Coming of age, for many Egyptian women, is akin to a chronometer being set in the race that is finding a potential husband.
Finding that potential husband comes with both a timeline and series of do’s and don’ts that are repeated to girls as they grow up with respect to how to attract the suitor.
‘Sit up straight,’ ‘Don’t laugh too loud,’ ‘Make sure your blouse is not too revealing, your skirt not too short,’ and the list goes on. What makes a woman ‘wife material’ extends to not wearing too much make-up but just enough, not straightening her hair too much but just enough, and to certain social etiquettes which all keep her at just enough.
However, the generation of Middle Eastern women growing up in the 21st century have gradually begun to move away from the notion that marriage is the be-all and end-all to having a successful life. With women gaining independence and financial autonomy, many have started shifting their outlook on marriage with some pushing it to later in life.
Certain terms and stereotypes have, nevertheless, remained entrenched in Egyptian society where women are concerned, despite the progress. One of these is the concept of bent nas, which loosely translates to daughter of the people as defined by Zilzal studio — an online store offering totes and t-shirts with a message, and that has recently collaborated with the Egyptian creative, Zeina Aref, to produce a satirical film on the term.
But what is expected of a woman to make her marriage material?
London-based Egyptian creative Zeina Aref brilliantly portrays, through a satirical lens, what it means to be marriage material. The two-part series, The Secrets to Success — released in April 2023 — comes as a collaboration between the film-maker and Zilzal Studio.
The first part sees a young woman being introduced to viewers in a dating-app format with her credentials plastered to the left of the frame. Much of the advice that is imparted to the viewers is a slew of sentences that most girls have heard when coming of age. These include making sure to be rid of upper-lip hair, to flatten the frizz out of one’s hair and so on.
“A lot of the advice that is given in the script are things that we could relate to, things that sounded familiar and advice that you would receive from your older cousin or aunt,” Aref tells Egyptian Streets.
The concept for the project began when the collaborators were discussing what it meant to be bent nas, which eventually led to the creation of a film zeroing in on what Egyptian society perceives to be appropriate behaviour for a woman to be deemed marriage material when searching for a man.
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“We wanted to give it a satirical tone to simply state that although some of these mannerisms may be valid to you as an individual,” explains Aref. “We [want to] challenge that there is one way, construct, or definition of what makes a woman marriage material, or bent nas.”
Looking to challenge society’s definition of what marriage material means, the film — which has a kitschy aesthetic setup reminiscent of the 80s and 90s — is imbued with a light and fun approach.
“There has definitely been an emerging change in this mentality,” Aref says, adding that she has “always felt that a lot of a woman’s success and happiness in our culture has been directly linked to the engagement of a man and family.”
In part two of the series, the aunt is seen giving similar advice to the young women but focusing more on the woman’s skills around the household rather than appearance. The advice she imparts is similar to that many Egyptian women have heard re-iterated by their mothers or female relatives growing up like always making sure one’s husband is well fed.
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Aref’s recent work is a social commentary on this obsession with bent nas, and the theme behind Zilzal Studio’s previous endeavor, which saw the studio release totes and accessories with imagery symbolising the aforementioned concept.
“I would love to continue developing little satirical skits and characters in the future as part of a continuation and development of this series,” says Aref. “The aim would be to continue social commentary through humour. I just believe that sometimes certain subject matters can be addressed in a funner, lighter and digestible manner.”