Merati Modeer Aam (My Wife is a General Manager) hit movie theaters in January 1966. It was a decade when ideas related to Arab socialism were still thriving and President Gamal Abdel Nasser was trying to embed a new set of rules and beliefs in Egyptian society, including state-sponsored equality, education, secularism and hard work.
It was also a decade of great change for Egyptian women. In 1962, Nasser appointed Egypt’s first female minister: Hekmat Abou Zeid, who took on the Ministry of Social Affairs. The country was transforming from an agricultural to an industrial country, and just as women had roles in the fields beside their husbands, they could also now assume roles within the government — even as their husbands’ superiors.
Like a few other films of the 1960s, My Wife is a General Manager confronts these issues head on. A comedy directed by Fateen Abdel Wahab, it centers around a progressive intellectual couple, Esmat Fahmy (Shadia) and Hussein Omar (Salah Zoulfikar). Their marriage seems exemplary until Esmat gets a promotion.
The movie begins with the end of a social gathering celebrating the promotion, during which the proud husband expresses his utmost excitement and support. But his happiness is brutally interrupted when Esmat is accidently transferred to Omar’s governmental facility and becomes his direct boss.
Omar asks his wife to keep their marriage a secret in the workplace and she complies. Their relationship is put to the test and through one comic situation after another, Omar decides that their situation is utterly unnatural. In a fit of anger, he insults his wife in the presence of their colleagues and calls her a maid who should focus solely on cleaning and cooking for him.
The movie is an entertaining comedy, yet is loaded with the social concerns of the era. “Women in the east have taken their rights,” says Esmat to her husband, explaining that women’s work is not an issue and it is time for them to assume higher positions.
Despite his support, Omar says, “I think you are starting to grow a mustache,” ridiculing her capability as a boss and insinuating that only a mustachioed man can do the job. This is not Esmat’s most sexist encounter in the governmental facility by far — one of her subordinates makes a pass at her, for example, while another impatiently waits for her to get pregnant so he can take a vacation.
Esmat’s assistant, Abdel Qawy (Shafiq Nour Eddin), is different. He is an older man who believes — like some very conservative Islamic scholars — that every time he shakes hands with a woman he has to perform his ablutions again or his prayers will be void. Abdel Qawy keeps a pair of flip-flops in the office for his many trips to the bathroom to wash, and these flip-flops come to represent the archaic beliefs that the new socialist society of the 1960s needs to discard.
Aboul Magd (Adel Emam) is another subordinate of Esmat’s who thinks that dealing with her requires studying a self-help book about relationships, while Aida (Karimanne), the only female employee, is envious of Esmat and claims that she is a snob with bad hair. In the office Esmat is primarily considered as a woman, not a person in charge.
As well as having remarkably convincing, well-developed characters, the movie is visually appealing. It projects the modernism sought after during that era: the sleek furniture and unadorned rigid architecture of the offices, the simple yet elegant straight-lined midi-dresses of the working women, who also have the marvelous beehives of the 1960s. Yet the couple’s excessively elegant villa, car, maid and butler do not accurately reflect the lives of a young, self-made couple. Perhaps this exaggerated financial and social level was intended to make them a more appealing example.
My Wife is a General Manager tackles an important issue from this era that is still significant today, and its comedic framework helps alleviate the seriousness of the subject. It was a box office hit at the time and has endured well.
Abdel Wahab, always good at making fun comedies with sharp political messages (such as Land of Hypocrisy, 1968), was fond of gender-related topics. Three years before he had directed Al-Zogah Talatashar (Wife Number 13), a light comedy about a rich and handsome young man (Roshdi Abaza) who marries for fun. He meets Aida (Shadia), a self-respecting modern woman who gives him the lesson of his life and refuses to be treated as a commodity or object of pleasure. The film crushes the convention of multiple wives, despite it being religiously acceptable, and portrays women and men as equals.
My Wife is a General Manager was not Abdel Wahab’s first movie about women’s rights to work. Back in 1952 he had made Ostaza Fatma (Fatma the Lawyer), in which the protagonist is ridiculed by her more successful fiancée. Things change, though, when he gets framed in a murder case.