Salima and Ali are a non-practising Muslim couple living in a large house with their son Habib, and their two young daughters. Salima (Djamila Haddadi) is an emancipated schoolteacher, who walks unveiled in the public space, her hair dyed blonde. Ali (Khaled Benaïssa) is an irascible though rational Project Manager for the construction of housing projects. Having suffered from mental health problems as a teenager, Ali again faces ill health. His unstable mental state brought about by recurrent hallucinations and frightening dreams of a woman wishing him ill and attacking him, plunges him into despair. He becomes convinced that his wife is possessed by a demon and has put a spell on him. Unemployed, Habib spends the majority of his time at the newly built local mosque, not only performing his five daily prayers, but also attending classes on Islam and taking part in social activities. Rejecting the medical attention Salima encourages, Ali accepts their son Habib’s invitation to the mosque, where they hope Ali will find solace and serenity. Both adhering to religiosity for different motives, father and son are easily persuaded by their mosque’s preachers to conduct an exorcism on Salima, with tragic consequences.
Shot in Super 16mm film and completed in 1993 by novelist Hafsa Zinaï-Koudil, Le démon au féminin is inspired by real life events. It is the first Algerian fiction film directed by a woman, and the first to address the effects of Muslim extremism on Algerian society (Merzak Allouache’s Bab El Oued City followed in 1994). Giving a public voice to the hitherto silent and silenced though active participation by women in the development of Algerian society, Zinaï-Koudil’s narrative feature introduces the conceptualisation of women’s plight from a woman’s perspective. In particular, it recounts the shocking implosion and disintegration of a well-educated middle-class family, denouncing the appropriation of Islam as a tool to perpetuate gender inequality and oppression.
When Ali demands that Salima wear the Hijab, she refuses, and visits her mother in the hope to gain her support. Her mother – herself wearing a headscarf – is of the view that Salima’s choices should be subsumed to her husband’s will. By contrast, her elderly neighbours provide a refreshingly lucid assessment of the situation, expressed when Salima asks Uncle Mourad for help and support. Their exchange is a succinct yet powerful counterpoint to the preachers’ as well as Ali and Habib’s position. Uncle Mourad remarks that the preachers divert religion from its true message, deploring the fact that [women] ‘are always given responsibility for all ills’. During the sequestration which will leave her wheelchair-bound, it is him and his wife who come to Salima’s rescue on hearing her agonising screams whilst Ali and Habib stand inactive. Uncle Mourad’s progressive viewpoint as a Muslim scholar presents us with an engaging alternative to that of the preachers. His is an attitude of understanding, moderation and mediation.
Ali’s character development is punctuated with images and concepts reflecting his fragility, such as the scene during which he puts a live cockroach into a transparent model of a labyrinth, covering it with a black cloth. In an earlier scene, he is praying at home and as he stands up at the end of the prayer, his rug is enclosed in glass walls, confining him within. Uncovering the black cloth several scenes later, Ali finds the cockroach dead. This type of mise en abyme can be interpreted as a function of characterisation, reflecting the protagonist’s disposition and circumstances, and on two levels. First, it could point to Ali’s own restrictive choices in life, including his refusal to seek medical help; second, it could also illustrate Ali’s prospect of a dead-end awaiting him. This is further intimated through his being trapped on the prayer rug: his embracement of religion will not lead to release and peace. These interpretations are reinforced by the fact that ultimately, Ali’s condition and despair will lead to his suicide.
At no point do the religious leaders or Ali himself, envisage the possibility that the cause of Ali’s illness emanates from his own psyche; that it is a part of himself, perhaps a characteristically feminine part as manifested by the recurrent apparition of the ‘ghoula’, which he is unable to recognise and honour. Indeed, the physical attributes of the woman who haunts him, are reminiscent of the common character of the ghoula (feminine for ghoul), the witch or ogress who devours people in the Algerian folktales. Ali’s endorsement of the preachers’ viewpoint is thus an expression of his inability to find an egress from the fear and panic caused by his volatile mental health. Zinaï-Koudil makes an explicit teleological link between what the preachers advocate in their sermons, and the increasingly antagonistic stance taken by Ali towards his wife. Through a distortion of reality, the statement made in one of the sermons, that ‘woman is an easy prey to the Devil’, becomes actualised. However, Ali’s psychological imbalance on the one hand, and Habib’s economic vulnerability and moral disorientation on the other, could equally be construed as their being an easy prey to the proselytising of the preachers.
Using the locus of a family unit for the depiction of contrasting attitudes, and using techniques that impart metaphorical and symbolic meaning, Zinaï-Koudil bravely exposes the dangers of blindly following religious preachers and questionable practices in the rise of religious extremism. However, this point is somewhat undermined by the choice of an inherently vulnerable character with unsound mental health and faculties. Nonetheless, by proposing reasons and incentives of some of their supporters, Le démon au féminin provides valuable material relating to Algerian religious movements, including women’s resistance against some of their precepts, contributing to a better understanding of the social context of their rise and popularity.