Miss City Discovers: The Maternal Instinct

Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Maternal Instinct

What better way to celebrate all the amazing moms out there on Mother's Day than posting one of my final papers from Freshman year at NYU all about the great ladies?! Enjoy!

The Maternal Instinct
            The essence of the mother/daughter relationship in regions such as Tunisia and Algeria are magnificently portrayed in two fictional films. The Silences of the Palace, directed by Mofida Tlatli, and Viva Laldjerie, directed by Nadir Mokneche, artfully examine the way in which women interact with each other, especially within the family. When an alternative family structure composed only of women is generated because of an absent father figure, a more potent strain is placed upon the remaining mother and daughter. Generational incongruities arise throughout each film, highlighting the shifting political and domestic policies. Sexual questioning and exploration are introduced to most women at very young and vulnerable ages, perhaps resulting from the struggle to keep a woman’s sexuality at bay. In a mostly male-governed society that places a high significance on youth and beauty, a peculiar competition-like complex initiates when a daughter begins to blossom into a woman. After a daughter witnesses the years of sexual, political and societal struggles that her mother deals with, she may find herself bound to the same life. This toxicity of daughters repeating history for generations is caused by the burdens and defeats of their mothers. Significantly resembling the repetitive cycle of sexual and mental abuse of mother and daughter is the continuous colonization and interventionism that has been taking place in Algeria and Tunisia during the 20th century. The ravaged woman is an allegory for the continually abused and inhabited Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco.
A single mother, whether she is widowed, divorced or illegitimately impregnated, produces the condition of an alternate family structure. In Viva Laldjerie, Papicha is the mother of Goucem, a vivacious, beautiful and noncommittal young woman. Papicha, who somewhat recently lost her husband, previously worked as a dancer and singer at the well-known Copacabana while raising young Goucem. In one early scene in the film, Goucem and Papicha go to visit their lost loved one in the cemetery. Due to current political unrest, Papicha is extremely anxious over being recognized as the famed Copacabana singer, and the mood of the scene is not so much sorrow, but obligation and anxiety. They struggle walking down the hill of the cemetery, holding on to each other. It seems the loss of her husband has strongly affected Papicha as she stays in, eats pizza and watches television, a strong distinction from the life the audience is lead to believe she used to live. The lifestyle Goucem partakes in, which includes clubbing, having sex with multiple partners, and hoping her married boyfriend will leave his wife for her, could be brought on by her witnessing the collapse of her mother after her father’s death. While Goucem and Papicha note this familial loss, their routine and natural interactions with each other depict them more as close friends than mother and daughter. It is as if having a male figure in the picture would intrude on their relationship. This natural and easy connection between them could be an indication that even while Goucem’s father was alive, he did not have much of a role in their lives, but his disappearance acted as a catalyst for Papicha and Goucem to seek protection and fulfillment elsewhere. The disappearance of outside influences triggers instability in Algeria, causing internal struggles and perhaps in turn, inviting new radical groups to come in and govern them.
The absence or loss of a father figure in a family such as Goucem and Papicha’s can affect all other areas of life. Fatima Mernissi, a Moroccan feminist writer and sociologist, studies the dynamics between male and female in Muslim society. In the 1957 Moroccan Code, a list of respective rights and duties for husband and wife are as follows: “The Rights of the Husband Vis-à-vis his wife include 1) Fidelity 2) Obedience according to the accepted standards 3) The management of the household. The Rights of the Wife vis-à-vis her husband include 1) Financial support 2) In case of polygamy, the right to be treated equally with other wives” (Mernissi 109). It is important to note that the husband owes no moral duties to his wife, and the wife cannot expect fidelity. She is expected to be completely obedient according to the “accepted standards”, a statute that is not explicit in any sense, most likely to give the husband more control. A woman’s worth is plainly laid out in a marriage contract. Without a husband to obey, what set of standards can a woman uphold, and what does that mean for her offspring?  “Attempts at reforming family laws anywhere in Islamic societies can never be a truly feminist endeavor, seeing how any legal changes would occur within a politico-socio-religious system in which men wield ultimate control” (Archer 51). If a feminist in Maghrebi society, in Archer’s research specifically pertaining to the evolution of family laws in the former French colonies of Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, attempted to change these outdated familial stipulations today, they automatically would be struggling against the current. The differences between family code, Islamic law and the legacy of previous colonial laws is that Islamic family code is the longest-standing and most closely followed ruling; highlighting it’s importance is the fact that even through changing colonial and domestic powers, those family edicts held.
In The Silences of the Palaces, the death of Alia’s father figure, Ali, causes her to have flashbacks of her time spent in the Palace with her mother. Alia says, “My former pains resurface as well as the past I thought I’d buried with my mother” (The Silences of the Palaces). With his death, Alia realizes the pain and confusion of her past that was so closely associated with her mother, and her untimely, tragic death during childbirth. Throughout Alia’s life, Ali could never admit she was his child, as he illegitimately took Alia’s mother, Khedija, as a mistress while married to Jneina. As Alia grew older, the men in the Palace began to see her as the next object of their desire. Since Alia had no true father, her only protection from these sexual predators was her mother’s ability to distract and endure the abuse herself. One especially manic sexual predator within the palace is Bechir, Ali’s brother. Alia is left in a state of confusion and loneliness, as her mother blocks each attack before she can be directly affected. Instead, she views her mother as the offender causing all of her pain and suffering. “As demonstrated by Bechir’s cruel manipulations, Khedija can expect few advantages from her status as Ali’s non-legitimate mistress. Such an ambivalent and unspoken situation makes it even more difficult for Alia to deal with her parents’ relationship and for Khedija to protect herself and her daughter from incestuous sexual predation” (Donadey 40). Just as Alia and Khedija are repressed and abused by the princes in the palace because of their lack of legitimacy without a father, the country in which they currently live, Tunisia, is constantly racked by outside powers. The lack of organized power and structure within Tunisia makes them a weak target to imperialist nations.
Without a father figure, or a family unit comprised solely of women, competition may arise between mother and daughter. The traditional female role in Maghrebi society is one of obedience; once a youthful girl begins to develop, and a mother begins to age, their roles are reversed and a competition-like condition ensues. During a scene in Viva Laldjerie, Goucem is getting ready to go out, while her mother sits idly by asking questions. There is sadness in her voice as she yearns to live the life her daughter does, one that she used to live. It is apparent when Papicha begins wearing her old Copacabana ensemble, that Goucem is annoyed and pities her mother. While Papicha is jealous of Goucem’s present unrestricted state in life, Goucem is seemingly jealous of her mother’s past where she was both married and had a glamorous life as a dancer. It is noteworthy, because as an audience we can see the correlation between Papicha and Goucem, but they each see themselves in different lights. By the end of the film Goucem is flirting with someone who she previously believed wasn’t up to her standards, and Papicha has resumed her old job as a dancer. It is as if they are both moving forward, but ending up where they were before the film even began. Like mother, like daughter. In Papicha and Goucem’s relationship, however, jealousy is not exclusively between them. Papicha takes on a motherly role towards a young girl who lives next door named Tiziri. In one scene, Goucem walks in on her mother teaching Tiziri how to dance provocatively, wearing one of Goucem’s bras. She storms across the room, and disgustedly pulls off the bra. While outwardly it may seem that she just pities her mother for trying to rewind time, under the surface it looks like she may be envious that her mother never expressed interest in Goucem’s future down the same path as her own. Perhaps even when daughters see their mothers fail, they still desire to be like them. In Algeria, although citizens are clear they no longer want to be colonized, they struggle to find solutions for their discord on their own, and even occasionally yearn for the structure and stability of past imperialists.
Whereas Goucem and Papicha are grown women, presenting the effects of competition within the mother/daughter relationship in its more advanced stages, Khedija and Alia’s story of competition forms as we watch Alia grow up. A scene that best depicts the moment when Khedija realizes the Princes may start taking more interest in her daughter rather than her, is when Bechir tells Khedija that he wants Alia to start bringing his tea. This is a sexual insinuation that all of the women in the household deal with on a daily basis. Another alternate family introduced in this film are the indentured servants in the palace, made up exclusively of women. They care for each other, as most evident by the scene where Bechir is about to have sex with Khedija again, and another woman silently takes her place. Khedija tells Alia when she gets her period that if she ‘lets a man near her now, no one will be able to save her’. It’s a very intense and frightening sentiment to tell a young girl whose entire life is in shift. There is some anger and jealousy behind her words and actions. When the princes invite Alia to sing at one of their events, Alia needs to borrow a dress from Khedija. She is literally taking on her mother’s appearance, wearing her skin, and performing for a group of men who once wished to see Khedija perform.
It is important to question if this competition between mother and daughter is more of a personal or societal pressure. “No one disturbed my life alone with my imagination and my dolls except for my mother, with her many orders that never ended, the house and the kitchen chores…the ugly, limited world of women” (Fernea 114). Elizabeth Fernea was an influential writer and filmmaker who focused on the struggle and turmoil in Middle Eastern cultures. In this short vignette, a woman describes her hostile relationship with her mother. While a mother may seem cruel or uncaring towards their daughter during their upbringing, it could be a way to prepare them for the society that they will eventually fall victim to. It feels to this young woman that her mother’s severe and stark attitude was the foundation and introduction to this restrictive world, and she will never forget that.
Competition and hostility within the family may arise from generational incongruities between mother and daughter. While each girl may ultimately be bound to the same prospects as her maternal lineage, the changing political and social atmospheres add an altering element to each lifetime. “Being the main aspect of Shari’a that has successfully resisted displacement by European codes during the colonial period, and survived various degrees or forms of secularization of the state and its institutions in many Islamic countries, family law has become for most Muslims the symbol of their Islamic identity, the hard irreducible core of what it means to be a Muslim today” (Archer 53). Throughout multiple intrusive colonial powers, domestic internal struggles and overall war and oppression, the laws of the nuclear family are held. Regardless of what generation a woman is born into, she will automatically be subject to one order, obedience. In other words, if men are not winning their battles on the battlefield, they better be winning them on the home front.
Director of Silences, Tlatli, says, “I think that there is a deep link, a secret and mysterious thread among generations. Our desires and fears secretly come from our parents and grandparents who have transmitted to us their traditions and suffering, which we carry like a wound or a source of strength for the rest of our lives” (Donadey 37). The first attribute Alia inherits from her mother is the silence and secret of her father. The film begins with Alia as a young woman, living with a man whom she’s not married to, making a living as an entertainer, and pregnant on the cusp of having another abortion because Lofti won’t legally recognize the child, just as she was not legally recognized by Ali. She is almost identical to her mother’s past. However, Khedija’s time at the palace was during a very unstable political period, one that made it impossible for her to even leave the grounds of the palace. She was metaphorically and physically barred from leaving, and in turn, brought her daughter into the same prison. Although Alia eventually left the palace, her mother’s burdens followed her. Lofti, Alia’s boyfriend whom she met at the palace while he was hiding from the police over political disputes, also acts as a tether to her past life.
Unlike Alia and Khedija, who were similar in that they both were locked away from the real world, Goucem and Papicha can clearly name their generational differences. In one scene, Papicha lies on the bed she shares with her daughter, watching a program on television called “Miami Butts”, and nonchalantly tells Goucem that she’d love to get her breasts done in France. Although Goucem has been raised in the newer generation, Papicha could easily be considered more “modern”. While Papicha wants to move onto the new, Goucem is set on trying to convince her married boyfriend to leave his wife and validate Goucem. It is also important to note that the only dependable place to drastically change her body is a country that used to occupy Algeria, and that caused a lot of anxiety for Papicha during her career at the Copacabana.
One part of life that never seems to change generationally is sex. Sex within marriage, out of marriage, prostitution, fertility and abortion are all subjects that a young woman must eventually face, and typically, a mother is the first person to introduce the notion to her daughter. In Viva Laldjerie, during sex scenes there is no music, only silence. Compared to the scenes with Papicha and Goucem where there is normally a piano melody in the background, and music seems to be a large theme symbolizing important moments in the film, could that imply that the relationship between mother and daughter is stronger than any sexual relationship? Goucem and Papicha practically live in a brothel where sexual interactions flow in and out. Goucem’s best friend, Fifi, dies in the crossfire of a misunderstanding with a corrupt political figure, whom she met while prostituting. Goucem goes to Fifi with all of her worries, telling her in one scene that no man will ever want a woman who is not a virgin and has had two abortions. Khedija knows about Goucem’s sex life, and silently awaits her in bed after Goucem has been out at a club. When she returns, Goucem explains that she’s just cleaning herself before she joins her in bed, and Papicha welcomes her no differently. In both films, mother and daughter share a bed, normally a symbol of sex. The relationship between mother and daughter, and the female characters in general, has to be accepting regarding sex, because they all see themselves as one, trying to survive in a world where sex is constantly sought out, but always seen as despicable if not under the right circumstances. Similarly, Algeria as a metaphor for a woman is constantly under fire for being seemingly unable to properly govern itself, and repeatedly more powerful countries ravage them. 
Alia’s first introduction to sex is when she witnesses her mother bringing snacks upstairs to the princes. Her mother’s silence over her role in the palace only serves to confuse Alia more about sex. Similarly, Alia also spies on her mother performing the belly dance, viewing her mother in a sexual light and not understanding. Papicha and Khedija have the sexual element of dance in common, connecting Alia and Goucem. While the princes watch Khedija dance, Ali’s wife, Jneina has to sit by silently. “Jneina, Ali’s wife, has the power to lash out at and look down upon Khedija and Alia but not to chase them from the palace, perhaps because her sterility- which is a legitimate cause for repudiation- puts her in a more precarious position that another woman of her standing” (Donadey 38). Fertility is one power women have over one another. Regardless of class, the ability to produce a child for the family is vital. Similarly, to get pregnant when it is not acceptable, forces women to choose either abortion or bring their child into a world of regret and disgrace. In one scene, Alia witnesses a loving, private moment between Khedija and Ali. She runs outside, spinning around and then falls, making it clear that she feels the world she doesn’t understand is spinning around her. “Bechir finds her unconscious, touches her thigh, brings her back to her room and lays her down on the bed she usually shares with her mother” (Donadey 42). It looks as though Bechir is going to take the final leap and rape Alia, but at that moment Khedija comes in and he rapes her instead. Alia lies on the bed, silently. Perhaps she cannot differentiate the love scene she saw take place before with her mother and Ali to the rape with Bechir. Or, imaginably Alia is mad at her mother for being so restrictive, and in her eyes, hypocritical. Or, lastly, she may think if she draws attention to herself, she may also be raped. This scene most likely makes Alia wonder if she was a product of rape, or if someday she will be raped. Following soon after, her mother gives her the oude and she holds it against her stomach, almost as if she is pregnant with it. The contrast of her holding the instrument to her belly with Khedija beating her own to try to abort the baby that Bechir created when he raped her, most likely makes Alia consider the idea that her mother tried the same thing when she was pregnant with her. Feeling unwanted, unworthy and out of control is a metaphor for the way that Tunisia feels used, tossed around from one colonizer to the next, and repeatedly abandoned.
Sex is distinctly defined as an act that may only take place within a marriage. “Girls as young as 15 could be coerced into unattractive marriage arrangements by a matrimonial guardian. Once married, women found themselves bound by an institutionalized mandate to defer to and obey their husbands. 70% of the male respondents viewed physical abuse as a legitimate means of resolving domestic conflicts” (Fernea 54). Just like the fictional films mentioned prior, abusing women, especially sexually, is considered standard in regions of the Maghreb such as Morocco.  “Sexual desire was created solely as a means to entice men to deliver the seed and to put the woman in a situation where she can cultivate it, bringing the two together softly in order to obtain progeny, as the hunter obtains his game, and this through copulation” (Mernissi 28). Imam Ghazali, a Muslim theologian, philosopher and mystic, said this quote in his book, The Revivification of Religious Sciences. The man is described as the hunter, where the woman is described as the “game”.  The woman as a commodity is an allegory of how Algeria and Tunisia are the “game” being hunted by outside forces attempting to exorcise their power. “The Muslim feminist Qasim Amin came to the conclusion that women are better able to control their sexual impulses than men and that consequently sexual segregation is a device to protect men, not women” (Fernea 31). Referring here to veiling a woman, or trying to completely cut her off from men, is possibly a stipulation put into place because men are the ones who cannot control their sexuality, and instead punish their women.
There appears to be a constant reach for meaning and stability within the mother/daughter relationship. A central idea throughout Viva Laldjerie is that although Papicha and daughter, Goucem, follow different career and personal paths, they both are left with the identical emptiness, and the matching desire for substance to fill an unidentifiable hole. It is as if they start “in the middle of things” for Goucem and almost “in the end of things” for Papicha, and slowly that overturns, giving them both fresh starts, but they both seem to be deceiving themselves. It is questionable whether the ending is hopeful or sad, or perhaps it is melancholy like the music that interweaves each significant scene. In The Silences of the Palace, adult Alia whispers at the end, “I hope it will be a girl. I’ll call her Khedija”. This ending sentiment could signify that her future child will break out of the generational repetition because she desires the child, regardless of their legitimacy, and plans on starting their lives over again together. On the other hand, it could imply that by naming the unborn child Khedija, the cycle is continuing. Just like the fictional and real women that inhabit Algeria and Tunisia, so too do these countries struggle with questions of worth, status and what is in store for the future.

Works Cited
Archer, Brad. "Family Law Reform and the Feminist Debate: Actually-Existing Islamic        Feminism in the Maghreb and Malaysia." Journal of International Women's         Studies 8.4 (2007): 49-59. Print.
Donadey, Anne. "Representing Gender and Sexual Trauma: Moufida Tlatli’s Silences of                 the Palace." South Central Review: The Journal of the South Central Modern            Language Association (2011): 36-51. Print.
Fernea, Elizabeth Warnock. Women and the Family in the Middle East: New Voices of        Change. Austin: University of Texas, 1985. Print.
Mernissi, Fatema. Beyond the Veil: Male-female Dynamics in a Muslim Society. London:                Saqi, 2011. Print.
The Silences of the Palaces. Dir. Mofida Tlatli. Perf. Amel Hedhili, Hend Sabri. Canal         Horizons, 1994. Videocassette.
Viva Laldjerie. Dir. Nadir Mokneche. Perf. Lubna Azabal, Biyouna. BL Productions,           2004. DVD.


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