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Inas El Degheidi is a distinguished film director who formerly plied her trade as an actress and as an assistant director, working under several celebrated film directors. This paper makes a retrospective study on the life, background, and lifestyle of this filmmaker as well as her contributions to the advancements of performance arts and to the fight against gender discrimination and sexual abuse. It also examines how strict religious and social principles and values can be hurdles in the fulfillment of women’s dreams and how El Degheidi has overcome these obstructions to emerge as a film icon.
El Degheidi was born on 10th March 1953 in Cairo, one of the eight children born in a traditional, middle-class family (Fakhri, 2015). She and her female siblings were closely monitored and discriminated against because of gender. These events had an enormous influence on her later life. Her father was an Arabic teacher and a strict but broad-minded figure who gave his children an equal opportunity to follow their dreams (Fakhri, 2015). At the age of seventeen and still doubtful on career choice, El Degheidi was persuaded by a friend to venture into the field of dramatic arts. She decided to pursue film production at the Higher Cinema Institute in Cairo. Moghadam (2013) reports that at the start, the apprentice El Degheidi pursued all sections of film production, i.e., cinematography, directing, and scriptwriting, but was encouraged to specialize in directing by one of her instructors, Salah Abou Seif, who noticed this talent in her. She proceeded from college in 1975 and directed her pioneering film in 1985. She later married and bore a daughter. However, in 2013 she separated from her husband, citing boredom as the reason (Afify, 2015).
Image, Lifestyle, and Travel
El Degheidi is a tall, imposing woman who has adopted the western dressing code. Her mannerism and dressing have earned her disapproval from the security, media, and religious personalities. Afify (2015) mentions one male media figure who went on to posit that “ the filmmaker wears revealingly and often addresses sex issues because she suffers from a personality complex linked to sex “ (para. 4). Despite these accusations, El Degheidi is a Muslim who follows her faith, fast and pray, but who does not wear a headscarf. Being a well-known film director who has been in the industry for long, it is obvious that she has traveled to many parts of the globe.
Rahman (2012) includes El Degheidi in a group of upcoming “Arab women, who are challenging the conservatism and sexism of the Middle East community,” in which significant portions of the people are Muslims and women seldom treated fairly (para. 2). Together, these activists petition for educational expansion in order to offer women new opportunities and claim greater space in the public domain. This will translate into progress since shortages in women’s empowerment, freedom, and knowledge have been cited as major obstructions to development in the Gulf (Zayani, 2011).
El Degheidi’s career has elevated her to prominence, which she is using to advocate for women’s rights, and deal with hurdles in the process. She is on the Frontline of smashing barriers, and paving the way for many Arab women – varied in their belief, their aspirations, and their dress – to arise and shape their destiny (Newbould, 2017). She does not shy from grave topics that affect society. She has gone public and talked about contentious topics as the need to legalize brothels in Egypt claiming that it would be for the benefit of the society. Further, she has stressed the need for respect for every person’s right to make decisions pertaining to sex and that no person, culture, religion, or authority is to infringe on such privileges (Fam, 2012).
Throughout her work, she urges women to unite. For instance, her film Women in Search of Freedom uses three young women from three different gulf countries (an Egyptian, a Lebanese, and a Moroccan) that leave their countries and go to Paris in search of greener pastures (Pallister & Hotell, 2011). The three countries may epitomize the diversity of challenges faced and the various levels of liberalization that have been attained by the women who are being prevailed upon to unite. The foreign nation is a symbol of an egalitarian society where women are free of oppressive cultural practices and traditions. When they unite to fight these inequalities, they will be treading alien grounds and may suffer from rejection, heightened discrimination, etc. Therefore, they need each other’s support.
She is a vocal figure who addresses sensitive subjects that other film directors in the Arab world have evaded. Rahman (2012) enumerated these social issues as: “marital infidelity, forced marriages, girl child molestation, drug abuse, AIDS, homosexuality, virginity, premarital pregnancy, and a legal system that is tougher on women accused of adultery than on male adulterers” (para. 3). She tackles topics in a society where gender atrocities are perpetrated on women, yet the custodians of morality turn a blind eye on such misconducts. She understands that she is living in a “world in upheaval, whereby a woman behind the camera functions not only as an eye, but also as an inducing force, and as a result, she encounters resistance from the society” (Moghadam, 2013, p. 10).
Impact on Performance Arts
El Degheidi is a veteran filmmaker that has profoundly impacted the film industry in the Gulf. She worked as an actress in the film Mouths and Rabbits (1977) but ditched acting because she did not enjoy it much. She opted to direct because, in her own view, it is on a higher level and importance in terms of creative control (Symour, 2014). Pardon, Law (1985) was her opening movie to direct and since then she has supervised over fourteen movies (Rahman, 2012). Her recent works include Looking for Freedom and the Silence, both released in 2004.
Her utmost accomplishments have been the Night Talk (1999), Dairy of a Teenage Girl (2002), and Looking for Freedom (Moghadam, 2013). In addition, she has acted as an assistant director in several films. Although she deals with very serious themes, her film aesthetics satiate the taste of the Egyptian audiences. She is among the few most prosperous female commercial directors that Egypt has. Her films have taken part in various film festivals around the world, including Cannes, Moscow, Damascus, Vienna, Dortmund, Chicago, etc.
Financial and Psychological Support
Needless to say that fiscal and psychological support has been necessary to push El Degheidi to greater echelons of film prominence. Though she hails from a middle-class family and could fund her own movies, she initially relied on other sources for funding. She felt that people would link her career success to the family affluence and not her talent. Some of these sources are the sponsorships from the Egyptian Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Information (Symour, 2014). However, because the Egyptian film industry was suffering from low film production, she decided to finance her own movies to profit financially and decide on the festivals to screen them. She singles out her father for moral and psychological support throughout her career.
Obstacles and Solutions
Barriers to women’s success are deep-seated and difficult to eliminate. Women do not have sponsors to advocate for them and the authorities assume they cannot handle tough assignments. Further, society tends to ignore women’s contributions. The movie industry is male-dominated and has suffered threats of abolishment in Egypt and other Arab countries by radical groups on grounds that the industry has not committed itself to produce movies that promote good values and morals (Mellor, Rinnawi, Dajani, & Ayish, 2014). Although Egypt is a more tolerant country in comparison to countries like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, its social customs prohibit women from accessing a wide variety of choices in employment and education. In addition, the setup denies them the option of expanding past their customary roles (Newbould, 2017).
When El Degheidi selected film making as her career, she had to cope with unsupportive family members. Only the father supported her. In an interview with Moghadam, she informs her that everyone including her mother and grandmother was in support of educating boys and that her grandmother was unhappy each time a girl child was born in the family (Moghadam, 2013). This made the girls feel unwanted. This treatment acted as a stimulus that catapulted her to strongly desire to address the issues of gender bias. Her quest for a democratic relationship with men has often been misunderstood and she has severally been portrayed as a man-hater and a taboo breaker (Moghadam, 2013).
In her quest to investigate the society’s fault lines, she has ended up putting her life in jeopardy. Occasionally, she has received death threats from Islamic militants, arrayed in the courts, her works confiscated, and her efforts frustrated by Arab extremists (Newbould, 2017). In her own words, “There are people now who want to hush any loud voice with a different opinion” (as cited in Rahman, 2012, para. 6). The death threats were real since there are incidences of brutal attacks in Egypt’s recent past. For instance, in 1992 Farag Fouda, the anti-fundamentalist author, was murdered by these extremists while Naguib Mahfouz, the Nobel Laureate, was stabbed and critically injured over allegations of abusing Islam in their works (Mellor et al., 2014). However, she is not easily cowed. Despite the death threats and stern criticism from the public, she went further to castigate the authority for attempting to pacify the radical extremists by frustrating intellectuals, gagging the media, and banning literary and artist works purported to be un-Islamic (Fam, 2012). Likewise, she has gone further and released other films with such provocative themes.
El Degheidi’s relationship with the Egyptian authority and the audience has been conflicting because of her daring approach to issues. Her movie, Silence, had to undergo rigorous scrutiny and modifications imposed by the Egyptian Board of Censors before its production was accepted (Rahman, 2012). Similarly, many producers and distributors were wary to invest in movies addressing issues considered sacred for fear of such movies being banned, leading to economic losses. In addition, due to her controversial history, she has faced a challenge of convincing actors to play in her movies since they fear severe condemnation. The problem of restrictive censorship is not confined to Egypt alone, but it extends to the entire Gulf area. Filmmakers do not target local market alone; therefore, if their products are to reach beyond the domestic movie screens and “be sold on the lucrative Arab film market, they also have to pass the hurdles of these countries’ strict censorship laws” (Moghadam, 2013, p. 36). The situation poses a great challenge to the actress due to the choice of her themes. The existing market demands straitlaced films.
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The advent of satellite programming led to a resurgence in the film industry and a profit explosion since these products took much of the broadcasting time. Deplorably, it took a long time for Egyptian filmmakers to share the profits that accrued when their works were broadcast since the history of co-production between film and television was inexistent. Moreover, the distribution companies in the Arab world pay very low amounts for foreign rights. Hence, the filmmakers got very little returns from their works. To overcome this barrier, El Degheidi was forced to work together with financially stable broadcasting companies.
Women who want to undertake film making without upsetting the prevailing social, religious and political establishments will encounter financial insufficiency and discouragement from family members. The reason for this is not gender, but due to the misconceived association of the business with sex, alcohol, and drugs. Further, the lack of distribution framework and the problem of producing scripts in foreign languages are significant barriers to upcoming women artists. However, to the ilk of El Degheidi, the list of challenges is inexhaustible. It takes power, courage, and resilience to make it.
El Degheidi has not only been vocal in addressing affairs affecting women in the Arab world, but she has also shown her solidarity to the Arab women by standing directly next to them. She has portrayed their emotional state, hopes, worries, endeavors, and dreams in her speech and actions as well as in front of and behind the camera.
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