Gender Fluidity in Francophone Maghrebi Literature

[I wrote the following post for Bil3afya. By the way, if you haven’t checked it yet, definitely give it a peek. It’s a blog I recently launched with my dear friend Mona Kareem, which focuses on bridging the gap between the Maghreb and Gulf regions.]

The journey of self-discovery is a recurring theme in francophone Maghrebi literature and film. Characters are often placed in a struggle against forces in both French and Maghrebi society, where authors and directors evoke various themes through which characters define themselves. Despite the differences in how characters choose to define themselves, the similarity they share is that these identities are not rigid. They are fluid and are shaped by a multitude of factors that can be traced to power and power contributes to perceptions and the day-to-day experiences in these societies. One of the common ways characters embark on this journey of self-discovery is through gender. Two characters that do this differently are Nina in Garçon manqué by Nina Bouraoui and Zahra in La nuit sacrée by Tahar ben Jelloun. Each of these characters demonstrates the complexity of gender, the ways in which power shapes these complexities, and how, throughout their evolution as characters, they flow between identifying as male and female for different reasons. In both stories, gender remains central in their quest to define themselves as individuals.

Before diving into the different ways Nina and Zahra approach their identities through gender and how power plays a role in their realities and experiences, these two characters share an important similarity. Throughout both the book and the film, the characters do not maintain one gender. They both, at different moments in the development of their respective stories, identify both as male and female. Moreover, the evolution of their characters and the progression of the plot centers on the change in their self-identification. It is  a central conflict for both characters. They also share a similarity regarding the terms of gender they choose to define themselves with—a decision shaped by a combination of voluntary choices and imposed definitions, whether from society or specific people in their lives.

In Nina Bouraoui’s book, Garçon manqué, Nina narrates her experiences as the child of an Algerian father and a French mother. Nina must explore her identity in a world of “opposing dualities,” as she frames it. Despite the fact that she was born in France, she grew up in Algeria and a vast majority of her self-discovery took place in Algeria. Beyond the conflicts she faces as a person of mixed origins, she finds refuge in the creation of alternative identities that serve multiple objectives. At the beginning, all the alternative identities, namely her identity as Ahmed, Brio, and Steve, are all male. However, for the sake of concision, her alternative identity as Ahmed will serve as the most relevant example in this context. One of the reasons Nina creates this identity as Ahmed is due to the patriarchal nature of Algerian society. Nina recognizes that men have the greatest amount of privilege and she seeks to attain this privilege by identifying as male. While it may seem that this decision is based on a voluntary choice, the powers in society rooted in this dominant patriarchal narrative are what push her to make this decision. Nina says, “I want to be a man. To be a man in Algeria means to become invisible” (Bouraoui 37). She repeats this desire to attain masculine privilege when she describes her childhood friend, Amine, who is male. She says, “His body is what I desire” (Bouraoui 28). Through physical and psychological means, Nina embarks on a path where she begins to discover herself as Ahmed.

Zahra’s situation in Tahar Ben Jelloun’s film, La nuit sacrée, faces the subject of gender in a different way. Zahra’s father, in an attempt to secure an heir for his family business, decides to raise Zahra, his youngest daughter, as a son. Zahra grows up with the name Ahmed, and that is the name given to her for the entire first half of the film. Zahra, as Ahmed, entirely embraces this masculine role imposed on her by her father by dressing as a man and acting as a man as dictated by societal and traditional norms in the context of late twentieth century Moroccan society. There are even moments when Zahra, as Ahmed, imposes a certain hierarchy in the household, even in the presence of the father. This is demonstrated through the way Zahra, as Ahmed, treats her sisters and mother by making them cook and clean for her. There are also instances where the dialogue between Zahra/Ahmed carries a heavy misogynistic tone towards the female members of the household.

Certain conflicts arise when the masculine identity of Ahmed clashes with the biological female identity of Zahra. An example of this conflict is when Zahra/Ahmed begins her menstruation cycle, an event that deals a heavy blow to the masculine side of her identity. She responds by using violence and aggression as the means through which she asserts her masculine identity. It is also a catalyst for her decision to marry her female cousin, which becomes a redline for the family, even for the father who was the person who initially imposed this masculine identity upon her. It becomes a turning point for the story and Zahra/Ahmed’s path of self-discovery. In his deathbed, the father’s last wish was for Zahra/Ahmed to renounce her masculine identity and to fully embrace her identity as a female, a wish that Zahra/Ahmed initially reacts to with anger. Eventually, Zahra abandons her masculine identity and she ceremoniously buries the main objects that were associated with her male identity in her father’s grave. She then embarks on both a literal and psychological journey to discover her identity as a female, which becomes the focus of the second half of the film.

In both the contexts of the book and the film, gender is not the only factor of these characters’ identities. Because of the postcolonial context in both these stories, the self-discovery of the characters parallels the self-discovery and emerging identities of these recently independent countries. In Garçon manqué, for example, Nina constantly evokes the fact that her existence comes from a violent past: “I come from the war” (Bouraoui 32). Yet, in Nina’s own effort to define herself, she also hosts a bigger struggle in the context of the construction of a national identity. The use of female characters in the narration and experience of this struggle is a recurrence, as Ilkkaracan argues:

 “Concentrating on the imagery of desire, eroticism, and male gaze in poetry, songs, plays, and popular films […] the ‘sexual’ and women’s bodies have become a terrain of projection in the construction of communal or national identity” (Ilkkaracan 764).

In both La nuit sacrée and Garcon manqué, the characters are born female and there is an emphasis on their initial identity as females. As they matured, they undergo a conflict that centers on gender—a conflict that pushes and pulls them back and forth between identifying as male and female. Yet, in both stories, the characters complete their journey in self-discovery by falling back on their identities as females. This evolving pattern also parallels that of the countries where these stories took place: Morocco and Algeria. Before French colonialism, they were a collection of land with inhabitants in a certain location. In neither Morocco nor Algeria was there ever a uniform “identity” that inclusively drew the whole population together, whether that identity was based on ethnic, religious, linguistic, political, or social class terms. However, during colonialism, there was a conflict that was driven by exterior forces. Sometimes the conflict was violent and sometimes it was political. Yet, powerful external forces shaped the conflict, like the conflict Nina and Zahra faced. After colonialism, these countries were left to deal with a process that required they come to terms with their previous struggle, which involved the construction of a “national identity.”

La nuit sacrée is especially interesting in the way history and this gender-based struggle can be viewed through the lens of a postcolonial struggle. La nuit sacrée, as Hayes argues, is a “national allegory that, by describing how a girl raised as a boy finally becomes a woman, tie the search for gendered identity to the search for national identity” (Hayes 556). This search and self-discovery that unfold during the film may not immediately appear to be a political matter, but the political cannot be discounted from the history of Zahra/Ahmed. Saunders also sees the connection, arguing, “Gender is a colonization of the body by melding together the troubled gender identity of its main character with the (de)colonization of Morocco” (Saunders 136). And in a similar war, this struggle and this “colonization” unravel on the body and through the character of Zahra/Ahmed, who was initially a female.

Gender cannot be removed from the formula that brings together someone’s identity. It is a factor largely shaped and influenced by its context and opposing forces rooted in power relations. Nina and Zahra confront their respective contexts and societies with the audacity and courage to reject nominal labels by choosing to define themselves on their own terms. Their journey to self-discovery demonstrates the nuances in Maghrebi society and depicts a profound commentary that steps beyond the rigid framework of what dominant narratives have shaped the realities of Maghrebi women as.

Related:

  • Bouraoui, Nina. Garçon manqué. Éditions Stock, 2001.
  • Dillman, Bradford. Rev. of Queer Nations: Marginal Sexualities in the Maghreb by Jarrod Hayes. The Journal of Modern African Studies Sept. 2001
  • Ilkkaracan, Pinar. “Women, Sexuality, and Social Change in the Middle East and the Maghreb.” Social Research 69.3 (2002)
  • La nuit sacrée. Dir. Tahar Ben Jelloun. Perf. Amina Annabi, Miguel Bosé, Maïté Nahyr, François Chattot, and Carole Andronico. France 3 Cinéma, 1993. Film.
  • Saunders, Rebecca.  “Decolonizing the Body: Gender, Nation, and Narration in Tahar Ben Jelloun’s ‘L’enfant de sable.’” Research in African Literatures 37.4 (2006)
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