Controversial Tunisian film highlights gender inequality

8th March 2009, Comments 0 comments

In Tunisia, the law says that women inherit only half of what male family members inherit.

Ouagadougou -- Tunisian filmmaker Kalthoum Bornaz created a stir at home when she premiered her film Shtar M'Haba (The Other Half of the Sky), tackling the sensitive subject of what women can -- or more pointedly cannot -- inherit.

That was in October 2008 in Tunis and "it was the first time that a work of fiction dealt with female inheritance in Tunisia," she told AFP.

Bornaz' film is in competition for the top award at the week-long Pan-African Film and Television Festival in Ouagadougou (FESPACO), which runs through Saturday. And its message still resonates, shown just days before International Women's Day on Sunday.

In Tunisia, the law says that women inherit only half of what male family members inherit.

"Because it comes directly from the Koran it is a delicate subject, even taboo for certain people," the 63-year-old director said.

The film tells the story of fraternal twins Selim and Selima who have a difficult relationship with their widowed father. Ali, a lawyer, blames his children for the death of their mother who died in childbirth.

In carefully crafted dialogue, Bornaz documents the degrading family relations when Selim goes to study abroad and Selima is left to care for their father after he has an accident.

One day, Selima learns that girls only inherit half of the part that their brothers get. For Selima, this would mean only one-third of her father's assets while her brother would get two-thirds.

In one critical scene she asks her father why the law is this way: "Is it because fathers love their daughters only half as much?"

This phrase gave the film its Arab title, Shtar M'Haba, which literally means half love. The title in English comes from a Chinese saying that women are the other half of the sky.

Selima's worst fears come true when she and her father are ousted from the family home by her brother, who wants to sell the house quickly to raise money for a new life abroad.

Bornaz said the problem is a typical one faced by many Tunisian women. When their parents get elderly, it's the daughters who care for them, often forsaking a career and a family of their own by staying at home. When the parents die, the brothers sell the house and take their part of the inheritance, leaving a pittance for their sister.

The filmmaker, who lives and works in Tunis, was quick to say her films are never autobiographical but that she had witnessed dramatic consequences of the law first-hand with friends, cousins and neighbours.

Committed to making a film on the theme, she said she researched for a year, speaking with lawyers, religious scholars and sociologist about inheritance before even starting to write the scenario.

When the film was finally shown, Bornaz was hit with mixed reactions, from anger to tears of thanks for daring to talk about the painful subject. Likewise in the press, she was variously praised and chastised though at least, said a gleeful Bornaz, it got people talking.

The Tunisian director was also quick to say she does not like the kinds of films in vogue in Europe focussing solely on the difficult position of Muslim women.

"We Tunisian women have even more rights than you European women in certain respects except for this question of inheritance," she said.

"Still, I told myself, if they want a film about the problems of Arab Muslim women, I'll give them a film about THE problem of Muslim women!"

The combative director refuses to be pigeon-holed as the only female director in the 19 films in competition for Ouagadougou's Golden Stallion of Yennenga, the African Oscar, to be named on Saturday.

"I don't like to be put in a ghetto like that (...) where does it stop woman, Arab, French-speaking? So what!"

Stephanie van den Berg/AFP/Expatica

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