’ in the streets of Riyadh during the process of shooting and

Accelerating freedom

Figure 12.2 Accelerating freedom

remains recorded on the reel. The example of Wadjda is perhaps the best example for illustrating how the rupture of the existing socio-political and cultural practices is achieved in film and by film: in the reel and in the real environment. By creating a seemingly political “neutral space” in film, al-Mansour accelerated the dialogue,20 which resulted with the Saudi Arabian government lifting the ban and allowing girls and women to ride bicycles in designated areas.21

Women claim rights

The films I discussed in the previous section embody women as claimant of rights. Wadjda claims rights for women and by woman (the first Saudi Arabian film director) starting with the basic right, the right to free movement. The acceleration of the bicycle embodies a physical freedom of movement, while the bicycle as symbol accelerates the process of liberation on the political and cultural level precisely as it challenges the physical boundaries by which women move within Saudi Arabian society. It is the process in freedom that is yet to be conquered in Saudi Arabia. For al-Mansour, these small steps in liberation lead in the right direction.22 In Stray Dogs, the girl stands as a symbol of the oppressed on the transnational level: the identification of the Iranian woman filmmaker with the girl from Afghanistan, and the director’s inclusion of the European landmark film Bicycle Thieves in conjunction with the girl crying: “I am the sister of a bicycle thief” directly addresses Europe, and the oppressed of the world. The stolen bicycle, the girl, and the reference to Bicycle Thieves convey oppression on a meta-level.

Meshkini in her films approaches women as oppressed across Muslim societies, including Afghanistan and Iran. In her first film The Day I Became a Woman, Meshkini commits to a “poetics of realism”23 that involves “political commitment” and criticism of both traditions and governments, with elements of surrealism integrated into the storyline, subjective experiences of time within a shared objective space that unifies the triptych. The film is a “grand narrative of a woman’s life viewed sequentially from childhood to womanhood to old age”24 depicting the stories of three women.

Meshkini divides the film into three segments that are unobtrusively intertwined and connected. The first story ‘Hava’ (Eve in translation) is about a girl who is informed on the morning of her ninth birthday that this is the day she will become a woman - meaning she is to be covered and forbidden from her childhood games with boys outside. Hava uses her last hours left by playing outside. The story of ‘Hava’ achieves aesthetically the impression of imprisonment by contrasting open and closed spaces separated by the thick bars of a window. However, both Hava and her friend, the boy, are framed behind the bars of the window making it purposely unclear as to who is actually “imprisoned.” This scene suggests that girls and boys share a similar position, because their relationship functions within limited circumstances. ‘Hava’ however suggests that woman is most free at her young age, before “she becomes a woman.” With Hava being classified as a woman at noon, the camera focuses onto the handcrafted raft in the sea, to then shift to the road. The road leads us to the second tale of Ahoo (meaning Deer), a woman cyclist, who is chased by her husband and mullah on horseback. The mullah annuls her marriage (while riding the horse next to Ahoo on the bicycle) because cycling, although allowed, represents an inappropriate activity for a woman. Surrounded by other women cyclists in a specially designed area for such activity, Ahoo continues her race. The whole event takes place on the dusty road, and the bicycle here is again used as a symbol of the freedom of movement and freedom from oppression. When her marriage is annulled, and the mullah predicts her inevitable ruin for her disobedience, Ahoo is alone in the shot, reaching the cliffs with the waves and the sign on the road “you are here.” Whether her freedom represents an abyss or ‘liberation with a price’ we do not find out (it remains a secret) as the camera takes us to the final story, the tale of Hoora (meaning Nymph). Hoora is an old lady, of whom we do not know much except that she lives alone and never had children. She hires a group of boys to help her buy all the goods she never had in her life and then lay them out all on a beach. Hoora tells her fragmented life story to the boys, and the women cyclists from the previous tale (who are guessing whether Ahoo reached the end of the race or not), and the beach becomes an inhabited space of all the characters joining together. A kitchen, washing machine, bedroom, and wedding dress are set up on the beach. The utility prescribed to the usual household items, however, receive a different meaning in the beach: in Meshkini’s own words “the old generation does not mind using the products of modern technology but the usage has to conform to the traditional outlook.”25

Hoora’s departure

Figure 12.3 Hoora’s departure

Finally, Hoora leaves toward the ship on the same handcrafted raft and we see the veiled Hava from the first tale, seeing her off. (Figure 12.3)

Michelle Langford argues that the film functions as a “complex allegorical register,” suggesting that the particular symbolic work of this film takes place along two axes, the horizontal and the vertical.26 For her, the film should be viewed as “horizontal series from beginning to end.” As the film reveals “Hava is not yet woman, Ahoo, who receives a divorce, is no longer woman, and Hoora, the old woman who never married, has in a sense never become woman/wife.”27 The process of becoming, suggested in the title of the film, Langford further argues “is presented along this horizontal axis of the film as a state imposed from the outside.”28 Meshkini’s film, similarly to her Stray Dogs, problematizes gender as a social problem, for to achieve an independence or an active social position, women have to forgo their emotional attachments and houses, in which they are basically imprisoned not necessarily out of hatred, but sometimes out of love,29 in accordance with the cultural traditions.

The film Osama by Siddiq Barmak also focuses on the problem of gender. Barmak problematizes the oppressed position of women, questioning the meaning of gender in the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Opening with the words of Nelson Mandela: “I cannot forget, but I can forgive,” the film starts with the demonstrations of women who demand the right to work to keep their families from starvation, and the attack of the Talibans on the protestors. Filmed in a documentary style, the only narrator of the tragedy to take place is a boy-beggar who says to the camera “give a dollar to see the revolution.” The film further focuses on the girl who lives with a widowed mother and grandmother, without any income or possibility to work, and on the verge of starvation. Barmak shows here women and children in Afghanistan as the first and foremost victims of different wars, including the Taliban rule. When the girl says to her grandmother that she wished that God never created a woman, her grandmother replies that man and woman are created equal, and that they are also equally unfortunate. On the premises of the gender equality, grandmother concludes that gender is interchangeable and thus she transforms the girl into a boy:30 she cuts her hair and dresses her in her father’s clothes to send her off to work, under a symbolic name: Osama. Eventually, the boy-girl Osama is recruited by the Taliban’s school and forced into a number of activities until she is eventually discovered to be a girl and consequently jailed. Finally, instead of the public execution, she is given to an old man as his fourth wife. In the first Afghani film since 1996 Siddiq Barmak, like Meshkini, cast actors from the streets of Kabul: the main character of the girl-boy Osama was played by a Kabul beggar Marina Golbahari. Barmak constructs reality of Afghanistan, avoiding sentimentality in depicting the tragedy of women. He confronts the brutality with poetic aesthetics, depicting gently the metamorphosis of a girl into a boy, and finally a boy into a girl put behind bars. In the prison scene, Osama looks directly at the camera implying her looking to the viewer. The straight-on close-up of Osama intensifies the directness and closeness of her address. The bars between her and the camera do not hide her face, she is not blurred, fragmented or out of focus. The bars are partially out of focus yet not fully blurred, keeping the awareness that somebody is imprisoned. Only the question remains: who is really behind the bars? (Figure 12.4)

A girl/boy Osama addresses the oppressors and the audience

Figure 12.4 A girl/boy Osama addresses the oppressors and the audience

Osama remains one of the most important films in recent Afghanistan history as a film that, like Wadjda, created an aesthetical and political onscreen and off-screen rupture. Claiming the women’s rights from oppression and questioning the understanding of gender in Islam earned Barmak refugee status in France, while the actress Marina Golbahari soon had to seek the asylum in France due to death threats.31

Religious freedoms and freedom of religion

Religion remains a key and underlying issue in the Middle East and in Muslim societies and is directly connected with the issue of rights and gender. A set of restrictions are imposed on the rights of people, in particularly women, through religious laws (in some countries overlooked by religious police). Religion in the films is approached implicitly nonetheless as inseparable from the oppression. Al-Mansour approaches religious laws critically and exposes the hypocrisy of the religious elite through Wadjda’s reciting the verses from Qur’an32, which has a subversive function in the film. Al-Mansour portrays the religious school which Wadjda attends as a sort of Friz Lang Metropolis: girls are lined in front of the teacher’s megaphone, subordinated to the order of the oppressor, who in this scene is a woman. Al-Mansour here shifts oppression from men to women, who often become agents of the oppressive prescripts and religious laws, addressing and questioning the role of women in the Middle Eastern and Muslim societies. Al-Mansour does not necessarily reject Islam but certainly addresses the importance of its interpretation. Similarly, Siddiq Barmak who constructed his Osama based on the real-life event considers Taliban rule as a form of fascism that “broke up all the human systems in Afghanistan.”33 Islam is not approached as problematic per se, it is not ‘being a Muslim’ that falls under the scrutiny of the filmmakers, it is rather the power of religious institutions, movements and its leaders that are interrogated and subverted.

Religion is interwoven in the films, and rather than being its central point, it is related to the oppression, deprivation of (human) rights, and finally war. It is important to distinguish two prevailing approaches to the question of religion: first, that religion should rather be a source of freedom than oppression, and second, freedom from religion as an oppressive system of rule and vehicle of violence that works against the unprivileged and seeks only power over people.

One of the films that attempts to engage directly with religion and war is Nadine Labaki’s Where Do We Go Now? (Lebanon 2011) In contrast to the previous realist films, Labaki’s work has elements of tragic-comedy. Her film narrates the story about women living in a remote village in the mountains, populated by Muslims and Christians. The only connection with the ‘outside world’ is one TV set, and two boys who purchase goods for villagers traveling on a motorbike, mainly through the mine fields. Labaki’s film is dedicated “to our mothers,” and is a result of a life-long experience in

Lebanon and divided Beirut throughout the waves of wars. The imaginary village lives harmoniously until the problems of the ‘outside world’ interfere with otherwise peaceful life. The men are plunged into the conflict, and conspire to start war in the village. Discovering this, the women decide to take the matter into their hands: first, they cover up the accidental murder of a boy caught on his motorbike in a crossfire between Muslims and Christians, then they employ the local Priest and Imam to help them, as well as the Ukrainian female singers whose main job is to spy on and entertain the men of the village while the local women bake the cakes filled with marijuana that are to put the whole male population of the village asleep. Once they completed their last task, women find and steal the arms that the men hid, and their men wake next morning to a different reality. The women switched identities and changed their households accordingly: Muslim women became Christian, and vice versa. Labaki follows several female characters, integrating the love story between a Christian woman (played by herself) and a Muslim man. Labaki is also a narrator in the film, where a number of comical situations are interrupted with tragic events.

The film opens and finishes at the cemetery, shared by Muslims (on the left side) and Christians (on the right side). The film begins with the women, both Christian and Muslim, dressed in black, approaching the cemetery as a unit, half-walking, half-dancing, gently swinging, resembling the mourning dance. (Figure 12.5)

Labaki’s narration introduces the film as “a long tale of women in black” who lost their husbands, sons, brothers because of the allegiance “to a cross or a crescent.” The camera then shows the village with a mosque and a church next to each other. It is the women that from that moment are the central characters conspiring to prevent the next possible conflict. Labaki, playing one of the major roles, addresses her audience through her character Amal, shouting at the men fighting in her restaurant: “is that what being man means? . . . Have you learned nothing? That is enough.” She

Women in black

Figure 12.5 Women in black: Christian and Muslim women in fight for freedom

Film as a scene of “Rupture” 173 stresses that women have no tears left anymore and no strength to put up with yet another war. Labaki’s speech comes across as her direct message to the people of Lebanon. Although her envisioned village, in which women appear as those who can preserve peace, may be read as idealist, idealism is certainly not what Labaki constructs, as suggested in the last scene of her film. Labaki is aware that this is not enough, and that preserving the peace in Lebanon requires much more work. The last scene resembles the opening scene of the film: again a group of women in black walks toward the cemetery, although this time with changed identities (between Christian and Muslim women), and accompanied by seemingly ‘defeated’ men. This time they are all gathered for the burial procession of a killed village boy, who was a Christian but whose mother has now embraced Islam. At the moment they reach the cemetery, confused with its division and switched identities, the coffin-bearers turn toward the group and ask: “Where do we go now?” They turn toward the camera, which at this point visualizes as if there is literally no space for them. The interchangeable identities of the same people living together for centuries, which Labaki brings forth, pose the problem as it seems that there is no space in Lebanon for those who do not explicitly belong to a specific religious group. Labaki portrays women not only as victims of the Lebanese war but also as a possible vehicle for the reconciliation.34 Furthermore, rather than suggesting freedom from religion, she addresses those who commit crimes in the name of religion. Through the characters of the Imam and the priest, Labaki shows that they have no particular difficulties in sharing the same space, as their coexistence is one of the elements that constitutes the cultural specificity of Lebanon. Labaki, contrary to the opinions of some critics, does not create a “fairy tale,” although she admits she has been inspired by some, she rather envisions the possible society, and artistically constructs what I called earlier the “citizenship that is to come.” By doing so, her film becomes a scene of a different and transformed reality, in which acts are envisioned and enacted through the creative act of the filmmaker, and the participants, mainly cast among non-professionals.

Rupturing realities

Taken together, these five films made by local filmmakers emphasize the socio-political and cultural context of the specific country through common threads: the issue of rights, which is closely connected, be it explicitly or implicitly, with religion and gender. I purposely approached the issue of rights and the issue of gender as separate but intertwined issues, although it could come across as logically constructing the topic under the theme of “gender rights” or “women rights.” The issue is not that simplistic, however, and this is revealed by the films: although all the filmmakers clearly speak about the women as oppressed, they also depict women as the agents of oppression (Wadjda, The Day I Became a Woman). Furthermore, aesthetically they communicate a more complex reality: in Osama and The

Day I Became a Woman, the roles of men and women appear as equally restricted, and it is purposely not clear who is actually “behind the bars,” the oppressors, the oppressed, or both? The films further suggest that it is the oppressive system, which is rarely visible (apart from the Taliban who again appear as agents of the oppressive), that produces the roles of the oppressors (men) and oppressed (women). Cultural specificities in aesthetic expressions are used to break from and question the political norms of society that are seen as oppressive.

Filmmakers emerge as citizens who claim rights through the act of film creation, which fosters debate and self-scrutiny of the burning issues of a particular society (which is yet another of rights denied directly or indirectly). By the numerous creative acts embedded in the scene of film, the film becomes a scene of rupture of socio-political and cultural realities. The films are “open-ended” precisely because they serve as a sort of platform for further debates (off-screen) for all society members. Each (oppressed) individual becomes a (political active) subject (from the filmmaker to actors) because each of them becomes a voice that now must be heard: this very act of creating the (filmic) space of many voices is crucial part for any political liberty. This voice is a rupture of political system par excellence. The films become the voice of the conscience of society, where the tyranny of the power centers becomes a politically valid question to the oppressive system, the oppressors, and the oppressed. Furthermore, the film becomes a scene of rupture because it presents a reality that is not determined by political or religious powers but by citizens for whom the voice of minorities have the crucial role in improvement of the questioned societies. The films are not transnational only because of the direct confrontation of a struggle common to the whole Middle East but also because they address and question (though more implicitly) the reality of Europe, that is “a brother” in a shared struggle of people whose societies face the danger of slipping into pseudo-democracies. Perhaps, this is the biggest rupture created: while the films create reality of a citizenship that can be - but it is yet not - in their own societies, they open the wider debate that is not limited only to the Middle East: the ‘oppressed’ become active subjects and their voices have transnational relevance not only in cinematic but also political space.


  • 1 The film is constructed from many scenes or shots which make up the whole ‘picture’. I intentionally use the word scene for the film as a whole to invoke Engin Isin’s argument that it is through the scene that actors are produced being constituted by acts of citizenship, and this scene thus becomes a ‘scene of rupture’. See Milja Radovic, Film, Religion and Activist Citizens: An Ontology of Transformative Acts (New York: Routledge, 2017).
  • 2 Engin E Isin in theorizing acts, distinguishes between acts, actor and action, and argues that it is scene through which actors are produced and constituted by acts. See, ibid., 9.

Engin F. Isin, “Enacting Citizenship,” in Citizens without Frontiers, ed. Engin E Isin (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2012), 108-146, 113.

See Radovic, Film, Religion and Activist Citizens, 9-10.

For example, Amos Gitai in his Ana Arabia (2013) tells the tale about the Jewish-Arab community that lives as a peaceful community at the outskirts of Tel Aviv. The story is based on a real one. Gitai constructs the space of this microcosm that, in spite being ignored by everyone, represents the only solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For analysis of Gitai’s film see Radovic, Film, Religion and Activist Citizens.

For a wider discussion see, ibid.

Engin F. Isin and Greg M. Nielsen, Acts of Citizenship (London: Zed Books, 2008), 4.

An Iran, France, and Afghanistan co-production.

The Day I Became a Woman (Marzieh Meshkini, Iran, 2000).

A Saudi Arabia, Netherlands, Germany, Jordan, United Arab Emirates, and USA, co-production.

An Afghanistan, Ireland, and Japan, co-production.

A Lebanon, France, Egypt, and Italy, co-production.

It is often precisely the oppressed that claim those rights through the medium of film.

For a critique of the delineation of a monolithic “Muslim World” see Sarah Kendzior, “The Fallacy of the Phrase, ‘The Muslim World’,” in The View from Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten America (New York: Flatiron Books, 2018); and Cemil Aydin, The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017).

For instance, al-Mansour’s, as well as Labaki’s characters in the films vocalize this clearly.

Robert Sklar and Saverio Giovacchini, Global Neorealism: The Transnational History of a Film Style (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2011), 191.

Milja Radovic, Transnational Cinema and Ideology: Representing Religion, Identity and Cultural Myths (New York: Routledge, 2014).

Personal Interview: September 6, 2016, included in Radovic, Film, Religion and Activist Citizens.

Paraphrased, see Lapin, Andrew, Wadjda director Haifaa Al Mansour, September 2013, Accessed 28 April 2016.

Radovic, Film, Religion and Activist Citizens, 132.

Sara C. Nelson, “Saudi Arabian Religious Police ‘Lift Bicycle Ban for Women’,” The Huffington Post, April 2, 2013, saudi-arabian-religious-police-lift-bicycle-ban-women-veil-male-relative_ n_2999576.html ?guccounter=l&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29v Z2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAAAHsucGkIJstO-B_ulo5-nMLwbI QT09g2E2PclJFrey4i2kkwC95qkY9da0qdfUWTIJ-vCvXuvR2K2hQ-sw82YQlR2b_v0k-PR2jI9s3wJIF8Blx_6g_yubQFanjI6ylQTTq4OHr97WVk_ NidRdl_D_OScOe6ThqY70d3p6yYSyH. Last Accessed 9 April 2019.

Personal Interview: September 6, 2016 in Radovic, Film, Religion and Activist Citizens.

Sklar and Giovacchini, Global Neorealism, 192.

Michelle Langford, “Allegory and the Aesthetics of Becoming-Woman in Marzi-yeh Meshkini’s ‘The Day I Became a Woman’,” in Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture and Media Studies 22 (1(64)) (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), 20.

  • 25 “Interview: The Day I Became a Woman,” Film International, December 21, 2000, Last Accessed 29 December 2017.
  • 26 Langford, “Allegory and the Aesthetics of Becoming-Woman,” 6-8.
  • 27 ibid., 21.
  • 28 ibid., 22.
  • 29 “ 'The Day I Became a Woman’ - Marzieh Meshkini (2000),” The Film Sufi, March 24,2016, Last Accessed 29 December 2017.
  • 30 It would be useful to compare the understanding of gender and its interchangeability in oppressive cultural spaces transnationally: the film Virdzina (Srdjan Karanovic, Yugoslavia, 1991) shows an old custom of transforming girls into boys to save the family honour and preserve the family name.
  • 31 “Afghan Film Star in French Exile After Death Threats,” The Local, May 5, 2016, Last Accessed 29 December 2017.
  • 32 “[T]here are some who say ‘we believe in Allah and the Last Day’ but they do not really believe. They would deceive Allah and those who believe but they only deceive themselves and do not realise it . . . when it is said to them, ‘Make no mischief on the earth’, they say ‘Why, we only want to make peace’ Certainly they are the ones who make the mischief but they do not realise it.” See film, quoted in Radovic, Film, Religion and Activist Citizens, 124.
  • 33 Maryam Maruf and Margaret Loescher, “Osama and Afghan Cinema: An Interview with Siddiq Barmak,” openDemocracy, March 4, 2004, Last Accessed 29 December 2017.
  • 34 Women’s concerns are not with their own emotional problems, but with the wider issue of the potential for male violence in a fragmented Lebanese society. Roy Armes, New Voices in Arab Cinema (Bloomington and Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 2015), 233.


Armes, Roy. 2015. New Voices in Arab Cinema. Bloomington and Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press.

Aydin, Cemil. 2017. The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Isin, Engin F. 2012. Citizens without Frontiers. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Isin, Engin F. and Greg M. Nielsen, eds. 2008. Acts of Citizenship. London: Zed Books.

Kendzior, Sarah. 2018. “The Fallacy of the Phrase, ‘The Muslim World’.” In The View from Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten America. New York: Flatiron Books.

Langford, Michelle. 2007. “Allegory and the Aesthetics of Becoming-Woman in Marziyeh Meshkini’s ‘The Day I Became a Woman’.” In Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture and Media Studies 22 (1(64)). Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Radovic, Milja. 2014. Transnational Cinema and Ideology: Representing Religion, Identity and Cultural Myths. New York: Routledge.

Radovic, Milja. 2017. Film, Religion and Activist Citizens: An Ontology of Transformative Acts. New York: Routledge.

Sklar, Robert and Saverio Giovacchini. 2011. Global Neorealism: The Transnational History of a Film Style. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi.


“Afghan Film Star in French Exile After Death Threats.” The Local, May 5, 2016. Last accessed 29 December 2017.

“Interview: The Day I Became a Woman.” Film International, December 21, 2000: Last accessed 29 December 2017.

Maruf, Maryam and Margaret Loescher. “Osama and Afghan Cinema: An Interview with Siddiq Barmak.” openDemocracy, March 4, 2004. www.opendemocracy. net/arts-Film/article_1769.jsp. Last accessed 29 December 2017.

Nelson, Sara C. “Saudi Arabian Religious Police ‘Lift Bicycle Ban for Women’.” In The Huffington Post, April 2, 2013. saudi-arabian-religious-police-lift-bicycle-ban-women-veil-male-relative_ n_2999576.html ?guccounter=l&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xl LmNvbS88cguce_referrer_sig=AQAAAAHsucGkIJstO-B_ulo5-nMLwbIQT09g2 E2PclJFrey4i2kkwC95qkY9da0qdfUWTIJ-vCvXuyR2K2hQ-sw82YQlR2b_v0k-PR2jI9s3wJIF8Blx_6g_yubQFanjI6ylQTTq4OHr97WVk_NidRdl_D_0Sc0e6Th qY70d3p6yYSyH. Last accessed 9 April 2019.

“‘The Day I Became a Woman’ - Marzieh Meshkini (2000).” The Film Sufi, March 24, 2016. Last accessed 29 December 2017.


Primary Osama (Siddiq Barmak, Afghanistan/Ireland/Japan, 2003)

Stray Dogs (Marzieh Meshkini, Iran/France/Afghanistan, 2004)

The Day I Became a Woman (Marzieh Meshkini, Iran, 2000)

Wadjda (Haifaa al-Mansour, Saudi Arabia/Netherlands/Germany/Jordan/United Arab Emirates/USA, 2012)

Where Do We Go Now? (Nadine Labaki, Lebanon/France/Egypt/Italy, 2011)

Part V

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >