Written by Sari Bazz
Artwork by Musa el-Shadeedi
Translated by N.H.
This report was written in cooperation with Cinamji, a queer, feminist, Arab cinematic initiative.
This report/article examines representations of male-to-female cross-dressing in Arab cinema, and asks a number of questions including: What gender stereotypes and tropes are these films based on? How are the cross-dressers portrayed, and what factors might determine whether the character is condemned or commended? How can these portrayals be critiqued through a queer, feminist lens? These films document points of queer history in the region, and offer an alternative perspective that our readers can continue to reflect upon.
[Note: This is not a comprehensive list of films that depict male to female crossdressing in Arab cinema, but an edited list of what we consider some of the most significant. ]
The American Aunt (1920)
In 1920, The American Aunt—a short silent film, approximately 32 minutes long—was screened for the first time. The film was adapted from the English 0lay, Aunt Charlie, and was directed by Orfanelli. Ali al-Kassar, famous actor and owner of the theater group Al-Kassar, plays a woman in the film.
Unfortunately no record of the movie was found, so I’m unable to describe Ali al-Kassar’s portrayal of a woman. It should be noted that the reference I found referred to The American Aunt as one of the first cinematic experiences in Egypt.
Ismail Yassin at the Mental Asylum (1958)
The plot of the film develops from a relatively simple concept: the parents of a woman named Ta’ama attempt to marry off their daughter to multiple people for their own material benefit. They promise their daughter to the grocer, the coffee shop owner, the butcher, and a baker named Hassouna in exchange for money, goods, and free food, under the pretense that these gifts are all “part of their girl’s dowry.”
From the beginning, women are commodified, objectified, and considered to be the private property of their parents. Ta’ama is subject to unapologetic patriarchy, as seen when her father and male relatives decide who she marries and when, curtailing her freedom and ignoring her desires. The events of the film follow in quick comedic and dramatic succession. One of the suitors, Alwa the nurse, tries to trick Hassouna into entering a mental asylum by promising that he’ll pay off the debts of the rest of the suitors as part of Ta’ama’s dowry. But, Hassouna later escapes by disguising himself as a woman dressed in Ta’ama’s mother’s clothes.
Hassouna then visits a psychic while still dressed as a woman, but he doesn’t realize. Hassouna then confronts the psychic and calls him a fraud because he can’t even tell he’s a man dressed up as a woman:
Hassouna: “A woman? Yes, I’m a woman. A woman on the outside. A fake woman.”
He uncovers his head, so that the psychic could recognize him: “Hassouna! You trickster!”
We can stop here to examine the first reaction someone shows toward a man dressed in women’s clothing. Hassouna’s attire elicits laughter from the psychic. When he recognizes Hassouna, he doesn’t react negatively toward his choice to dress as a woman. They talk about his reasons for doing so, and Hassouna tells him about the money, job, and fiancée he lost, and how he was tricked into entering a mental asylum.
“That’s why you dressed as a woman?” the psychic asked.
“Of course,” replied Hassouna directly and firmly, “Women are the best at zawaghaan.”
Hassouna (the woman)’s reply here is important: that he resorted to dressing as a woman because they’re the best at zawaghaan. If we look up the word zawaghaan in an Arabic dictionary, we’ll find several definitions from religious, psychological, and popular sources. Al-zaygh (root) means ‘to lean,’ and appears in many religious sources and appears in a number of religious sources to connote deviance, turning away from truth or justice, or general movement or changing sides. The word is also defined as “deviating from the truth/justice, bending, or leaning away from something.” In psychology, zawaghaan or zaygh mean “deviating away from the norm or familiar, or a mental disorder.” In Egyptian vernacular, a common phrase that is used is “a zaygha woman” or “a woman with zaygha [wandering] eyes,” meaning a woman that goes out and about with a lot of men. These phrases carry negative connotations for women who are sexually-active, have multiple partners, are homewreckers, etc.
Looking back at the scene, the primary justification for Hassouna dressing as a woman was because women are the best at zawaghaan, meaning deception, escape, and deviation. Women’s clothing is imbued with characteristics and stereotypical ideas about Middle Eastern women.
The dialogue maintains its momentum through the scene, and the psychic sees in Hassouna (the woman) an opportunity to improve his business. He asks me to stay and work with him in disguise. He wants Hassouna to wait in the waiting room with the other women and start up conversations with them. Through these conversations, he’ll learn the reasons behind their visit. Hassouna will then fill in the psychic before each session. That way the psychic will appear to be all-wise and honest, and that will make him more money.
Here, a third issue arises: In addition to Ta’ama being commodified and controlled, and women spoken of as deviant, we now see the marketing of women and their clothes and exploiting them in order to make more profit. There is also a subtle exploitation of women by a fellow woman, all of which serves “the man.” Here both the psychic and Hassouna benefit materially from this ploy.
Ismail Yassin’s crossdressing scene only lasts a few minutes, but these short scenes are loaded with negative stereotypes about women. The film continues to display this exaggerated form of comedy.
One scene that pushes back against the stereotypical depictions of women and marriage is when Ta’ama refuses to marry anyone other than Hassouna. Rather than accepting the phenomenon of being forced into marrying without consent for the sake of financial benefit (in the form of a bridal dowry) or gaining honor (by forming relations with powerful and respectable family), Ta’ama asks:
“Am I an object to be sold or bought? Do I have no opinion?”
By uttering this, Ta’ama demonstrates her rejection of all the different stereotypes imposed on Arab women and on herself in pursuit of achieving financial benefit for her family at the expense of her feelings and love for Hassouna.
What is notable about this film is that Hassouna was not subject to any stereotypes or criticism for being disguised as a woman. Rather, the stereotypes and adjectives like “deviant, manipulative, and deceitful” were attached to women’s clothes and women generally. In other words, men were depicted as using women’s dress as simply a means to an end, and whatever responsibility or blame for those actions is based on the clothes rather than the men wearing them. Hassouna’s own deception as a means to profit himself and the psychic is ignored, and his deceitful and manipulative actions are depicted as a product of the attire or character he has taken on.
Sukkar Hanem (Fatafeat Sukkar Hanem) (1960)
In this film, the character of Sukkar remains in women’s clothing all throughout the film. Here, crossdressing extends beyond just a costume to overall manner. Sukkar’s pivotal role is that of a woman, with all the behavior and actions expected of her.
The film relies on stereotypical images of both women and men, establishing the power dynamic of men’s superiority over women. In the first scenes of the film, men are depicted as horny, something justifiable and acceptable regardless of a man’s social class or financial situation. Financially and socially affluent engineers Nabeel and Farid and the servant all have multiple relationships despite their class differences. Women are depicted as manipulative and deceitful, and feign complete obedience to men. We see this, too, regardless of socio-economic class through Fakhiya the servant, Salma and Laila, Sukkar the surrogate aunt, and Fatafeat al-Sukkar.
In the first scene, Master Shaheen calls the female servant to him using insults and name-calling. The servant responds to these insults with “Yes, sir.” The scene makes it seem acceptable for a master/man to insult a woman, degrade her, and reduce her to stereotypes that describe her body and looks in terms that oppose prevalent beauty standards. At the same time, it casts women as inherently inferior to men.
The film treats the character of Sukkar, a man dressed in women’s clothes, as a comedic tool. Sukkar is played by a friend of Nabil and Farid, and is a failed actor who takes women’s roles because he believes he is skilled at playing them. He is convinced to play the role with Farid’s aunt, Sukkar Hanem, because his real aunt wasn’t present when they wanted to meet with Salma and Laila.
The film shows the different ways male-to-female crossdressing is perceived. On one hand, crossdressing comes across as showing the complexity of gender. In the scene in which Nabil and Farid first see Sukkar in women’s clothes after devising their plan.
Nabil exclaims, “That’s insane, Sukkar! You really have become a woman! If you were to walk down the street, at least 30 men would whistle at you.”
Sukkar: “I wouldn’t even look their way. I’m an honorable woman.”
Nabil: “But how’d you become like that?”
Sukkar: “This is an art, not just women’s clothing. It’s also about how women talk, move, and walk. No one would ever be able to tell that I’m not a woman.”
Sukkar’s hesitation is that female dress is not enough: he must also learn how to imitate a woman’s manner of speaking, behavior, and movement. He perceives his role as an actor or an artist would. In fact, it is his status as an actor playing the role of a woman that makes the whole thing acceptable for Farid, Nabil, and Sukkar.
On the other hand, crossdressing reveals that women are, no matter the circumstance or their behavior, judged by their appearance first. When Master Shaheen meets Sukkar for the first time:
Sukkar: “How dare you attack a woman?”
Master Shaheen: [internal dialogue] “Woman? What woman? I don’t see any women.” [Shouting] “Next to you, I’d be Marilyn Monroe!”
Sukkar: “Why, are you blind? Can’t you see how beautiful my legs are?”
Master Shaheen: “Have some shame, you woman! How old are you?”
Sukkar: “I’m going to complain about you to the police! How dare you come here when I’m in my house alone? Do you want to ruin me?”
Master Shaheen: “It’s not like you’re beautiful! You call yourself a woman? Put a moustache on you and you’d look like a man!”
Master Shaheen’s problem was not whether or not Sukkar was a real woman (he didn’t know the truth), but that Sukkar did not live up to the beauty standards forced on women. These beauty standards are born in patriarchal society but supported by cinema, as was made very apparent in the above dialogue. If she does not meet those standards, her womanhood comes into question and she might be deemed a “man-ish” woman, as Master Shaheen refers to her in another scene. This sentiment is echoed again by Nabil’s father, Mr. Qadry, which compels him to address her using degrading language and making explicit reference to her ugliness.
A final important scene comes at the conclusion of the film, when Sukkar’s disguise is revealed during her and Master Shaheen’s marriage ceremony:
Sukkar: I’m just like you.
Master Shaheen: What do you mean, “Like me”?
Sukkar: I mean that I’m a man.
Master Shaheen: “Holy hell! I fell for it and got engaged to a man-woman!”
The sheikh [officiating the marriage]: “Oh my goodness! My God, have mercy on us. Get me out of here!”
Farid and Nabil then explain what happened, and how they asked Sukkar to dress up as a woman and play the role of Farid’s aunt.
Master Shaheen reacts by attacking Sukkar, exclaiming, “What about my honor?!”
The scene continues with Nabil’s father telling Master Shaheen, “Calm down and be a man. Are you going to be crazy and marry a man? Are you a woman?!”
Master Shaheen: “I don’t know anymore.”
Nabil’s father: “Just pretend it was a joke.”
The film ends in laughter, seeing as it was all just a joke and an act. The scene ends with Master Shaheen chasing Sukkar.
This scene reflects a number of important points. First, we see that there is a clear and strict religious standpoint, evidenced by the sheikh, on male-to-female crossdressing and the adopting or womanly behavior. Second, Master Shaheen’s response shows us that this episode was enough to call honor, something essential to men’s ownership over women, into question. Finally, we see from Nabil’s father that male-to-female crossdressing might be more acceptable if it were simply a joke.
Again, the film is full of stereotypical representations of men and women, normalizing power dynamics that objectify and commodify women (as seen in how Master Shaheen and Nabil’s father’s attitude toward Sukkar is shaped by her fortune, depictions of which women are desirable or not, and the horny Middle Eastern man and who is able to make women subservient, hit them, or force them to marry for personal wealth. Not only do the words and phrases above perpetuate all of this, but they also reinforce societal beauty standards and men’s leering and catcalling of women.
The Smart but Dumb Guys (1980)
The film revolves around the university life of a group of students including Zaghloul and Hassouna, two young men from rural Egypt who face high housing prices in an already difficult financial situation. When they fail to make rent, they reach out to live at Hamdi Bey’s villa, who is known to rent rooms to beautiful girls to exploit them for their own sexual desire. Zaghloul and Hassouna come to disguise themselves as Bahira and Shahira to get a room, and then Hamdy’s true nature is revealed.
The movie presents a series of scenes that present Hassouna and Zaghloul (the university students) and Bahira and Shira (the men in disguise) side-by-side, revealing gendered dynamics that follow. Like many of these films, the scenes start with stereotypical ideas of women: their sexual exploitation and mistreatment by Middle Eastern men who seek to possess them, being subjected to catcalling in the streets, and their objectification in the film by a wild and crude desire. The film shows the maltreatment of Bahira and Shahira due to their simple disguises that makes them appear ugly, especially when compared to the beauty and seduction of the other girls (Nahed, Nagwa, Beesa, and others). They were subjected to bullying because of their appearances from both Hamdy Bey, who tried to kick them out from the beginning but was stopped by the security guard, and by other girls, who forced them to do all the household chores. Because they wanted to stay in the villa, they accepted this treatment.
Despite not being “pretty enough,” Shahira and Bahira are still subjected to Hamdy’s harassment once he was rejected by the rest- that wasn’t reserved for pretty girls. Hamdy represented, in many ways, the stereotypical image of the Middle Eastern man described earlier (lustful, endless desire, entitled to harass women).
The film ends on a dramatic note with Hamdy discovering Shaira and Bahira’s disguise and tells the other girls. He then tries to make up for his mistakes: he gives the villa to the Ministry of Higher Education, and he pays for Zaghloul and Hassouna to be released from jail. He then tries to win over Beesa, with whom he had fallen in love.
The film, in general, depicted female to male crossdressing as we have seen above: though it serves a comedic purpose, it reveals patriarchal norms and objectifying female beauty standards. But there is another behavior revealed by disguise: a woman who is jailed with Zaghloul and Hassouna offers them cigarettes and promises to secure them a room with a man who was “like you like them,” insinuating that the man had sexual desires “of that kind.” The stereotype of men who dress as women, then, can be complicated to include men who liked to sleep with people who cross-dressed.
A Man in the Women’s Prison (1982)
The movie begins with Younis dressed as a woman and appearing as a prostitute waiting for male clients. His character dominates the film from the beginning, and he takes on many names when dressed as a woman with a full face of makeup. It is later revealed that Younis is dressing as a woman to seek revenge for the loss of his fiancé because of money by stealing money from men.
Younis’ portrayal as a woman is contradictory and more complex than other characters we have seen. We again see the character in the cliché exaggerated makeup and faux hyperfemininity in clothes, inflection, and personality. But, beneath that, we see Younis as a man as one who helps the poor with the money he steals from men he goes out with.
Along the way, he meets Nousa in the shop where she works. She’s a well-off and gentle woman who is thrown in jail and sentenced to life in prison on a trip with boutique owner, Samir, and she unknowingly smuggles drugs. Younis (the man) appears to help her family.
But, one night Younis (the woman) was caught with a client by the police and is imprisoned. There, Younis (the woman) talks with the women about their charges, and reveals that he is in prison for prostitution — something met wiht aversion by those imprisoned for theft or other charges. A prisoner then removes Younis’ wig and reveals his true identity: “Help, a man in women’s clothing is with us in here!”
Younis was not subjected to criticism or rejection until he met one of his victims in court, who replied “May Allah guide her” despite Younis’ not being dressed as a woman at the sentencing hearing. This was a rhetorical move meant to belittle Younis by continuing to address him as a woman.
During his two years in prison, Younis communicates with Nousa through letters to tell her the truth. And, when Younis is released from prison, he begins to plan how to catch Samir and hold him accountable for Nousa’s imprisonment.
Younis appears again in women’s clothes, this time named Halawethom. But this time, the film portrays him in a positive light as someone now working with the police to catch Samir. The police accept Younis/Halawethom now because they are cooperating, but interestingly, Younis rejects Halawethom.
Head of the Police Department instructs: “Careful, so he doesn’t discover you’re a guy.”
To which Younis replies vehemently: “I am a man, sir.”
Though the film differs from previous films in how it deals with crossdressing, treating it as a transformation that merely serves the character in the context of the film, this scene shows both a shifting of gender norms and upholding of a sharp division between men and women. But despite all this nuance, the film still ends up depicting men as having unquenchable desire and women as always available to being exploited, harassed, subject to men’s beauty standards, and victims of infidelity.
Shams al-Zanaty (1991)
The film takes place during the Second World War when a desert oasis is attached by a group of armed men led by Marshal Borai. Sheikh Othman, the tribe leader, travels to Cairo to buy weapons and by chance meets Henna, a woman working in the neighborhood who tells him of the legendary Shams al-Zanaty, who she describes as a superhero. Shams al-Zantany then agrees to help, and with the help of friends, buys and smuggles weapons to the oasis.
The first scene where we see Shams al-Zantany in women’s clothing is at Henna’s workplace, when he beats two men who tried to rip off Henna. Impressed by what the woman (Shams) had done, a passerby says, “Women know how to get things done!” But, unable to take the compliment and infended instead, Shams beats the passerby too. When Sheikh Othman returns to the shop, the people assume Shams (dressed as a woman) is his wife, and express their admiration for her courage and strength. Shams then sends his people out to buy weapons and deliver them to the oasis. When he reveals his face, none of them react negatively and only greet him.
Shams al-Zantany is wanted by the Englishmen because of his involvement in killing an English soldier. In order to hide from the English soldiers, he dresses as a local woman in a traditional outfit that covers his face, revealing only his eyes. Though this short crossdressing scene is short but serves a clear purpose in the film, the disguise did not play an integral role.
A final interesting scene to note is when Shams, again in disguise, seduces an English soldier and beats him to steal his money, again taking advantage of the costume’s power.
This film is markedly differnet from the previous in how it paints an image of tolerance and acceptance for cross-dressing. Shams al-Zanaty is depicted as a strong woman who stands against injustice, and is “worth a hundred men.” Shams’ friends accept him in women’s clothing because they know he’s a fugitive and they see him as an upstanding character. But, much of this is because cross-dressing is used to support the actions of a revolutionary and a hero who is hiding from and standing up to the British. It is because of this that it is portrayed in a positive light.
Strawberry War (1994)
Fardous, nicknamed Farawla, sells flowers on the street, and falls in love with a poor man who sells apples. One day a rich man, Thabet Pasha, sees them and decides to give them money in exchange for giving him happiness.
In one scene, we see a conversation between Hamama and Thabet in which Hamama is discussing his multiple affairs with women and he recalled the time he was forced to dress in women’s clothing to hide from one of his lover’s husbands.
Thabet: “How could you dress in women’s clothing, Hamama?”
Hamama: “I was once fucking a married woman, and her husband came home. That bitch made me wear a headscarf and dress so I could look like one of her friends and leave.”
Thabet: “Was it successful?”
Hamama: “That’s how I go to her now (dressed as a woman).”
Thabet: “Are you serious, Hamama? A woman?”
This incident intrigues Thabet and he asks Hamama more questions:
Thabet: “Were you happy or sad?”
Hamama: “I was happy, of course, because I could go in and out without anyone knowing.”
Hamama appears not to mind dressing in women’s clothing, and he in fact makes a habit of it so he could carry on his affair with this woman. Women’s clothing serves a specific purpose and protects him, and is not seen in a negative light.
Thabet then asks Hamama a more “philosophical” question:
Thabet: “Do you feel something inside you change when you’re in the women’s world?”
And later: “We’ve spent years with women, but does something inside us change when we become one of them? It’s a strange feeling—a locked safe that needs to be opened. Isn’t it possible that you’d be happier if you weren’t yourself? Or in other words, maybe we’re not happy because we’re men. Perhaps we’d be happier as women.”
Thabet’s questions about happiness show a perspective that rarely appears in Arab cinema. It presents a consideration of non-heteronormative gender and sexual identities wihtout sarcasm and ridicule, an approach strange to Arab cinema. What if our masculinity changed according to context? In my opinion, the questions in this conversation were of great importance. They shed light on a sensitive topic that is controversial and taboo in the Arab world. Thabet’s questions are more complicated that crossdressing alone.
Hamama reacts to these questions with surprise and bewilderment. Later, when Hamama and Thabet Pasa both dress in women’s clothing to please Thabet, Hamama’s attitude toward crossdressing shifts to moralistic concern of dignity.
Hamama: “Oh, dear! I’m a woman now. How could I go out like this? This is all your fault, Pasha. You and that Selim of yours.”
Thabet: “Don’t make a big deal out of it.”
Hamama: “If Fardous sees me like this, she’ll leave me. And my mother! My uncles in Upper Egypt will tear me up into pieces.”
Thabet: “Calm down, man. It’s not that big of a deal.”
Hamama: “No, it is. I lost my dignity.”
Thabet: “Where did your dignity go? Anyway, if you don’t like it, go wash your face and take off the clothes. Have your mother and uncles give you money for the apartment.”
Here, we see more traditional attitudes toward crossdressing return. Hamama rejects the idea and is open about feeling ashamed. Crossdressing makes him feel as if he has no dignity. Hamama’s attitude represents society’s stance against men dressing in women’s clothing and displaying any feminine characteristics in general so as not to detract from their masculinity and dignity.
Hamama is later coerced to cross-dress to please Thabet Pasha, in the hope of getting money. Now, rather using women’s dress as a mode of protection, he exploits the image of the women and their clothing and appearance for his own personal gain. But, their interactions with other women while in disguise reveal the discriminatory treatment of women generally, invoking empathy.
In the first set of interactions, we see Thabet and Hamama, disguised as Na’ema and Fatima, subjected to harassment and maltreatment at the hands of men. The two are harassed by two young men as they are walking down the street, bringing up ideas of public propriety. This scene rests on the typical image of Arab men with uncontrollable desire, and women as vulnerable and permissible targets harassment and assault in public.
Later, we see Hamama/Fatima and Thabet/Na’ema stopped by a security guard when dressed in disguise. When Thabet tells the guard about the reservation under the name Thabet Pasha, the guard asks them to follow him. Instead of obliging, Thabet asks whether the guard would treat them the same way if Thabet Pasha were accompanied by two men, and Hamama points out the discriminatory treatment of women in Arab societies. But, the guard cuts the conversation by referring to immoral behavior, and tells them that they are in a respectable hotel and not a “brothel,” insinuating they are prostitutes and have a “record.”
In the second set of interactions taking place in a prison after a policeman arrests them because he thinks they are sexworkers, Hamama/Fatima and Thabet/Na’ema engage with other women to reveal their concerns from their own mouths. At one point, Thabet notices a woman wearing lipstick and comments on how happy she looks, and laments how everyone is happy but him. In a conversation that happens between her and Hamama/Fatima, he asks “I see you putting on lipstick and blush. Are you happy?”
The woman then opens up, first talking about her marriages and the reasons behind her divorces, and then how she feels bad for children though she did everything for them. She wonders how the children will view her: will she understand that everything she did was for them, or will they “throw her out like garbage”? Here, we get an important snapshot of the suffering of Arab women with issues of divorce and alimony, caring for their children, and depriving them of their rights. We also see concerns of how society perceives divorced women as inferior and the reason behind divorces, whereas the man is never affected by multiple marriages or divorces, as he is a man.
These moments of empathy to womens’ issues cause another shift in Hamama and Thabe’s attitude about crossdressing. Thabet/Na’ema feels bad for the wronged woman, while Hamama/Fatima feels ashamed for dressing as a woman.
Hamama/Fatima says: You wronged me too by turning me into a woman!”
Thabet: “What’s wrong with being a woman? She’s worth a hundred men”
Hamama: “Don’t you dare say that. At the end of the day, we’re still the breadwinners.”
Thabet: “Oh, really? But isn’t Fardous (Hamama’s lover/wife) worth a hundred men? You need to understand that for any society to move forward, men and women should be equal and work together. Women are essential to life, even when it comes to making babies.”
Hamama: “Cut it out with all this deep shit, man. Men come home from work to their wives who remove their shoes and massage their feet in warm water and salt. So, who’s better?”
Though the scene contains stereotypes in Hamama’s insistence on the inferiority of women and the importance of men, we see more positive shifts in how Thabet’s for equality between men and women.
A third set of interactions between Thabet/Na’ema and Hamama/Fatima when they meet their lawyer at the restaurant highlight both experiences of being relentlessly pursued, and open the door to discuss homosexuality. When Lawyer confesses his love at first sight to Hamama/Fatima, he is angered and gets up to leave immediately. But, Thabet/Na’ema manages to calm him down and return to follow through with their plan. When the lawyer later asks Fatima/Hamama to dance and tries to kiss her multiple times, Hamama pushes him away and raises his manly voice, revealing that they are indeed in disguise. Though the lawyer is shocked, he continues to insist on his feelings toward Fatima. “She’s a man! I’m in love with a man!” he says to one of the customers in the restaurant.
When Thabet/Na’ema apologizes to the lawyer, the lawyer expresses his desire to fall in love and be in a relationship, asking “Why do all my relationships with women fail?” Though his final words weren’t of great significance, they shed light on “homosexuality.” The lawyer admits failing to establish relationships with women, which opens the door for discussions on homosexuality.
The film concludes with Hamama returning home to Fardous, still in his disguise. “Shouldn’t you knock first, woman?” she says.
Hamama: “I’m Hamama.”
Fardous: “I knew from your scent.”
Fardous: “You’re wearing a dress and lipstick, Hamama? You’re not the man I married. You’re a woman now!”
Hamama: “Isn’t this the case for all of us?” he expresses his rage. “We’d all do whatever the Pasha asks of us. So what if I wore blush? So what if I humiliated myself? Don’t you think it’s also humiliating for my mother to wake up at dawn to sell tea in the cold, just to make mere pennies? Isn’t it also humiliating for you, Fardous, to wear the same galabiyya all year? Isn’t it humiliating to sleep without dinner? Weren’t our great grandparents also humiliated?
He bursts into tears. This scene mainly highlights the gap in social classes in Arab societies and particularly in Egypt. One is either rich or poor, which forces Hamama to cross-dress in hopes of pleasing the Pasha and making money. We note here Hamama’s rejection and anger at dressing in women’s clothing, as opposed to the first scene where he chose to keep dressing in women’s clothing because it allowed him to sneak into the houses of his multiple lovers. It also negatively refers to women’s clothing as a cover for the affairs condemned by society.
“You’re the best man of them all, my love,” says Fardous, hugging him.
Fardous later visits Thabet Pasha in his house and tells him that what’s important to her is keeping their house and making money, telling him that Hamama was tired and she was there to take his place. To receive the money Thabet Pasha promised to her and Hamama, Fardous dresses in men’s clothing and accompanies him to pursue another woman he wants. This was the final crossdressing scene in the film.
This film is important not only because of its unique stance on cross-dressing, especially as articulated in Thabet Pasha’s words and behaviours, but also because of its exposure of women’s issues and the calls for equality between men and women. However, Hamama’s character still embodies the typical representations of Arab society in his belief that the patriarchal man is flawless and worthy of the “benefits” of the double standard between men and women, and his belittling attitude toward women and worthy of their submissive status. For him, it is acceptable to have multiple premarital relationships whereas the women are met with shame and neglect. It is considered acceptable for men to have multiple premarital relationships, whereas women are met with shame and rejection. Hamama’s role represents the image of patriarchal Middle Eastern men as opposed to submissive Middle Eastern women.
The Principal (Principal Salah al-Din) (2000)
Alaa Wali el-Din plays six characters in the film. He plays the school principal in the Pharaonic era, in the Mamluk era, and in Saad Zaghloul’s era, a play on the Ashour family’s teaching since the beginning of time. And, he also plays the role of Salah the son, Jawaher the mother, and Ashour the father.
The film depicts Jawaher the mother as a bossy and controlling widow who controls the action of her son, Salah, a school principal with a weak personality. In one scene, Jawaher tries to set up her son with the daughter of the Undersecretary of the Ministry of Education so that he might take control of the school “that had been managed by the (Ashour) family for years”.
The complex relationship between Jawaher the widow and Mr. Sayed, a man vying for Salah’s position as schoolmaster, shows a more complicated power dynamic between the genders. First, we see Mr. Sayed flirting with Jawaher the widow in an exaggerated manner (despite her “hideous appearance”) in an attempt to manipulate Jawaher to appoint him as schoolmaster rather than Salah. Jawaher enjoys these advances so much that she kisses him, and eventually goes on a date with him to a disco where she gets drunk and dances on stage. But, in the end, Jawaher dupes Sayed into going out with her to protect Salah and ensure his position as school principal. On the one hand, the film’s depiction of Jawaher deconstructs stereotypes around beauty and power dynamics that we have seen perpetuated in previous films. But on the other, it still shows women as bossy and manipulative. Also, nowhere in the film is crossdressing acknowledged – it is simply Alaa Wali el-Din playing the role of the woman.
Girls Only Band (2000)
The film revolves around Zaki and Assem, two men who fall on tough times due to unemployment. After witnessing a murder committed by a drug dealer, they reluctantly dress as two women, Essmat and Nonna, to escape him.
They escape to travel with a music band as Essmat and Nonna, and end up in Hurghada working in a hotel. There, Assem falls in love with a band member and a fan asks for Zaki’s hand in marriage. Unexpectedly, the drug dealer/murderer appears at the hotel, and though they fail to escape, the murder is killed. It is then as Zaki and Assem’s disguise is revealed.
From the beginning, the disguises of Essmat and Nonna are suspicious. Seeing them for the first time, the band leader remarked, “they’re too old!” Nonetheless, they are still subjected to multiple harassment scenes. Overall, the film ends up simply perpetuating tropes of women as objectifiable, and crossdressing as simply a means to an end.
Breaking News (2001)
In this comedy film, we see Nader, an aspiring film presenter who we see reporting from different locals like Palesitne and Bosnia. As the events of the film unravel, Nader is forced to dress in women’s clothing and play the character of a woman working in a brothel. As in the case of most films, this character is denigrated because of her appearance and is forced to play the role of a drug-addicted sex worker. The film uses crossdressing to uphold cliches about appearance and makes moralistic arguments about crossdressing and women more generally.
Either Me or my Auntie (2005)
The comedy film follows Taymour, a student at the Music Institute who is in love with Nawal and asks for her hand in marriage. But, Nawal’s mother believes in magic and sorcery, which stands in the way of their marriage. To ensure that the marriage will happen, Taymour dresses up as Auntie Nousa, a sorcerer who Nawal’s mother reveres.
Auntie Nousa is a main character in the film and is represented in a positive light from the beginning, for Taymour dresses as a woman for a noble cause: marrying the woman he loves. Taymour’s crossdressing is deemed acceptable and is supported by his friends from the start. Even his father consoles him once Taymour is caught and goes to prison. His disguise as a woman was not rejected.
That said, Auntie Nousa’s character does perpetuate the traditional stereotypes about women in Arab cinema. She is a “fat” and “ugly” sorcerer who exploits and deceives people. Additionally, we see elelemnts of male lust, sex, and desire when taymour’s father wishes to marry her. Finally, it is important to note that though Taymour’s disguised as Auntie Nousa is generally accepted, that much of this was for the sake of comedy.