It is very difficult to write about this film for me—I have a love/hate relationship with it. Which is funny, because the film is kind of a love-hate relationship between Batoul and Hamza! Thus, this is not one of my better reviews. But, I’ve got to write something! So, I apologize in advance for being a bit (a lot) negative about the film.
On one hand there have been two very astute authors about the film who have very insightful blogs: http://muslimahmediawatch.org/2009/03/hijab-al-hob-love-sex-and-the-veil/ and http://bisahha.blogspot.com/2009/02/amours-voilees.html I encourage you to read their work because it is very thoughtful. On the other hand, even watching the film a second time did not diminish my irritation at the shallow representation of most of the women characters in the film, including the main protagonists Batoul and Hamza. Amours Voilees came out in theaters in 2009 in Morocco, though it was produced in 2007, and is available online at several sites including YouTube. There was apparently a lot of discussion and uproar about the film because it reveals (and I use the word appropriately here!) a veiled woman–during Ramadan no less–having non-marital sex, in addition to the many scenes of semi-nudity, sexual activity outside of marriage, and other contradictions to average Moroccan social mores.
The story: Batoul is religiously observant, a doctor from an upper-class family, about 28 years old and unmarried—she had a fiancé but he died long ago—who hangs out with a circle of girlfriends who primp and preen and talk about men and sex constantly, until one day she meets Hamza, an older suave fellow, an interior decorator. Though initially hesitant to embrace, soon Batoul throws herself into Hamza’s arms and bed and begins a very explicitly filmed (for Morocco) sexual affair. But the affair is kept secret from her friends and family (voilee!) especially her very religious cousin who keeps on pestering her and her family with his declarations of wanting to marry Batoul. In fact, once Annas has proposed, Batoul is prompted to talk to Hamza about marriage since they are so “in love”, but Hamza says definitively not, he will not remarry ever. Batoul gets upset, and as it is soon Ramadan she breaks off their relationship to give him time to think it over. But the break-up doesn’t last and soon they are having sex again, shopping, and having fun even though it is Ramadan (for those who don’t know, it is a month’s period when during the daylight hours one abstains from drinking/eating/smoking/sex and other things you can look up). At one point, Batoul goes to a fancy party with Hamza, all dressed up disguised in a red wig—where she meets her brother! She and Hamza flee in the car, but the brother chases them, gets into an accident and dies. Then we see Batoul in mourning, veiled and praying, apparently having broken off with Hamza—she refuses to accept his calls–in her guilt and sorrow. Eventually Hamza just starts a love affair with a new woman, Batoul’s friend Houyem, but when Batoul sees them out together, she can’t take her own jealousy and goes to Hamza’s house and throws herself in his arms. They have sex and she brings up marriage again, throwing in a bit about “what if the woman is pregnant”, and Hamza says “never”, so she rushes out again, brushing past Houyem who then also breaks up with Hamza. Apparently friendship is a stronger bond. Batoul has a psychological and physical breakdown in her car, and we next see her in the hospital where the doctor says that thanks to her friend they could save the baby—she says not to tell anyone but Houyem figures it out right away and goes to pressure Hamza to come to the hospital to see her though he wants to have nothing to do with the baby and still refuses marriage. Batoul tells Houyem and her girlfriends she’ll raise her baby on her own, refusing to see Hamza, and he walks out of the hospital. End of film.
Basically, Amours Voilees is the story of Batoul, a well-off doctor who falls in love with an avowed bachelor (he’s been divorced) and their on-again-off-again romance because he refuses to marry, even when she’s pregnant with his child. Perhaps the more minute details round-out this very simplistic story, but in the end it remains a rather simple story. Perhaps that’s what bugs me about it—I was hoping for something a little more complex and insightful into women, which I have come to expect from older Moroccan filmmakers like Farida Benlyazid, Mohamed Tazi, Hakim Noury and Jilali Ferhati among others I won’t list off. A great many films have been made about the subject and status of women, films which render women much more complex and their desires, taboos, goals, doubts, loves and disappointments more well-developed. Aziz Salmy herein generally reduces love to sexual activity, desire, desire for marriage, and jealousy, where Batoul’s dilemmas are really reduced to “being sexually active” with Hamza, rejecting him when he refuses to marry, hiding under the veil when she’s done something wrong, then throwing herself back into Hamza’s arms, then rejecting him again when he still won’t marry even though she’s pregnant, and deciding to have her child “on her own”—all which she can do because she’s from an upper class family. We don’t see Batoul “love” but “being sexually active” and jealous; we don’t see her have religious faith, but hide in the veil when her brother is killed because of her sexuality; we don’t see her choose a single-parent path, it is chosen for her when Hamza refuses to marry, although we are supposed to give her some credit for declining to abort the child. Of course, I have two problems with this child issue; Batoul is a doctor. Either she got pregnant on purpose to try and force Hamza into marriage, which doesn’t speak highly of her character either, or she’s been careless. Perhaps if she hadn’t been a doctor this wouldn’t bother me so much. In either case, it is a flaw in the film, to me, that we are asked to just accept that she is pregnant, an unnecessary plot point really, and to just accept that she decides “out of the blue” to have the baby outside of marriage without there being any real set-up about this character development at all. It bothered me tremendously as being too cavalier and unexplained by Batoul’s character. Or perhaps we are supposed to believe that because she has sex outside of marriage, even during Ramadan, that she is immune to taboos that affect the rest of society. Of course, Batoul’s upper-class status makes it easy for her to have freedom of movement so that she can be sexually active, and her class status makes it possible for her to have a child out-of-wedlock whereas other women in Morocco would find themselves in considerable trouble either with their families, the law, or society. It is an easy way out, story-wise, to have Batoul be wealthy and able to “choose” whereas the reality for most women is not so easy!
Now, I agree with the filmmaker that what he showed in his film is a reality in Morocco—plenty of women have sexual relations outside of marriage, and some of those end in pregnancy and unwed mothers. Of course, that is why there are a number of NGOs in Morocco that help unwed mothers, both because there is stigma (and law) against being an unwed mother, and because the women need to learn skills to support themselves, as most everyone in the situation is not upper-class. And yes, plenty of women who wear the veil also have sexual relations outside the bonds of marriage. Just as it is true that plenty of men are willing to have sexual relations with women whether veiled or not, men divorce women easily or abandon them and their children, and men also refuse to marry the women they make pregnant. While the film in these instances is “realistic”, this does not erase the shallow treatment within the film that women receive, nor does it make it a good film overall. Perhaps if one just wants to discuss socio-culturally an element of society, such as male/female relationships outside of marriage, the film can arouse conversation, but the answer for Batoul to raise the child on her own is managed simplistically and avoids the many social barriers that sexually active women and unwed mothers actually face.
I had high hopes for the film when we opened on Batoul praying then going out with her friends to a bar/nightclub. Perhaps Batoul would be a complex character negotiating difficulties of being both sexually active and religious, something new. But soon the film seems to focus on her physical self more than her spiritual or even mental self—many gratuitous shots of her nude in the bath, nearly undressed in bed, having sex with Hamza, again nearly undressed in the bath, etc. On one hand we can say that of course Batoul is a sexual being even if she is religiously observant—yet the film emphasizes her sexuality over her religiosity by far. We only see Batoul pray in the first scene, and then after her brother is killed when she is remorseful. For another example, one of Batoul’s friends only begins veiling because she wants to catch a husband. Neither of these women veil out of conviction and personal desire—it is a means to an end. We are witness to Batoul’s continuous veiling and praying only when her brother dies, but we don’t really get any insight into this Batoul or her thoughts about religion. She’s feeling guilty so she turns to religion—to get what? Does she get solace? Does she find out more about herself? This could be rich, fertile ground to explore—this conflict between desire/physical attraction and religion; or are they in conflict at all? The film seems to show that they are unless marriage is the final outcome. The film doesn’t delve into anything substantial but resides in the superficial. When Batoul sees her friend with Hamza, jealousy leads her to toss off the veil right quick so she can jump into bed with him again—there’s no struggle, no angst, no self-doubt. It seems after all Batoul is only a shallow woman being represented, but held up to be our heroine because she is the protagonist of the film and a heroine because she will have a child out-of-wedlock.
Another element of the representation of women that I find hard to digest is Batoul’s circle of friends who are frequently represented “in group”, while only one friend, Houyem, is allowed to stand out. That is because Houyem purportedly represents “the abandoned woman”—she married, she had kids, she was abandoned by her husband somehow (it is unclear if she is divorced or simply he just left); now she is sexually free but complains to the women who condemn her freedom that she has done all the right things and finds herself abandoned, so what is she supposed to do? She works in a beauty salon, so at least she is shown to have some trade, but we only orally hear about her dilemma of being an abandoned wife, we aren’t really shown it in any actions in the movie other than her love affair with Hamza when Batoul dumps him. But most of the women friends are like a chorus that bring up “important questions” having to do with veiling to find a man, having sexual relations outside of marriage, having a child outside of marriage etc.—while the women themselves engage in the thought-provoking actions of fluffing their hair, putting on make-up, and preening in the mirror. Again and again. Or perhaps they are entwined in towels in the hammam. Or they lounge or exercise. All are very exciting women’s activities. At least Batoul and one of the friends are doctors—they aren’t just primping and preening.
Then there is Batoul’s cousin, Annas, who is represented as being very religious. He doesn’t like radio talk shows or modern music; he just listens to the Quran and prays. He’s also as uni-dimensional as is Batoul, but her opposite. He’s so in love with Batoul, he dreams of her, he thinks of only her. But of course Annas would not want a sullied Batoul who is pregnant, and thus his religion is shown to be intolerant. What about a tolerant Islam? Can people make mistakes and still find a place in their religion or are they outcasts forever? This would be another interesting facet for the film to investigate, but like other questions, it is dealt with superficially if at all. We just see Annas’ face looking stricken from outside the hospital room window, but we don’t get to know what he thinks or feels or how his faith might allow him to see Batoul in a different light—is he capable of forgiving, or is he judgmental? That is left unexplored.
So, I apologize for mostly criticizing the film. It just struck a raw nerve that all the women and men in the film were shallow or simplistically motivated by sex. At least Houyem got the opportunity to put friendship above sex. The characters were unidimensional, except for Houyem, who is actually a rather marginal player. Batoul is willful, Hamza a playboy, Annas a stoic Muslim brother, and the main game is how many fleshy shots and “in bed” scenes the filmmaker can get into a film without it being censored in Morocco. He manages quite a few.