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ANQA opens with a gloomy set-up. Behind a home’s barred windows in a seemingly cold, fog-engulfed country, a camera pans through corridors, probing into closed, dark spaces. We see a spiderweb, walls with crumbling paint, broken glass, and impressions of the sun moving across the carpet. In the sonic background we hear doors closing, people mumbling, water dripping, and birds chirping, all setting the tone for the slow-paced narration of the story: an immersion into the lives of three women, each victims of violence who have no way of escaping its attendant marginalization and stigmatization.

The camera spans the rooms, which are dark and prison-like. Curtains are closed and reopened. The film shifts between sequences of protracted wordlessness moments and narration. We see motionless women, drowning in near silence. They hardly show signs of life; they seem engulfed in sadness and loneliness. When they do speak, they narrate the trauma and alienation they experienced when revolting against the status quo. They deviated from the norm and challenged the customs that perpetuate gender inequality. In doing so, they suffered at the hands of men, society, and their families.

Power and privilege operate differently for people depending on their gender, class, age, race, religion, and other factors, as evidenced by these women. Mostly from a lower socio-economic background, they each recount the violations they were subjected to, whether physical or sexual, including rape, battery, attempted killing, incarceration, and ostracization, and how this has affected them. Throughout, however, the violence is obscured, and presented obliquely rather than directly.

The overarching structures of Arab countries are indisputably patriarchal in nature, and this leads to the disenfranchisement of women, girls, and vulnerable groups. Women throughout the Arab region are at the mercy of family laws or personal status, whether marriage, divorce, custody, or inheritance, each of which are relegated to religious authorities. This system robs women of any chance to achieve better legal standing. Faced with such an archaic legal system, these women are forced to seek justice within the confines of institutionalized patriarchy and are at the mercy of conservative family edicts.

Globally violence against women remains high where the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, and the humanitarian crises to mention a few have further exacerbated the risks of violence, especially for the most vulnerable women and girls. In fact, according to the Arab Gender Gap Report 2020, violence against women and girls is considered “the region's top priority in the fight for gender equality”. Intimate partner violence is one of its most common forms— occurring in all settings and across socioeconomic, religious, and cultural groups—encompassing physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, and controlling behaviours.

Current legal protections fall short, and various legislations that condemn rape and early marriage, permit women the right to initiate divorce, protect women against domestic and gender-based violence, and prioritizes children’s well-being in custody disputes require amendments. Girls, especially those from poorer households, are commonly robbed of the right to education. In addition, mothers must undertake multiple burdens, raising children while juggling household chores.

In a context where religious understandings of gender roles and gender justice issues are the norm, vulnerable and marginalized communities fare even worse. Social protection plans fail to prioritize women, girls, and the most vulnerable, just as the justice system often fails women victims of violence. Survivors of exploitation and abuse are left to fend for themselves.

The women in ANQA give a human face to tragedy, isolation, and incarceration, all while exploring their lives and the painful traces of the memories they’ve lived. “Prison life is like being half dead,” one recounts. While narrating the abuse she experienced, a close-up confirms her tears, despite her harsh stare and look. Morbid music, coupled with an assembly that emphasizes close-ups, reveals true agony in the expressions of the frail faces and near-deranged looks.

The film ends with the director asking one protagonist if she endorses a possible view of her as “the remains of a woman”; she answers “they are stupid, I am not the remains of a woman. How can I be remains when I exist, I am here.” Despite the violations these women underwent, they’ve opted to take matters into their own hands, revolt against the status quo, tell their stories, and take matters into their own hands.

Women in the Arab region continue to experience a backlash against their long-overdue rights and fundamental freedoms, and we have a long way to go to counter the structural barriers that maintain such discrimination. As is apparent, gender emerges and remains a determining factor in the access to rights and privileges, while calls for equality and gender justice should be intersectional in nature. It’s the only way to ensure no one is left behind.

Myriam Sfeir is the director of the Arab Institute for Women at the Lebanese American University


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