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A Woman's Experience of 'Justice'
By Simone Stevens
Three Times Divorced
Directed by Ibtisam Salh Mara’ana
A Women Makes Movies Release, 74 min.
The documentary, “Three Times Divorced,” is about the hardships many women in the Middle East experience when faced with divorce and the disintegration of the family unit. It is a startling revelation about the limits of their independence and control; for the divorced woman, opportunity and freedom of choice are sadly absent. Disoriented, shoved from the home they’ve built, they are forced to string together a new world with little help from the community or the local government.
The film centers on Gaza native Khitam, who married an Arab Israeli, for whom she bore six children. With her entire face veiled, she stares out of a car window, trying to catch a glimpse of her son Mohammed outside her former residence (five of her six children live with their father). She left the home behind after finding divorce papers folded in her husband’s wallet. We follow Khitam’s exhausting journey to retrieve her children without an Israeli ID, which proves near impossible.
Despite the English subtitles, the film is at times confusing because it lacks a narrative as well as the type of cultural explanations that can be useful in providing a context for foreign audiences. Ibtisam Salh Mara’ana directed and shot the film using a handheld camera that shakes and fights to keep up with the things happening around it. Although she takes in the surrounding countryside when traveling to Haifa, most of the time Mara’ana focuses on Khitam, catching every frustrated tear or brief smile, so that the amateur style gives the film a real intimacy and sense of urgency. We become acquainted with the travails of Khitam’s astonishing world at the same pace she does. Her sense of frightened discovery becomes our own. It is obvious that Mara’ana, whose soft voice we hear at times asking Khitam questions, feels very close to her and tries to protect her, even when the film depends on confrontations to expose the husband’s brutality. The director’s mission to document and reveal the obstacles and suffering endured by divorced women in that part of the world is, sadly, successful.
Khitam’s losing battle against patriarchy causes the viewer to lose heart along with her. At one point she turns to a Sharia court, which sides unequivocally with her husband, maintaining that Khitam is responsible for her current position, despoiled of both home and children, despite the fact that it was her husband who demanded the divorce. The hypocrisy is startling: the specifics of a situation don’t matter to the court, only the sex of the person requesting justice. Does gender-contingent justice qualify as justice? Khitam cannot even stay in the country without a permit, and the process of acquiring an Israeli ID is long and arduous, with no guarantees. As one social worker says, “She’ll become a citizen when I become an astronaut.” Thus, she is robbed of the right to live in the country where she bore and raised her six children.
It is not only the legal system that dismisses her. When Khitam secretly visits her children at their school, the teachers ask her why she doesn’t return home, implying that she has abandoned her children. Instead of being supported by her fellow females, Khitam finds herself in an awkward position with them ganging up on her. “I am divorced,” she explains simply. Perhaps her isolation would be less complete in a big city than it is in this small town. Since marriage in the Middle East tends not only to be a contract between individuals, but between families as well, ruptures between couples are less common because of the damage they inflict upon the group. A divorced woman is something of an aberration, and is often times considered a runaway if she has relocated to another region.
Both her circumstances, and who she is as an individual, set Khitam apart from other women in her community. Her personal philosophy fuels her fight for independence and for her children’s return to her care and future autonomy. “We must make sacrifices in order to gain something. I see how my brother loves and respects his wives. It makes me sad. But I know that when a man looks at a woman he only sees her body. He doesn’t care about her soul, her education, or her wisdom. He is a man; he wants her in bed, even if she refuses him. I want a good life for my children. I want my daughter to be a doctor. I want her to choose the man she wants to make love to.”
Typically, the wife’s family sides with the husband, as they would otherwise have to take their daughter back and risk social disgrace. However, at one point Khitam goes to the Gaza border to meet her mother, who delivers the documents necessary for obtaining an Israeli ID. Wiping tears from her eyes, she says to Khitam, “I am so tired for you.” Mother and daughter share a poignant moment of mutual social defiance.
There are not many documentaries about divorced women in Khitam’s part of the world, not because women do not demand divorce, but because such a right is not theirs to exercise. It is the man who decides how long a woman will be welcome in her own home. This important film painfully exposes the suffering inflicted by a lopsided and antiquated system of justice; it is a story of man’s inhumanity to man.
This review appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 15, no. 60 (2009)