As a psychotherapist, I’m always wondering what change looks like and how it occurs. To justify payment for the services I provide, insurance companies require treatment notes that reflect concrete goals and swift, observable progress. But what about the change that occurs which is nearly invisible to the outside observer? The internal change that offers the hope of eventual external change? It’s this type of change that is portrayed in the beautifully complex characters in the 2016 Netflix original movie, Sand Storm. The movie depicts an Arab family in present-day rural Israel.
As the viewer, I was immediately compelled by the portrayal of a loving family’s struggle with the forces of gender-based oppression and the theme of change. The opening scene shows a father, Suliman, teaching his daughter, Layla, to drive outside their village. They discuss her schooling. He is disappointed that she didn’t perform as well as he thought she could have on a recent exam. It’s quickly made clear that these father-daughter interactions are unconventional--before they re-enter their village, they must pull over and switch seats—few women drive, or get an education in this village. This scene gave me hope; I wanted Suliman to help ignite change in gender norms and watch the empowerment of his daughters unfold.
Layla’s mother, Jalila, on the other hand, seems to epitomize the impact of women’s oppression in their culture, and in turn, she perpetuates the stifling of opportunity for her daughters. The viewer observes Jalila struggle and grieve as Suliman takes a second wife and his affections and resources are redirected to his new household. Jalila is overwhelmed physically, emotionally, and financially, rolling her eyes at Layla’s educational pursuits and demanding endless assistance with the younger children and housework.
Despite all the pressures this family was dealing with, I held hope that my Western version of freedom would prevail for Layla by the movie’s end; she would marry the man she loved and embark on a career of her choosing. But, spoiler alert, the movie ends on Layla’s wedding night, to a local man her father chooses, who her mother deems unworthy, and with no career of her own in sight. Layla’s life appears destined to look quite similar to her mother’s; she does not continue to insist on pursuing love and engaging in cultural defiance.
This was still, however, a story about cultural change, even if it didn’t look the way I anticipated. Throughout the movie Layla’s parents battle, internally and externally, with the gender-based cultural regulations of their Israeli community and Arab traditions. Suliman vacillates between actively encouraging his daughters’ sense of agency and coldly colluding with rigid, century-old norms. Layla boldly brings her love interest to the house so they can discuss marriage with Suliman, and seems confident in her father’s progressiveness, but Suliman is deeply shamed by this gesture and responds by cutting off communication with Layla and arranging her marriage to a local man. When Jalila learns of the match, which she finds inadequate, and sees her daughter’s distress, she fiercely confronts her husband. This results in Jalila’s banishment from the house, which puts her at risk of losing her home and access to her children. The turmoil these parents experience exhibits how tight a grip the status quo can have, and how difficult it can be to dismantle.
Sand Storm depicts a family in which the oppression of women loses potency from the mother’s generation to the daughter’s. After Jalila is banished from her home, she grants Layla permission to leave their village and pursue her desires. Layla drives off, headed to her beloved, but ultimately decides to turn around. She chooses to remain in the village and agrees to the arranged marriage. This presumably ends her mother's banishment and keeps the family intact. The evidence of change, I believe, is that her mother gave Layla the opportunity to choose and she made her own decision.
In Western culture, whether in psychotherapy, our personal lives, or on screen, it is tempting to expect quick change. I think it's time to expand our definition of change and start looking at how people and cultures change slowly, over time. I would argue, and this movie seems to support, that meaningful change can start in our own homes, with a shift in familial relationships, and build from there.
A final, powerful word is spoken in the movie by Tasnim, one of Layla’s younger sisters. She’s eavesdropping on Layla and her groom on their wedding night, as they discuss their new home. Layla says the wall color is all wrong. Her husband makes suggestions about how it might be fixed. From her perch at the window, Tasnim shouts, “No!” This “no” implies that none of it will do, not the wall color, the arranged marriage or the physical and psychological imprisonment of women in their culture. I found that scene to be filled with hope as Layla’s steps toward empowerment came through an increased sense of personal choice. This achievement necessitated adaptation from the whole family; Suliman and Jalila had to grapple with their values and decision-making as parents. Tasnim represents the possibility of more pronounced change for women in the future—the kind of change that takes years of fighting to achieve. The beautiful, subtle change that I am grateful to witness in long term psychotherapy.