In the Shadow of a Man – film review

Last month, DocHouse Documentary Festival screened In the Shadow of a Man, a film about four Egyptian women and their lives both before and after the revolution.  Here, DiA blogger Saara Jaffrey-Roberts reviews the film

Post-revolution, has the situation changed for the women of Egypt? Photo by  Gigi Ibrahim/ Creative Commons

Post-revolution, has the situation changed for the women of Egypt? Photo by Gigi Ibrahim/ Creative Commons

“As the old saying goes… better the shadow of a man than that of a wall…”

In the Shadow of a Man, directed by Hanan Abdalla, turns its lens towards Wafaa, Suzanne, Shahinda and Badreya: four Egyptian women from distinct socio-economic backgrounds who span different generations. The film presents a series of intimate conversations with these women, and we learn that, despite their differences, they are all connected in trying to determine their own destinies and break from traditional codes of Egyptian society.

In hearing the voices of such different women, each with an individual experience and life story, we are able to glimpse different facets of Egyptian society. Through their differences, we understand the underlying strands that unite these women, the rigid gender constructs of Egyptian society, and the limitations and compromised parameters of freedom that this entails.

Badreya is a hard-working mother of four married to an unemployed peasant. She feels trapped and lonely, compromising her own happiness for that of her children. Suzanne is a 31-year-old independent shopkeeper who has found self-empowerment through work; Wafaa is an elderly divorcee in Cairo who has spent most of her life working as a maid and admits mischievously: “I don’t like men… they don’t like me and I don’t like them”; Shahinda, now 73, is a widowed activist who has committed her life to fighting for the rights of Egyptian farmers.

Each character is presented with a different predicament depending on her circumstance; Badreya is the breadwinner of the house yet is mistreated by her husband and suffers his abuse. Wafaa left Egypt for London in order to escape the prejudice of being a divorced woman in her country. Suzanne has rejected six suitors who were only interested in the way she looked.

Of all four characters, Shahinda is the one who really breaks the mould. Coming from an upper-class family, she is a bold and courageous feminist who has consistently challenged the gender roles that Egyptian society has constructed for her. “A woman cannot be independent in a country that is not independent,” she explains. “You can’t limit women’s demands based on their gender. You cannot separate women’s demands from the reality of society itself.”

The most interesting question of the film asks: has the status of women changed after the revolution? The opinions from the central four characters are polarised; Wafaa and Badreya claim that “nothing has changed” and that oppression, subjugation and corruption remain with patriarchy intact. On the other hand, Shahinda and Suzanne assure us that the events which took place on 25 January marked a fundamental change for women in Egypt, and that a positive new dawn is on the horizon.

Abdalla’s portrait of women in Egypt is subtle yet poignant. In looking at the day-to-day situations of everyday women, we are given an idea of how gender constructs, discrimination and systems of oppression affect ordinary people with ordinary lives. Furthermore, it shines a light on the strength of Egyptian women, who despite the odds, still fight against the shadow of the man that so often inhibits them.

Although some might argue that it is naive to assume women’s rights will change for the better post-revolution, what this film tells us is that events in 2011 have certainly rekindled a drive and determination for women to keep fighting, both for their rights and for the rights of the nation as a whole, the two being interlinked.

As the fading chant sung in Tahrir Square announces: “We’re not tired! A complete revolution or nothing at all!”


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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