Cairo 678 – An Eye-Opening Drama on Casual Sexism

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A 2013 survey from UN’s Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women dropped a volatile statistic stating that 99.3 percent of Egyptian Women are sexually harassed in one way or the other. The context and definition of sexual harassment itself led to a wider debate as there was a general feeling that there was a distinction between physical and verbal abuse. After much debate, the term ‘sexual harassment’ wasn’t now restricted within the physical context of the act, but the sexual connotation expressed in words was also considered a form of harassment. Vigorous efforts are said to be made in Egypt in changing the societal perspective regarding sexual harassment. While lack of education and persistent poverty are regarded as attributes for the harassment, many activists emphasis on the tolerance of people towards sexual harassment.

Egyptian director Mohammad Diab’s “Cairo 678” (2010) was coincidentally released during the massive protests against sexual harassment. The daring drama explores the hypocrisy and the misconceptions about sexual harassment. However, it also makes a significant social commentary on the class structure of a society, where the struggle to make money and attain status has taken precedence over fostering the relationships. While the film’s strength lies in the way it doesn’t villainize all the men, its flaws lies in the rough tonal changes that often veers between a character study and simplistic crowd-pleaser.

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“Cairo 678” interweaves the tale of three different women, who comes from different class and with distinct temperaments. Fayza (Bushra) is a traditional woman, who dresses modestly and does everything (by covering her hair) to detract attention. She works in the government municipal office and fears to take the crowded bus to work. She takes taxi but it’s not a viable option since Fayza has to save money for her children’s school fees. Everyday, Fayza is either hooted at or groped on the over-crowded bus. At home, Fayza is bears the brunt of her over-worked husband, who always wants her to give in to his sexual advances. She seeks out the help of upper-class woman Seba (Nelly Karim), who teaches self-defense and self-confidence for women who are being sexually harassed.

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Seba is frustrated by the women who come to her class. They all want to learn self-defense, but none of them (including Fayza) admit that they are being sexually harassed. The women generally feel shame and guilt over the harassment, although Seba often reiterates that the harasser should feel the ‘shame’. Seba was a victim of gang rape, years earlier, and her relationship with husband and family has estranged in those years. Seba’s mother didn’t allow Seba to report the rape in order to preserve the father’s reputation. Nelly (Nahed El Sebai) is a young woman who defies the gender expectations and aspires to be a stand-up comedian. One day, while crossing the street, a truck driver grabs Nelly by her T-shirt and guns his engine to drag her down the street.

When she is finally drop on the road, Nelly chases down the truck to a traffic signal and jumps up on the brute driver, and takes him to the police. Nelly asks the police to file a ‘sexual harassment’ charge on the driver, but the police men are more interested in preserving her ‘reputation’. Eventually, Nelly files the sexual harassment suit, and interestingly becomes the first Egyptian women to file such a suit. However, she doesn’t get much support from both the family and society. Some say ‘she got what she deserved for wearing such loose dresses’, while other call her sexual harassment suit as a conspiracy to ‘undermine Egypt’s honor’. What brings these three women together is the fiery act of Fayza. One day, when a man grossly abuses her with words Fayza involuntarily stabs the man in the penis. The stabbing act, unexpectedly, brings some sort of relief Fayza, and thinks that her radical method is the only way to prevent daily abuse.

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Director Diab takes the neo-realist aesthetic to construct the narrative that brings together the central trio. The director also wonderfully explores the complex and varied male response to the abuse endured by women: from fully-supportive Nelly’s fiance to the sex-obsessed Fayza’s husband. The women’s views on harassment are also varied as Seba blames Fayza’s ‘backward-thinking’, while Fayza accuses the other two women for dressing too provocatively. Later, there comes a poignant moment towards the end, when Fayza sees her colleague & friend (dressed modestly) in the bus, who stands in shame because of the despicable act of a guy standing behind her. Now, Fayza understands that dresses aren’t the only problem. Its r might rather seem a simplistic approach on the part of director in providing counter-argument for Fayza’s views, but it’s somehow powerful. However, the same can’t be said to the other blunt approaches that are scattered throughout the film.

In the third act, the movie takes an odd turn in becoming a police procedural as an empathetic investigator inquires on the serial stabbings. At this point the movie becomes over-loaded with sub plots which slowly devolve the earlier character studies. The meandering plot structure towards the end displays the problem that has accompanied most of the ‘issue dramas’. The film-makers start with a hard-hitting exploration of the complex problem, but in an effort to turn it into a crowd-pleaser, they bring forth easy or blunt resolutions to the problem at hand.

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“Cairo 678” was at its strongest, when it vividly examines the psychology of different females who are subjected to abuses and victimization. But, it becomes more mundane when it pretends to provide remedies to the cultural oppression. Still, the movie is a must watch, since it deals with an often ignored but very serious issue. It must be especially watched for the invigorating performances from the three leads. Bushra, who plays Fayza, is the best of the three. She plays her character with great intensity and spirit, and we could feel the fear in her eyes as Fayza waits for the bus or for her boorish husband.

Despite its obvious flaws, “Cairo 678” (100 minutes) is an insightful and audaciously bold film which renders a platform to the voice of suffering women.

 

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