The Female Pioneers Behind the Golden Age of Egyptian Cinema

The death of screen legend Faten Hamama at the weekend reminds us that Egyptian cinema was developed by a group of remarkable, strong women.

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Egyptian screen legend Faten Hamama, who died at the age of 83 on January 17.
Egyptian screen legend Faten Hamama, who died at the age of 83 on January 17.Credit: AFP

Faten Hamama, the greatest of Egypt’s film actresses, died at the age of 83 last Saturday. Hamama, who was known as “the Lady of the Arabic Screen,” acted in about 100 films from the 1940s until 2000.

She was born in 1931, in the village of Sanblawin, and began acting in films in the Egyptian realist genre during the 1950s – the golden age of Egyptian cinema.

In these films, Hamama played women fighting for their place in Egypt’s patriarchal society – sometimes as a young woman from a rural community who flouts convention and leaves; sometimes as an urban woman who fights against the laws that discriminated against women.

Hamama appears in 18 of the 150 films chosen as classics of Egyptian cinema by the Cairo International Festival in the late 1990s, including “Struggle in the Valley,” where she met her second husband, the actor Omar Sharif.

Hamama was awarded many international prizes for her roles, including an honorary doctorate from the American University in Cairo. About a year ago, when Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi was addressing various artists and noticed Hamama in the audience, he stopped his speech, stepped from the stage and went to welcome her, as a sign of respect for her unique status as the first lady of Egyptian cinema.

Positions of power

Hamama’s passing provides an opportunity to become acquainted with the women pioneers of Egyptian cinema who preceded her – women who were active during the first half of the 20th century and held positions of power in Egypt’s film industry.

Although women in high-level positions have become something of a rarity in Egypt’s film industry in recent decades, it was not always so. Beginning in the 1920s, women were the ones who held powerful positions in Egyptian cinema – not only as actresses, but also as producers, directors, editors, soundtrack composers and distributors. And, for a brief time, they were even stronger than men within the industry.

There were six particularly prominent female pioneers: Aziza Amir (1901-1952); Assia Dagher (1908-1986); Behidja Hafez (1908-1983); Fatma Rouchdi (1908-1996); Amina Mohamed (1908-1985); and Mary Queeny (1916–2003).

Each came from a different economic and geographic background. Some were Christian, others Muslim. But they all had one thing in common: There was no man in their lives – neither father, brother nor husband – who could impose restrictions on them, keep them from working, or steal the money they earned.

In addition, a significant element that helped their professional success was that most of them were born and grew up during a time that was a turning point in the lives of women in the world in general, and also in Egypt: World War I, when the men in many countries were drafted to fight, and women went out to work.

The idea of women’s liberation had reached Egypt even before then, during the second half of the 19th century, with the influence of European culture and, even more, of the British occupation of Egypt in 1882.

Egyptian travelers who visited Europe called in their letters for the emancipation of Egyptian women, and the national struggle that peaked with the 1919 uprising led to the rapid freeing of women from the shackles of tradition and their going out to demonstrations alongside men.

A feminist movement was active in Egypt during the 1920s.

Women such as Huda Sha’arawi – the leader of the movement to free women from the obligation to wear the veil – and the Palestinian poet May Ziade, who lived in Cairo, worked hard for women’s liberation and advancement in society.

Jewish actresses paved the way

With perfect timing, the Egyptian film industry began to thrive and became one of the areas of employment where women could integrate. But it was not easy. Since theater professions were off-limits to Muslim women, young men played women’s roles in early Egyptian theater. Later, thanks to the Jewish journalist and playwright Yaqub Sanu (also known as James Sanua) – the founder of Egyptian theater – Christian and Jewish women who spoke Arabic began appearing on the stage. Jewish actresses paved the way for Muslim women, who began to appear on the stage around the time of World War I. But they were mostly actresses, not directors or producers.

What sets these six women apart from other actresses of the time is that they did not remain actresses.

They took professional risks and embarked on financial adventures that they often had a hard time maintaining, but they stayed on their independent path.

Some of them continued to be active during the 1950s and ’60s, but their power lessened as the years went by, and most of them died penniless.

Also, although women producers and directors existed in Egypt later on – such as Magda (born, 1931), the producer and actress (her birth name was Affaf Kamel Elsabahy), or the feminist director Inas El-Degheidy (born 1953) – they were subjected to limitations as time went on and Egypt’s film industry became more and more controlled by men.

Fading glory

There are various reasons why this happened. Unfortunately, the national independence that is often won at the end of a struggle contains men’s independence on the one hand and the restriction of women by patriarchal tradition on the other.

It is possible that the fading glory of Egyptian cinema – which dipped in the late 1960s and dived to its lowest point in the 1980s and ’90s – brought with it a reduction in the status of the women who worked in the industry.

It is also likely that the return to religion and tradition kept women from continuing to work in the cinema over the years.

Either way, it is obvious that women no longer occupy the honored place that they held in the first half of the 20th century.

The issue of women’s underrepresentation in Egypt’s film industry is one of the major issues that Egyptian director Marianne Khoury dealt with in her acclaimed documentaries “Women Who Loved Cinema” (2002, 2003).

Each of the young women interviewed recounts the difficulties she encountered in the field, and her fear of working with a production company that might dismiss her or expropriate her work.

But much has happened in Egypt since the film reached the big screen.

The founding, in 2005, of the Rotana Cinema satellite channel – the first open channel to broadcast Arab films – heralded the entry of a great deal of capital into the local film industry, which led to the renewed blossoming of the industry and an increase in the number of films produced per year.

Also, Egypt embarked on a new national struggle, which, while not calling for liberation from colonialism, definitely sought to free the country from the yoke of the previous regime, from tyranny and the ongoing exploitation of most of the population.

The Rotana Cinema channel marked its 10th anniversary on New Year’s Eve with a day of special broadcasts, which included interviews that Hala Sarhan conducted with Egypt’s best actors and actresses, past and present.

Among those interviewed was actress Ilham Chahine, who began acting in Egyptian films in the 1980s and quickly became a star. Chahine, a successful film producer, now symbolizes an important trend in the industry.

“I want to restore Egyptian cinema to what it used to be: the lighthouse of Egyptian culture,” she said in the interview.

The existence of other women producers in the industry, such as actress Mona Zaki and Sarhan herself, could be good news for Egyptian cinema, and perhaps for Egypt as a whole.

Click the alert icon to follow topics: