Saturday,21 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1202, (19 -25 June 2014)
Saturday,21 October, 2017
Issue 1202, (19 -25 June 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Playwright and political activist

Obituary: Fathia Al-Assal (1933 - 2014) 

Feminist, socialist, political activist and playwright Fathia Al-Assal, to my mind was vaguely reminiscent of the lionized Seventh Century Arabian Poetess Al-Khansaa, contemporaneous with Prophet Mohamed.

Al-Khansaa was renowned for her poignant, heart-wrenching elegiac compositions. Not so Al-Assal. Yet, both women living in radically disparate eras challenged the patriarchal and male chauvinism of their respective ages.

Al-Khansaa’s encounter with the celebrated poet Al-Nabighah Al-Dhubayni was telling. “Go, for you are the greatest poet among those with breasts,” Al-Nabighah jested. “I’m the greatest poet among those with testicles, too,” Al-Khansaa tartly corrected him tongue-in-cheek.

I imagine Al-Assal would have responded in much the same audacious and resolute spirit. At the ripe old age of 80, Al-Assal spearheaded the massive strike by cultural workers and leftist activists against the then ruling Muslim Brotherhood’s sacking of secularists working at the Ministry of Culture in a bid to introduce their own Islamist ideological agenda by drawing religion into the cultural domain.

Born in Imbaba, a bustling working class suburb of Giza on the west bank of the Nile facing Cairo and reputedly a hotbed of motley militant Islamist groups, Al-Assal campaigned for the Imbaba parliamentary constituency in 1995, and lost. But she was not one to be easily disheartened.

Her hair was her hallmark with an eye-catching streak of silver dangling Indira Gandhi style against a jet black mane of unruly curls and wavy tussles that she let fall on her shoulders as if in total abandon. 

Her lines, however, did not lack polish. The award-winning scriptwriter, a chain smoker, chaired the Egyptian Female Writers Association and the Progressive Women’s Federation of the Tagammu Party. Being a politicized woman and a purposeful writer is in some twisted way was ironically both a boon and a drawback in contemporary Egypt.

Like Al-Khansaa, Al-Assal was a daredevil. Her television dramas depicted the plight of women in the domestic arena. Hers was a struggle for social justice and particularly from a women’s rights perspective.

Al-Assal, ferociously campaigned for a parliamentary seat in 1984, 1987 and again in 1995. Whether it was her sex or the ideological orientation of leftist Tagammu Party to which she belonged that precluded her entry into parliament remains an unresolved question. Her obsession with gender equality certainly alienated her from a broad spectrum of conservative Egyptian society. Her play “Women’s Prison” was poignant. Director Kamla Abu Zikri was inspired by Al-Assal’s drama to transform the play into a serialized Ramadan television skein with a storming cameo by actress Nelly Karim. Al-Assal’s “Women’s Prison” took political satire into far darker terrain than in her previous plays.

Al-Assal’s Al-Bayn Bayn (Betwixt and Between) was a marker, a memento in her theatrical career as a playwright. Thereafter, she shifted to arousing the sensibilities of Egypt’s television viewers. She savagely ridiculed the machismo culture prevalent in the country precisely by highlighting gender inequality. Her  melodramatic elision in a highly combustible political climate in which her cerebral style squarely confronted the prevailing slapstick revues of Egyptian serials and comic strips.

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