A new film about a successful young woman who wants to upend tradition by becoming a single mother via sperm donation has taken the Egyptian cinema scene by storm.
Bashtery Ragel (Buying a Man) tells the story of Shams, a successful single Egyptian businesswoman who doesn’t want to get married if she can’t find true love. However, Shams has reached a point in her life where she wants a baby and feels she is running out of time. She decides to try to find a sperm donor on Facebook.
The movie tackles several issues that are thorny for Egyptians – sex, for one, artificial insemination and female empowerment. And, not unexpectedly, it has generated a flurry of controversy and media coverage – all of which has translated into profit. The film was the second-biggest winner at the box office in its second week.
The picture’s success was boosted by a canny pre-release marketing campaign in which the producers set up a Facebook page purportedly owned by a woman who was, yes, looking for a sperm donor. The page got thousands of likes and spurred heated debates between commentators. And it generated its own media coverage.
“Needless to say, this is a major religious and social taboo in every Arab and Middle Eastern country,” online publication Scoop Empire wrote excitedly the day after the page went up. “The page was shut down last night, yet the persistent wannabe-mother started a new page, pleading men to take her seriously instead of shaming her, and the donation will be met with a big financial reward.”
The page went viral before the film’s star, Egyptian actress Nelly Karim, announced on live television that the entire episode was, in fact, a PR stunt to promote her latest movie.
No man's land
Screenwriter Inas Lofty said she got the idea for the screenplay when a single friend of hers who had had several failed relationships told her she was no longer interested in finding a man, but wanted to have a baby so she wouldn’t be alone. Realising the subject matter would be difficult for an Egyptian audience, she decided to make the film a rom-com to make it more digestible.
"It would have been hard for the audience to accept the story if it was done as a drama," she told the BBC.
Sperm donation is a delicate topic in Egypt. While there are dozens of fertility clinics in the country, there is also a fair level of embarrassment and shame attached to the subject. And third-party sperm donation is prohibited in Islam. To get around that hitch, Shams proposes a paper marriage, so that the sperm donation would meet religious standards, and to divorce after the baby is born.
While broaching the topic of sperm donation is a bold endeavour, the movie ultimately falls prey to some of the very stereotypes it seeks to challenge. Shams is a successful and accomplished businesswoman, but she is portrayed as aggressive and harsh, spotlighting the pervasive societal attitude that female self-sufficiency and success are somehow unfeminine.
When the main character’s mother finds out the marriage is in name only, she visits the couple and hides all her daughter’s clothes “to force her into wearing something skimpy in front of her so-called husband, as if men are beasts who can’t control themselves when they see a little skin,” reviewer Emad El-Din Aysha wrote in Cairo Scene.
In perhaps the only ending that could make the film a success with Egyptian audiences, the couple ends up falling in love and having kids the old fashioned way.