• Interviews

Heba Khaled: “Middle Eastern Women Have a Hard Time Protecting their Rights”

Heba Khaled sees it as her quest to speak for Syrian women who do not have a voice and who do not know how to protect their rights. With Under the Sky of Damascus, the Syrian director sheds light on a culture that is not yet ready for this quest.

Sabah Al-Salem has a hard time staying composed. The Syrian actress, who was released from prison in 2020, is being interviewed in the documentary film Under the Sky of Damascus about the ‘crimes’ that she committed. Apparently, it was the words ‘no, I don’t want to’ to a powerful man that led her to a life of incarceration and shame. And which has now left her homeless and broken without any stability in her life.

However, it is obvious from this scene in the film that Al-Salem is holding back.


“Because Sabah lives in Syria, she cannot tell the whole truth about what has happened in detail,” says director Heba Khaled via Zoom from her hotel room in Dubai where she is in the process of relocating after a life in exile in Berlin since 2013. She is here with her husband, Talal Derki, who is a filmmaker like her, banned from Syria like her, and who is also her directing partner on Under the Sky in Damascus.

“This is as far as she can go. If she talks more, they will put her away again. We as filmmakers need to know how far we can go without putting her at risk,” Khaled says. ”We were trying to get her message through by just looking at her and for people to see her hunched back, the emotion in her eyes – and when you see that, you know that something more happened. You can feel it. You can see how psychologically affected she is now.”

Al-Salem is just one of the many women interviewed in the documentary directed by Syrian filmmakers Khaled, Derki, and Ali Wajeeh. The film exposes the fact that the society in Syria is deeply misogynistic and offers no voice for women to change their situation. Thus, Khaled has made it her mission to speak on their behalf.

“It is very important for me,” she says. “It is something that is very heavy on my shoulders because when it only comes to my own rights and my personal freedom, it was easier.”


Under the Sky in Damascus is Khaled’s first feature film. Having shot many war reportages and one short documentary (People of the Wasteland), Khaled, who was raised in Damascus and banned from her native Syria because of her critical journalism, has created a situation for herself where she can speak up for herself and for others.


“It was like ten years of struggles every day. But it is at least easier than talking about all of the society I left behind and all the women who are forgotten. I feel that I have a responsibility and I have to do this. I have to be strong. I was able to do it in my personal life so I should be able to transfer this message more generally.”


The film, which premiered in the Panorama section of the Berlin Film Festival and will be presented at the Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival in Greece in early March, follows theater institute graduates Eliana, Inana, Grace, Farah and Souhir. They have set out to write and stage a play about the experience of abuse and sexual exploitation that women in Syria face. We are with them as they collect the stories and interview several women about their experiences.


“We were doing the film remotely and it was a bit difficult, but we felt that it was urgent to make this film about our hometown in the postwar time where 90 percent of the people live under poverty and where we hear many stories from Syria about the women who are getting killed in war, prisons, and through what is called ‘honor killings.’ Every week there is a new name of a woman on social media or in the news, who has been killed.”


Thus the filmmakers had to hire a crew who could do the work on the ground in Syria for them. But the documentary takes a dramatic turn when one of the actresses, Eliana, abruptly announces that she can no longer be part of the play and the true reason is revealed, that she and other women involved in the play have been sexually harassed by a line producer on the film. The revelation devastated the filmmakers but ended up being yet another example of how important their film is.


“When we first heard about it from Eliana, we were shocked and ashamed and we felt that we needed to protect the girls and give them back their dignity. For us, the project was collapsing in front of us and we had no idea what to do. On the other hand, it proved that we were going in the right direction with the story because it has now become the identity of the people who work there.”


After the initial shock, the filmmakers found a way to incorporate the story of the line producer in their film and to fire him from the film without putting the women in danger. Apart from telling their stories, their safety was a priority.


Again, the film takes yet another turn. Not as dramatic but just as devastating for the viewers who followed the women on their quest. A man takes over the stage project, writes the play and thus takes away the voice of the women.


“Men also have no borders,” explains Khaled. “They do not know that they are not supposed to interfere and take the place of a woman. The women don’t know how to protect their own rights. So that is why this happened. The situation is very difficult.”


She continues: “There is not a good environment for women to express their rights and their freedom because they still live under the circumstances of religion and tradition. This is the reason why they do not know about their rights. The society says it is forbidden, it is a shame and you should not do this and you should not speak up.”

Even some Syrian men exiled in Germany whom Khaled thought were like-minded were critical of the message in Under the Sky of Damascus. “They said, ‘It is not the right time for this movie,’” explains Khaled. “But it will never be the right time. It will never be the right time to talk about this issue.”