Papicha: The Muslim Damsel in Distress

The film Papicha is based on a binary vision of the Civil War in Algeria, the Black Decade, which followed a military coup rejecting the 1991 Islamist electoral victory. The opening scene shows Nedjma, an aspiring fashion designer, and her friend Wassila getting ready inside a taxi for a night out at the club. They apply their makeup, put on their heels, and plug in their music cassette to flush out the noise of the radio broadcasting news of terror acts committed by the GIA (Armed Islamic Group). Gendarmes end up stopping the driver, and the girls rush to put on headscarves and brace themselves for a short interrogation. When they arrive at the club, we notice a classic use of the women’s bathroom as a space for female bonding; the characters are smoking cigarettes, showing off their scanty dresses and practicing their dancing skills. 

Liberty is strategically defined as the right to participate in this kind of setting, something palatable to a non-Muslim audience. On the other hand, the plight of Muslims turns on the burden of hijab, the perception of clubs and bars as taboo, and regressive gender-segregated spaces. Pressing structural issues in the Muslim world, such as widespread unemployment and inaccessibility to quality healthcare, are neglected. Rather, there is a fixation on the niceties of daily Muslim habits and cultures.  

Turbulent History and the Model Victim

Driving Papicha’s plot is the assumption that to be a victim of terrorism, which in the film is exclusively associated with Islamists, you have to be daring enough to exercise your free will in an uncouth way. This portrayal is uncharitable to victims who are not “stereotypically provocative.” Elderly veiled women were shot and robbed in cold blood.

The movie does little in offering a backdrop to the Civil War, and even if that’s forgiven, it remains highly problematic that the movie is decidedly biased. This narrow depiction of the ‘90s attempts to shape how Algerians who lived through the War understand this part of history, and thus influences their vision of how history is to play out for a better Algeria. Historian Malika Rahal says, “Official history in Algeria is history written by the conquerors; that is, by the party in power since independence. It is thus no surprise that the National Liberation Front (FLN) has produced a history valorizing its own position during the conflict to the detriment of competing political forces” [1]. We have on one end, American action film producers peddling associations between traditional Islamic practices like the adhan to later introduce terrorists, juxtaposing the evil of Islamic extremism with the bravery of U.S soldiers, and on the other end, exaggerated strides to depict Muslims as “relatable.” Of course, this concern of relatability reflects a sympathy that extends to those Muslims who see religion as an obstacle to human flourishing. 

It’s important to remember that most things in art are intentional, and the choices that artists make are informed by profound intentions and beliefs. In the next scene, rai is playing and the girls are moving on the dance floor, and soon enough a man named Yasin comes over to Nedjma. He and his friend Karim will later be romantic interests of Nedjma and Wassila. There is interesting work on the role of rai (Algerian folk music) in Algerian society. “In their lyrics, rai singers reject older religious models [and] voice their resentment that pleasure would be associated with sin” [2]. Of course, not all rai music is inspired by these themes, but there are profane songs that definitely have been and continue to be. It is no surprise that Muslims struggle, and lack of patience, understanding, and mercy from others, or at worst the use of violence, counteracts the potency of faith and discipline it asks of believers. But storylines are too often founded upon a contention of lifestyles, one that represents freedom, and the other that can never be birthed from choice but must be a result of Islamist brainwashing. 

Nedjma and Wassila are caricatures carefully packaged for Western approval. They certainly have the potential to represent many personalities, but their role as model victims has major consequences on Algeria’s collective memory of the Black Decade and its aftermath. There are forgotten groups of people who do not fit this mold, now sometimes seen as complicit or guilty of “threatening society” because of their non-secular thinking. The negative portrayal of Islam in film is often manifested through a tormented female subject. There are hardly any productions that appreciate the significant tensions between men who follow orthodoxy and Islamist militants, collapsing important differences instead.

The damsel in distress forever ruined by Islamists is a tried concept yet continuously thrives in different plots. On Algerian women, Frantz Fanon offers a striking observation in this context: “We have seen that on the level of individuals the colonial strategy of deconstructing Algerian society very quickly came to assign a prominent place to the Algerian woman” [3]. There are countless shows and movies about veiled female Muslim protagonists who fall in love with non-Muslim men and eventually realize the extent of their oppression. The upcoming Apple TV+ movie “Hala” draws on this exact scheme.

While Papicha differs from this, it operates on the same overarching ideas. In this movie, the haik as a modest garment takes several different forms, all of which symbolize modernity. Nedjma uses only haik fabric for her fashion show to create unconventional dresses. The haik has been historically seen as a sign of purity, so the manipulation of its essence could represent those who wish to bury parts of tradition that no longer resonate with their worldview. That the haik only reappears in ongoing protests and heritage events, as a symbol of resilient Algérois(e) identity, could be a sign that Islam is being compartmentalized under the pressures of modern urbanism, Westernization, and globalization, all of which affect the coast of Algeria more than other parts of the country. People appreciate the beauty of the haik and its aesthetic value rooted in Islam, but find its presumed cultural calling a burden. 

Algerian Cinema in Perspective 

What is important to realize is that Algerian cinema has been dominated by Francophones in the last 30 years. “Brahim Tsaki was quoted as saying that being financed by the French is ‘une mécanique très perverse,’ which implies some ‘insidious pressures applied by those who give money and who ask filmmakers to widen their audience. Little by little, filmmakers distance themselves from whom they are’” [4]. In Papicha, Nedjma and Wassila even at one point mock the adhan when trying to wake Samira up, tricking her into thinking it was time to pray so that they could lay in her bed. Even acts like these are hyperbolic and not the norm for liberal Algerians. 

Drawing breasts on the FIS propaganda posters (advertising the obligation of hijab) is also cliche, and the fact that there was not a single military or police officer seen in the movie after the first taxi scene further weakens the movie’s ability to honestly portray past realities. The overall production is lazy, as there is little effort to give the movie a 90s flavor. The ‘inappropriate’ word “zella”, often used as a catcall, is also a new term and wouldn’t have been said in this time period.

The anxiety around “political Islam” in Algeria is increasingly confining Islam to the realm of nationalism and delinking it from the country’s political philosophy. For example, “…the state attempted to control religious doctrine by creating a Religious Affairs Ministry that monitored and administered Islamic activities throughout the country” [5]. There is no character development of the terrorists in the movie; they’re solely associated with an instrumental and oppressive Islam. The film puts all responsibility of guerilla warfare aimed at innocent civilians on Islamists, even though there are ample accounts that detail the military’s role in the merciless killing. 

Habib Souaidia, former junior officer and parachutist of the elite Special Forces, recounts in his book The Dirty War, “I have seen my colleagues set fire to a 15-year-old boy, who burned like a living torch. I have seen soldiers slaughtering civilians and blaming ‘the terrorists.’ I have seen senior officers murdering in cold blood simple people who were suspected of Islamic activities. I have seen officers torturing Islamic activists to death. I have seen too many things. I cannot remain silent” [6]. Failing to cover both sides of the conflict in this film ignores the complexity of history.

Of course, Nedjma and Wassila are university students working towards a French language degree. A group of women in black abayas storm in the class saying in unison that Arabic is the language of the land, proceeding to kidnap the professor. Liberty is again being exemplified through colonial remnants (in this instance the French language), which could be seen as a politicized cinematographic decision. There was certainly a rejection of French instruction during the 90s, but the women in black abayas appear seemingly out of nowhere at various parts of the movie and almost resemble what would be imagined of nuns, travelling as a unit and mysteriously storming in to establish order. They barge in when Nedjma and her friends are fooling around in Nedjma’s sewing room, telling them they have no shame causing a ruckus, and tauntingly ask them if they have prayed yet. One of the women reminds Nedjma of Allah’s wrath and Nedjma replies that Allah is merciful. This exchange is meaningful, but the demonization of only one side of the conflict throughout the movie outweighs any important message that Islam is above all grounded in rahma

There are some positive aspects of the film. What was featured realistically is the male character who partook in irhab (terrorism) undercover. The 90s marked a general loss in the trust that Algerians had in one another. 

The film commendably charts the growth of toxic masculinity in Algerian society. From catcalling in the Casbah to Karim degrading women from “la cité” and later proving to be an abusive boyfriend, the violence and instability of this period, as well as the moral tug-of-war, could have had an effect on male virtue. Algerian writer Ahlem Mosteghanemi makes the argument that Algerian men’s “stunted perception of Algerian women issues from masculinity that itself is stunted by the traumas of colonialism and failed nationalist revolution” [7].

We have to be careful of media that takes advantage of the vulnerability of Muslims and injustices they’ve faced; this rendition of what a heartfelt story in a dreadful part of history looks like has an effect on the psyche. We perhaps should question “media representation” in general, or at least the actual degree of agency Muslims have in cultural engagement with media. There is a monoculture that allows for this to happen and it is difficult to say intervention is the answer, because the foundation of many dominating contemporary media cultures is already one that privileges a paradigm with no metaphysical consideration for refining the nafs [8]. 

Works cited:

3. Algeria Unveiled – Frantz Fanon

About the Author: Sabrina Amrane is a writer for Traversing Tradition. She is a journalism and political science student. Her interests include history, literature, and politics.

Disclaimer: Material published by Traversing Tradition is meant to foster scholarly inquiry and rich discussion. The views, opinions, beliefs, or strategies represented in published articles and subsequent comments do not necessarily represent the views of Traversing Tradition or any employee thereof.

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