Leading Egyptian film star fighting censure

By Jessica Gray
Elhaam Shaheen at a film festival in Luxor, Egypt, Sept. 18, 2012. (WEN/Jessica Gray)
Elhaam Shaheen at a film festival in Luxor, Egypt, Sept. 18, 2012. (WEN/Jessica Gray)

CAIRO {WOMENSENEWS} Debate over artistic freedom of expression has taken center stage in Egypt after a crudely-made, independent American film insulting Islam drew widespread attention on the Internet and sparked recent riots and protests in the capital.

The discussion has encircled Egyptian movie star Elhaam Shaheen.


Known to take on roles that push cultural taboos, Shaheen fears that she and other artists are in for worsening trouble from the country's new Islamic government.

"I feel this is a big war between all the artists and writers and Islamists," she said in a recent interview. "This is not just against women -- it is against all artists."

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Last month, conservative Salafi TV personality Sheikh Abdullah Badr, who has blasted actors before over what he describes as blasphemous behavior, called the actress's film performances as "on-air adultery" and recommended the arts be subjected to religious censorship. Local news outlet Egypt Independent quoted Badr as saying Shaheen's type of acting was sinful and would bar her entry to heaven in the afterlife.


Muslim preachers have also been excoriating the pop love songs of legendary Egyptian musicians Om Kalthoum and Abdel Halim Imam. Islamist lawyers with ties to political parties also charged comedian Adel Iman and several other filmmakers and screenwriters with blasphemy against Islam earlier this year for roles in films that are at least 10 years old. Comedian Iman was eventually handed down a sentence of three months of jail time plus a fine before his appeal was granted in September. Similar court cases were thrown out by judges in April.

Fighting Back

Shaheen is fighting the backlash.

As an open critic of the Muslim Brotherhood, Shaheen says she is being subjected to politicized attacks.

She plans to take Badr and conservative television station El-Hafez to court over the derogatory comments against Egypt's entertainment sector.

During the Sept. 17-22 Luxor Egyptian and European Film Festival she led an impassioned panel of her peers on censorship and freedom of expression. Shaheen was joined by famous Egyptian writer Baha Taher, as well as director and screenwriter Daoud Abdel Sayed and actors Amr Waked, Khaled Abounaga and Laila Elwi.

In light of the recent riots spurred by the anti-Islam film that took the lives of several people, including U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and one Egyptian protester, the panelists acknowledged the destructive power of film.


But in a county that has long served as the cinematic powerhouse of the Middle East, they also defended the right to produce films that pushed the envelope, no matter how sensitive the topic.

Shaheen described attacks on Egyptian artists including herself as "barbaric" and a signal that Egypt is moving backward culturally. She said she was glad she could push back with the support of the Egyptian film community and fans from around the Arab region.

"I am still proud of Egypt," she said. "I am always proud."

Past Controversies

Shaheen, who is in her early 50s, has faced controversy before.

In 2009, she angered Coptic leaders for her portrayal of a Coptic woman in the film "Wahad/Sefer" (One/Nil). The feature, directed by Kamla Abu Zekry and written by Mariam Naoom, tells the story of a woman struggling with the Coptic Church's strict rules on divorce and remarriage.

Hany Fawzy, the well-known screenwriter, has also attracted religious censure over his script for "Baheb Es-Sinema" (I Love the Movies) about a Coptic Christian family.

He said Egyptian filmmakers, writers and producers are anxiously watching for a possible clamp down on artistic freedom and the general wariness is stifling non-commercial projects.


Fawzy added that he has about five scripts ready for production, but he hasn't been able to find producers willing to take a chance."There is a risk. We are fearful about the future, the rules and the Islamic direction [the country is taking]. But we have to continue. It's our career and our work," he said.

President Mohammed Morsy, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate who took office in June, has sought to allay fears. In September, he met with a group of film industry members at the Presidential Palace to show his concern for protecting the arts. He has also condemned Badr's verbal attacks on Shaheen.

But the Muslim Brotherhood's call for protests over the American film at the heart of global demonstrations and hasty backtracking have left doubts about the depth of the government's commitment to artistic liberties.

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