Cinematic representations of the changing gender relations in today's Cairo.

JurisdictionUnited States
AuthorMostafa, Dalia Said
Date22 June 2009

THIS ESSAY INVESTIGATES THE CHANGING gender relations and roles as represented in recent Egyptian films set in Cairo, in order to study the relationship between the individual and the restructuring of urban space in a rapidly transforming city. My main interest lies in what the new themes and approaches which Egyptian cinema offers to challenge the restrictions imposed on public and domestic spaces in Cairo, and the impact of such restrictions on the relationship between men and women occupying these spaces. I will focus on three Egyptian films which were produced in the past few years, namely: Dunia: Kiss me not on the Eyes (2005), (1) The Yacoubian Building (2006), (2) and In the Heliopolis Flat (2007). (3) These films were selected because they challenge traditional ideas and conventions about love, sexuality and marriage in Egypt by redefining the relationship between people and the physical space they inhabit. The three films are not mainstream. The Yacoubian Building is the most renowned and popular of the three, both in Egypt and beyond.

I would like to propose a number of ideas as starting points. Firstly, the majority of the Cairene population are increasingly being pushed further away from public space (e.g. squares, streets, the traditional urban core, and pedestrian thoroughfares), in order to make way for tourists and investors. Secondly, the urban poor have reactd by exerting pressure on the authorities through protests and demonstrations in order to appropriate and reclaim their share in public space. Thirdly, gender relations have been transforming in the process of the restructuring of public space in the city. Fourthly, such changes have had a profound impact on the cultural scene in Egypt, including cinema. These proposals are informed by the study of a variety of cultural and popular material produced in Cairo, and texts written on Cairo in the fields of anthropology and architecture. (4)

Cairo is a metropolis that is home to approximately 20 million people, that is a quarter of the Egyptian population (estimated at the present to be 80 million). (5) It is characterized by a great variety of cultural, historical and class differentiations. As Janet Abu-Lughod remarks in her study Cairo: 1001 Years of the City Victorious: "Cairo, far more than any Western city of comparable size, is a city of contrasts and contradictions, of extremes and anachronisms. [.. .] Given what we know concerning the ways people 'divide up' cities, our knowledge of Egypt's present diversity should prepare us to expect the coexistence of many very different 'cities within the city."' (6) Cairo is primarily comprised of the old Islamic core, the Coptic core, the downtown area and its surrounding districts, the rural suburbs, the slum areas, the "new cities" established in the desert areas surrounding Cairo such as 6 October and the 10th of Ramadan, and the newly established "gated communities" in the desert. In Abu-Lughod's study, which was published in 1971, she could depict "thirteen cities within the city." (7) However, since the 1970s, Cairo has grown even bigger. For example, the slums which are considered to be a city within the city and home to 15 million people according to official estimates were almost nonexistent in the early 1970s. (8) The slums or ashwaiyyat (the Arabic word for "random") are mainly populated by migrant workers from the Upper Egyptian south and the Delta in the north. Likewise, the modem middle/upper-class districts to the north of Cairo such as Madinat Nasr (literally The Victorious City), and Heliopolis or New Cairo (Masr al-Gedida), have multiplied in population over the past four decades.

The three films under discussion here are shot in various locations of Cairo whilst reflecting different and varied views of the city. In Dunia (which is the name of the main protagonist, and it is also the Arabic word for Life or World), we get to see Cairo through Dunia's eyes. The camera roams around the city following Dunia and her friends in the streets and alleys of Cairo, inside their small flats, and in the places where they meet for entertainment. One of Dunia's female friends is a taxi driver, which is seldom to come across in Cairo. We follow the stories of these women through their intimate conversations whilst driving around the city. The bond which exists between them is further emphasized by their close relationship to the city streets, rooms, cafes, and buildings. There are also many shots of the popular quarter where Dunia and her female friends live. As this place is not designated by a particular name, it is suggested that the events of the film might be taking place anywhere in the city.

In contrast to this broad view of the city, The Yacoubian Building (9) focuses on the inhabitants of one famous building in the busy downtown area of Cairo. The core of the downtown area was established in the late 1860s by Khedive Ismail, the ruler of Egypt under the Ottoman Empire. Ismail aimed to modernize the architecture of Cairo by establishing a whole area following in the footsteps of Baron Haussmann's style in Paris. (10) Accordingly, the Yacoubian building was built by a rich foreign businessman who resided in Cairo in the early part of the twentieth century. However, as the downtown area has expanded and its population multiplied during the twentieth century, such a once modern core of the city has also changed. The film reflects on such drastic changes through the different lifestyles of the building's inhabitants, whilst highlighting the wide gap between the rich who occupy the posh flats, and the poor who occupy the roof of the building.

The third film, In the Heliopolis Flat, is mainly shot in the streets and buildings of the middle/upper-class area of Heliopolis or Masr al-Gedida (New Cairo). It follows Nagwa, the main protagonist who is a music teacher residing in the Upper Egyptian city of Minya, and who comes to Cairo for the first time to visit her old music teacher Tahani. Nagwa knows that Tahani lives in Heliopolis, but when she finds her fiat, she discovers that Tahani has been missing for a long time. Instead, she meets Yehia, the new occupant of Tahani's fiat. A good part of the film is shot in this Heliopolis building, and it becomes the place which bears witness to the love story that grows between Nagwa and Yehia. In the Heliopolis Flat emphasizes the concept of romantic love through the stories, experiences and memories of the characters, whilst suggesting that this kind of love can still be found in the big city, if one searches for it.

In this way, the three films share an interest in highlighting the significance of place and the position of the individual within it. How does the interaction with urban spaces shape the individual's identity in a metropolis like Cairo? What are people looking for when they meet and interact in public and domestic spheres? Which spaces are more accessible to women to meet and entertain themselves in a city that is open but also traditional in many ways? How does the individual's perception of her/his body evolve within the limitations of space? How do people create their own means to break the physical, emotional and ideological barriers imposed on them by the state, the family, or conventions, in pursuit of freedom? The three films critically engage with these issues whilst suggesting that gender roles change with the transformation of spatial relations.


In this section, and before turning to the three films under discussion, I argue that Cairo has been changing rapidly since the start of the new millennium mainly due to globalization as well as the imposition of neoliberal policies which have reached the political, legislative and economic systems. Furthermore, some crucial political developments in the Middle East have had a strong impact on Egyptian politics, particularly the breakout of the second Palestinian Intifada (uprising) in 2000, the war on Iraq in 2003, the Israeli war on Lebanon in 2006, and the Israeli war on Gaza which started in late December 2008. Moreover, and specifically since 2004, there has been a radical opposition movement, the Egyptian Movement for Change (Kefaya--the Arabic word for Enough), (11) sweeping the streets of Cairo and also stretching out to various provinces and districts. Even more importantly, and since December 2006, a wave of workers' strikes has erupted and spread across the country. (12) Such changes have dominated political debates, economic relations, cultural production, and the popular means of appropriating public space (for example, through protests, sit-ins, street theatre troupes, and popular songs and lyrics).

The state has been extremely ruthless in responding to the opposition movement and street protests. Since President Mubarak came to power in 1981, he has imposed an emergency law, which grants police and security forces sweeping powers, allowing them in effect, to hold Egyptian citizens indefinitely without charge. This has included systematic torture in prisons and police stations, and in many cases has led to death. (13) Despite the discontent, the anger and the protests to get rid of this law, the Parliament has continued to renew it, under the pretext that it is there to protect the country from "terrorism." (14)

Furthermore, by the beginning of the 1990s, and as a result of agreements with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the Mubarak regime started implementing a structural adjustment programme. According to this program, most of the public sector and services would be privatized, public sector workers would be encouraged (and forced if need be) to go on early retirement, and permanent contracts would be replaced by temporary ones. Moreover, private factories would be built in the new industrial cities, such as 6th of October and 10th of Ramadan, so as to break up the workers' collective power and shift the...

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