In an early sequence in Mohamed Diab’s 6,7,8, a Cairo cabbie drives a woman across town while a rollicking jam unfolds on the car radio. “You ask about women,” go the lyrics, “they are simply mad. They are all the same.” The stridency of this bit of offhand commentary serves as fair warning of the intermittent bluntness of the film to follow. In his exploration of the entrenched Egyptian culture of casual sexism and its inevitable corollary of sexual harassment and abuse, Diab seems caught between a desire to explore the complexities of female psychology and response to victimization and to craft a more simplistic crowd pleaser about women fighting male oppression. If it’s the latter narrative that ultimately wins out, though, it’s not before Diab’s had a chance to articulate the positions of three women of differing social classes and viewpoints and to dramatize a range of potential remedies to a culture that treats sexual harassment as a nonexistent phenomenon (or one that shames the victim rather than the perpetrator) even as it emerges as a daily threat for all Egyptian woman.
Calling on a rather conventional neorealist aesthetic (wobbly camera, location shooting, minus the focus on quotidian minutiae) and toying with a rather feckless narrative fracturing which it quickly abandons, Diab’s film brings together its central trio for an evolving symposium on how to combat sexist violence. Drawn to Seba (Nelly Karim), the teacher of a self-defense class and, in echoes of reporter Lara Logan in Tahrir Square, victim of a gang rape years ago amid the frenzied aftermath of a soccer match, Nelly (Nahed el Sebai), a woman preparing to file the nation’s first sexual harassment suit, and Fayza (Bushra), a working-class Muslim woman tired of the casual catcalls and gropes she endures daily, meet to discuss possible responses to the official denial of male sexual misconduct. Before long, the latter woman starts taking her mentor’s fiery rhetoric to heart: When men try to sneak a touch on a crowded bus, she starts stabbing them in the penis.
Shifting her approach from retaliation to prevention, Fayza begins mounting her attacks even before sexual contact is made. “They get what they deserve,” she says, and the film’s most radical assertion is that her methods may be the only way to prevent daily abuse, especially after the story of the serial stabber gets picked up and scared men ease off their groping. An odd turn into police procedural in which the narrative shifts to follow a not unsympathetic police investigator turns the focus away from the central trio into a more mundane round of plotting, but it allows Diab to chart the complex male response to the question of abuse, ranging from the fully supportive (Nelly’s fiancé) to the provisionally understanding (the police chief) to the clueless sex-obsessive (Fayza’s husband, who tells her bluntly that he didn’t marry her to play backgammon with).
The women’s responses are equally varied, as class and religious affiliation threaten to drive a wedge between the central trio at the very moment when, Diab suggests, unity is most needed. In one of the most revealing sequences, the wealthy, secular Seba and the impoverished, religious Fayza each blame the other for the country’s prevailing culture, the former accusing the latter of perpetuating “backward views” and Fayza, in her turn, accusing Seba of dressing too provocatively and carrying herself too freely. But eventually everything, including the propriety of violence, is resolved with undue facility and each of the three woman are allowed to fight the system in their own way (via the knife, the courts, or simply by standing up for one’s children) and the film devolves into a rousing, cheer-inducing finale that threatens to efface all the carefully considered complexities Diab had taken such pains to articulate.