Halal Love (And Sex) (2015) presents the dating and married lives of devout Muslim women in Beirut as sensitive, nuanced romantic comedy that finds humor in unusual dilemmas: newlyweds end up unable to remarry after too many declarations of divorce shouted in anger. A middle-aged mother of two tries to convince her excessively loving husband to take a second wife as another outlet for his nightly passion. A divorcée enters into a short-term secret marriage with the already married family man who proposed to her years ago. Meanwhile, after a schoolteacher terrifies her class with a strange, untrue explanation of procreation, two young girls fear accidental impregnation by worms crawling into them while they sleep.
The light-hearted comedy may not sound like a socially or politically groundbreaking film on the surface, yet there is something significant and unfamiliar (at least to Western audiences) about seeing a story of Muslim women going about their normal lives with relatable ups-and-downs, passions and heartbreaks. At Sundance 2016, actress Darine Hamze, who plays Loubna, told ScreenPrism that the film is “telling a serious matter in the form of comic relief" and putting forward a “new way of showing serious matters.” Hamze wants audiences to see Halal Love (and Sex) to grasp another side of her culture, outside of the usual hackneyed onscreen portrayals. “We are always relating Muslims to terrorism and the woman who is really suppressed or the weak woman. Now we see, no — these women are controlling their lives, and they are the boss of the house, and it’s true, also.”
Writer and director Assad Fouladkar writes in his director’s notes that the film's genre and subject have not really been done before, which may be why it took some time to finance the script after he wrote it seven years ago. Fouladkar never intended the film to be controversial or to provoke anyone. “We are there to tell a nice story about people who just want to be loved and want to love others. It’s a love story,” he writes. Still, one of the film’s aims is to escape the usual onscreen representations of Muslims: “These are stories that are far from the clichéd stories of terrorists, weapons, Islamic Jihad, and hate… I want to capture the humor of these individuals and show how they deal with the challenges of faith, desire, and love in an Islamic environment.”
Halal Love (and Sex) (2015)
At Sundance 2016, Fouladkar described to ScreenPrism how the story arose from his childhood recollections of being allowed as a young boy to enter the privacy of female circles in Muslim societies. “Women’s circles in the Middle East are closed,” he said. “When women meet, they talk [differently] than when they are outside in society and with men. With men, they are very conservative, even if they’re not veiled. A woman should project a conservative look to others. Inside when they are together, they are open-minded, they are open, they express [themselves] in a very different way. I witnessed this when I was a kid.” As a child, Fouladkar remembers, he was welcomed into this space where women are free to say whatever and act however they like. Women do not watch themselves or withhold their confidences and stories in front of children. While he also researched for the film, the heart of the story was “based in memories from my childhood.”
The film recreates Fouladkar’s childlike feeling of eavesdropping on a private, safe place in which women share their confidences only with their female intimates. In the director’s notes, Fouladkar continues, “These are stories that look behind the curtain of Islamic society, and the design of the film reflects this: things are initially not clear to us… as if we were looking through a veil.” The film then lifts the veil in a way that is not possible in real life: “a woman cannot take off her veil in the presence of a stranger in the reality of these places - but in this film the viewer has the opportunity to get inside these characters’ private spaces without breaking any intimacy… Don’t we sometimes enjoy peeping at people? When we do so, is it the child hidden in us that is doing this?” The film’s aim goes further than the child’s natural voyeuristic impulse, though, “to unveil what makes us believe we’re different only to find out that we have more in common than we originally thought.”
Judging by the Sundance audience, Hamze remarked that people are strongly relating to Halal Love (and Sex) and excited by the story it tells. “They are seeing something new, outside of the box and all the clichés they are used to seeing,” she said.
On reading the script, Hamze said she immediately “fell in love with the character” of Loubna, a divorcée whose parents pressured her into an arranged marriage as a youth, instead of letting her wed her true love. Now single, Loubna is determined to follow her heart, so she enters into a secret, temporary marriage with her lost sweetheart, who is now married with children.
Hamze hasn’t lived through all of Loubna’s experiences, such as dealing with an ultra-conservative family. "Fortunately, I come from a very liberal, modern family. I am very free, I live alone, I have an open-minded family," she said, adding that her home city of Beirut is very diverse. "You have the super liberal and the free, and the super fanatic or the super traditional. It’s a combination of all these realities. But even in the liberal families, you have to fight sometimes to get what you want. Even if your parents are liberal and open-minded, they are always worried what people will say. It’s a very small community. It’s a very small country."
Loubna (Darine Hamze) in Halal Love (and Sex) (2015)
Hamze was drawn to Loubna’s spirit and could relate to her conflict. She explained that Halal Love (and Sex) captures how “the society, the family is always into your life, in Lebanon and in any Arab country, where the divorced woman has to take care about her reputation. People talk a lot. [It is a] frustrating situation where a liberal women has to fight for what she really wants, just having a normal relationship.” For Hamze, Loubna embodies the "voice of these women that need to shout out and say, 'Leave me alone. I want to live my life.' To call for freedom. It’s nice to give them that voice, to portray this woman and give her life – it’s a message to make women feel, 'Yes, I hear you, I know what you’re talking about.'"
Fouladkar is looking forward to the film being viewed by Western audiences, although Middle Eastern audiences will bring more context to the story. "Every story has layers," he said. "If you know more about the culture, it will be more interesting for you," but if you know nothing at all, you will still be able to enjoy the story, he said. "So it was made for all audiences."
Whichever audience is viewing the film, Fouladkar’s aim is not to promote a direct political agenda about women’s rights. Rather, he hopes to provide a true picture of Middle Eastern women who live with personality, agency and vitality. Moreover, he hopes to spread a subtle yet affirming message by promoting peaceful and kind interactions between people in all contexts. "Everyone is looking to get our society in a much better way," he told ScreenPrism. "We have many problems there, political and social. We have problems with women’s rights. When we’re talking about women’s rights, it means we also have problems with men and men’s rights." When wars, violence and unstable governments affect a region as a whole, "tt’s a big problem for everyone. We are all victims, men and women, when the society is so chaotic like this. So we are looking for a better life, a better society. We are going from a war to another war to many problems – no wonder so many people are emigrating from the Arab world. We hope to get a much better peaceful life there, and this should be applied in everything, in society, in politics, in our lives, in our homes, in our bedrooms."
As a story that promotes peace, Halal Love (and Sex) has a simple message at its heart. “I want people in the West to feel there are people in the Middle East that care about love and being loved,” Fouladkar said.