Millions of women in the Muslim world live under the dominion of men, subject to their rules, confined by their power. The documentary Under the Sky of Damascus, making its world premiere tonight at the Berlin Film Festival, examines the alarming gender politics in one ancient locality — the capital of Syria.
“Women are more enslaved than ever in these times,” actress Sabah Al Salem declares in the film directed by Heba Khaled, Oscar nominee Talal Derki and Ali Wajeeh. “The biggest exploitations we face are of a sexual nature.”
The film documents an attempt by a female-led theater company to create a bold play about the power imbalance in Syrian society, based on interviews conducted with women from a variety of backgrounds. Many of those testimonies are seen in the documentary, offering stark insight into the reality faced by Syrian women.
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“When my dad gets mad, he tends to be aggressive,” states a young woman who works in a cloth factory. “He breaks things, beats us, and wreaks havoc… He sometimes beats us so we’re hospitalized.”
Another woman in the factory recounts that her husband married an additional two women. “He told me that my daughters and I were no more than servants to them… He sometimes steps on the girls’ heads with his army boots.”
At a center for deaf and mute women, an administrator discusses the cases of women there who have been sexually assaulted or abused. “A young woman was once raped by three men,” she says. “The three men knew that she was deaf. They lured and kidnapped her… The men were prosecuted, and they admitted that they had sexually assaulted her. The court ordered the first rapist to marry her to restore her family’s honor.”
Khaled, who grew up in a conservative milieu in Syria but later was forced to flee her homeland because of her progressive views, says the testimonies did not surprise her. “I have been hearing those stories from childhood,” she tells Deadline. What did surprise her was the willingness of many women to speak openly. “They are really waiting for a stage or a platform to tell about their pain.”
Khaled and Derki both reside in Germany now. Co-director Ali Wajeeh operated on the ground in Damascus, filming those testimonies. He says he was struck by the affect of women who spoke of what they had endured.
“You look into their eyes, you see… a vanishing of the twinkle in their eyes. You sense that there is no life here,” Wajeeh says. “And that was shocking, really shocking for me.”
Work on the play documented in the film continued to progress, but then the theatrical production encountered a sudden crisis. Eliana Saad, one of the actresses who was to appear in the play, abruptly announced she could not continue because her boyfriend did not want her to participate in it. It took some time for the actual reason for Eliana’s departure to be revealed. It turned out that a man involved in the theater project, Adel, had been pressuring Eliana for sex and threatening her with negative consequences if she didn’t submit to his advances. So, the very dynamic of sexual harassment and patriarchal domination that was to be explored in the play began happening around the theatrical production itself.
“The betrayal by Adel, that was really shocking because we were trusting him,” Khaled says. “[He presented himself as] a really very serious person, he only cared about business and he didn’t give the sense that he had this problem with sexual abuse and exploitation. That was really surprising and shocking when Eliana told me about what happened to her.”
“I describe it like a crime,” Wajeeh says of Adel’s coercive behavior. “He was trusted by all of us… It’s really hurtful because we spent time with the guy, and then he did that [to Eliana].”
It wasn’t to be the only betrayal. Farah Al Dbyaat, the woman directing the play, expressed dissatisfaction with the text she and the cast — including Eliana, Inana Rashed, and Souhir Saleh – had been working on and she handed the job over to a man. He, as perhaps could be predicted, made the story far more sympathetic to a male perspective. Khaled believes this is evidence of the degree to which male hegemony affects women’s perspectives about their own experience.
“Women in Syria… if they want their freedom they don’t know exactly what it looks like,” she says. “That’s why for Farah, for example, she doesn’t believe she is a betrayer.”
Syria has gone through more than a decade of civil war. Some of the characters in the film debate whether Damascus, if not the whole of Syria, has entered a post-war phase. What’s clear, the filmmakers say, is that the men running Damascus now can act with impunity and treat women however abominably they wish.
“Those men who have the power, they are the winners, politically and militarily,” Khaled says. “And this is why they are continuing to abuse the rights of women. Those men who have no power, they left [Syria]. Those who remain are stronger and have [political] connections… They have the power that makes them lead the whole society.”
The abject treatment of women is by no means limited to Syria. For instance, according to a 2021 article published by the Middle East Institute, “Every year 400-500 women are killed brutally in Iran to protect men’s ‘honor.’ The killers are usually close relatives — often the victim’s father, husband, or brother.” Under the Sky of Damascus is dedicated “In memory of the thousands of women in the Middle East killed by male family members.”
The documentary is an acquisition title at the Berlinale. From Berlin it will travel to the Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival in Greece in early March.
“[As] for distribution, we hope that it really can go right now to film festivals and be shown to people in the film industry and people who love documentaries,” Derki says. “We try through Submarine Deluxe to sell the film so it can be shown to more people around the world.”
“What we hope for this film to leave behind is that more women are able to speak [about their experience],” Khaled says. “What encourages men in similar territories or locations to do what they do and keep doing it is the silence of the women, the silence of the victims… The voice is the power at this stage.”
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