Culture  “We Are Sisters in Arms”

Four Women of Egypt: On Persistent and Revolutionary Women

Four Women of Egypt is a 1997 documentary by Egyptian-Canadian filmmaker Tahani Rached. It chronicles the friendship of four Egyptian women as they discuss their relationships with each other, their families, marriages, activism, and arrests. Fundamental to their friendship is their disagreement on religion and politics, of which they speak candidly in the film. The film, dedicated to Rached’s sister, is a lesson in solidarity and resilience. It also acts as an ode to the personal, social, and political strength of the four women, all of whom are outspoken about and persistent in their lifelong activism.

Wedad Mitry was the first woman elected to the student union in her university in 1951. She was inspired to join the Women’s Popular Resistance Committee when it was founded in 1951. She did so in order to “take part in the acts of resistance against the British occupation of the Suez Canal zone in Egypt.” As a journalist later in life, she was briefly imprisoned for her political engagement and alignments.

The second of the women, Shahenda Maklad, became involved in nationalist movements and the Egyptian Revolution of 1952 when she was a student. She worked with the Peasants and Union Parties and participated in parliamentary elections. She fought for the economic equality of Egypt’s lower classes alongside her husband, until he was assassinated in 1966. According to Kazem, Maklad “embodies the spirit of [Egypt’s] popular uprisings.”

Safinaz Kazem is a journalist and literary critic who studied in the United States during the 1960s. When asked about her experience of integrating into a North American culture, she said, “[I] disowned all [my] values to assume all their catastrophes.” Kazem’s ideologies are more heavily influenced by Islamist thought than those of the other women in the film, but she, along with Shahenda Maklad, believes that her politics do not conform to the ideologies of a single political party. The women are adamant that they “agree on many things,” and are able to navigate their differing opinions on more “sensitive issues,” due to their histories and shared overarching political goals.

The last of the four women is Amina Rachid, who was born into the upper class as the granddaughter of a former prime minister of Egypt. She spent most of her life in lower class villages. She studied in Paris and became a writer as well as a professor of French literature at Cairo University. She has fought alongside the other women for class rights and was imprisoned with Kazem and Maklad in 1981. She described being a political prisoner as “being in a parenthesis,” temporarily halting her life and work and resuming both after her release.

Each of the four women met at different times from the 50s to the 80s, either through their political work or their time spent together in prison. They express their disappointment that the Egyptian Revolution of 1952 did not yield the desired results for economic, religious, and sexual freedoms.

Though the film’s main focus is the efforts of the four women as political activists, it does not aim to make any political statements. At times, it lacks the historical background necessary to contextualize their efforts and struggles. Though the women offer glimpses into their personal and political ideologies, they are rarely deeply explored or explicitly communicated with the audience. Similarly, the documentary does not work to preach tolerance and coexistence, or to offer hope that through civil engagement, ordinary people can bring about meaningful change. Instead, it is acutely aware of the work left to be done in order to improve the political climate and social life in Egypt for lower classes, women, and religious minorities. Rachid acknowledges the disappointment that weighs on their shared histories, saying, “we’ve experienced a series of ruptures, including a rupture in our national history and our struggles (the 1952 revolution). It’s hard that things haven’t changed in the 40 years since what we call the revolution.” Maklad describes the unknown future of politics in Egypt, saying, “we have the same view of history. Today we all speculate. We know history goes on, but we’re not sure where our place is in the permanence of this history.”

However, the group shots of the women walking the streets of Cairo, sitting in local cafes, and reminiscing about their time in jail, serve to remind the audience that the women’s political efforts are perhaps not the core message the documentary aims to convey. Instead, the lifelong solidarity between them, and their dedication both to their causes and to their allyship, is the heart of the film. Amina Rachid express this, saying, on their relationship, “we have the same fundamental values: the love of our country, for example. But it’s not an abstract relationship. It involves personal feelings. Our childhood, a feeling of being lost, an awareness of what’s been achieved.” Adding to this in one of the film’s most memorable quotes, Maklad echoes Rachid’s sentiment, saying, “we are sisters in arms. And that means we are the closest of friends.” Four Women of Egypt was touching and inspiring, not because of its presentation of the future of politics they aim for, but in its portrayal of the women themselves, tireless and outspoken, as necessary actors in the futures they all individually hope to create.

Four Women of Egypt can be streamed online at nfb.ca/film/four_women_egypt/.