‘Zaat’: On Changing Gender Relations from Book to Screen

Contributor Aisha K. Nasser explores the difference between Sonallah Ibrahim’s classic novel, Zaat, and the TV series it inspired, just as news comes that Ibrahim’s Sharaf (Honor) will also be coming to the screen:

By Aisha K. Nasser


zaat“Zaat” in Arabic is a pronoun that means “self” or “person who shows a particular quality.” In Sonallah Ibrahim’s novel of the same name, the protagonist’s father calls her Zaat al-Himma, or Zaat for short.

She is named Zaat al-Himma (one who shows/embodies resolution, ambition, or determination,) after the mother of Abou Zaid al-Hilali the legendary mythical character. Given that she has shown little resolution, ambition or determination in the novel, readers are left with the assumption that the name has been ironically intended. The scriptwriter for the television series based on Ibrahim’s novel, however, succeeded in turning this ironic name into a reality. Through subtle transformations in the life and character of Zaat throughout the series, she becomes worthy of her full name Zaat al-Himma.

Zaat is a novel published in 1992 (trans. Anthony Calderbank, 2004) by the renowned Egyptian novelist Sonallah Ibrahim. The plot follows the life of an insignificant Egyptian woman navigating the turbulent socio-economic changes of the seventies and the eighties. Ibrahim – a leftist – was immensely concerned with documenting these changes, after the dramatic shift in state policy from Nasser’s socialism to the liberal economic policies during Sadat’s and Mubarak’s times (the seventies and eighties respectively). In fact, Ibrahim alternates chapters in this novel: one is dedicated to the story line, while the next contextualizes the event through extensive quotes from newspapers.

His quotes are pointedly chosen to prove the infertility – even absurdity – of the political decisions and the widespread economic corruption. The breadth of his documentation is amazing, and these quotes are immensely important in documenting the socio-economic and political changes that Egypt witnessed during the seventies and eighties of the twentieth century; these were understandably difficult for the screenwriter to negotiate into the scenario, so she didn’t use them directly.

Mariam Naoum, the screenwriter, changed the novel and expanded its scope with the approval of Sonallah Ibrahim. The protagonist, Zaat, has acquired in the screenplay a depth of character that can be easily compared to the novel. Ibrahim’s Zaat is a symbol for many other insignificant people within a specific, turbulent socio-economic period; in the screenplay, she becomes a symbol for contemporary Egyptian women who persist in spite of socio-economic difficulties.

The novel

zaatZaat is a young woman of middle-class background who drops her college studies to get married. She marries Abdel-Maguid, who has not completed his college degree and is working in a bank. Abdel-Maguid, who induces Zaat to drop out of college, later encourages her to bring in a second income and finds her a trivial job. They live in an insignificant building with people of comparable socio-economic status.

The plot picks up as major changes hit the society: first, liberal economic policies that flood the market with imported commodities, which projects the neighbors into consumerism. Second, political corruption, which results in economic corruption involving some of the state bureaucrats, becomes a quasi-state policy. Third, opportunities are rendered possible, by the rise of oil prices in the Arabian Gulf States, for Egyptian laborers and professionals. Finally, a larger segment of the society is inclined towards religious conservatism, partly as response to the widening economic gap between classes, and partly as an attempt to assimilate within the conservative Gulf States where they are working.

Combined, these phenomena affect Zaat, as she, like her neighbors, friends, and family, are inclined towards consumerist behavior; but only the lucky ones can actually afford it through a “work contract” in the Gulf. Neighbors who remodel their apartments every year besiege Zaat; co-workers, who find her too insignificant to be included in their inner circle alienate her. Helpless, Zaat resorts to tears whenever she is overwhelmed, which is often the case.

The screenplay

The TV drama series was aired during Ramadan 2013 (July/August) under the title: A Girl Called Zaat. Misr International Films, TNTV and BBC Media Action produced it, and Kamala Abou Zikri and Khairy Bishara directed it. The screenplay diverges from the storyline on the span covered. In the serialized version, Zaat is born on July 23, 1952, the day of the revolution, and it ends with Zaat participating in the revolution on Jan. 25, 2011. With such a wide time span, the screenwriter was able to cover significant cultural and political incidents, documenting wars and political changes. The series also documented various cultural events, memorable songs, films, and funerals of legendary singers (Umm Kalthoum and Abdel Halim Hafez). The socio-economic changes that the novel intensely documents are interwoven in the screenplay.

Zaat is not only involved in consuming goods made available by open-door policies of Sadat’s era, but she is also a producer of goods. In the novel, she is only involved in failing enterprises initiated by a couple who live next door. In the series, however, she is actively producing (sewing clothes, head scarfs, nighties, dresses, and later costumes) and selling mainly to her co-workers and neighbors. Through her enterprise, she manages to remodel her bathroom and kitchen against the will of her husband.

The political and economic decadence of the state senior officials (best documented in the novel) coincided with the interests of corrupt businessmen who sought the help of state bureaucrats. The latter usually opened their drawers, as the euphemism for bribes went, in exchange for their much-needed endorsement on official papers.  “Opening one’s mind” is another euphemism for such corrupt acts, one that Abdel-Maguid has not been capable of, despite his employment in the promising banking sector. The screenplay thus has him gone to the Gulf for few years.

During the four years while Abdel-Maguid was away, Zaat thrived. Not only could she temporarily cease her own time- and effort-consuming enterprise and enjoy the fruits of his labor — relaxing, enjoying her time with her friends, and taking care of herself — but she could also be free of his rule. That is, if it had not been for her mother, of course. The depiction of the relationship between mother and daughter within an Egyptian context is realistic, humorous, and witty. In such a relationship, the mother insists on interfering in her daughter’s life, controlling every minute detail, belittling her every act and deed, and refusing to withdraw her guidance of her now mature daughter.

Religiosity was also skillfully handled by the screenwriter and accurately applied by the directors. The costume designer, who conveyed fashions ranging from the 1950s to 2010s, brought about authentic colors and cuts. The viewer thus saw Zaat wearing mini-skirts that grew longer as time went by. Her head covers (and their names) also changed slowly as she progressed, with the whole society, into deeper religious phases. Equally successful was the depiction of the changing inter-faith relations in Egypt: first with Jewish neighbors, then with Christian co-workers, showing how tension in inter-faith relations coincided with growing Islamism.

Zaat, however, remained faithful to her early upbringing, allowing her domestic worker to play church music in her house, and defending it as “God’s Words” against her mother’s objections. Zaat has succeeded in maintaining a balanced religious existence within her family framework throughout her life. Religiosity has come though closer to Zaat’s life, when her son-in-law turned fanatic, refusing to allow Zaat’s family members close involvement in his daughter’s upbringing, and doubting the authenticity of their faith.

Changing gender relations

The changing gender relations within the context of the Egyptian family and the various ways in which females negotiate and renegotiate these relations have gone unnoticed in many cultural representations of modern Egyptian family life. In this section, attention will be focused on the overall depiction of the changing gender relationships. I will discuss the perspectives of both the older and younger generations, in addition to the perspective of someone from the borders (someone of an outsider/insider status). I will then pinpoint moments in the screenplay where these changes have been brought to the forefront.

Zaat’s mother, who early on voiced her disdain at Zaat’s involvement in the paid labor market, never ceased to compare the older and the younger generations. Her stand was clear from the beginning, favoring the male breadwinner and wife homemaker model. After all, this was the model that she was raised with, and it was the model into which she trained her girl.

A girl’s education from her perspective was a waste of time, and she attempted to steer Zaat into studying home economics. Throughout the series, she also trained her granddaughters, after she was done with her daughter, to be excellent housewives modeled after herself. The training, however, doesn’t include any discussion of sexuality that may prepare young girls for their future roles. “The prospective wife and mother is kept in complete ignorance of her only asset in the competitive field–sex,” Emma Goldman observed over a century ago. This was partly responsible for the fractured sexual relations between the married couple as touched upon in the series and elaborated upon in the novel.

The mother also initiated, planned, and executed her daughter’s circumcision (FGC) and attempted the same on her granddaughters, but was faced with her daughter’s firm opposition. Zaat was about to yield to her mother’s pressure, but decided that this had ruined her sexual pleasure and opted out. It is curious – and telling ­ –that decision-making on such a crucial matter is the role of females in the family.

Zaat’s mother decries the friction in relations between males and females of Zaat’s generation. She wonders at the lack of trust that is endemic to the new generation. On the other end of the spectrum, Zaat’s nephew, who has newly returned from the States, has a more radical view. He maintains that Egyptian men choose well-educated and beautiful young ladies to show them off for a while, then keep them locked up for life. Zaat herself considers her husband an additional child that she has to take care of. Her view neatly sums up the ambivalent gender relations in modern-day Egypt.

The screenplay offers a subtle feminist perspective on changing gender relations in contemporary Egypt. Most striking are the huge changes in Zaat’s character. The protagonist, who was depicted as an insignificant young woman in the novel, reduced to tears by various systems of oppression in her life, is transformed in the screenplay to a slowly maturing woman with plenty of agency.

As a young woman, Zaat juggles her responsibilities as a working mother. She starts her days early to dress and feed her daughter(s) and commute to drop her at her mother’s, goes to work, picks up her child, buys dinner supplies, and rushes home for her second shift, without much help from her husband. Such a routine is typical of many working mothers in Egypt since women have joined the working force and men have maintained their traditional roles as “breadwinners.” Her income, not particularly her salary, represents the major share in the family’s income except for the brief years when Abdel-Maguid travels to work in the Gulf.

Zaat, who hastened into marriage to comply with her pre-determined fate and compete with her peers, also dropped out of college for the same reasons. In the ensuing years, Zaat took matters within her marriage into her own hands, making decisions and following them through. Her resolution to compete with her neighbors in renovating her kitchen and bathroom took her five years to fulfill. During these years she worked on her sewing enterprise and saved every penny to manifest a dream to which her husband wouldn’t yield. Upon his objection, she confronted him, saying, “I come home and spend hours every day cooking and washing in these ruins. I had to renovate them.” She was voicing her objections about inhumane conditions for her second shift in the house, ones to which her husband was oblivious.

When Abdel-Maguid spent a few years in Kuwait, he had pre-determined the financial arrangements. He was to send most of his salary to Zaat, who was to deposit most of it with an Islamic financial establishment and only keep what was necessary for the family expenses. Zaat, however, took full advantage of the opportunity, refurbishing the whole apartment and enrolling the girls in a private school. Yet the bulk of the money went to the Islamic Financial establishment as Abdel-Maguid had arranged.

Upon Abdel-Maguid’s return, it was revealed that the Islamic financial enterprise was a scam that embezzled their life-savings, along with that of thousands of other people. Abdel-Maguid, who worked for a bank and had made the arrangements, had himself to blame for the loss, but instead blamed his wife for her expenditures. Her reply was simple and swift, “had I not done all these things, the money would have been lost along with the rest.” Women are often accused of frivolous spending, but in this case Zaat’s frivolous spending was a successful affair.

Saddam’s venture into Kuwait in 1991 had detrimental effects on the Egyptian economy. Many Egyptians returned home, most penniless, and competition for jobs grew higher. In this dire economic situation, it was hard for Abdel-Maguid to find a job, so he was a stay-at-home dad when the long-awaited male heir arrived. It was Zaat who bore the brunt of providing for the family, although her second-shift was now reduced by all the support she received from her mother, her teen-aged girls, and her husband. She could then dedicate more time for her original enterprise, sewing, in which she had moved a step further: sewing costumes for special events.

Amgad, Zaat’s youngest, posed a big challenge for the family. The boy, who as a small child had been unable to speak, suddenly started speaking in English. He was thus unfit for admission in public schools, which have, anyway, deteriorated beyond acceptable standards. Zaat was thus determined to place him in a private school, and her mother volunteered, selling her own apartment and moving in with Zaat to help pay for the school. Zaat was not satisfied with the arrangement, and arranged to meet the school’s owner, who happened to be an old acquaintance. Through the meeting, she landed Abdel-Maguid a job that guaranteed Amgad a substantial discount in school fees, and the family a stable income.

In this, as in other episodes, it was Zaat who made the decision and took practical steps towards executing it. The screenplay has thus portrayed the changing gender relations within the conservative family structure in Egypt. Zaat here is an example of the female at the center of the family with enough agency to sustain the family and better the social standing of its members. The males, however, still hold the formal position as head of the family whose decisions are seldom revoked. It is thus in everyone’s interest to reduce the number of decisions males make. Here, women learn to bypass their husbands in a variety of ways and maintain the equilibrium between formal and actual leadership in the family.

Identity and crossing boundaries

Crossing national boundaries has been an integral part of lives of the Egyptians throughout the last few decades. Millions of Egyptians crossed borders seeking better working and living conditions, either temporarily as in the Arab Gulf States, or permanently as in the US and Europe. Egyptian cinema has touched on the topic of diaspora, identity, crossing borders and re-crossing borders (the returning, especially, of second generation immigrants). Most notable among these are Asal Iswad “Black Honey” (2010), a comedy that tells a story of a second-generation immigrant coming ‘back home,’ where he is faced with disparities between his treatment as an Egyptian citizen vs. as an American citizen. Yet he remains enchanted, loving his original country, and thus the title black honey, denoting the mixed bittersweet feelings he harbors towards it.

Mariam Naoum, who was born in the US, is more concerned with the concept of identity. In a graceful treatment of the issue, she tells the story of two brothers, Zaat’s two nephews, who were born and brought up in the States, and who take up the issue of identity very differently. One refuses his Egyptian origin, insists on being American, volunteers in the army, and is later deployed to Iraq. The other is more in tune with his origins, comes back home, and gets involved in political activism prior to the 2011 revolution.


Zaat, an “ordinary” woman in the novel by Sonallah Ibrahim, has been transformed into a character of strength in the screenplay. Mariam Naoum depicts the changing gender relationships within the setting of traditional family structures in Egypt during the second half of the twentieth century. The screenplay presents how women have been negotiating and re-negotiating relations within the traditional settings that have not been altered in their outward format. Against the backdrop of socio-economic turbulence that marked the seventies and eighties (onwards) in Egypt, Zaat has emerged in the screenplay as an evolving and maturing character who takes matters into her own hands and is thus worthy of her intended name: Zaat al-Himma, the one who shows/embodies ambition, resolution, and determination.

Aisha Khalil Nasser holds a PhD in Middle East Studies from Exeter University, and has recently completed an MA in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies from Oregon State University. Her research interest is in Cultural Studies and International Women, especially women in the Middle East.

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