In this essay, I will take a closer
look at the development of female identity and feminism in the film The Open Door made by Henry Barakat that
is heralded as a ‘bold manifesto of woman’s liberation’ (Bier, p.23). Certainly,
the protagonist’s compelling feminist quest for self-discovery throughout the
film makes it tempting for us to call it a feminist film. However, through a
closer reading of the film using the psychoanalytic model of Laurva Mulvey and a
“third world” feminist perspective proposed by Chandra Mohanty, I have
questioned the films’ definition and approach towards ‘women emancipation’. The
use of these models is grounded in the understanding that the experience of
colonial Egypt inscribed it to some extent within western practices.
Nevertheless, the different female identities and their relative standing on
the scale of feminism, merits an intervention from a postcolonial “third world”
feminist eye. I specifically argue that Laila and the ‘other’ women in the film
use European feminist ideal as the norm or the referent.
Laura Mulvey’s seminal essay ‘Visual
Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ (1975) calls for the destruction of visual
pleasure as a radical, feminist weapon against patriarchy. Mulvey argues that
mainstream film form is based on a patriarchal unconscious, which derives
pleasure from voyeurism and narcissism. Classical cinema narrative is
constructed by men who are active, controlling subjects and treat women as
passive objects of desire. I will further discuss specific psychoanalytic
techniques from Mulvey’s model to analyse the film. Chandra Mohanty in her
essay ‘Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses’ (1984)
highlights the problems with White feminist writing on “third world” feminism
and refuses to elevate gender as the primary axis of power, embracing instead the potential for diverse, organic
feminisms that are rooted in differences in cultural experiences. Mohanty also points
out to the dangers of equating female
identity with female subordination,
which automatically defines power in binary terms: people who have it (men),
and people who do not (women). Woman across races, ethnicities have different
interests and goals that have customarily been defined on a scale normed through Eurocentric assumptions (Mohanty.
Laila’s relations with various men
in her life frame the proceedings in the film and open up the feminist
discourse to new paths. First, her cousin Isam tries to sexually control and exploit
her and when Laila is finally able to overcome this primitive obstacle, she
finds herself being manipulated by her fiancé, Professor Ramzi. His attempts to
improve her personality are clear indicators of misogyny and arrogance. But while
Isam and Ramzi’s efforts at controlling Laila are more palpable, Hussein’s mediation
in Laila’s life is presented as well intentioned and therefore justified. He is
the one who ‘understands’ and shows Laila the ‘right’ path to her salvation.
She represents the concern Hussein feels for her and in herself she doesn’t
have importance. This way, the male agency in the film passes from one man to
another and the narrative keeps up with Mulvey’s argument about the male
control of feminity on screen.
can also be read using Mulvey’s paradigm of castration and lack:
“the disavowal of castration by the
substitution of a fetish object or turning the represented figure into a fetish
so that it becomes reassuring rather than dangerous” (Mulvey, p.840).
In the film, Laila’s
quest is not towards self-independence but towards a ‘higher’ cause of Egyptian
nationalism which makes her rebellion less threatening and more acceptable.
Barakat successfully uses space to communicate the concept of liberation and
oppression in this film, which removes itself from the classical narrative that
Mulvey critiques in her psychoanalytic model. He constructs female subjectivity
through the use of space, for example, we see that Laila is uninhibited and
able to express herself when she is in public space but in the face of
oppression and external pressures she hides behind a closed door.
The postcolonial reading of this
film is also important to differentiate the roles of different women in the
film. Laila represents Cairo’s
European-aspiring bourgeoisie of the 1940s who is seeking education at a university.
She confronts her family on issues of gender equality and is against the idea
of an arranged marriage. This
is illustrative of the kind of feminity that White western feminists espouse as
per Mohanty’s theory. The other women are used as tools to forward Laila’s type
of ‘correct’ feminity by juxtaposing their decisions, aspirations and their
repercussions with Laila’s desires. For example, in one of the scenes, Laila
realises that she has unsuspectingly evolved into Gamila’s counterpart, which
shocks and disheartens her probably because Gamila’s womanhood is considered
subordinate to hers.