Q&A with director Samaher Alqadi: It’s time for the women’s wave

Though the Arab Spring received massive coverage as the protests rose across the region, one side of the story was largely overlooked: women’s. In Samaher Alqadi’s IMS supported new documentary As I Want, she puts women’s voices at the forefront.

At the two-year anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution at the Tahrir Square in Cairo in January 2013, more than 25 women experienced brutal sexual assaults or mass rapes. It brought crowds of women to the street to protest the violence and suppression that they face every day.

Samaher Alqadi documents it all in her documentary As I Want: the solidarity of strong women who refuse to take any more abuse; the constant harassment that she and her fellow women are exposed to at home and in the streets; the unequal, unjust treatment of women and even the violent assaults of them.

In parallel to those roaring developments among women in Egypt, Alqadi becomes pregnant with her second child. It kicks off a personal journey back to her family, childhood and the violent aggression that has followed her, her sisters and her mother – and it raises an important question for the future: How can I raise my child differently if I stay in the same environment?

IMS had a talk with Samaher Alqadi about her film, the power of documentaries and amplifying women’s voices.

Why did you decide to make this film?

First of all, I was so full of anger, frustration and disappointment that I felt it was necessary to do something. My best friend was attacked and raped, and it took me back to all the things that have happened to myself. I’ve lived with so much violent aggression and been exposed to so many painful things – some of them are mentioned in the film, but not nearly all of it – and it left me with so many questions about myself, my life and society.

I decided to put these questions out there for all of us. I’m just being honest about my situation and my life as a woman, but in parallel to a lot of women around me, in my country and all over the world. I thought that if I and we – me and each and every woman – are not going to do something to stop it, then who will?

Second, because the movement that formed among Egyptian women at that point – their reactions, their assembling, their explosions of anger displayed in public for the first time in their lives – was so spectacular. I was impressed by these women’s courage and how they stood up for themselves. It was truly encouraging.

Third, because when you see the coverage of the Arab Spring, you barely see any women – even if women were always on the frontlines and everywhere else. Their important role in the revolutions is forgotten. When you see the scenes in As I Want of these massive crowds of women protesting in the streets and on Tahrir Square, you see something that isn’t in the other films about the revolution. I want women’s voices to be heard loud and clear.

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Why did you choose to include your own story in the film?

To me it’s all linked: my own story and what happened to the women at the Tahrir Square – and what happens to women every day, all over the world. How I was raised, how my mother was raised, how all these men and women are raised to perceive women in a certain way.

I went back to my family – my mother, my sisters, my aunts and nieces – because I was once one of these women who had never stopped once, even for a second, to question what I have been exposed to. I was once not able to stand up for myself, to gain my freedom and do what I wanted to do in my life. I was always told who I should be and how I should live – sometimes in violent ways.

I have never thought about the dark and painful things that has happened to me before I witnessed what happened to women at the Tahrir Square in those revolutionary days and I saw how the strong women around them reacted to the injustices. Those women’s power entered my body and made me speak up.

But it’s not easy to put out your own story like this, to put out your and your family’s “dirty laundry”. But I’ve reached a point in my head and in my soul where I wish to break with my fear and my shame – and I hope that other women will too.

I believe that the things that you are not allowed to say are very important to say – maybe because you are not allowed to. And it is important to talk about why you are not allowed to say them.

Why was documentary film the right medium for you to tell this story?

Because it was all there in front of me. It happens, it’s real. That is why documentaries are very powerful. As a viewer, it puts you right there in the moment and you see exactly what happened. It’s also why it’s very disturbing.

I know my film is not easy to watch. And I want it to be disturbing, I want it to be noisy because this is exactly what happened, and it was deeply disturbing.

I feel lucky that I somehow managed to remain confident that I could make this film. In the beginning it was difficult because I was met with so much negativity when I went out to film. It isn’t easy to believe in yourself with the way that those around you think about you, the way that they talk to you, the way they treat you and the way they behave like they have the power over you. But I went out there on the streets every single day for more than three years.

Who do you hope will watch the film?

I want women living in regions where they are oppressed and live with harassment, assaults and violent aggression to watch this film. I want to encourage them to not be fearful or ashamed about speaking out about their situation.

I believe we need a lot of films to tell the stories about these issues. It’s not certain that they will change the world immediately, but for sure, they will open up to a lot of voices and encourage a lot of women to speak up – and then a wave will come. And when that wave comes, it will be big and strong. And that wave is coming. It is coming because people are very much ready for it.

How did IMS’ support help in the creation of the film?

IMS was one of the first to support my film, all back in the beginning when it was still in the development phase. It was a relief because it had been difficult to obtain funding in the beginning, and I’d been working alone on the project for a couple of years. It felt great to have someone officially state their belief in the project – and somehow IMS’ funding confirmed to others as well that this project was worth supporting as it became easier to get additional funds.