Tent 56: The movie that dared talk about sex and rocked Syrian society

Manahel Alsahoui
Syrian Writer and Journalist

The film has undermined the “male kingdom of women” by talking about women who think about sex and ask for it. As such, the film seems to have sparked patriarchy’s deepest fears: that women have sexual opinions and desires of their own and dare claim their place.

What does the sex life of a Syrian woman in a refugee camp look like? It is not a new question. But it has infuriated and challenged a traditional society struggling with the idea of women’s desire.  

The most recent debate was sparked by a film called Tent 56, which was made three years ago but which has sparked renewed interest after it was posted to Facebook this summer. Prior to this, most Syrians weren’t aware of its existence. Now some call it insulting, and a violation to their honor.

Women demand sexual privacy

The 19-minute film contains a comic view of the private lives of couples living in refugee camps. Some scenes lean towards dark humor. Because the women in the camp lack marital privacy, they come up with a solution: a tent exclusively for sex.

The idea is that every couple has the right to a night of privacy away from their children and from prying teenagers who peer through holes in the tent. In the film, the women make their wish come true, and set up a tent for intimate relations with the approval of camp officials.

The women look after the tent. They furnish and decorate it and try to create an ambiance of intimacy. Then at the end of the film, when the movie’s two main characters finally get their long-awaited opportunity, the tent burns down.

The film’s reposting on social media sparked a debate that did not occur when it was first released three years ago. It offended many who considered it a breach of women’s privacy and a violation of society’s values.

The backlash was like the wrath of a tribe. Syrian society mobilized because the film allowed Syrian women to express their desires in the local tongue of the Hauran, a region near the Jordanian border. Voices on social media threatened to attack anyone who argued that women have desires, or would need to have sex in a private and appropriate place. 

Those voices insisted that a woman does not initiate sexual activity, but rather, it is the man who approaches her. Furthermore, a woman does not think of intimacy or of satisfying her desires. It is the man who determines when such things occur. 

Syrian society on social media was outraged over the issue of women’s desire, more than anything else. The focus of the controversy was not the film’s discussion of relationships outside the “legitimate framework” of marriage or its use of local dialect. Rather, the problem was that it introduces an ordinary woman who claims her sexual rights and forbids her husband to approach her with their daughter sleeping nearby. 

And for some, the most fundamental objection against the movie was that it discusses the “trivial” issue of sex, as opposed to far more “serious” challenges facing those in a refugee camp. 

Sexual privacy to protect one’s humanity

Selectivity on messaging when it comes to humanitarian issues is nothing new. Conspiracy theorists discussing the Syrian revolution have long emphasized the necessity of prioritizing one issue over another, given the extreme political situation.

This may have been a valid point if the movie had been shot at the beginning of Syria’s wave of displacement, when families were still living in the open looking for food and shelter. 

However, 12 years later, the issue of displacement cannot be approached with the same perspective. Displacement has become an everyday reality. As tents have become homes, some couples have never experienced having sexual relations in a true home. As many people have gotten married in refugee camps, and have always lived together in a tent, it is about time to address these issues.

Sexual privacy is an obvious subject. In camps and elsewhere, people have intimate relationships. Civil society groups specialized in gender and sexual safety work to raise awareness among women and men about such things as personal hygiene, sexual integrity, and contraceptives. Arguably, it is this that women genuinely need, rather than being shamed. 

The film Tent 56 follows a couple obliged to have sex in a hurry in a barn. The wife wants kisses but is denied because they have no time, as a child sneaks up on them.

The moralistic voices on social media do not see anything inhumane in the fact that a couple is forced to share their most intimate feelings in a few minutes in an inappropriate place, while they consider a woman’s demand for a private tent disgraceful and unacceptable. This only accentuates the [male] guardianship of women’s bodies and desires.

Preserving humanity does not only mean having food, safety, shelter and sex, but also to have these needs met in the most decent circumstances possible. Neither women nor men should feel anxious, under observation, or compelled to quickly finish the “act,” whether that act is eating or having sex. 

Raising awareness

But all such considerations were disregarded in the recent dispute. The tribe voiced its opinion and even threatened to exile one of its sons, the actor Alaa Alzuibi who plays the main character in the film. He was forced to apologize. 

“They belong to us and follow us,” said one of the elders of the Alzuibi tribe about women. 

By saying this, he summed up the true roots of the controversy. The film undermined the male kingdom of women, threatening its domain by talking about women who think about sex and ask for it. The film could be a tool for awareness, as many women still do not realize that sex is a right, believing they are only a sexual “vessel” for the men.

As such, the film seems to have sparked patriarchy’s deepest fears: that women have sexual opinions and desires of their own and dare claim their space, a space that has long been violated under the protection of both society and the tribe.

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