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Saturday, 5 May, 2001, 12:19 GMT 13:19 UK
Girls' secrets aired in Egypt
Poster for Girls' secrets in Cairo
Poster for Girls' secrets in Cairo
By Caroline Hawley in Cairo

A new Egyptian film about a teenager who gets pregnant has been creating a stir in Cairo.


It's the first time a film has ever dealt with a subject like this

Viewer
In the film, a 16-year old Egyptian girl, Yasmin, gives birth alone in the bathroom, after managing to hide her pregnancy from both her family and friends.

When she is discovered, her veiled mother accuses her of shaming the family and a religious doctor circumcises her as she lies unconscious in hospital.

Her father briefly considers unplugging the tiny baby's incubator.

Pre-marital sex, forbidden in Islam, is a major taboo in Egypt and even by just bringing it to the Egyptian screen without condemning it entirely, the film, Girls' Secrets, has been hailed as ground-breaking.

"It's the first time a film has ever dealt with a subject like this," said one enthusiastic viewer. "It's usually forbidden even to talk about such things."

True story

The film was inspired by the true story of a girl who was badly beaten by members of her family for losing her virginity before she was married.


I've seen operations to restore girls' hymens and I've seen abortions. They're both illegal but they both happen every day in our hospitals

Film Director Magdy Ahmed Ali
"Society doesn't want to admit it but there is a lot of sex before marriage," says the director, Magdy Ahmed Ali, who used to work as a hospital pharmacist.

"I've seen operations to restore girls' hymens and I've seen abortions. They're both illegal but they both happen every day in our hospitals. "

But Ali uses the story of Yasmin - and the consequences of her snatched encounter with the boy next door - to make a much wider point about the social and cultural malaise that Egypt is undergoing, torn as it is between religious conservatism and more liberal, Western influences now entering Egypt through satellite television and the internet.

"The middle class is undergoing an identity crisis," he says.

"We don't know if we're Islamic or Western and these contradictions are a disaster for the young generation."

Researchers say it's impossible to know how much sex before marriage really takes place because it remains such a taboo.

"I don't think it's very common because of the religious restrictions for both Muslims and Christians," says Nehad Abu Qumsan of the Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights.

"But when it happens it's an absolute disaster for the woman, who is always the one that is blamed. Sometimes the family kill the woman for dishonouring them."

Sex dilemma

But with young Egyptians having to put off marriage as they struggle to find the money to pay for it, sex has become a major dilemma for many couples.


I'd like my film to play a part in changing things but in a society like ours I'm not very optimistic

Film Director Magdy Ahmed Ali
Some now resort to controversial, unofficial "'urfi" marriages, in which they sign documents declaring themselves man and wife without telling their families.

Many clerics are against a device that is essentially a cover for pre-marital sex.

But the phenomenon is believed to be spreading.

"It's young people's way of trying to legitimising what is socially illegitimate," says social researcher Sahar Tawila.

Girls' Secrets has drawn attention to the conflicts many young Egyptians are now facing.

"We need to try to solve their problems but we have to acknowledge that they exist first," says the director, Magdy Ahmed Ali.

"I'd like my film to play a part in changing things but in a society like ours I'm not very optimistic."

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See also:

23 Oct 99 | Middle East
Egyptian women's rights: A century on
17 Jan 00 | Middle East
Egypt backs rights for women
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