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Beauty and the dogs

By: Natasha Archary 

Having recently attended a media screening for this jarring and controversial movie, I felt compelled to write about the reality and dire under-belly of a socio-cultural norm…why a woman may choose not to report a rape?

Tunisian director, Kaother Ben Hania’s feature stars Mariam Al Ferjani, an actress who defies every cultural expectation of the heavy Islamic influence of Tunisia. Her namesake fictional character, Mariam, faces the dilemma of whether to report that she was raped, or not.

This question sows a common thread that victims of rape face daily, that they are “guilty of being raped”. Isn’t this the way the system operates? The victim becomes responsible while the guilty roam around untainted, rarely accountable for their violation!

It was a brave jump for the director from documentary to fiction but one that packed such a powerful truth that it worked well in her favour. Jammed with raw emotion the movies’ honesty, stylistic approach and clear, cinematic edge meant chronicling the night that Mariam was raped in nine chapters, each consisting of a single sequence shot.

The movie opens with Mariam in a club bathroom, with a rip in her modest dress. Enters friend, who brings a skimpier dress which Mariam hesitantly dons. The ladies then join the fun at the University party that Mariam organised. Charmed by Youssef, who she meets at the party, chapter one ends with Mariam leaving the club in his company. Fade to black. The second chapter and second sequence shot, opens with a hysterical, tear-stained Mariam running on the street, with Youssef following closely behind. It would be easy to assume at this point that Youssef is the cause for Mariam’s distress, but we learn that he is as visibly affronted as Mariam when a police car drives by.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H1gD1xLhqg4

It comes to light that Mariam was raped by several policemen at the back of their police vehicle. She managed to escape them but left all her belongings inside their vehicle in her haste. As a result she has no ID and the private clinic they seek help at refuse to admit her without it. The subsequent chapters follow Mariam and Youssef’s journey for justice, being sent from private clinic, to public hospital, to the police station and receiving zero empathy along the way. When did reporting a rape equate to getting grazed on the knee?

The movie’s underlying angle, highlights the very limited freedom of movement that women are accorded in a rigidly hierarchical, archaic society, dominated by men. Even when they are subjected to the inconceivable acts of aggression by said men! Tunisia, South Africa, India, The Middle East…the world over, women are held responsible for any violation on their bodies. Mariam was subjected to the lewd stares of men throughout the night, insulted by women who crossed her path all because she wore a “revealing, provocative” dress. She was asking for it. That’s what was implied by the so-called protectors she tried reporting the incident to.

No woman wants to be raped!

This progressively stifled view of what men think women want is deeply flawed. A society where a woman is on the receiving end of graphic abuse and expected to go on as if the entire thing did not happen, is just unacceptable. Mariam, fictional though her character may be, represented every woman who has ever been subjected to similar violations. Her ordeal is not an unfamiliar one in South Africa.

While the country’s rape statistics have decreased in 2016/2017, on average 109 rapes were recorded each day. This is devastating to women like Mariam who become just another statistic, a number in this glitched running order. Women who are sexually assaulted may decide against reporting the rape for the simple reason that she is made to feel guilty for being violated. You dressed this way, you had too much to drink, you flirted with him so you deserved what you got. How disgusting! How completely and utterly disappointing that a man’s inability to control his urges becomes a woman’s fault.

In an ideal world a woman would be able to go out at night, with a group of friends, or alone and be able to return safely. Unharmed, untouched and whole. A world where her honour is preserved, her dignity intact, her body hers.

This movie left me exposed, vulnerable, insulted and angry. Anger firstly because of the uncensored brutality with which men feel women deserve to be treated. Anger for the title of the movie because it’s an insult to dogs to be likened to such extremes. And anger for every woman who has ever had to go through what Mariam endured that night, for her reliving that night everyday for the rest of her life.

How does this change the narrative for women? It doesn’t but we need to, in some way react and envision a paradigm shift in mentality, culture and societal norms. Or risk becoming so far removed as a species that we play God with a woman’s body.

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