Egypt has had a serious problem with sexual harassment for a long time: Speak to nearly any woman in the capital and you’ll hear horror stories of verbal and physical abuse. Just last year, Cairo topped a survey of the world’s most dangerous cities for women, and the third most dangerous for sexual violence. Public attention was drawn to the issue in the waning days of the Hosni Mubarak presidency before the 2011 Revolution (it’s the subject of the 2010 feature “Cairo 678”), thanks to brave protesters who’d had enough. After the Revolution, activists were inspired to rally for change, yet when Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood was elected president, there was widespread fear that his conservative brand of Islam would roll back any gains made.
This is where Samaher Alqadi’s misleading documentary “As I Want” begins. The film opens in black and white with the director, heavily pregnant, rhetorically addressing her deceased mother, asking why she should hide her body or feel shame for laughing out loud. The questions are contextualized through footage shot in 2013, when the director filmed the continual verbal harassment she received on Cairo streets, as well as young girls parroting conservative religious teachers who declare that women mustn’t speak out or reveal the contours of their bodies.
Much of the documentary shows rallies against Morsi and the Brotherhood, when women took to the streets outraged over a rape at a crowded demonstration that’s seen in a deeply disturbing, blurry video which went viral at the time. Alqadi’s anger is scorching and fearless; disgusted by the abuse and inspired by the protests, she takes to carrying a kitchen knife on the streets, brandishing it when men make disturbingly direct sexual comments. The knife is really a prop: The camera is the weapon, allowing her to record and therefore defuse the perpetrators.
The documentary’s first 63 minutes are largely taken with Alqadi’s street confrontations and the demonstrations, culminating in fellow protestors declaring the army will save them from the Brotherhood. From our vantage point today, it’s a shocking statement, since the military dictatorship led by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi that removed Morsi from power in 2014 is far more repressive than anything the country has ever experienced. Many Middle East observers agree that Sisi and the army used sexual harassment as a way of discrediting Morsi’s government, paving the way for their coup. Since then, the present regime has continued to weaponize gender politics, persecuting women who speak out in favor of the MeToo movement, most notably in the aftermath of the Fairmont Hotel rape scandal that’s created an atmosphere of fear for anyone daring to raise their voice. None of this is in “As I Want.”
Any suggestion that the situation has improved under the dictatorship is a dangerous red herring, yet it’s a conclusion many viewers unfamiliar with Egyptian politics will assume since the film ends with a statement that sexual harassment was finally criminalized in 2014. It’s unlikely the director believes that the scourge of sexual harassment has diminished, and it would be suicidal to make a documentary openly critical of the current regime. Still, the film’s biggest takeaway — that Morsi was the bogeyman and Sisi has set things right — couldn’t be further from the truth.
The last 20 minutes contain a more personal story about how Alqadi’s mother in Ramallah tried to force on her conservative religious teachings that would silence her voice, conceal her body and stifle her ambition. Given all this, it’s puzzling to hear the director say she misses her mother. Had Alqadi offered a minimum of insight into her mother’s character, had she presented her as anything other than a figure willingly shoring up patriarchal oppression, then the longing for a maternal presence would be understandable, but this too is absent.
Since most of “As I Want” was shot in 2013, one assumes that Alqadi took the time to mull over how to process it all, but notwithstanding all that time, the documentary feels half-realized, not helped by shortcomings in the editing. Her risk-taking in 2013 was laudable and brave, but by decontextualizing the demonstrations — which tragically failed in their goals — she does a major disservice to the cause. Even after the coda about her mother, we’re left wondering why something that should be so meaningful feels so poorly communicated.