Samaher Alqadi’s As I Want is a much-needed corrective to the feel-good stories we like to tell ourselves about those on the frontlines of righteous rebellion. On the second anniversary of the 2011 Egyptian uprising that brought down the government of Hosni Mubarak, another gathering in Cairo’s infamous square ignited a second reckoning. One that forced many of the country’s citizens, including the filmmaker herself, to ask a difficult question: Whose revolution?
«the revolutionary womb»
For what happened that day was a shamefully underreported outrage – a series of sexual assaults that supporters of the status quo patriarchy either egged on, shrugged off, or blamed on the victims themselves. Which in turn sparked days of bitter, female-led protests – all culminating in the unexpected birth of a sort of 60s-style, feminist consciousness raising rarely visible in the Middle East. The women of Egypt’s anti-harassment movement suddenly began speaking up and out – and of rage as beautiful. Yet also of their fears with regards to living under Islamic law. Clothing restrictions, however, were actually of less concern than the insidiousness of imposed morality. That they’d gradually start covering their bodies instinctively – without even being aware or questioning why it was they were doing so – was downright terrifying. Blind acceptance might just be the most destructive foe they would face. (As anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko famously noted, «The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed»).
For what happened that day was a shamefully underreported outrage
Fortunately for the women of Egypt – and the world – Alqadi, a Palestinian residing in Cairo, was there with her camera every step of the way, from that fateful day in Tahrir Square right on through the awakening. At the International Women’s Day protest, Alquadi’s lens fixes on a sign alluding to «the revolutionary womb». With clear-eyed vision, she discovers that they’re not only fighting against the men that oppress them, but are battling their own (societally instilled) view of themselves as second class citizens. And yet As I Want is not merely a document of these women’s uprising against the Islamist Morsi and all he represents. It’s also a cinematic letter from the director to her mother – a woman she loves dearly who nevertheless raised her to loathe herself. The political and the personal inextricably intertwined.
Waiting to exhale
Indeed, it was Alquadi’s father who believed girls should be educated – her mother, that a woman’s place is in the home. And once Morsi is removed from power – with people naively thinking they could «bring mountains down and rebuild them again» – those aligned with her mother’s POV steadfastly remained. «As for us women, we got overwhelmed by our dreams», the director laments in heartbreaking voiceover. (Though, pregnant herself, she does ultimately conclude that «resistance and survival is a blessing.») «For 60 years of your life your lungs never had a chance to breathe,» she adds, speaking directly to the beloved mom who, tragically, never even knew her own self-worth. No longer alive, her spirit – and ingrained misogynistic values – stay ever present. «You died suffocating, Mamma.» Which pretty much encapsulates what these brave activists are actually fighting against – and for. Nothing less than the chance to simply exhale.