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Gender Relations in ‘Women’s Jail’

Artwork source Al Jadid

Artwork source Al Jadid

by Aisha K. Nasser. The fasting month of Ramadan is a time for celebration in the Muslim World. During the ninth month of the lunar calendar, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset every day. Family gatherings in the evenings are marked with prayers, celebration, food, and television shows. Each year, networks produce a great number of television musalsalat (soap operas) especially for airing during the month of Ramadan, which represents the peak of soap opera production in the Arab world. This commercialization of Ramadan by state television, which also promotes piety, perplexes Walter Armburst, who writes extensively on Egyptian culture. With the arrival of Ramadan, Muslims impatiently anticipate the debut of new television soap operas. Last year, “Women’s Jail,” loosely based on playwright and screen-writer Fatheya El-Aassal’s original play by the same name, became one of the more popular productions. For its exploration of intersecting oppressive structures in Egypt, the series won a human rights award.

Screen-writer Mariam Naoum expanded the scope of el-Assal’s original story by  creating bitter sweet moments, diversified personalities, added events, and convoluted relationships. Set in a well-known women’s jail in al-Qanatir al-Khayyriyya, a suburb of the Egyptian Capital, Cairo, the series traces a number of incarcerated women convicted of various crimes: robbery, sex work, murder, and drug dealing, among others. Two of the three main protagonists, Ghalia (Nelly Karim) and Rida (Ruby), have been convicted of murder, while the third, Dalal (Dora) has been found guilty of being a sex worker. All these characters develop throughout the series, with Dalal providing the best example. A shy girl of modest background, who supports her single mother and two sisters, she steps gradually into the underworld of sex work, and ends up in jail on a fallacious charge. This causes her mother to shun her, and leads Dalal to become a full-fledged sex worker, then a madam. Finally, she comes to run a regional sex worker’s ring.

Naoum portrays these three central figures sympathetically, and demonstrates how the complex socio-economic situations that have convoluted their fates represent a microcosm of the national issues that led to the January 25, 2011 revolution in Egypt. She presents a variety of realistic, complex characters that evade the clichéd dichotomy of villain/rascal so common in many jail stories. Instead, she explores and illustrates the myriad relationships among women; e.g. motherly love, friendship, jealousy, competition, etc. She also explores the intricate relationships between men and women and how abuse can become the dominant factor, as in the case of Ghalia, whose husband framed her for a crime he committed.

In addition, Naoum reveals emotional instability through the development of the characters, such as the temporary insanity that causes Rida to murder the daughter of her employer. The screen writer also introduced a minor character played by Hayat, a woman who must cope with pressing circumstances beyond her control, especially contaminated vegetables and fruit, and rampant sexual harassment, which also renders her children potential targets. Hayat, who most likely also suffers from severe depression, eventually kills her family to escape similar circumstances to those that later caused Egyptians to revolt.

The diversity of these characters, and how they deal with their circumstances, makes this series quick paced compared to other soap operas presented during Ramadan. The actresses, especially the three main protagonists (Nelly Karim, Ruby, and Dora), give excellent performances and prove themselves assets vital to the work’s success. Director Kamla Abu-Zekry has saved the series from a potentially depressing atmosphere of divisive and oppressive relationships by interjecting scenes that display rare moments of joy in the prison. For example, inmates sometimes sing and dance all-night to entertain themselves, and hold special celebrations to mark the release of one of their prison mates. The act, by the cheerful Zinat, (played by Nesreen Amin), a sex worker who now serves as the prison’s hairdresser also alleviates the subdued conditions of the prison.

In its annual contest, National Center for Human Rights (NCHR) gives a tribute to “works that deal with Human Rights issues.” Last year’s awards ceremony, held on 29th September (2014) in the Opera House, Cairo, gave its second prize to ‘Women’s Jail.’

Women’s Jail Story by Fatheya El-Assal Written by Mariam Naoum Directed by Kamala Abu-Zekry Produced by Al Adl Group Multimedia. 2014.

This review appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 19, No. 68.

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