To film The Women of Hezbollah, director Maher Abi-Samra returned to the neighborhood of his youth, Ramel al Ali, a southern suburb of Beirut. Settled in the 1950s mostly by Shiites from the villages of southern Lebanon, it had become one of the strongholds of Hezbollah by the early 1980s. In this film, Abi-Samra intertwines the stories of two Shiite women, Zainab and Khadjie, with the economic and political events that brought Hezbollah to power. Historical perspective develops through his portrait of these activists, giving context to the personal, social and political factors that contribute to their commitment to Hezbollah and embody the multiethnic identity of Lebanon.
Through interviews and other glimpses into the lives of these two women, Abi-Samra puts a human face on a topic largely unknown to Western audiences. Khadjie, who was raised in the Shia-dominated South, says she was only aware of two religious identities when she was young: Muslim and Jewish. Her impression of Jews was formed from parental threats. When she was crying, her mother would say, “Be careful, the Jews are coming to attack us!” The Jewish community represented a dark and terrifying vision.
Forced by her mother and brother into an unhappy marriage, “an act of aggression, of rape,” Khadjie bore six children before divorcing her husband. She then found intellectual stimulation and a passion for liberation in Islamic politics. Hezbollah provided the emotional fulfillment and identity she found nowhere else. In 1982, Khadjie led a group of women protesters to the Israeli prison camp al Ansar to demand the release of their husbands and sons. As a spokesperson, Khadjie’s vehement rhetoric eventually led to her own incarceration in the camp. The first woman to be imprisoned by Israelis, Khadjie quickly became a “symbol of the resistance.” It was during this year in captivity that she met Abi-Samra, as well.
The director uses the frame of Khadjie’s narrative to outline Hezbollah’s development and history. Although this non-linear approach can be confusing, the disjointed storylines, switching between interviews and historical clips, engage the viewer. Khadjie was born in southern Lebanon as it became the “theater of confrontation” with Israel in the late 1960s, around the time of the first massive displacement of southern Lebanese to the outskirts of Beirut. The narrator discusses how Hezbollah’s support and legitimacy were built upon resistance to the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon in the following years. AbiSamra’s timeline skips from the 1960s to the formation of Hezbollah during the Israeli invasion of 1982. This is not immediately apparent to the viewer who is closely following Khadjie’s story, and it leaves a sense of frustration when piecing together the timeline.
The director does, however, focus on critical stages in the development of Hezbollah, providing an important background to the current status of the organization as a regional player. Through the mobilization of Shia in Lebanon, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s regime saw an opportunity to both spread the revolution and oppose the West and its Israeli ally. By training Hezbollah’s militia and providing funding during the initial critical years, Khomeini helped shape its early doctrine. Khadjie surprises the viewer with her praise for Khomeini, whose impassioned rhetoric against the United States and Israel matched the depth of her own inner struggle as she searched for a role in her community.
She specifically identifies with Khomeini’s statement that the Iranian people could not have won the revolution without its women.
Abi-Samra skims over Hezbollah’s decision to enter the political process in 1992, and it is not mentioned by either woman. Perhaps it meant more to the men in the Shia community, who keenly felt their political disenfranchisement, whereas Khadjie and Zainab had little opportunity to play a role in this arena. Yet for a documentary film, this is a critical chapter to miss. Abi-Samra does, however, stay true to the women’s stories. In a controversial move during this time, the Hezbollah leadership declared that it was legally required of all members to support the party. Despite this disputed use of Islamic doctrine, however, the party has habitually emphasized non-religious issues since then. In order to assist the underdeveloped Shia community, Hezbollah leader Nasrallah created a massive social-welfare and media program. In a stunning mixture of bluntness and innocence, Khadjie discusses how important it is for Hezbollah to continue to provide social services in order to perpetuate its doctrine. She touches upon her own efforts to this end in creating neighborhood infirmaries for the injured and sick.
Abi-Samra chose his two protagonists wisely. Zainab, a young mother of three boys, is at first glance a devout Muslim woman who strongly believes in the movement. She stands beside her husband, proclaiming her willingness to accept his martyrdom as well as that of her sons, should the time come. Zainab’s rhetoric emphasizes her dedication to Islam and Hezbollah throughout the film, from a scene at a museum where she is teaching her young son the importance of standing up to foreigners, to prayer. A child of refugees, Zainab is a generation younger than Khadjie, yet at first glance appears more conservative. Her parents knew little of Islam, but she learned a great deal by attending a religious school. Religion has since provided substance and organization to her life.
Abi-Samra makes abrupt shifts as Khadjie and Zainab share small insights on searching for purpose and identity in a marginalized community. Khadjie is portrayed as an independent and active supporter of Hezbollah, Zainab as quietly dedicated to providing encouragement to her husband and his activities. Both are clearly tough and effective women. Not until the last few minutes of the film, however, does the viewer truly understand the heart-wrenching dichotomy in each of their lives, and the difference in their perspectives.
Zainab states that the injustice in her life stems from her “traditional Eastern society.” Although staunchly defending her country and religion, she would “open all doors” to women if she could. Standing in a destroyed building in Beirut in a traditional black burka, she claims that the husband exerts the greatest injustice, not allowing his wife to work or even to leave the house if he chooses. If marriage is a constraint to women, she would abolish it; if she had the power, she would grant women the same rights as men. Khadjie, in a resigned tone, states that a brother or a husband will never treat a woman as an equal. When she was younger, she wished for this with all her heart. However, she dedicated her life to the Islamic movement, and she hopes that, in time, she will have equal rights. Her eyes shine as she describes how proud she is of her three grown sons, who are now active members of Hezbollah. Zainab’s young sons, however, tell the narrator that they wish to travel to France and become doctors and drive a Mercedes.
Abi-Samra is limited by the constraints of his format, yet he presents an intricate picture of Islamism, gender relations, feminism and nationalism within a country that recognizes 17 ethnic communities. Throughout the film, Khadjie and Zainab present themselves as patriotic Lebanese, devout Muslims and supporters of the predominantly Shia Hezbollah. By waiting until the end of the film to highlight the strictures that define their roles, the director creates a lasting impression of the social challenges facing these two women. Although filmed in 2000, the historical background of Hezbollah, interwoven with the complex identities of its supporters, sheds light on a movement that has managed to drive Israeli forces from southern Lebanon, to survive calamities such as the 2006 war, and to become an indisputable player in Lebanese politics.