In between shampoos and scars, a group of ladies give us a glimpse into a woman’s life in a patriarchal, fundamentalist society.
by Aisiri Amin
Rayhana Obermeyer might have set the film, I Still Hide to Smoke in mid-1990s Algeria but its relevance bites into the reality many live today. The entire film takes place in a hammam, a Turkish bath and it almost feels like a documentary. It’s in the claustrophobic setting that these women soak in freedom for a few hours. Bruised bodies and scarred souls are bared, the burden of patriarchal oppression is laid aside and in the telling of suffering these women find a momentary sense of relief.
More than a bathhouse, the hammam is the place where these women come to taste freedom for a few hours. But on this particular day, things are a bit different; there is urgency in the air. The doors of the hammam run by Fatima were opened for a desperate, bleeding Meriem who is escaping her brother out to kill her. Her crime: she is pregnant and unmarried. Fatima hides her in the bathhouse. Even though Fatima knows she won’t be able to do it alone, she doesn’t know who to trust.
Women start clamouring in the hammam. With bombs dropping and people out to kill, it seems like the bathhouse is an escape from the brutal shadow of the reality for these women. Here they are not conscious of their bodies, they laugh with abandon and stroll around naked while smoking cigarettes.
As conversation flows between gossip and massages, we see how diametrically different these women are in nature. Be it the strong-minded Fatima who struggles to keep her tough exterior intact or her optimist close friend who is swaying in love or the liberal Nadia who makes a grand entry with the news of her divorce which is revolutionary in the society she is from or the outcast Zahia whose blind faith in her skewed teachings of Islam distances her from other women.
In one instance Zahia talks about the importance of wearing the veil and she says,”We only fear God and the veil protects us from temptation. The bearded ones protect us from despots”.
To which Nadia, who was attacked with acid for being an activist, replies, “You don’t fear God. You want to be God. Behind your veils and beards, all murderers! I will fight against your Islamic Republic, even if I have to ally with the devil. Your Islam is not our Islam.”
An older woman talking about her wedding night reveals how her husband who was her father’s age raped her. “I was 11. Instead of sweet, he pulled his pants down, he threw me down got on me and I felt a dagger tearing me, pushing my wound…” an older lady narrates her wedding night.
But there is one thing that binds them together: the scars left by the patriarchal system on their body, soul, and mind. Each of them has fought their own battle with the patriarchy and most of them have lost, not just the battle but themselves too. As they talk about their lives, one can sense the cry for freedom in their voice.
While bombs drop, Meriem struggles with her pregnancy and her brother frantically searches for her, we listen to these women open in the midst of cigarettes and soaps. It’s a film that takes you in, makes you a part of it and you find yourself drenched in the emotions that the characters so beautifully depict.
It’s almost as if these characters are trying to tell the women around the world what submitting to patriarchy can do to you. To unlearn what has been embedded in us for centuries isn’t easy, to stand for oneself in a society that sees you as either a sex-object or a burden can almost break you but it is the only thing that will bring a change.
In the ending, Rayhana lives us with a powerful image. An image that is meant to feed the revolution building inside all of us. As a group of armed men forcefully burst into the hammam, a group of burqa-clad women stand to face them and almost as a reflex the men take a step back. That moment when we see the flicker of fear in the eyes of those men we realise the one thing they fear is a woman’s liberation.
Aisiri Amin (she/her) is an independent journalist specializing in gender, culture, and social justice. She is a struggling optimist, trying to understand the world through cinema, books, and travel.