The Feminist Defying Islamic Extremism Through Taboo-Breaking Cinema

Seven years after two men tried to burn her alive in Paris, Algerian artist Rayhana debuts her provocative first feature, ‘I Still Hide to Smoke.’

SHARM-EL-SHEIKH, Egypt—“I used to have hair down to here,” says Rayhana, the Algerian theater-actress-turned-film-director, pointing to her waistline during a discussion about her debut feature, I Still Hide to Smoke.

Her red locks being much shorter than they used to is not, however, the result of a trip to the hairdresser. It is because of an attack by two bearded fundamentalists, who followed her down a Paris street and set her on fire when her controversial play of the same name appeared at the Maison de Metallos, where it caused quite a stir.

“You can read all about it online,” she says of the incident in 2010, when she was insulted in Arabic then followed and covered in petrol before “a flame brushed my hat.”

Rayhana (who goes by her first name only) starred in the play, which features unflattering views of Muslim men who act like a bunch of hysterical women over an Algerian woman becoming pregnant.

The fundamentalist heavies, upset because their religious convictions have been undermined, set out to kill the girl who seeks refuge at a hammam in Algeria where the story takes place.

They are defied by a group of women at the baths, who are forced to act as the front line in the resistance against extremism, and against their own men.

The play had quite an impact in France. It so impressed the French producer, Michele Ray-Gavras, that she suggested turning it into a film, with Rayhana both adapting and directing.

But this time, she stayed behind the camera.

Ray-Gavras produced the film, which stars Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass as well as several Algerian and foreign actresses. “A lot of Algerian actresses were wary of taking part,” says Rayhana, who shot the film in Greece.

But not everyone was afraid. The Algerian singer Biyouna signed up and steals the show with her performance as an up-in-arms old boot, who leads the charge to scare off the extremists when they come looking for the girl.

Perhaps most impressively, the film fearlessly tackles many taboos around sex and sexuality in Arab cinema, and in the Arab world in general, where women are often still veiled from head-to-toe.

There are some outrageously candid scenes, featuring this motley crew of ladies, some hyper-religious, some as free as a bird, who spend the afternoon under one roof.

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Think virtually (in Arab cinema) unheard-of nudity, in the form of scenes where bathers resemble bodies from a 19th century painting. And forget men blowing each other’s brains out. Viewers also see, shock horror, a woman menstruating in full view with her legs parted.

The film makes Sex and the City look tame. Girl talk includes discussions of orgasms and private sexual encounters, while bad behavior includes smoking in front of one’s in-laws or the admittance to using the pill. These are all big no-nos in much of the Arab world.

Even the very title of the film speaks to another one of these taboos.

“I would always hide to smoke because it is not accepted for women to smoke in traditional Arab culture,” says Rayhana, who studied acting, writing, and directing in Algeria. She now lives and works in France.

Rayhana wrote the original story as a result of political changes that represented a turn for the worse for the women of Algeria. She put pen to paper following the election of the Islamic Salvation Front in June 1991, in what was dubbed Algeria’s first free and democratic elections.

The group’s values were far from democratic, however, and their first target was women.

“The first Islamist rules the FIS legislated in the towns it controlled were those against women, now public enemy No. 1,” she says.

There were, as she writes in the press notes to the film, no more mixed schools, or hospitals, or even queues for the bakery or at the bus stop.

Instead, “There were a wave of aberration and violence against us,” she adds. “Acts of violence were perpetrated against those men and women who refused to respect their laws. It was then that I realized that we, women, had even more to lose than the men. And that in our battle since independence for equal rights—a battle far from victory—the lightning ascendancy of the fundamentalists meant our future was headed for the darkness of the past.”

Then she left.

“I didn’t just leave Algeria one day, I went into exile,” she says. “That’s how you describe it when you’ve become a potential target, right?”

She wrote the play two years later. “I had an urgent, overriding need to bear witness, to cry out, facing the West, deaf and blind, playing at ignorance, asking, ‘Who’s killing who?’” she says. “Repeated in the media, that phrase questioned us to death, while the terrorists pranced about in full view in London and Paris, boasting of their crimes. They were invited to TV talk shows, given visas, political asylum, money to fund assassinating us.”

Despite the threats she has received, and the attack, Rayhana was one of the lucky ones. For some of her colleagues seeking asylum, salvation never came.

“I will never forgive the French government for refusing a visa to the leading figure of Algerian theater, Azzedine Medjoubi, director, actor, and director of the National Theater, executed soon after coming out of the theater in Algiers, in Rue Molière,” she says. “Writing lifts the weight of guilt while bombs and savage hordes are still terrorizing my people. Entire villages massacred, adults and children raped, disemboweled, throats cut with a saw.”

I Still Hide To Smoke premiered at the Thessaloniki Film Festival, and has since played at a string of other fests. It shared the best debut feature prize at the first Sharm-El-Sheikh Film Festival, in March, and has won several other awards. It opens in France and internationally on April 26.