Award-winning Tunisian actor Hend Sabri believes in the freedom of Arab women and strives to defend their rights.
Hend Sabri is full of enthusiasm when she arrives at Nazlet Al-Samman in Egypt, a popular area near the Great Pyramids characterized by its simplicity. Her optimism increases when calligrapher Hend Riad arrives holding a large roll-out hand-painted with the words “break the silence,” which she wrote in collaboration with the star. Sabri considers it the best expression of her aspirations. She believes that only hope revives people, illuminates our present and our future, and urges us to move forward. “Hope is my daughters Alia and Leila,” she says, adding that the sheer act of giving birth requires a promise for tomorrow.
Yet, Sabri speaks with pain when conversing about hope, the theme of this September issue. “2020 is really the year of ‘enough is enough.’ I pray that I will be able to erase it from my memory.” She believes that the world is experiencing a long rebirth and is certain that good will prevail. Sabri talks about human values and their roles in society. “True religion is the real deterrent and belief in the essence is what we need. Faith means that we stop hurting, backbiting, stealing, and disrespecting others. Religion is the appreciation of men in general and women in particular. Respect the rights it grants her and stop making judgments based on appearance. Religion exists in everyday practices.”
Sabri’s words shed light on her philanthropic activities, particularly those that concern women and the environment. She is known for playing meaningful characters that convey a social message because she truly believes that art can make a difference. “Society listens to artists and is influenced by them,” she says. “I am not saying that my job as an actor is more important than that of a scientist whose work is not widely recognized. Honesty is what is most important; no matter what role an individual plays in society.”
Currently the star is resuming filming the Hajma Mortada series under director Ahmed Alaa and with her friend Ahmed Ezz. She is also working on Kira and the Jinn, a film by Marwan Hamed, written by Ahmed Murad, and starring Ezz and Kareem Abdel Aziz. In October, she will start filming an Algerian-French movie. It’s a busy agenda for an artist who seeks to use her fame to champion values and have her voice heard. Sabri made her acting debut at the age of 14 in the critically acclaimed Tunisian production The Silences of the Palace (Samt al Qosoor) by director Moufida Tlatli in 1994, which was screened as part of that year’s Cannes film festival Directors’ Fortnight. It has also subsequently been listed as one of the Dubai international film festival’s 100 most important Arab films. Following this, she starred in several Tunisian productions until she drew the attention of director Inas El- Degheidy, who introduced her to Egyptian cinema with A Teenager’s Diary (Muzakirat Murahiqua) in 2002. In a short time, she became one of the most prominent Tunisian actors in Egypt and the Arab world.
Sabri recently joined streaming giant Netflix. “I’m so proud and excited to be the first Arab artist to sign with this network as an executive producer and starring in a show,” she expresses. “Going global is achieved through immersion in what is local. It is a matter of choices.” She’s also been chosen as a jury member at major international festivals, including Venice in 2019 – where she was the first Arab woman to join the jury – and Rotterdam in 2016. “They found an authentic expression of Arab women in my work,” she says. “I have frequently participated over the years where I introduced so many ideas,” she recalls, adding that she hopes the festival circuit will resume next year.
The star has recently used her social media platform to raise awareness about harassment, because she felt that women needed empowerment in this regard and that someone should open a dialogue to encourage victims to talk in public about their experiences. “I am against this heinous offense. Harassment is a crime,” she asserts. “It is necessary to educate young people and encourage girls to break the barrier of fear and expose the perpetrators. In law, to describe an incident as a crime, there must be a victim. When she is silent, the misconduct cannot be legally documented and will remain a social problem. Women must contribute to the documentation of delinquency in order to build a system that legally protects them. This requires courage, which in turn calls for a healthy society and the support of others, whether family or community, and this is what is lacking. Women are afraid of men, which paves the way for harassment and makes it permissible for men whose mistakes are forgiven by the people.” Sabri is well-versed on the subject of justice as she received her license from the University of Tunis in 2001 and earned a master’s degree in intellectual property law and copyright in 2004.
According to a 2013 study by UN Women in Egypt, 99.3% of the women surveyed had experienced some sort of harassment, ranging from being touched to verbal abuse, rape, stalking. The report also noted that 30% of the men surveyed gave their reason for pestering a female as “the girl feels happy when harassed.” “Years ago, I thought that it was still too early to address this issue,” says Sabri. “Today it seems to me that the time has come for victims to speak up. The more women there are who are willing to talk about their experiences, the stronger the issue becomes. At the same time, we must organize things to unify our words and stances.” The Ana Zada platform meaning “me too,” has since been created on Instagram. It aims to gather various opinions to form a pressure force to change laws. The star acts as liaison between women and the concerned parties interested in this issue. She provided a video to support them and was keen to promote them on various occasions. “I cannot say that I have achieved anything,” she notes. “This issue cannot be solved by one person, it requires community, legal, and political cooperation. Individual action in this field is like fighting windmills,” she says. “The only thing that can change the system is social awareness and spreading the slogan ‘No means no’ to everyone, which requires raising your voice without hesitation. It does not help to remain silent while urging others to speak about their experiences. It is enough for one to speak bravely so that other women do the same.”
Accountability starts with enacting and enforcing laws that protect women and describe the crime. “It’s not acceptable that bothering girls on the streets goes unnoticed, because it is a form of harassment. We must not overlook any vulgar form of pestering or touching, which could hurt women,” states Sabri. The star has adopted several approaches to communicate her thoughts, including in the 2010 sitcom Ayza Atgawez (I Want to Get Married), which candidly addressed the issue of young girls getting married. She also starred in Halawet Eldonia (The Sweetness of Life) as a cancer patient – one of her most beloved characters to date, she notes.
Sabri is one of a handful of public women who promoted the uprising in the Arab world. “I wasn’t afraid to lose my fan base – particularly males – for promoting women uprising. I’m defending their rights here. I’m not calling for usurping those of others. I have a dream of realizing equality between men and women in Arab societies. I hope that we can enjoy the highest levels of equality like women in Scandinavian societies,” she says, acknowledging that there is still much work to be done to achieve this. As a mother and wife, she is focused on her family and credits her choice of partner for contributing to its strength. “He is a very respectable man who values women,” she says of her husband, a businessman who is not part of the entertainment industry, preferring to stay out of the limelight. “The man who appreciates and respects his mother will respect any other woman.”
Their relationship is based on mutual esteem and commitment to rules, including respecting her work and her responsibilities. As for her children, she instills within them important values like independence, self-confidence, and valuing the customs and traditions with which she was raised. She is keen to teach her daughters to empathize with others, to be kind, to love, to learn, and to contribute. From her point of view, such values bridge gaps and help build a sound society where people do not judge one another based on appearance or religion. She also hopes to continue to introduce the Arab woman with all her fears, pains, troubles, and joys through her art. She aspires to serve the Arab world and to raise her daughters in a manner that will secure them a better future.
Originally published in the September 2020 issue of Vogue Arabia
Photography: Ämr Ezzeldinn
Styling: Yasmine Eissa
Hair: Ahmed Mounir
Makeup: Aya Abdalhamid
Video: Muhammad Gamaleldin
Video Edit: Hue Studios
Stylist Assistant: Habiba Rahoum
Set Designer: Noor Satea
Fabrics: Yara Ismail
Sustainable Textile Designer: Kiliim
Location: The Cheops Observatory by Studio Malka Architecture
Production: Snap14 Productions Production agency