Every summer I return to Alexandria, the city of my mother, my aunts and my grandmothers. Every summer the streets are harder to walk. My female relatives don’t seem to notice: “So what if they catcall?” “So what if they brush you?” “They’re just teasing.” “Ignore them.”
For the past few decades, sexual harassment has become a norm so suffused in the everyday that many Egyptian women face it with a mixture of resignation, trivialization and silence. The subject is not taboo, but it’s tasteless. It is that funky smell in your own home. You cannot extricate it from the carpets or the walls, so it hangs there; you pretend not to notice until someone, who’s been away long enough, comes home and wrinkles her nose.
For all these reasons, I was swept off my airplane chair when I first saw the 2010 Egyptian film 678. The film follows the intertwining lives of three Egyptian women, each of whom is struggling to attain justice after being sexually harassed on the streets of Cairo. What is most striking about this movie is that it does not break the silence with a harmonized, full-throated scream from the women, but rather it allows for the multiplicity of their voices without trying to reconcile them into a shared experience. Each of the three protagonists comes from a different economic, social and cultural class. Although their pain is the same, 678 shows how money, religion, societal pressure and family expectations shape their relationship to that pain.
The film does not oversimplify the problem of sexual harassment, nor does it idealize the solution. It does not glorify these women or their efforts. Instead, it shows their doubts and vulnerability, their mistakes, their disagreements, their scars and their friendship.
Most importantly, it sniffs the air and proclaims at long last the funky smell at home.