The Other Half of the Sky: Inheritance in a Tunisian Film

The Other Half of the Sky: Inheritance in a Tunisian Film March 17, 2009

Bornaz. Image via The Daily Star.
Bornaz. Image via The Daily Star.

Tunisian filmmaker Kalthoum Bornaz’s film Shtar M’Haba (The Other Half of the Sky) was recently discussed in Lebanon’s The Daily Star. As it turns out, Bornaz was the only female director to enter the official competition at Ouagadougou’s Pan-African Film and Television Festival earlier this month. The Daily Star tells us that she was not successful, but the message of her film has resonated with audiences.

As The Daily Star points out, the “movie tackles the sensitive subject of what women can – or more pointedly cannot – inherit.”

The film tells the story of fraternal twins Selim and Selima who have a difficult relationship with their widowed father. Ali, a lawyer, blames his children for the death of their mother who died in childbirth.

In carefully crafted dialogue, Bornaz documents the degrading family relations when Selim goes to study abroad and Selima is left to care for their father after he has an accident.

One day Selima learns that girls only inherit half of the part that their brothers get. For Selima, this would mean only one-third of her father’s assets while her brother would get two-thirds. In one critical scene, she asks her father, “Is it because fathers love their daughters only half as much?”

The film sounds quite interesting, mainly because of the topic it touches on. Although many Muslims are weary of films and books, and rightly so, made in the West by non-Muslim filmmakers depicting the stereotypically oppressive and supposedly restrictive situations of Muslim women, there are times and places when depicting the struggles that Muslim women face is necessary. We cannot, after all, ignore the social problems in our communities for fear of what others will think. We cannot at the same time demonize all our Muslim communities while dealing with these issues. A fine balance must be met. And addressing the issue within Muslim communities is a great place to start.

The Tunisian director was also quick to say she does not like the kinds of films in vogue in Europe focussing [sic] solely on the difficult position of Muslim women. “We Tunisian women have even more rights than you European women in certain respects,” she said, “except for this question of inheritance.

“Still, I told myself, if they want a film about the problems of Arab Muslim women, I’ll give them a film about the problem of Muslim women!”

Shtar M’Haba is a film by a Muslim woman addressing an issue, the effects of which are often detrimental for many Muslim women, and which is rarely addressed. As Bornaz says, this is a problem many Muslim women face.The Daily Star includes in their report her own experiences.

The filmmaker, who lives and works in Tunis, was quick to reassure the press that her films are never autobiographical but that she had witnessed dramatic consequences of the law first-hand with friends, cousins and neighbours. Committed to making a film on the theme, she said she researched for a year, speaking with lawyers, religious scholars and sociologist about inheritance before even starting to write the scenario.

Regardless of what the laws may say, what the interpretations are, or how people think they should be implemented or not, the fact remains that many Muslim women around the world do end up with the short end of the stick when it comes to inheritance, and films such as Shtar M’Haba demonstrate the human aspect and the real effects of such laws. I bring this up not to discuss the theology behind it, but rather simply to point out that the today’s impact of such laws can be very complex and often deprive women, as a result of the modern day realities Muslim women face. Though I do think theologians and Islamic scholars need to be thinking about this topic while considering these modern day realities that Muslim women experience.

I have not seen this film, therefore cannot critique the way in which this issue has been handled. However, it does seem to me that showing such realities are necessary for Muslims to consider and discuss.

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