From Our Readers
June 07, 2014 6:00 pm

Public appearances can be deceiving in the contemporary city of Beirut. The supposedly ‘liberal’ Arab nation in the world is not as liberal as it sets itself out to be in the public imagination. At least, this is what Nadine Labaki shows us through her film, Caramel.

Caramel is not just another film. Neither is the film’s beauty parlor about fancy faces and hairdos.

If there is any glimpse into what a group of five Lebanese women are going through behind closed doors, Caramel reveals all of that with a grain of sugar and spice.

Recent films in Lebanese cinema revolve around the pressing issues of the civil war, yet Labaki transcends such themes with a universal narrative that foreign female audiences across all cultural domains may relate to.

The focal point of these five women’s socialization is in the environment of a beauty parlor, where they spend their days negotiating a series of emotional events and extending their solidarity towards each other in times of need.

But that’s not all.

It addresses a common trend of rejecting traditional gender roles facing women all over the globe and how certain universal actions taken by these women affects their daily lives in ways unimaginable to many Westerners.

The context of the beauty parlor, situated in the core of the city, serves as the inner space of non-conformity that women use to share the sugary details of the liberating experiences that they wouldn’t dare to confess in an outer society still very much in tune with its traditional character.

In fact, such social revelations would erupt a civil war between generations and genders.

In the film, Nisrine, a Lebanese Muslim, is at risk of having her marriage hit rock-bottom after learning how her social norms condemn the practice of pre-marital sex. For a Muslim, adultery is forbidden in her culture or community, leading her to pay a heavy price if her significant other or conservative nuclear family unit find out about her past.

The character of Rima is homosexual, but she’s only able to come out to her close friends from the beauty parlor.

In one scene, she is given a makeover in order for her to look more traditionally “feminine” for Nisrine’s wedding reception. Her transformation is one of opposition that rather becomes blurred in the imperial public space, where a gender war is taking place.

The social structures force her to ascribe to a traditional gender role and if she doesn’t comply, she may be subjected to any form of derogatory label that will cost her social status.

In the outside ‘charted’ world, women are obligated to reprise their traditional gender roles and live up to the morality of their society.

What public institutions refer to as “prohibited” conduct in the outside world is freely explored in the ‘uncharted’ inner worlds of these female victims.

The beauty parlor serves as a comfort zone, emphasizing female solidarity and collective liberation from their supposed psychological inferiority. It is a space where women define themselves within a less restrictive locale, whilst challenging outer discourses of femininity in the process.

The women of Caramel may be labeled as “modern” as they are not excluded from the public arena and go about socializing and dressing as they please, yet they are still limited in how they behave.

In the outside ‘charted’ world, women are obligated to reprise their traditional gender roles and live up to the morality of their society.

What public institutions refer to as “prohibited” conduct in the outside world is freely explored in the ‘uncharted’ inner worlds of these female victims.

The beauty parlor serves as a comfort zone, emphasizing female solidarity and collective liberation from their supposed psychological inferiority. It is a space where women define themselves within a less restrictive locale, while challenging outer discourses of femininity in the process.

Labaki’s women are nothing more than psychological possessions controlled by familial, cultural or patriarchal institutions. As reproducers of national boundaries, they are restricted to certain socio-cultural codes to maintain the dignity of the nation being represented.

Such behavioral constraints are causing more social havoc than anticipated. Women need to be saved not only from their own traumas, but from the over controlling barriers of their own societies.

Sugar and spice will eventually expire.

Flora AbdulRazak plots stories in her tepee and changes the world on the road. When she is not seesawing between her makebelieve plane of theories and what not in her dim lit writer’s crib, she flies off to serve and discover other planes of existence in faraway shores.

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