Today, Cairo Contingent captains Kelsy and Annie have a pizza party with fellow feminists Lissie, Kristina and Yasmin to discuss the film 678, currently showing (with subtitles) in Egypt and hopefully gaining a wider showing soon. A warning: this discussion – and this film – are primarily about sexual assault. It’s important to us at Canonball to discuss sexual assault frankly because, as Kelsy explains, “Sexual harassment happens everywhere, and that’s one thing I took from the movie, that we can’t blame ‘culture.’ This is not Egyptian ‘culture.’ Yes, it happens a lot in Egyptian society, but it’s not something that’s ingrained in the ethnic identity…this is a global thing and it happens everywhere and could happen to anyone.”

Below is the official trailer to 678 with a translated transcription, courtesy of Kristina.

Voice over (Seba): Whoever wants to defend themself must make a decision. Whoever lays a hand on me, I will cut it off.

Adel: Who eats onions at night?

Fayza: You married me just for that [sex]?

Adel: Yes, I married you just for that! Did you think I married you to play backgammon?

Rashid: Every time I see you, I remember what they did to you.

Nelly: Do you know any woman needs the most from a man? Safety…and I don’t feel safe.

Fayza: Every day I ride the bus and every day shit happens to me. How do you expect me to stay sane? If a man does that to a woman, he deserves it. Answer me! Does he deserve it or doesn’t he deserve it?

Seba: He deserves it!

(License plate 1: كبت “frustration/repression”)

Omar: File a report, like she told you to!

(License plate 2: عنف “violence”)

Adel: Who do you think you are to take taxis?

(License plate 3: فقر “poverty”)

Magid: I want an agent in all of the buses.

(License plate 4: جهل “ignorance”)

Seba: Say, “I was harassed!”

Fayza: No, it didn’t happen to me!

(License plate 5: صمت “silence”)

Seba: Rashid !!

(License plate 6: تحرش “harassment”)

Nelly: Now, everywhere in Egypt there is harassment.

Boss: What are you doing!

Announcer: Truly today there is a topic of great importance…

Seba: People don’t want us to do what she did, there is no other solution in front of us other than to do what she did.

Magda: I went to the hospital and had a sonogram.

Magid: Did you ride the bus to push up against people?

Fayza: Wearing revealing clothing reduces chastity!

Seba, Nelly, Fayza: Zambia, Zambia!

Nelly: To hell with people!

Seba: I don’t want anyone to tell him I’m pregnant!

(License plate: Film 678)

Shadow: The thing I love most about you is this, oh this is it…

Voice over (Seba): I will ask you all three questions: Have you been harassed before? How many times? How did you react?

After the break: our ladies in Cairo talk about the film and how it reflects their own experiences. Spoilers abound.

Annie Rebekah Gardner, Elisabeth Jaquette, Kelsy Yeargain, Kristina Hallez and Yasmin el-Rifae all live, work and study in Cairo, Egypt. They all get sexually harassed on a daily basis.

Annie: Well, ladies, we have just had a delicious homemade pizza (Thanks, Lissie and Kristina!) and are in gear to discuss the excellent movie 678. Shall we start with a synopsis?

Lissie: The film follows the intertwining stories of three different women: Fayza, Nelly and Seba. Each of them is sexually harassed – for some of them it’s a single incident, for others it’s a daily occurrence. The film shows their stories, how they react and how the events happen to them affect them, their families and all the people they’re connected with.

Kristina: Also, their relationships with each other because they end up meeting and influencing each other in the ways they each think about harassment, and what the best way to deal with it is.

Annie: First things first, did you guys enjoy the film as young ladies living in Cairo? Did you think it was a realistic treatment of the topic at hand?

Yasmin: I thought it was realistic, because I thought that the examples that it drew from were things that we all know happen every day. Nothing was so specific, with the exception of the case that was drawn from Noha Roushdy, who was grabbed by her breasts and dragged through the streets, and that later led to her filing the first criminal charge against harassment in the country and led to legislation criminalizing harassment. So, I thought that was realistic, I thought the script was funny, and I think that that was very important as a film that’s trying to send out a certain message in Egyptian society. I feel like it recognized the fact that it had to be enjoyable in order for people to actually pay attention to it.

Annie: I thought it was hilarious. I was actually shocked by how funny it was. Who says feminists are humorless? I love a good dick joke, especially when it involves stabbing them!

Lissie: So maybe we should explain the film in a bit more detail. In Nelly’s case, like Yasmin says, she was grabbed by her breasts and dragged through the street and files a suit against the man who attacked her. Seba’s big event is that she goes to a football game with her husband, and the crowd afterwards turns into a mob, and she is grabbed by a bunch of men and dragged away from her husband, and we don’t know exactly what happens to her. We know she wasn’t raped, but the screen gets blurry. In the case of the last woman Fayza, she is harassed every day as she gets on the bus (Bus #678) as she’s going to work and she’s grabbed and groped and felt up every single day, as she says at one point. Seba ends up running a self-help group for women who have been harassed and splits up with her husband. Fayza ends up attending this course and can’t express what happens to her verbally, but she takes vengeance by stabbing men in their nether regions with sharp objects as a form of vigilante justice. We see Nelly as she’s discouraged by her family and fiance from filing the suit, but in the end decides to stick with it.

Kristina: There’s a point in time where all three women know each other, and Nelly and Seba are sort of encouraging Fayza to continue her form of vigilante justice, saying that it’s the only thing that seems to be making people take notice of this issue and making men behave themselves.

Lissie: And you see, after a couple cases of Fayza stabbing people, it makes it into the news, and men are generally scared, and there’s a scene where she gets on the bus and one side is for men and the other side is for women, as opposed to the usual state where everybody’s packed in.

Yasmin: And that reminded me of the crackdowns that happened after the ‘Eid assaults downtown. Like there were a series of arrests. I think on one certain day they arrested like a thousand people or something. I’m sure it was random, and I’m sure people who had done nothing got grabbed and detained. The effect of that was that there was a marked drop in incidents. Just the 3ady cat-calling, or verbal harassment, these light sort of things – even that improved for awhile, and it’s because people were afraid. It was like, okay, the state is paying attention to this actually.

Kristina: You could get into real trouble for it.

Yasmin: And then the effect of that eventually wore off, but it did help for awhile.

“It’s this daily stuff that just wears away at you.

Lissie: I think that a definite strong point in the film is that the harassment they show is extremely realistic. In the first scene, where you have the taxi driver adjusting the mirror, so that he can be staring right at her? That instantly got to me because it has happened so many times and you have this moment of wondering, “Is he doing it to look at me?” and obviously he is, and it’s such a minor little thing and touched me as very realistic because cinemographically he’s adjusting the mirror and staring at the audience, and you’re the one who’s being ogled as the audience member. So I think that in general the film did a great job with being realistic. The scene with Nelly is more on the extreme end but it’s based on a true story, so that does happen. There was nothing over-the-top.

Yasmin: I mean, that was one of the things I thought was genius about Fayza, and her being the instigator of this vigilante thing, is that her cases of harassment, compared to the other two women are less extreme. It’s a thing that’s been grinding at her on a daily basis, slowly wearing her down, making her angrier and angrier, but she keeps bottling it up. It’s not just one big thing that broke her, the way it was with the other two. And yet she’s the one who starts stabbing men in the penis. That makes an excellent point, because most of the harassment in Egypt isn’t getting pinned down to the floor by a soccer mob. It’s this daily stuff that just wears away at you.

Kristina: Yeah, but she also has to deal with an issue of being a lower-middle class woman. She has to ride the bus everyday, or, as we see, she ends up paying for taxis, and her husband says, “Who do you think you are for paying for taxis everyday?” They can’t even afford their children’s school fees, so the other women who are from the upper echelons of society have the luxury of being driven around in cars, either by themselves or by their families, and so it’s an issue that they can, to some extent, avoid.

Lissie: But I think the film does a good job of showing that even money can’t keep you safe from this. Nothing can.

Of course, but you see the way that they react to her by encouraging her to be the one to carry out the vigilante justice. There’s a point where she says, “Why are you waiting for me to do it? What if we get caught? You’ll pin it on me, and I have no resources, I’m living on a string, so why can’t you do it?”

Lissie: This is in response to Seba telling Nelly she shouldn’t take the blame for the stabbings because she has so much to lose. And then Fayza asks why they haven’t discouraged her.

Annie: One thing that I loved is the way the film managed to capture this kind of quiet rage that all three women felt. Even in their acting, the way they expressed it nailed how I feel when I walk down the street everyday, and I really appreciated that. Another thing that was interesting was the way that men were used in the film, as plot devices and tools.

Sa3ey dudes

Yasmin: I think that Nelly and her fiance, Omar, are an interesting couple in the film. They’re the youngest, they’re engaged, hoping to be married. They both have artistic aspirations toward stand-up comedy, and yet they’re already compromising. He works at a bank in order for her family to accept him as a groom. To me, they were used to address not just the issue of sexual harrassment, but the confines of tradition in Egypt in terms of male-female relationships and just that certain things are not accepted.

Kristina: In fact, Omar makes a joke when he’s doing his stand-up that someone in his audience will never be able to be married because being able to afford the price of having an apartment and getting married has become such a burden for people. Even one of the men who was stabbed by Fayza says, “Who would want me? I’ll never have enough money to get married anyway.” And this has been something that has been cited as a reason for a rise in sexual harassment, that people do not have sexual outlets because you can’t be sexually active until you’re married, so the age for marriage has risen and it’s become increasingly more difficult to afford an apartment and to get married.

Yasmin: Well, there’s also the value that’s placed amongst young men on being sa3ey, which is kind of like being street-smart and funny. So there’s this huge value placed on being bad-ass and part of that is because there’s no cheap leisure in Cairo. There’s nothing you can do if you don’t have much money. Like if you’re depending on your parents’ allowance and you’re a twenty-year-old guy and it’s the end of the month, you’re out of money, you want to hang out with friends, you can’t really do what you do in your family home, so where are you going to go? You’re going to go to the street. And what are you going to do? You’re going to smoke cigarettes and probably cat-call every girl that walks by. I feel like it’s accepted or even encouraged amongst young men. But this whole sa3ey concept to me I felt was even used with the state security guy, who’s a very interesting character throughout the film. We don’t know exactly what rank he is, he works for Egyptian intelligence and is put on this case and you can tell right away that his character is sa3ey – he’s funny, he knows how to talk to people.

Kristina: I’ve heard from someone who saw the film that the guys sitting behind him during the film weren’t taking the film as seriously until his character came into the film. Maybe he’s someone young men can relate to, and he’s a very famous actor as well (Maged el Kedwany), and he is someone that people see as maybe a role model, or at least a specific point on which to focus in the film.

Lissie: Maybe it’s significant, then, if he’s the most relateable, that he’s the one who undergoes the transformation in the film. We don’t see a transformation of anyone else, really but he’s the one who doesn’t really take the harassment seriously until he has a daughter, and his wife dies and suddenly he’s responsible for this baby girl. That’s when you see a change in his character. That’s when he takes the women seriously.

Yasmin: Prior to the death of his wife and simultaneous birth of his daughter, you saw that he was distant from his wife and mostly interacted with men in state security all day. He had little contact with females on an emotional level or on a daily basis. Even in the first half of the film he never shows a lack of sympathy for harassment, you see him just not very concerned about the issue, like it is what it is. It’s not until his wife dies without him having the chance to see her and he now has this baby girl and he wakes up to the issue and starts to think about what its consequences actually are to the human beings who experience it.

Lissie: What I thought the film did a great job of was not portraying the issue as women versus the men who harass them, but of showing how harassment implicates and affects everybody in a society. Like in the case of Fayza, she gets harassed every day on the bus, so she starts to take cabs, so they don’t have enough money to pay the childen’s school fees. She rejects all sexual advances from her husband, he’s very frustrated by that, and at the end of film you see that he’s going out and groping women on the bus in the same way that she’s been groped. So harassment has detrimental effects on her, on her family, and on her marriage. In the case of Seba and her husband, he feels guilty and tormented by the event and ends up shunning her, saying, “I can’t even look at you,” and they end up separating because of it. In the case of Nelly, the issue of whether or not she’s going to sue this man for harassment is an issue of her reputation, and she has her fiance’s family and her own family telling not to go through with the suit because of what it will do to her reputation, and her fiance’s reputation. So you see how the romantic partners of the three lead female characters are affected negatively by this as well.

Yasmin: I feel like Nelly’s fiance seemed to be the hope behind the film’s message, because you see him kind of wavering throughout the film and at some point, when she starts getting his family and her family telling her to drop the case, you see him withdraw his support for her. In the end he comes around but I feel like because of the fact that he’s young and they’re a struggling couple, you get the idea that he’s a decent guy, but you see him wavering so severely, so it might be a message to other wavering guys out there.

And he supports her in the end. In the end she’s standing in front of the judge, who asks if she’s going to go through with this case, and she’s silent, and he stands up behind her and says yes, she’s going to go through with it.

“It’s widely known here that pretty much everybody knows that everybody gets harassed.”

Kristina: This whole idea of the film, and what actions it encourages you to take – I don’t think it necessarily denounces the violence that Fayza uses against the men. I mean, the other women say they think it’s the only thing that works and gets people’s attention and causes their behavior to change a little bit, although they have a conversation later about why violence isn’t the answer. In the end they have this lawsuit where everyone’s kind of smiling and so happy that Nelly’s doing it so I kind of feel like they’re putting some faith in the legal system, to some degree, but its not complete faith, because we see earlier how Nelly tries to initially file the suit and the officer closes the book and says, “No, the punishment is worse for assault. If you want to file it as assault I’ll do it for you, but if you want to file it as harassment then you can take him to another precinct.”

Yasmin: That’s the ultimate problem, isn’t it? That if you get harassed, the last thing you want to do is go to a police station here, because the victim blaming is ubiquitous and the film showed that very well. Even after the criminalisation of harassment after Noha’s case, even still the police are very reluctant to actually file the charge for you.

Kelsy: And the policemen on the street are likely to harass you as well. Why would you go up to someone who is likely to give you the same treatment that you just received?

Yasmin: That’s like in the end when Nelly’s character stands up. I have issues with this, but she says that the one thing all women want from men is a sense of safety, and she doesn’t feel safe. I feel like this was being used as message to guilt-trip society, like, “Look at how you’re treating women.” But that’s the thing, you don’t feel safe going to a person wearing a uniform who is supposed to protect you.

Kristina: Partially it does resonate because that’s what all human beings should be giving to each other, is a sense of being able to feel safe amongst your fellow humans. In an ideal world, I guess.

Lissie: Going back to what Kristina was saying about violence: the fact that the women do get the greatest results out of stabbing men in their penises has been criticized, and several human rights groups in Egypt have called for the banning of the film because they say it encourages violence. Did you guys feel that the message encouraged people to be violent or to go only to the law?

Yasmin: It showed the consequences of violence, and it was only because the secret service character had suddenly become sympathetic that they were able to get away with it. But I think if there was a message it was probably for women to speak up when it happens. You see that in Seba’s workshop, which is actually one of the few things in the film that I wasn’t sure was that realistic, because from my experience, when women are sitting amongst each other, they’re actually very vocal about their experiences with harassment, and the way that it was portrayed in the film was dozens of women being afraid to talk about what had happened because it was so shameful.

Kristina: It’s widely known here that pretty much everybody knows that everybody gets harassed.

Yasmin: Almost to the point where people talk about it as blase.

Kristina: What about the accusations of this film marring Egypt’s reputation?

Yasmin: That’s like the go-to accusation anytime somebody does anything that addresses an issue.

Kristina: This was actually acknowledged in the film. Nelly’s at a dinner with her future in-law, where they say that people have been talking and that what she’s doing will damage Egypt’s reputation, and that’s why she shouldn’t file the suit.

Lissie: It was a clever way of pre-empting criticisms of the film and incorporating a response to them. As for Egypt’s reputation, a really powerful moment is after Seba is harassed by the football mob, she comes back home and she’s been wearing the Egyptian flag as facepaint for the football match, and she’s crying and she rubs off the facepaint. She rubs the Egyptian flag off her face. I think it’s this really powerful moment of showing that the issue of sexual harassment is one that’s connected to national identity.

Kelsy: Yeah, but at the same time sexual harassment happens everywhere, and that’s one thing I took from the movie, that we can’t blame “culture.” This is not Egyptian “culture.” Yes, it happens a lot in Egyptian society, but it’s not something that’s ingrained in the ethnic identity, and that’s something I really appreciated about it. And yes, it could turn you off of the state, because the state’s not offering you any kind of protection, but at the same time, this is a global thing and it happens everywhere and could happen to anyone.

Yasmin: Yeah, I think the film did deal directly with the frustrations of not being able to go to the state for protection or justice. There’s another scene where the three women are at a soccer match and they’re cheering for Zambia, which is very telling. There is a treatment of how women internalize this in terms of their thoughts about the country and about their government.

“Every time a man puts his hands on a woman against her will, it’s rape.”

Lissie: Going back to Seba’s harassment, when she is grabbed by this mob after the football match – I really appreciated that the film blurs that moment out. I think this was a really good choice by the director because you don’t know exactly what happens to her, like the details of it aren’t important. In film depictions of violence against women, violence is so often sexualized, and sexual violence is so often shown as titillation, and I really appreciated that this traumatizing event in her life wasn’t shown for the sick pleasure or gratification of the viewer.

The scene was horrifying. The fact that the consequences are so severe on her relationship with her husband and she miscarries a baby because of the stress – such severe consequences and we don’t know what exactly happened. I got gratification from that because I feel like often-times almost a comparison game that happens, like what happened to you, and how bad was it? You see this scene with her mom, where her mom says says, “No one raped you,” so it’s almost like, you know, brush it off! Pinned down to the ground by a mob of men! They didn’t rape you, though! I like the fact that we don’t know the details. We just know that it was horrifying, and we see the consequences, and it’s not your place to judge.

Lissie: Yeah, it’s not exactly what happened. That doesn’t matter, it’s the effect that it has on people.

Kristina: Even the fact that her husband later comes back to her and says he was wrong, she says, “This is not something I can forgive you for. When I need you, you weren’t there. I still love you, but divorce me, because I can’t forgive you for this.”

Annie: It’s a good acknowledgement of sexual assault on the rape continuum. Sexual assault is sexual assault is sexual assault, and it doesn’t just need to be known in Egypt, it needs to be known everywhere, and that’s one reason I really enjoyed the film, is because it was an honest critique without being abrasive.

Kelsy: I had something happen to me the other day and afterwards, I told Annie that I felt like I had been mini-raped. You know what I mean? Because I hadn’t been raped. There’s just no way that you can put these things on a one-to-ten scale, because you still feel really slimy and really awful afterwards.

Yasmin: I think there’s a line that Seba says, saying, “Every time a man puts his hands on a woman against her will, it’s rape.” That line was very powerful for me.

Annie: Relevant to this Wikileaks thing, eh Ladies? Laughs all around. Sex by surprise!

Lissie: I mentioned this before, but what the film does well is that it doesn’t just affect women. The problem isn’t just for women to find a response to, it’s the responsibility of the men, too, to figure out how to deal with this.

Vigilante justice

Annie: Would you personally prefer vigilante justice or going through the legal system?

Kristina: Vigilante justice. It’s what we all fantasize about.

Lissie: Yeah, the film was really nice, since every time I get harassed I fantazise some violent justice on whoever it is who just grabbed me or said something. It did offer a lot of satisfaction, seeing that actually happen in a film, I have to say.

Annie: Have you ever had a good moment of vigilante justice?

Yasmin: I mean, I’ve definitely had moments where I’ve hit people. I mean, I’ll even admit to having hit people who haven’t touched me and just said something that was really disgusting. I guess that was the way I was reacting that day! There are days where you block it out and choose to not let it affect you, and it still does, but you choose to not react, and there are days that just for whatever reason someone says or does something and you just snap.

Annie: What about the time the guy was hollarin’ at you and stepped in cow poop?

Yasmin: That was nice, but it wasn’t anything I had done. He was saying really gross things and he just stepped in cow poop and it was really, really rewarding for me.

Kelsy: I’ve definitely done some hitting, and some spitting water.

Yasmin: Throwing water, projectile, definitely works for the cars.

I always dream about throwing eggs.

Lissie: I mean, unfortunately, the most effective response to harassment has been violence, for me. Saying things in English, saying things in Arabic, ignoring it… nothing else has any effect except for violence.

Especially when it’s a violence that everyone can see.

Kelsy: It draws attention to the fact that this person is being shamed publicly.

Annie: One of my good friends once, talking about a particularly bad assault case that had happened to another friend, said something that has still stuck with me, which is that Cairo is such an anarchic place that legal venues don’t work. What works is stuff like vigilante justice and public shaming.

Yasmin: Of course. When men do intervene on behalf of women, when she’s been harassed, it’s not like you go to the police station. You round everyone up and beat the shit out of the guy.

Kelsy: With belts!

Yasmin: Publicly. And that’s public shaming, and I’ve seen this happen because that’s the way the system works.

Lissie: Or doesn’t work.

Kristina: That’s what happened in Nag Hammadi.

Covering up

Lissie: If I have a problem with a guy, like whether it’s harassment on the street or at the office or in one’s home, I know that I’m not the best person to go deal with it. It’s much more effective to have a male friend go deal with it, because they’ll be taken more seriously.

Yasmin: Do you find that frustrating? Because I find that frustrating.

Lissie: The fact that women going to males is the only viable solution is one reason I liked this movie so much, is because it shows women taking things into their own hands. Sometimes with success, sometimes they wonder about the ethics of it. At one point they say, “Okay, we shouldn’t be violent because it’s no better than them.” And I think that’s one way the film pulls itself up.

Yasmin: I think the film ends in kind of a giant question mark, because it shows you the different avenues that can be taken, but I feel like it doesn’t completely condemn or promote any one solution.

Lissie: It’s not preachy. It shows a complete spectrum of responses and spectrum of opinions. I really like the fact that we hear from a man in the street who grabbed  Fayza. He complains of not being able to get married, he tapes porn over his sister’s wedding tape, he says, “What chance do I have of ever marrying? No chance.” I like that all people involved are heard from, and that the viewers haven’t been hit over the head with this. I guess what I appreciate is that the film calls on women not to be silent and calls on men to be supportive of women in this as we see what happens to men when they’re not supportive, and we see characters go through changes.

Kristina: All the characters are flawed but also have their virtuous points, and there’s no character is all that unbelievable. They all feel very real.

Yasmin: It doesn’t just make heroes out of the three women. Especially in that scene where they squabble with each other about whose fault it is that harassment is so bad, depending on how much they cover. They all make accusations along class lines or religious lines.

Lissie: What do you think the film didn’t do or could have done better?

Kristina: There’s one scene where Fayza sees her female coworker on the bus pressed up against a man, and another man offers the coworker a seat next to him, and she specifically says she’s getting off at the next stop, but she doesn’t. It’s implying that she is rubbing up against the first man and is enjoying this. And we see her in the beginning of the movie and she talks about waiting to find a husband.

Lissie: It’s important that this scene comes right after Fayza has accused the unveiled women in the film of causing the problem of harassment by not covering up.

Yasmin: And Fayza has always seen this character of the coworker as specifically just like her.

Lissie: So would you change that?

I don’t know. On the one hand, it gives this woman her own sexual agency in an environment where unmarried relatonships are illegal.

Yasmin: At the end of the day it’s consensual. But then she gets such harsh judgement.

Kristina: It’s this realization Fayza has that harassment has nothing to do with covering up.

Yasmin: And that’s always what they say! Like one time, there were a couple guys bothering me, so I just said, “3ayb!” which means shameful, and they said “What you’re wearing is 3ayb.” I was going to work. It’s not like I was showing my forearms, god forbid! It’s always just thrown back in your face that your appearance is somehow responsible.

Kristina: And the levels of policing just go up and up.

Lissie: Which isn’t something limited to Egypt. What you’re wearing is something that’s posed when you’re raped in the States.

Yasmin: The thing that makes me angry here is that it offers no protection to wear the veil. We see Fayza donning the baggiest clothes on purpose, and she still gets harassed. I see veiled women getting harassed all the time.

Annie: So ladies, concluding remarks?

Kristina: I walked out of that movie and was ecstatic.

Yasmin: It was a treat.

Kristina: It’s maybe one of the best films I’ve seen in the past couple years for its value as a social tool, or even just as a piece of entertainment.

Lissie: To be honest, I initially didn’t want to see it because I deal with harassment all the time, so why would I choose to watch it on film? But it was a treat to watch. The way it explored all the issues and the enjoyment of it.

Annie: And I really thought it was going to be typical campy Egyptian weird drama, and I was just so pleasantly surprised by how serious it was and how funny it was.

Yasmin: Yeah, I was expecting darkness throughout.

Lissie: A hard combination, well done.

Kristina: Excellent film.

Two thumbs way, way up. So, who wants some brownies?

Everyone: ME.