Tales from incarcerated women in Lebanon: are they criminals or victims?

Scheherazade’s Diary, directed by Lebanese drama therapist Zeina Daccache, is a testament to how patriarchal norms have blurred the lines between victim and criminal

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - JUNE 20:  Lebanese actress and director Zeina Daccache holds a press conference about her film "Scheherazade's Diary" competing at the 36th Moscow International Film Festival in Moscow, Russia, on June 20, 2014. The festival runs from 19 to 28 June. (Photo by Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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“I am a criminal.” Sat in a chair on a dimly lit stage, a middle-aged woman dressed in a bridal gown chuckles as she repeats the mantra. “I am a criminal.”

The scene is both part of a play staged by the inmates of Baabda Women’s Prison in the Lebanese city of the same name, and the opening of a documentary on the 10 months leading up to the performance. “I committed my first crime when I was eight years old,” the woman continues. The felony, she confesses with a cheeky grin, consisted in wearing her brother’s trousers. 

In Lebanon – a country with pockets of land that remain deeply patriarchal – failing to respect the codes of conduct that rule over a woman’s life is a punishable offense. 

Understanding the blurred lines of the law

Scheherazade's Diary, directed by Lebanese drama therapist Zeina Daccache, and which featured in this year's Safar Film Festival in London, is a testament to how patriarchal norms have blurred the lines between victim and criminal, and good and evil. "In Lebanon, women get incarcerated for cheating on their husbands," Daccache says. Lebanese personal status law – which differs according to an individual's religious affiliation – significantly disadvantage women, with unequal access to divorce and child custody being features. There is no civil law on a minimum age for marriage, which is determined by an individual's religious sect.

Daccache, who pioneered drama therapy in Lebanon and uses the practice as a tool for personal development as well as a catalyst for policy reform, says she was driven by the desire to show that these women are not the demons they are made out to be. "They never claim to be innocent," Daccache tells The National following a screening of the film at London's Institute of Contemporary Art. "But if you think about the reasons why they committed these crimes, you discover that they were themselves victims." 

Through the fictional tool of a diary, the inmates of Baabda reflect on their past – begrimed by abuse and violence – and on the ways in which it sealed their fate. 

Just like Scheherazade used storytelling to save her life from the vengeful king in One Thousand and One Nights, these women also seek salvation by telling their stories to a society that chose to condemn them. 

'Reality is tragic, comic, dramatic, melodramatic'

A number of common threads emerge from the inmates’ accounts – child abuse, a violent relative or husband, the dream of finding safety in the arms of a lover, their descent into drug addiction and petty crime. 

While often dark, their tales also bring out the lightness of their personalities - quirky, timid, gentle, funny - and the deep power of female solidarity. “[The documentary] is a reality portrait. And reality is tragic, comic, dramatic, melodramatic,” Daccache says.

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Scenes from the play, which is part of a drama therapy project that began in 2012, are woven into the personal narratives. One scene, featuring a woman in a turquoise turban reading out loud from a worn-out diary, holds all threads together. It is Scheherazade’s diary, the story of a former inmate – or rather, the sum of those of all the inmates in Baabda. 

The fictional narrator is, at once, an estranged mother, a battered wife, an adulteress and a fellow criminal. Through her story, all of the inmates attempt to “save their lives”, Daccache says. 

Most of the protagonists in Scherazade’s Diary have since left the prison and told the stories live at the documentary screenings. Today like in the 8th century, story-telling prevailed over a vengeful king, and Scheherazade can live to see a new dawn.