I never thought the notion that women have it good in Saudi Arabia would ever occur to me, let alone write those words in that precise syntax.
Apart from being forced to wear the most extreme covering garment, the niquab, which makes them look like ninjas, women are not allowed to leave their home without an escort. The escort must be a man (of course): the woman’s father, husband, or a family relation. Having these restrictions define whom can be the escort offers women protection they lack in the Egypt of Cairo 678.
Filmed on location, it appears the movie was shot before the first revolution that toppled longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak. Despite the absence of political violence that makes the city appear under control, the degree of sexual harassment against women that is accepted as the status quo is shameful.
Egypt is an Islamic country, and in the metropolis of Cairo, different degrees of dress are seen among its female citizens. I don’t recall seeing women with their faces covered, but the spectrum I observed in the movie ranged from women who wore tightly wrapped headscarves that only revealed their face, to women with their hair flowing freely, Western style.
When we are introduced to Fayza (Boshra), she is standing on a crowded city bus, observing, then becoming the victim of what is ultimately referred to as “the lemon test.”
This is an exaggeration –not unrelated to the common male overestimation of the size of their manhood, so unless lemons in Egypt tend to be small, it should be called “the kumquat test.” The detective who identifies this practice is male, so it is not surprising he calls it a “test.” It is more accurately, a sexual assault.
Women are expected to give up their seats to men; the norm that they are second class citizens is consistently enforced. In this case, they are forced to be vulnerable for a male strangers to virtually sodomize them from behind.
Fayza understandably becomes fed up with being forced to silently tolerate this rectal rape and begins taking taxis to escape what seems a daily indignity. When her children are humiliated at school because Fayza’s taxi costs have not left enough money for their tuition, she is forced to return to the city bus. Her abusive husband Adel (Bassem Samra) chastizes her for indulging herself, uncaring and likely uncaring of the real cost to his wife of taking the bus.
In the meantime, we are introduced to Seba (Nelly Karim), who a year earlier was enjoying an affluent life with her obstetrician fiancé Sherif (Ahmed El Feshawy). She joked he loved soccer more than he loved her, and sadly she was proved correct. He takes her to a match, teaches her to cheer for Egypt, and when they win, she is swept away by the celebrating masses who rape her in the midst of the crowd. (This is celebrating?)
Sherif offers no succor for Seba, in fact, he rejects her. He moves out, breaking off their engagement because he can’t bear to look at her without thinking of the sexual violation she sustained. I found it interesting that his change of heart was in no way linked to his failure to rescue her from her attackers, arguably a comment on his masculinity or lack thereof, non?
Seba channels her energy away from being a victim and appears on television instructing women how they can strike back when they are harassed. She mentions that she teaches live classes and announces the time and place.
Fayza happens to catch one of Seba’s appearances and begins attending her classes. After many weeks of passively observing and refusing to participate, Seba kicks Fayza out of the class, telling her to come back when she’s ready.
One day, Fayza reaches her breaking point. She sees a woman being given “the lemon test.” Defiantly, she withdraws a pin from her headscarf (as Seba had instructed) and pricks the prick right in his prick. She’s able to escape the resulting tumult without suspicion and returns to Seba to tell her what she has just done. Seba asks her how she feels. Fayza answers “I feel I took back what’s mine.”
Nelly (Nahed El Sebaï) is an aspiring, untalented stand-up comic as is her fiancé Omar (Omar El Saeed). He is teaching her the ropes, unqualified as he is, but Nelly, Omar, and her family appear to be progressive thinkers. I can’t think how else to explain why she dares to perform stand-up to an all-male audience.
One day, Nelly is waving to her mother (Sawsan Badr) who waves back from her apartment balcony. Omar is by her side when a truck drives by. The driver grabs Nelly’s breast and drags her down the street for a block before she is able to free herself. Nelly, like Seba, is no victim. She and Omar give chase until they catch the truck and its driver and throw him in the back seat and go straight to the police station.
Nelly, Omar, and Seba’s mother want to file a report for the attack and a report for the sexual harassment. The police officer informs her that no one has ever filed a report for sexual harassment before and tries to talk her out of it. His arguments just fuel her anger, insisting on filing two reports.
Becoming a precedent setter lands her on television, on a call-in talk show. Although Nelly purposely wears the same clothes she was wearing the day of the attack (a baggy ensemble that looks like a hand me down from Lisa Bonet’s wardrobe on The Cosby Show) to prove she was not dressed provocatively. Having attracted national attention, her defiance begins to turn her previously sympathetic family members against her.
Her mother and Omar, who sped to the police station after the incident, have now become intimidated by the cultural forces that begin to threaten their comfortable upper-middle class existence.
The city bus castrations continue as Fayza becomes addicted to the sense of empowerment in addition to the outlet it provides her to express her rage against her husband. With no suspect, men, for the most part sit quietly and keep their lemons in their pants.
The three women’s lives are linked by circumstance and purpose. Sadly, before the women can begin to resemble a Middle Eastern franchise of Charlie’s Angels, their solidarity is undone as Fayza blames the other two women for inviting sexual assaults by dressing immodestly. She is oblivious to the reality that her obedience to the Islamic dress code as the most covered-up of the three has not prevented her from being a victim as well. In fact, she has suffered the most of the trio.
There is, however, at least one decent man left in Cairo, detective Essam (Maged El Kedwany) who’s determined to find the serial “lemon twister.”
I find it fascinating that this movie was directed by a man, Mohamed Diab. He clearly has sympathy for the women that endure this mistreatment on a daily basis, and I commend him for making this movie which will bring attention to their plight.
It is confusingly abhorrent that a culture that claims to value a woman’s honor feels entitled to violate it so freely. Diab doesn’t answer this opposure because it is outside the purview of his movie. Unfortunately, the documentary Honor Diaries, a documentary also playing at the festival this year, fails to answer this contradiction, evading the issue by hiding behind the veil (pun intended) of defending Islam as a whole.
SLIFF Screening: Saturday, November 16th, 9:30pm. Landmark Tivoli