Tunisian film director Raja Amari is not afraid to provoke. Her 2009 film Buried Secrets anticipated the Tunisian revolution of 2011, and for many years she has been waging her own mini-revolution aiming to liberate the female body within the Tunisian film industry.

Fact box

In October 2014 the liberal, secular party Nidaa Tounes won the parliamentary elections, relegating the moderate islamist party Ennahda to second place.

The formation of a new government is awaiting the final round of the presidental elections, which stands between two candidates affiliated with the same parties. But it's excpected that Nidaa Tounes will prefer to create a coalition reaching across the traditional left-right spectrum together with a number of smaller, secular parties. 

The Sunday evening I met Tunisian film director Raja Amari in her hotel room in Copenhagen was not just any old Sunday. It was Sunday 26 October – the day when Tunisian voters were taking to the polls for the second time in the wake of the 2011 Jasmine Revolution.

Raja Amari was eagerly but calmly awaiting the result.  Her lack of nerves stemmed not only from the fact that she herself mostly resides in France, but also from the fact that, unlike its neighbours, Tunisia – the country that sparked off the wave of revolutions that spread across the Muslim world in 2011 – has managed to administer its new-found democracy peacefully.  

Whereas Syria, Yemen, Egypt and Libya have ended up in various states of democratic breakdown, turmoil and armed conflict, Tunisia has gone on to adopt a new democratic constitution. Among other things, this constitution, which was passed by an overwhelming parliamentary majority in January 2011, supports the rights of Tunisian women and promotes other personal freedoms such as the freedom of speech and the freedom of religion.

However, Raja Amari has not travelled all the way to Copenhagen to discuss politics, and then again. Because as she herself says – the social dimension is difficult to separate from the aesthetic dimension in her films.

The evening before our meeting, her 2009 film Buried Secrets had been screened at Copenhagen’s Cinamateket as part of a Tunisian film cavalcade. The film is both a horror film and a social thriller about three women – a mother and her two daughters – who live in the basement of a dilapidated yet opulent villa. In the house’s heyday, the three worked as servants in the property, and now, strangely, they find themselves left behind as everyone else has abandoned the house.  Here the three live on in a time warp, isolated from the outside world and bound together in a less-than-healthy mother-daughter symbiosis. One day, however, their world is shaken as a young, modern and liberated couple move in upstairs, oblivious to the existence of the three women in the basement.

An allegory on social inequality in Tunisia

In many ways, Buried Secrets is a pre-revolutionary witness account of the social and cultural schisms that were no longer capable of sustaining Tunisian society under the rule of former-dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali – a society saturated with social inequality and repression.

- Buried Secrets can be seen as an allegory – both in relation to women and in relation to the setting in which the film plays out. The geography of the setting enabled me to portray the social differences and communication – or lack thereof – between two social classes. Two universes that exist side by side, but never overlap. It’s a comment on the social realities of that time.

- What takes place during the film also ended up taking place in Tunisia during the revolution. Here, there were two parallel societies, and the revolution made Tunisians suddenly aware that there were others in the country who lived in completely different and almost incomprehensible ways. Their eyes were opened to the existence of a world that we never talked about – a world that stood in stark contrast to both the political rhetoric and the Tunisian tourist image, explains Raja Amari. 

Women and their (naked) bodies

The beautiful and half-crazy Aisha, the youngest of the three women living under the house, is the catalyst within the film. Her desire for sex, high heels and a free living brings the whole situation to a head. Like Raja Amari’s debut film Satin Rouge (2002) which explores the taboo world of the belly dancer, Buried Secrets is a film both about women and featuring women – and their bodies. Not only does the film present more nudity than audiences may expect, it also examines women’s sensuality and sexuality from unknown angles.   

- Working with women interests me. I find that there’s more complexity in the universe that they represent – not just in Tunisia, but also in general. Women live more in conflict. They’re permitted to do fewer things and face more limitations. In general, women have more to lose, but they’ve also got more to gain.

- Working with sexuality and the significance of the body is something I find interesting. The limits there are.  How the body exists in a certain universe – how it is constantly being repressed. And how it nevertheless manages to express itself, even if through violence.

- Women in the traditional Arabic films have always fulfilled one of two roles – either she was the good woman or she was the bad woman. I wanted to break away from these classical roles. We often say that we’re interested in the plight of women, but at the same time were always holding women back and putting them in a specific place, tells Raja Amari.

This, however, remains an artistic premise that makes it difficult for Raja Amani’s films to be screened in her home country of Tunisia. Despite the fact that her films enjoy widespread international acclaim, only one minor Tunisian television channel has broadcast Satin Rouge – and only late at night. The issue of nudity quickly comes to dominate the discussion. Raja Amani knows that this is how it has to be, yet she still believes that putting the woman’s body in the centre is necessary.

- My films will never be seen as living up to public moral standards. They’re solely judged on the issue of nudity, and the rest is ignored. The discussion soon tips over into a debate as to what extent I am making my films merely to provoke.”

But is there not some truth in this claim?

- Yes, there is. I work with specific elements to provoke, but at the same time I hope that I can stir up a debate and bring these issues out into the open. I want to show the double standards that exist in our society, points out Raja Amari.

Progressive women’s politics

Historically, Tunisia has been a pioneer in the Arab world in relation to the legal rights of women. As early as 1956, President Habib Bourguiba revised the Tunisian family laws. And in the wake of the liberation struggles against French colonialism, women in Tunisia were not only granted the right to vote, but also gained access to education and the labour market, and were given the right to request divorce and own a personal fortune. By 1962, free abortions were legalised in Tunisia – ten years ahead of Denmark.

However, cultural norms stood in the way, preventing women from actually making use of these rights. According to Raja Amari, the new constitution has finally dealt with this issue.

- Even though the law gave women the right to vote, have free abortions and seek divorce, society has lagged behind. Socially, it was still unacceptable for women to do these things. The amendments in the new constitution are not necessarily major ones. Nor was our revolution particularly violent. The fundamental difference lies in the fact that the new constitution has been debated by the people and is a product of the people’s will. There’s been a huge debate in Tunisia around the role of women in society. Several Islamist fractions wanted the constitution to include a part stating that women are subservient to men. Suddenly, Tunisian women faced losing everything they had fought for. They saw which rights they actually had and how their lives would change if these rights were taken away from them. This served hone our collective mindset and bring it up to par with reality, explains Raja Amari.

The headscarf is a complex symbol

Buried Secrets portrays the clash between traditionalism and modernity that many Muslim countries are currently experiencing in their own different ways. The women in the basement cover up their bodies and hair with shapeless clothing and headscarves whereas the young woman who has moved in to the house upstairs wears Western clothing, shows her skin and flaunts her long, straightened hair. At least to begin with. Even though from a Western perspective the chasm between modernity and traditionalism can seem as simple as a question of wearing a headscarf or not, the reality, according to Raja Amari, is far more complex.

Like many other countries across the Middle East and North Africa region, Tunisia is currently experiencing a surge in the number of women choosing to cover themselves up. The tendency has particularly taken off in the wake of 11 September 2001 and has been fuelled by the spread of satellite television from the Gulf States. For Raja Amari, it is an oversimplification to see a woman’s choice to wear a headscarf as a sign of radicalisation. For her, the choice has as much to do with fashion and a desire to indicate an individual cultural standpoint.

- Yes, there is conservatism in the air, but many of the girls who wear a headscarf are not necessarily religious. On the contrary – they are very progressive, they want to work, they want to have a career, and they are on the left of the political spectrum. It was precisely this group who voted against the Islamists and who voted for the new, progressive law on equality and parity (Since 2011, the political parties in Tunisia have had to put forward equal numbers of male and female political candidates, ed). It’s very complex, explains Raja Amari.

Feminism is part of the general fight for freedom

Danish-Arab Partnership Programme

KVINFO's programme in the Middle East and North Africa is financed by:

 

When looking at this issue, it’s worth remembering the fact that in Tunisia between 1981 and the revolution of 2011 women were prohibited from wearing the Hijab in public institutions. This was former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s definition of freedom. Choosing to adopt the headscarf again can be seen as the modern Tunisian woman’s own fight for freedom by distancing herself from the former dictator’s decree – a fight that Raja Amari points out has always gone hand in hand with the national fight for freedom. The feminist movement in Tunisia was born at the same time as Tunisia’s fight for freedom against colonial France in the 1950s, and has remained part of the cultural debate ever since. 

In the West, we tend to think that we were the ones who invented feminism.

- Yes, that’s exactly my point..., laughs Raja Amari before she has to rush off to her next engagement. Her new film Printemps Tunisien (Eng. Tunisian Spring) about the Jasmine Revolution is being released throughout the world and keeping up with the pace is a full time job.