Ramadan came and with it the multiple dramatic offerings that annually appear on TV. I browsed all the channels for a day or two and settled on Segn al-Nessa (Women’s Prison).
I was captivated early on by the acting of Nelly Karim (who plays the protagonist, Ghalia) and Ahmed Dawoud (who plays the villain, Saber), but also by the vividly evocative music that hinted at what was to come: a down-to-earth depiction of a microbus driver and his wily ways with women and money. That is how the intrigues began, and I never regretted my choice.
The history of literature is filled with trends and movements, each coming to fulfil a social need to understand and thereby begin to solve the problems of society at a particular moment. At their best, with an acute sensitivity to life, artists are able to raise levels of awareness and understanding. And that is what this series did for me.
Directed by Kamla Abu Zikry, of Wahid Sefr (One Nil) fame, it shows female oppression not only in the main setting of Qanater women’s prison (an infamous real-life prison in Cairo), but in innumerable fragments of the lives of various prisoners and those outside who become connected with them in one way or another.
Based on the 1982 play Segn al-Nessa by renowned feminist playwright Fatheyya al-Assal (who passed away in June), the series reflects her life experience. Assal was imprisoned several times for political reasons, and was passionate in her espousal of both women’s rights and social justice, fighting for a renaissance for her society.
Mariam Naoum, who worked with Zikry on last year’s dramatization of Sonallah Ibrahim’s Zaat, is the scriptwriter. She has brilliantly transferred the atmosphere of 1980s activism with its socialist leanings into a modern drama reflecting a contemporary socio-political climate centered around disintegration and a sense of helplessness resulting from abject poverty and the absence of any hope-giving solutions.
The story, with its focus on Ghalia and Saber, includes numerous subplots, all characterized by the very detailed realism reminiscent of naturalism, a style of writing in which the role of society, family and even heredity determine a character’s behavior and ultimately his or her outcome in life. (The novels of 19th-Century French writer Emile Zola and his later American counterpart Theodore Dreiser are good examples). The series combines the prison, an all-encompassing metaphor for the situation of many Egyptian women, with multiple seemingly minor symbolic details.
One such detail is the innocent-looking scarves printed with tiny flowers that are worn by Dalal (Dorra), a young woman searching for love and a secure home who is drawn into a seedy nightlife by her aunt and cousins who thrive there. The flower symbol enhances the viewer’s receptivity to her beautiful, sad eyes, seemingly longing for lost innocence. Cast out of her home by her mother, rejected by her fiancé for immoral behavior despite assurances of her sexual innocence, she has nowhere to go except return to a life working in bars and nightclubs. A reject of both family and society, she throws herself into that life with a vengeance and becomes a successful entrepreneur of sordidness, using some of her gains to help her mother and sisters who happily accept her gifts but continue to reject her for having dishonored them.
The show depicts honor as defined in this society only in relation to women and their sexual innocence. It drives Dalal to a large extent to enter life truly without honor and, ironically, allows her to live comfortably and help others. Men abusing women, taking their money, lying to them, cheating on them, and other reprehensible behaviors are never deemed issues of honor.
As another example, Saber seduces a girl before marriage; her father, knowing this and to save face, convinces Saber to marry her by bribing him with a microbus to be paid for in instalments. The father-in-law thoroughly dislikes Saber but honor comes first. When the girl understands that Saber does not really love her, she retreats into her own ruminations, barely eats, and ultimately dies during childbirth.
Although honor is connected only to women and their behavior, men are also depicted as victims of poverty and of a social system that seems to force them to rely mainly on their traditionally granted patriarchal power. Indeed, though the series is dominated by women, there is the occasional sympathetic male character.
Throughout the series, relentless harshness prevails. Poverty, sexual needs and corruption in all areas of life permeate the show, and are frankly and openly depicted through the brilliant acting — not just by Nelly Karim but also Dorra, and Ruby as Reda, the country girl forced to work as a maid by her father, and Selwa Khattab as Aziza, the boss of a successful drug empire.
Other characters are also compelling: the girl with the kidney stone whose good kidney is removed; the harassed and overly sensitive housewife and worker who kills her children before finally being taken to a mental hospital; the imprisoned foreigner who helps solve fellow prisoners’ problems.
While most of the series takes place in the confines of the Qanater prison and in working-class areas of the city, middle-class life is also included through glimpses into the lives of the families for whom Reda works.
Rural life is also briefly shown through Reda, and is equally relentless in its cruelty and demands made on women. Reda’s father, for example, forces her to carry on supporting the family by working as a maid. When she has a suitor he is rejected in the face of family needs — Reda’s are deemed less important.
The result is dire, bordering on Greek tragedy, as is the fate of Saber and the pregnant Nawara, Ghalia’s neighbor and confidante, when Ghalia avenges an injustice done to her. Equally grim is Aziza’s revenge on the young girl she supported in prison, who, finally freed, turns around and betrays Aziza by marrying her husband.
Realistic scenes, daring in their horrific detail and sometimes shot in a pseudo-documentary style (by cinematographer Nancy Abdel Fattah), give the series a remarkable authenticity.
Most sources of misery in Women’s Prison come from poverty, lack of education, parents, social standards, social values or lack thereof, almost always placing women in vulnerable situations unless they are as tough as thugs and gain power over men. No other solutions are offered. The series ends on a note that highlights the ruthless forces of fate. That in itself should make the thoughtful viewer sit back and ponder: Was it fate or society?
* Correction: An earlier version of this play stated that “Sign al-Nessa” was orginally a novel, not a play. That was corrected on August 12.