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Inspired by a family member’s own thorny legal situation, director Amjad Al-Rasheed’s drama “Inshallah a Boy” explores how outdated laws and traditions rooted in misogyny continue to stifle the freedom of women in Jordan. Although the script, from Al-Rasheed and co-writers Delphine Agut and Rula Nasser, is at times overstuffed and its symbolism obvious, its world is so well built out and Palestinian actress Mouna Hawa’s lead performance is so absorbing, the final result is a mesmerizing piece of personal, yet political filmmaking.
We first meet Nawal (Hawa) as she attempts to use a broom to pull her bra in from the fire escape where it had been drying. As it falls to the ground in front of a male passerby on the street, Nawal pulls herself back into her apartment. There is a clear separation between who she is allowed to be inside her home, and who she can be outside it. Little does she know, soon even this interior world will come under threat.
We then watch as she eagerly primps herself in a bathroom mirror, ready to try for another child – a son –with her less-than-enthusiastic husband Adnan (Mohammad Suleiman). The mirror has a crack down the middle, but her hopeful face is framed in one solid half of unbroken glass. Adnan rejects her advances, dismissing her currently fertile state, saying they’ll try again tomorrow. Her life then changes irrevocably. Adnan dies in his sleep, leaving behind a myriad of personal secrets and hidden debts. Her brother-in-law Rifqi (Haitham Alomari) demands she sell her husband’s pick-up truck due to an outstanding debt and also seeks his rightful inheritance – namely the apartment that Nawal shares with her young daughter Nora (Seleena Rababah).
As Nawal pushes back against Rifqi’s demands, asserting that it was her dowry that paid for the apartment, she finds herself in a legal quagmire made worse by her husband’s neglect to sign a document proving Nawal’s claims. Regardless of the finances, the apartment was also only put in Adnan’s name because he worked for a company, while Nawal is a private caretaker for a wealthy elderly woman with debilitating cognitive issues.
While Nawal is at first supported by her brother Ahmad (Mohammed Al Jizawi), he slowly becomes frustrated by her fight to keep her home and the independent life she leads with her daughter. Nawal’s co-worker Hassan (Eslam Al-Awadi) offers a compassionate shoulder to lean on. But even in his selfless offers of money or driving lessons, Nawal understands there is a current of patronizing protectiveness at the core of his offers, even if he doesn’t know it. Eventually Nawal realizes the only path to true independence for her and her daughter is self-reliance.
Even her interactions with other women throughout the movie are fraught with contradictions. Her neighbor Feryal (as Serene Huleileh) watches Nora after school but offers little emotional support or understanding of Nawal’s plight. Her employer Souad (Salwa Nakkara) is caught up in appearances, often asking her to neglect her patient’s meals in favor of manicures before guests arrive. Rich in appearances, her surface level freedom relies solely on the monetary support of a husband we never see. It is only in Souad’s modern daughter Lauren (Yumna Marwan) that Nawal finds a compatriot, although the two at first appear to have completely different values.
As Nawal’s legal troubles mount, Lauren attempts to leave her philandering husband. The two form a tentative, transactional partnership as one attempts to convince the courts she may be expecting a son – and therefore an inheritor – and the other seeks to terminate a pregnancy that will bind her to an abusive husband forever. Although the two find temporary solace in each other, soon Nawal sees through Lauren’s dependency on her mother, the price women pay when they rely on anyone other than themselves.
Hawa embodies Nawal’s internal growth mostly in profound silences. When she’s arguing in court or with her family, she is loud and fiery, stating her case with staunch conviction. But for every moment of passion, there are quiet moments of reflection. Al-Rasheed often holds on Hawa’s face as she listens in silence. Her expressive eyes seem to peer straight into the souls of those around her, looking past who they present to the world, into their true selves. There are also moments where Nawal must look into her own self with an equally keen study. Towards the end of the film, director Al-Rasheed returns to the same shot of Nawal gazing at herself in the broken bathroom mirror, only now her face is shattered by its crack. The woman she was in the first scene is gone, but the woman she is set to become has not yet been born. In an earlier scene she lamented to Hassan, “Everything is new to me. A new problem pops up every day and I must handle it and I’m clueless.”
Yet, she does handle it. She does find a solution every day. In the end, Nawal has not changed society. She has not necessarily even changed her legal situation. But she has shown her daughter Nora that women can push back against a society that sees them as lesser than. That there is a path forward for them as equals who are in charge of their own lives.
Nawal is asked “what kind of example are you setting for your daughter?” As the film ends and Nora’s face fills with pride as she watches her mom slowly move the pickup truck out of its tight parking space, one small, steady turn at a time, we know the answer to that question.