Daughters of a Lesser God: Women, Islamic Tradition and Emancipation Politics

in 61st Mannheim-Heidelberg International Film Festival

by Alberto Ramos Ruiz

At least four films emerged from the program where the action takes place in Muslim countries or its diaspora communities with conflicts revolving around the negative weight of a radically conservative and ferociously excluding tradition. And it is always a woman who turns out to be the victim of this so-called tradition (or rather, a biased interpretation of it) or in the subject that questions, denounces and ultimately challenges it.

In When the Fire Burns (Atesin Düstügü Yer), by newcomer Ismail Günes, the victim is Ayse, a 17 year-old adolescent in a rural Turkish village. The conflict unleashes when the girl faints and is taken by the father to the hospital, where besides diagnosing a heart condition, doctors discover that she is pregnant. All of a sudden, the desperation of Osman, the father, becomes blind anger when confronted with the idea of a forbidden relationship that calls his honor into question. As local tradition dictates that the outrage can only be redeemed by death, Osman decides to kill his daughter after hearing the opinion of his male relatives, while his wife helplessly acquiesces in silence. With the excuse of taking Ayse to an aunt that will take care of her until delivery, Osman and his daughter set off in a journey that will end tragically, but not without first undergoing a deep and painful transformation that takes the father from homicide conviction unto remorse as confronted by the long agony of the girl. The latter is just what distinguishes the film from the real facts that inspired it: an ‘honor killing’ widely covered by the media in 2003 where the father refused to admit any remorse. However, the film is far from a painstaking realist description as its narrative is saturated with symbolic motifs at play with the notions of life and death in the context of an agrarian, traditionalist and patriarchal culture. Dogs, cats, pigeons, lambs…, as well as a woman – a stranger whose pregnancy has been announced at the same moment than Ayse’s – cross paths with Osman and his daughter  like signs of the mysterious, imperturbable and infinite passing of life. Ayse, on the other hand, accepts her fate with resignation after accidentally discovering her father’s plans and knowing later from a TV broadcast about her fiancée’s death. Repudiated as daughter and widowed before marrying, the only way out seems a suicidal gesture which precipitates her end.

The film is divided into two sections projecting the shifting in the father’s point of view: “About Murdering Her” and “About Keeping Her Alive”, with a distinctive chromatic and framing approach that underlines the emotional undercurrents in both characters, echoed through recurrent visions of the vast expanse of the sea, a snow covered plain or the ghostly passing of hills and trees. There is a quotation of the Koran at the beginning: “If someone saves a life it is as he has saved the entire humanity”, which provides the film’s leitmotif, unveiling the contradiction between the sacredness of life, as taught by the doctrine, and a deeply secularized vision that in practice disbelieves of such a humanist stance in the name of social constructs like family honor.

Obedience to law and tradition claim for another victim in the winner of Mannheim’s top award, Iranian film Final Whistle (Sout-e payan) by actress turned director Niki Karimi. Here attention is drawn to ‘blood money’, a procedure under Sharia law which sets a killer free if money is paid to the family of the dead one as compensation. Final Whistle focuses on Samar and Sahar, a couple of filmmakers who are just about wrapping up a telefilm and discover accidentally that one of the actresses, Malineh, is trying desperately to get some money in order to avoid her mother’s hanging; when she is accused of stabbing to death her husband (and Malineh’s stepfather). In fact, the truth behind it all is more complex and painful, involving a scenario of domestic violence and sexual harassment, typical of societies where discrimination against women is a given, part of tradition. Beyond a formal act of justice, the death sentence on the mother turns into punishing something as intolerable as female rebellion. As it happens with many Iranian films avowing for a self-referential, reflexive bent, the film shifts mood and tone when wife Sahar decides to shoot a documentary on Malineh and besides, try to help her in raising the sum. Soon the documentary turns not only into an inquiry on the real facts behind Malineh’s mother imprisonment or a way of persuading the husband’s relatives on the atrocity of the death sentence, but also into an exploration of the reactions that such circumstances and practices arouse in Iranian society, going from indifference (as embodied by Saman, more interested in following the World Cup on TV than in the fate of the poor woman) until the histrionic claims of sorrow and indignation by the relatives of Malineh’s stepfather. Obviously, Sahar’s implication ends up by compromising the stability and future of the filmmaker’s couple, while the film closes with a pessimistic note that, beyond the scandal of a death sentence by itself – even more when it’s spoiled by class and gender prejudice – is wondering about the usefulness of film as a way of achieving social justice.

The two remaining films, on the other hand, offer more spirited and encouraging scenarios. The Bag of Flour (Le Sac de Farine), by Kadija Leclere, introduces a significant change in the narratives of emigration that usually operate by mapping the insertion of non-western natives in their former European metropolis. Here, on the contrary, the protagonist is a 10 year-old girl of Moroccan origin living in a Belgian catholic orphanage who, all of a sudden, is kidnapped by her father and returned to the familiar village of her relatives in Africa. That said, the plot (freely inspired by the director’s experience) looks like more of a design for an anthropological experiment. Sarah sees herself forced to abandon her religious faith and western education while assimilated into a new, somehow hostile society. As time goes by, this will make her a reluctant youth, involved with her college classmates in the student protests that put the country on the world map (we are in 1984, year of the Awbach Revolt). But she also becomes a resourceful maiden that makes the most of her impressive skills in knitting, making a typical female job a way to emancipation, which she finally achieves by escaping and heading back to Belgium. Friends, loves and family are left behind, together with the harrowing vision of her mad mother turned into a social pariah, a ghost of a creature, resentful and violent, embodying the alienation, vulnerability and debasement of her fellow women. The Bag of Flour is a round-trip to the origins, paradoxically depicting both the reconciliation and breaking up of its protagonist with a world where she cannot integrate, neither rational nor sentimentally.

The last film is probably riskier and denser as the rhetoric of female liberation gets complicated by generational issues and the context of diaspora where the action takes place. Halal Butcher Shop (Boucherie Halal), by Babek Aliassa, is set in a traditional butcher’s shop in Montreal owned by a young couple, Hedi and Jamila, who fight their way ahead while at the same time trying to conceive a child. The latter will finally turn out to be impossible as medical exams declare Jamila sterile, though the news finds the couple closer than ever. This is until the arrival of Sidi Sheik, Hedi’s father, who not only turns the back room into a mosque where he preaches rampant fundamentalism, but also meddles in the couple’s private life, forcing their divorce with the argument that Jamila’s sterility is an insurmountable obstacle before the Muslim Law which, according to his words, considers women as a simple device of mass human reproduction. Divided between obedience to the father and love for Jamila, Hedi tries to please both of them, hoping that his father will leave soon. However, when it finally happens, Hedi will be facing a double tragedy. First, the loss of Jamila, who having found consolation in a friend and neighbor momentarily separated from her husband, goes away with a newborn girl that the woman has put in Jamila’s arms. Now a single mother, Jamila fulfills the dreams of freedom of her friend, who soon will find herself back home, persuaded by a supposedly repentant husband. Second, while involved in a desperate plan to free his father, incarcerated for religious agitation and terrorist links in the past, Hedi will also be chased and arrested by the police. Although the film presents some unlikely moments (e.g., a makeshift childbirth over the spotless blankets of an hotel room) and certain characters are barely sketched, the contrast between Hedi and Jamila is all the more productive and powerful in the light of an emancipation discourse that confronts rebellious women to hesitating men, paralyzed by a demanding, uncompromising and castrating tradition. Hedi, like Osmar in When the Fire Burns, becomes unable to overcome a male status (as defined by honor, filial devotion) that embodies obligations contracted as hegemonic subject, while women like Ayse or Jamila ultimately find freedom in death or renounce in a world that denies their human condition.

Edited by Steven Yates