It’s not often we see a women-led series, let alone a women-led series written and directed by badass women, with the purpose of actually empowering them. I daresay this is the first feminist work that has come from the Egyptian film industry in decades. Written by Mariam Naoum and directed by Mariam Abou Ouf, Leh La explores the life and possibility of life, as a woman in the region. There is a lot to commend Leh La for, but like any first-of-its-kind work, there’s also a lot to criticize. Despite all the constructive criticism coming and all the fangirling, Leh La is undeniably a brilliant series to watch as a young woman from the region.
Here’s a quick summary of the plot – without spoilers.
Alia (Amina Khalil) is an unperclasswoman who lives in Zamalek with her overly controlling mother Soheir (Hala Sedky) and while she’s locked up, it’s also important to recognize that Alia is spoiled and comes from privilege. Enter Alia’s would’ve been husband Sherif (Hany Adel), who she left hanging ‘at the altar’ but Egyptian style; ‘at the ma’zoon table’. Obviously, her mom and older sister Enjy (Nardine Farag) go ballistic, because it’s a fedeeha, while her aunt Hala (Shereen Reda) tries to calm them down. After lots of events I don’t want to spoil, Alia decided that she will gain her independence and break away from her prison (aka her mom, sound familiar, anyone?). Enter her friends – Radwa (Mariam El Khosht), Farah (Aida El Kashef), and Adam (Sedky Sakhr). Radwa is, well, backbone-less to a very big extent. Farah is the woman I wish I could be. Adam is the perfect example of everything a nontoxic feminist man could be. I want an Adam. So, Alia gets out, but then she starts to face a whole lot of trouble.
Let’s get one thing straight first: the spoilers are coming.
Leh La is an accurate portrayal of the way society sees its women. It sees us as a burden, mothers try to marry their girls off as soon as they can, but want to keep their boys in their arms forever. For our families, being women means being a cow. Yes, a cow. Something that’s meant to do lots of work and give birth to kids. That’s it, my value as a woman is based on whether or not I’m a doormat to my husband and a ‘good’ mother. Which calls out the second issue, the representation of what a ‘good’ mother should be is on point, because the only way a woman can be a good mother is if she’s an overbearing verbally abusive jailor to her daughters. What drives this point home even harder in Leh La, is the Suheir’s recurring phrase to her mom, which translates to “I learned this [raising my daughter] from you”. Our parents never thought for a second about how to raise us girls, they just did whatever their mothers did to them. This honestly begs the question: is intergenerational trauma a thing?
A huge part of why Leh La is a radical show is its tackling of the issue of consent. Consent is so important and it is highlighted in nearly every episode. Firstly, when Alia goes against everything she was raised to be and refused to sign her marriage papers, she chose to say ‘no’ because she doesn’t want to. Amen. Secondly, when Karim tried to kiss Alia on the balcony during the NYE party at her home and she pushed him away. Abdallah (Hassanein) tried to justify Karim’s nonconsensual attempt, but Farah – who is my hero, I need to say that again – slammed that argument so hard I swear I took my laptop off my lap and stood up to clap. She legit spat out “la yaani la”. Outright. It felt like a victory. Thirdly, we see it with Hussein (Sharnouby) and Nancy (Passant Shawky), when she keeps asking him to have sex because their haitus is not conductive to their relationship, but he repeatedly pushes her away, no matter how much she tries to pressure him. It’s important to recognize that for one reason; Hussein is a pushover with Nancy at times, so for him to be so firm on that issue without being an asshole is pretty damn decent, and a celebration of men’s right to not consent too. Lastly, Adam and Farah (COUPLE GOALS!). Adam and Farah are just, ugh, *sigh*. Mostly though, it’s easy to see little things throughout each episode, but those are my personal highlights.
What needs to be highlighted as well is Radwa’s relationship with Khaled – her fiance. Personally, I want to see Khaled strung up by his…well, let’s have that discussion later. The important part is that he is physically and emotionally and verbally abusive. It’s also seen as “normal” by her mother. Which, unfortunately, is real. It happens. To most of us. However, that doesn’t make it any less scary. It was honestly a little bit triggering to watch for me, because I know that this is the reality of the situation with so so so many of us, we’ve normalized it so much we don’t believe there can be a relationship without a smack here or an insult there or a little gaslighting every other day. I am so damn happy this was brought up, realistically, honestly, and bluntly. Just, thank you.
Here comes the question though: to what extent is this version of our society white-washed? You see, there are many inaccuracies. Firstly, it is not that easy to leave our parents’ houses, I know for a fact that if I walked out, I would never be allowed back under any circumstances. Let me point out that I’m a privileged upperclass girl who goes to AUC. My parents and I are both well-educated, but I’m still not allowed to live alone, if I chose to get out, I will be permanently out, my parents will not try to bring me back. Period. Secondly, why did Alia – as the main character – have to be a naive clueless girl? Why is her struggle at the beginning to make pasta? Who the hell said upperclass women don’t visit or love Downtown? I’m a regular visitor of West El Balad, yes, walking down those streets is different from Zamalek or Maadi, but it’s not as if she went to live in Share3 El Haram y’all. That would be terrifying for me, at night and alone, I’ll admit that. Also, for a young woman to find an apartment to rent as a woman who will live alone is an absolute nightmare. Realtors and homeowners do not rent their houses and apartments to young women who will be living there alone. Their assumption and judgement is immediately “hatgeeb meen el beit?”, meaning, they think she’s runaway from home and/or got kicked out for being a ‘sharmoota’.
Moreover, Alia can barely make rent, but her hairdresser hasn’t changed? It’s an inconsistent image. She’s keeping her luxury lifestyle (to an extent) but is somehow struggling to pay rent? Let’s hold on to something else, okay? While working at Tawseela – a female only startup similar to Uber – Alia was surprised when a female client (Deena Maragee7) was smacked by her fiance, while she was driving them. Just, a moment, is she so sheltered she genuinely thinks abuse cases only turn up in the movies??? Girl, I don’t know a single woman or young woman who wasn’t sexually harassed and/or assaulted by strangers, friends, partners, and family alike.
How is any of that realistic?
Now that the direct critique is over, here are some thought-provoking questions about women’s representation in films and shows from the Arab region via Leh La. I am in no way, shape, or form attacking the series, I’m just raising some questions about visibility. I’m also not saying that it should’ve had all these issues, I’m just presenting some things that could’ve been highlighted or spoken about. It’s impossible to ask all of those to be addressed in a 15 episode series.
Why did we have to go and represent the most seen but least existing members of the female community in Egypt? Why was Alia not a working class woman? More like Mawada El Adham? A real life representation of a girl who decided to break away from her family and go live alone, who actually had to deal with real-life genuine struggles, some of them tremendously horrific and traumatizing? Why didn’t we see her have to work as a bellydancer for instance, hell, it’s common to be pulled over for having a camera out in the streets, why did that not happen to her? Why didn’t we see the trauma that comes with being a woman? Why did we see nothing on menstruation? Or self-care and self-love? Why have we still not broken all the taboos that surround us? Why didn’t we see working class characters 3amatan except for Deena Maragee7, who was legit there for around 3-5 minutes? It’s a good first step, I can’t deny that, but is it actually representative of the women in Egypt? No. It’s representative of the privileged light-skinned upperclass educated women. Basically, the 1% at the top of our socioeconomic ladder. Not to mention, that most of the characters were largely stereotypical. Which is also problematic.
We don’t need diversity, but inclusivity. Want to represent women? Represent all women. Black women, working class women, illiterate women, FGM victims, women in poverty, fat women, older women, younger women, women who are lawyers and activists and journalists and doctors and artists. Women who fight for their right to exist and take up space. Women who scream at the top of their lungs to be heard. Want to talk about women? Talk about the female CHILDREN who are raped all over the country on a regular basis because we’ve fucking normalized pedophelia.
At the end of the day, I can easily say my favorite characters are Adam and Farah. Honestly, both Aida El Kashef and Sedky Sakhr need a huge round of applause and lots of hugs. Aida El Kashef as a person, not even as Farah, is a feminist activist worth following on social media and listening to. The takeaway is, we need to amplify the voices of all women before we can actually cause radical change, but in a country that is so hellbent on locking women behind bars on a weekly basis and raping children and molesting young women, in a space that wants to bury females alive, Leh La is a step forward. I can respect and appreciate that. In fact, I do. Immensely. Thank you to each and every person who worked to give us this first step towards female liberation.
P.S these are not all the points that could’ve been made, but some of the ones that stood out to me the most and I chose to share under the umbrella of intersectional feminism.