Written by Hana Elramly
“Everything in life is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power” – Oscar Wilde. Sex drives a major part of our actions and is present in several aspects of our lives, though for long it is meant to be limited to a married couple’s bedroom. Because sex is the essence of our existence and the cheapest form of pleasure, there is an interest in regulating it. Through gendered power or authoritative power, public discourse around sex and its regulation influence individuals’ sexualities to best fit the societal organization of the time.
Then comes cinema, combining motion, picture and sounds that communicate stories in a particularly relatable and expressive manner. Through cinema, artists hold the power to impact the spectators on an emotional and ideological level. Shifting our gaze onto the Middle East, the dynamics at play become much more complex. In this region of the world, religion – more specifically Islam – still holds a high level of authority and its rules are interrelated with the law of the land. With its focus on Egypt, this paper aims to demonstrate the peculiarity of Egyptian cinema in terms of liberalization and progressive development toward sexual repression. In fact, cinema in Egypt followed a reverse path, where it began by being sexually open and tolerant in its earliest days and gradually evolved into the opposite extreme. The aim is to show the way the public’s perception of sex changed over time while focusing on the role of Islam in shaping sexuality and defining good from bad sex.
So, how did the depiction of sex in Egyptian cinema evolve since the ’70s? I set the 70’s as a chronological point of reference as it marks the shift from openness to repression of sexual expression in Egypt. Although Egyptian cinema has a very rich history, literature explaining why it drifted from its liberal tendency to a more regulated form is lacking.
1- The depiction of sex in movies before 1970, during colonial/empire times
Cinema was first introduced in Egypt in 1896, during the British occupation, as a symbol of openness and Arab modernity. Since the 1930s and with the creation of Studio Misr, it has been ranked among the world’s greatest film industries, and more importantly in the Arab world. Motion pictures were also a way to inform and unite a heterogeneous nation and mobilize it towards liberation from colonial presences. This new communication method provided a new channel to educate and modernize popular Egyptian thought. During this period, Egypt’s cosmopolitan environment allowed for the filmmaking industry to be culturally diverse and inclusive of women.
At the time, foreign influence and presence in Egypt were at their peak. Besides British colonizers, Egypt attracted immigrants from Italy, Greece, and France. Their presence in the film industry greatly influenced productions and pushed for sexual openness. Though censorship was present, the framing of ‘taboo’ was influenced by “progressive western” trends. For that, “The golden age of Egyptian cinema starred fiery, determined women and love scenes that rivalled those of Western movies at the time”.
Most movies at the time fell in the genre of romance and sex and their portrayal was not seen as taboo. Still, those movies reinforced strict gender roles by repetitively depicting the unproductive, sexually appealing, and needy woman, ready to be swooped off her feet. This was not surprising since this depiction was a true reflection of the Egyptian society at the time, where women did not really participate in the workforce, and men were the main breadwinners. Egyptian films have always reinforced the image of the macho man and the beautiful helpless housewife. Nevertheless, this traditional narrative did not prevent moviemakers from showing explicit or implicit sexual scenes. From Adel Imam to Farid El-Atrash to Soad Hosny, actors of the time took part in the most memorable kisses in Egyptian romance movies.
By the 1950s and with the arrival of influential nationalist activist Mustafa Kamel comes an increase in censorship while filmmaking takes a nationalist turn, promoting pan-Arabist ideals. In 1952, the Free Officers Revolutions forces the king into exile and pushes for Egypt to become a Republic under the rule of President Gamal Abdelnasser.
This shift made Egyptian cinema drift from its progressive tendency into a state-led means of communication with the aim of furthering a homogenous state culture. Thus, progressive public discourse around sex became a secondary priority in Egyptian politics by the 1950s, as other political concerns were on the rise. This increased need for political censorship came hand in hand with social censorship and increasing state control.
2- The end of sexual openness and the shift towards repression
Egypt’s economic state took a drastic downturn during Anwar Elsadat’s mandate. This occurred as a result of Egypt’s relative ‘loss’ in the very costly 1967 war against Israel and the occupation of Sinai. In order to lift Egypt from economic dependency, Elsadat follows an open-door policy, welcoming a high portion of its foreign investments from the Gulf countries. Increasing poverty levels increased the levels of inequality and widened the social gap, pushing several Egyptians to go find work in the neighboring Gulf countries. Such high levels of emigration to the Gulf brought back a heightened number of Islamists in the country, which was spread among all social classes. The declining quality of public-school education in Egypt paved the way for religious extremists to educate a margin of the population on their own terms without being questioned. In order to appease this increasing portion of the Islamism population and prevent them from following Iran’s revolutionary steps, the president amends the constitution in the ’80s for it to include the Islamic Sharia as the main source of legislation.
Investments made by Gulf countries were also directed towards the cinema industry to ensure its survival, resulting in projects that are more and more adapted to the Gulf area’s conservative audience. Such changes triggered an increase in low-budget movies. Furthermore, instead of romantic and comedy movies, filmmakers redirected their focus toward political projects to appease the rising political issues and justify the very costly war against Israel. Several initiatives were undertaken by young Egyptian critics to save the Egyptian cinema in its artistic form, from the increasing commercialist tendencies. They rejected the art of filmmaking as a way to conform to the norm and appease investors, and reminisced the Egyptian cinema that challenges the traditional discourse. Once this artform becomes degraded or controlled by the state, it loses its power to ease people’s sense of repression.
Despite president Elsadat’s intentions to appease the rising Islamism, he was assassinated by a member of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1973 during a parade. After his death, the longest-serving president in Egypt, Hosni Mubarak follows. His rule was maintained through strong state control, a thirty year-long state of emergency, high levels of propaganda, censorship, and repression of the opposition in the name of protecting the state from the persistent Islamist threat. Propaganda through movies was used as a tactical political weapon to tame the public order in favor of the incumbent. For instance, a picture of the president had to appear in every movie, as a form of a personality cult.
With increasing political, economic, and societal instability, filmmakers were forced to collaborate with the government before working on their productions and accepting certain compromises. In 2006, renowned actor Adel Imam participates in the movie ‘The Yacoubian Building’. The movie implicitly depicted ‘taboos’ such as homosexuality, triggering extreme backlash, and public debates. The movie talks about the famous Yaquoubian building, which was built by a foreign investor during colonial times. The movie highlights the drastic societal and economic changes Cairo has witnessed over time, by showing that the rich occupy the posh flats while the poor live on the roof of the building. The filmmaker depicted several dysfunctional relationships between men and women, showing how gender relations have been deeply impacted by social injustices and economic pressures. A year later, the movie Heena Maysara was released. The movie aimed to present the poor living conditions of people in slums. Throughout the movie, a fleeting kiss between two women occurred. Religious authorities called for the prosecution of both actresses and the movie director after the movie was received as a “Zionist and American conspiracy” against Egypt, with the aim of corrupting the youth into sexual deviance and misrepresenting reality. The initial goal of the filmmakers behind both projects was to raise awareness around the increasing levels of poverty and social issues that seem to be underrepresented. Their work, however, was disregarded because of the sexual taboos they implicitly represented or alluded to.
The portrayal of gender norms in Egyptian cinema conforms to religious and traditional norms now more than ever but fail to represent the reality of Egyptian society. Due to growing economic pressures, the normalization of females as sole breadwinners increased. Even more so, because marriages are rather costly, young people cannot afford to marry and fulfil their sexual needs, making premarital relations more prominent, though not accepted. Ironically, however, women are now being portrayed in movies as money-greedy, dependent, and obstacles to the flourishing of men. Even when gender norms evolved in Egypt, their depiction in cinema was falsified. This gap between reality and its portrayal is a form of disciplinary power. In fact, religious authorities aim to distort reality and mold public discourse with the aim of controlling for such societal developments and reinforcing traditional values. Nonetheless, the control of cinematic production in modern-day Egypt is reflective of a patriarchal society that remains attached to its traditional tendencies despite a reducing gender gap, in economic terms at least. Egypt’s current sexual discourse aims at reinforcing a traditional patriarchal gender hierarchy and pulling the breaks on the slow progress towards gender equality.
3- Portrayal of sex and sex work in present-time Egypt.
After the ousting of Hosni Mubarak, Egyptians surprisingly elected a Muslim Brotherhood candidate during their first democratic elections ever. The level of poverty and extremism in the country revealed that the dominant ideology of the population had completely shifted during the Mubarak era. In fact, new legislations have been passed to grant the government unlimited powers in controlling social and traditional media and limiting freedom of speech.
Additionally, societal and economic shifts were followed by a decline in the quality and quantity of movie productions. With the increased number of home televisions and the shrinking number of moviegoers, film producers begin to invest in “trash movies” that would appeal to the poorer majority of the population and compete with the increasing presence of American soft power in the industry. Movies increasingly seek to represent ‘lower-class’ or ‘middle class’ citizens as they represent a majority of the population. For movies to conform to the norms of the vast majority of the population, they ought to be in line with the moral and religious values people abide by. This led to the production of movies that don’t challenge these norms and simply reiterate and reinforce the ongoing public discourse.
“While Egyptian cinema screens undeservedly show abuse of women, rape and violent sex, kissing remains out the question, both on and off the screen” (Khairat 2015).
Movies no longer depict sex in order to conform to such ideological shifts. Any allusion to sex in movies, songs, books are frowned upon and regulated. To illustrate, we take the example of the American movie Lucy, where the male lead was the Egyptian actor Amr Waked. After Waked shared a kiss with Scarlett Johansen, he was widely criticized by Egyptian viewers and deemed deviant, disrespecting his own culture.
In addition, public display of affection became equated with public indecency and framed as a sin. Most recently, a “Public Decency Bill” was passed by the government to implement new laws on people’s choice of clothing and their public behavior in accordance with the country’s moral laws. Such laws would be overseen by the country’s ‘Ethics Police’, tasked with penalizing any form of public display of affection and controlling brothels. Encounters with this police are often depicted in comedies, showing how these situations have become normalized, reaching the point of being funny. Such forms of invasion of privacy have been, for the most part, widely accepted by the population, if not encouraged. Instead of a personal matter, sex becomes an issue between the state and the individual, with the aim of organizing a society in a manner that follows the values of the most powerful institution, religion.
4- Consequences of this societal shift
“Common culture will, increasingly, undertake, in its own ways, the roles that education has vacated” (Willis 1990: 147). The relation between cinema and societies is a two-way mechanism. On the one hand, movies depict what their viewers experience in their daily lives through an artistic lens. On the other, what movie scenes choose to show can also be gradually projected in real life as well as challenge and influence societies.
In Egypt, premarital sex has for long been deemed sinful, following Islamic values. In consequence, a girl’s sexual life is related to a family’s honor and infringement on such Islamic values, therefore, equates shame and dishonor.
In Islam, the prohibition of premarital sex initially aims to protect women from unwanted pregnancies and disease. However, such values have not evolved with time nor with the medical advancements that should favor sexual freedom. With the changing sex culture and the increasing feeling of sexual oppression, such taboos around sex become rather a burden on women to freely experience their sexuality before marriage, all while making them prone to rape by men who justify this on the basis of their pressing and repressed needs. In 2017, a ‘mockumentary’ carrying the title Kiss Me Not criticized through comedy, the increasing “prudishness and self-censorship in Egyptian cinema”. The plot revolves around a filmmaker who is desperately trying to film a vital scene for his movie during which a kiss has to take place. However, the lead actress deems this scene sinful and figures out a way to dodge the kiss with one on the cheek. The woman’s behavior in this movie is a reflection of women nowadays, who fear to engage in ‘sexual’ acts as simple as a kiss, not for religious reasons as much as to uphold their reputation and their family’s honor.
The state’s pervasiveness in its control of individuals’ sexual behavior and restricting such freedom has led Egypt to become among the most dangerous city for women in 2011, where women’s ability to avoid rape or harassment was unlikely. According to a survey, in 2008, 80% of Egyptian women report having experienced sexual harassment and 62% of men admit to having sexually harassed women, including multiple occurrences of ‘mass sexual harassment’ incidents. With sex education still being banned from schools, under the religious pretext of upholding the country’s Islamic values, young men receive their education from movies and pornography. It has been shown through studies such as the one conducted by Dona Schwartz that “exposure to images of sexual, physical, or verbal violence can lead to acceptance of sexual violence”. Hardcore pornography, for instance, persuades young men that all women enjoy sexual violence and degradation. Furthermore, with the frequency of rape scenes being normalized while the depiction of consensual sex remains taboo, adults may become aroused by such violent scenes and consequently desensitized to the gravity of certain acts.
Foucault demonstrates that sexual desires are not solely biologically determined but rather shaped and conditioned by external factors such as societal forces. This theoretical approach identifies the reasons behind this shift in Egyptians’ relation to sex and their own sexuality. The interrelated social and political events mentioned throughout this paper and their effect on cinema explain how sexual desires can be molded by societal factors and evolve historically. Thus, when movie viewers are exposed to an increasing number of rape scenes and sexual violence, instead of consensual sex, they become gradually inclined to desire what they saw on the screen.
With the normalization of rape and harassment, it is understood that the sexual discourse is shaped in favor of men, and women face harsher levels of stigmatization when it comes to sex. By normalizing certain gender behaviors such as rape and assimilating them to “naturalness”, unequal gender norms and reiterated.
Art, however, can challenge current norms and disposes of the strength to trigger another societal shift in favor of a less restricted sexuality. Unlike other countries that experience gradual sexual openness and liberalization over time, along with several feminist waves, Egypt followed a reversed path, due to political, economic, and mostly religious changes. With the only forms of sex depicted in movies being related to rape or harassment, all while censoring consensual sex, Egyptian youth began to normalize rape and reject public displays of affection.