Mayye Zayed is a director, producer and editor. Here, she writes for us on why the authentic representation of girls and women in film can transform their lives.
May Ziade, almost my name-sake, was a Lebanese-Palestinian writer, poet and translator, who lived in Egypt in the early 20th-century.
Despite the fact that she introduced feminism to the Arab culture, and was considered “the pioneer of oriental feminism,” the only thing most Egyptians know about May Ziade is that she loved Khalil Gibran, the renowned writer of The Prophet.
A lack of representation in Egyptian film
As a kid growing up, I didn’t know her history or anything about feminism. All I knew was that May Ziade was one of my favourite writers and I really enjoyed reading her work. I didn’t have any other female role models. The rest were just male writers, male directors, male scientists.
Despite the great quality of their work, most of them had one thing in common, which was that I simply couldn’t find myself or my friends in most of their work. I couldn’t fully relate to any of their stories. So, as a kid, I started writing my own stories, hoping that one day someone would read them.
Many of the women I know are smart, strong, independent and career driven, but they are never represented
Throughout my teenage years, that search for someone I could relate to continued in all the books I was reading and all the films and TV programmes I was watching. Women were, and still are, always portrayed in the media in Egypt from a solely male perspective that is narrow, stereotypical and sexualised most of the time.
Like many parts of the world, women and girls are socially pressured to only be interested in marriage, fashion and makeup. Many of the women I know are smart, strong, independent and career driven, but they are never represented.
Most of the TV shows for women in Egypt are about cooking, fashion and relationships, but women I know don't usually watch them. So, the stories I used to write as a kid, started to become films I dreamt about making as a grown-up.
I wanted to simply tell stories about myself, my family, my culture, my social class and the things that matter the most to me.
The golden age of Egyptian cinema
In the early years of the Egyptian cinema, women did have high-level positions as producers, directors, distributors and editors. Laila, the first Egyptian and Arabic feature ever, was produced and directed in 1927 by Aziza Amir, who also acted in it. She founded a production company, Isis Films, that produced other early Egyptian films.
There was also Assia Dagher who produced over 100 films and her niece Mary Queeny, another producer and the founder of Studio Galal: one of the largest film studios during the Golden Age of the Egyptian cinema.
In a country where filming a love scene is frowned upon, domestic violence and physical abuse are openly portrayed and accepted
The industry was built and dominated by pioneering women in the twenties, thirties and forties of the last century. Sadly, that is not the case anymore.
Nowadays, most Egyptian films are written, directed and produced by men; the presence of a female leading character is rare, and male leading characters delve into the worlds of crime, drugs, corruption and other topics I am not the least bit interested in.
Usually, the secondary female characters in these films are two dimensional and just props for the men to show off to or win in the end.
In a country where filming a love scene is frowned upon, domestic violence and physical abuse are openly portrayed and accepted. Even in films that were made very recently and define themselves as “empowering women”, the male gaze is very present as the female lead character is always sexualised, victimised, helpless and needing a man to rescue her.
Despite the international recognition some of these films have received, I find they misrepresent the women of this country and feed the stereotypes of Western audiences regarding the Arab region in general. I cannot deny the fact that women’s rights in the Arab world are limited.
Yet there are amazing, strong women, coming from all the different social classes and backgrounds, fighting these limitations and breaking social taboos, whose lives are truly inspirational.
Transforming the lives of women and girls
there are amazing, strong women, coming from all the different social classes and backgrounds, fighting these limitations and breaking social taboos, whose lives are truly inspirational.
That’s why I have been making films since 2010, because these are the characters I can relate to and love to make films about. Since cinema is embedded strongly in the Egyptian culture, it was not that unthinkable to become a female director and producer.
Having progressive open-minded parents also helped, but not all families are like mine. Without support many young girls, will dismiss the idea of being a filmmaker or a story teller.
I believe it all starts at home and that’s why the media plays an important role. It is such a powerful tool, capable of changing society’s rules and perceptions.
If little girls and their parents start seeing strong unconventional female role models on TV, in cinemas and books, their self-image and their ideas can be altered and, hopefully, the lives of girls and women transformed.
It's time to #RewriteHerStory.
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