“Get married? Married to a woman?” asks Hanafi (Ismail Yassin) in horror when his butcher father, Al-Moallem Katkoot, suggests marrying him to his stepsister Nawaeim.
Hassan (Omar al-Hariri), the working-class protagonist, and the rich Hanafi are rivals for the love of pretty Nawaeim (Magda). But what starts as the sort of love triangle struggle that one typically associates with black-and-white mid-century cinema quickly becomes one of the most progressive and controversial comedies of the 1950s.
An excruciating wedding-night stomach-ache, an accidental sex change operation and three months of recuperation in hospital turn Hanafi into Fifi, an unattractive, mannish woman who overdoes the lipstick and perfume.
The chauvinist bully is also the oppressed victim in Fateen Abdel Wahab’s Al-Annisa Hanafi (Miss Hanafi, 1954).
In the opening scene, Hanafi is a narrow-minded, oppressive middle-aged man who hates women. He nails shut the windows of the family home to prevent his step-sister and stepmother being exposed to the neighbors. Later, as her life begins as a woman, Fifi feels compelled to open the windows Hanafi had closed, but society, represented by her stepmother Follah (Zeinat Sedky), doesn’t allow it.
Fifi’s aggressive comportment drives away suitors one after the other and like all unmarried youngish women at the time she is forced to marry an old man. Wedding drums are played and the choir sings, “Oh gentleman bride, your figure is like a tree branch … Oh well-behaved bride… Oh fifth-grade drop-out.”
It was not Abdel Wahab’s only film to examine and push against gender roles (see here), and as usual he chooses great expressive actors and smart comic writing.
For the daring screenplay, renowned journalist and scriptwriter Galil al-Bendari fictionalized a real-life incident. According to a 1947 article in Al-Mossawar magazine, a young women called Miss Fatma from a poor village in Sharqiya underwent a sex change operation at Cairo’s Qasr al-Aini Hospital to become Aly, a handsome young man who quickly married his neighbor.
Bendari bent the story and made his main character a man, who also swiftly adapts to his new life and starts flirting with male neighbors and in particular his old best friend, Abou Sreeaa.
There are several strong female characters. The scenes of oppression are contrasted with Zakia (Wedad Hamdy), Abou Sreeaa’s strong and vindictive former wife. She boldly barges into the butcher’s where he works, along with a police officer, to demand her accumulated alimony. She represents another type of woman, those who are out there fighting for life and rights. Despite appearing in few scenes, her character makes an impact: cunning and almost malicious, she always shows up accompanied by a police officer to enforce the “law,” knowing she can’t otherwise have her way in a male-dominated society.
Then there is Omm al-Saad, the dallala — midwife, fortune teller and cloth dealer — an example of a woman society has willingly pushed out there to make up for to those who don’t have the luxury of going out in the real world. Bringing in nylon stockings, food and suitors, foreseeing the future and delivering babies, she is a necessity for a narrow-minded society’s non-liberated half. Om al-Saad’s profession disappeared shortly after women left their homes and became more active members of society.
Right from the beginning, the way these strong women are presented clearly suggests gender roles are socially constructed. Before the operation, Hanafi was entitled by society to forcefully control his stepsister. His father doesn’t seem to mind and his stepmother sees marriage as the solution to the constant bickering that results.
The movie also breaks every social norm and cinematic cliché of its time. Boy loves girl, boy chases girl, boy sings about girl’s beautiful eyes, and finally boy marries girl. But in Miss Hanafi the boy is the girl! And he/she chooses celibacy and scolds those who chose to marry.
Miss Hanafi is unusual in its progressive questioning around gender because it is very early, very funny, not particularly political, and it’s set in a working-class neighborhood. A couple of films starring comedian Abdel Moneim Ibrahim — Sukkar Hanem (Mrs. Sugar, 1960) and Lokandet al-Mofagaat (The Motel of Surprises, 1959) — told stories of men dressed as women, but for the sake of the drama in higher-class settings. No film could match Miss Hanafi until 1987, when Raafat al-Mihi directed Misters, which presents the opposite experience: A married woman with a kid changes gender and marries her best friend.
Miss Hanafi boldly mixes the idea of sex-change operations with the pop culture of the 1950s. Music is a strong point — three big musicians were involved. Mohamed al-Kahlawy composed Al-Wad Hankoura (sang at Hanafi’s wedding by Mohamed Rushdy), Gentleman Bride is by Kamal Ahmed Aly, and the overall soundtrack is by Ibrahim Haggag, whose mocking violins sing and laugh every time Fifi appears.
But despite the humor, the movie represents the eccentric other in a matter-of-fact way, giving us the chance to love and accept it.