A single mother in Chad defies patriarchal authority to help her teenage daughter get an abortion.
How far will a mother go to protect her daughter? Lingui, a film by writer-director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, poses this question against a broader canvas of women’s struggles in the African country of Chad.
We first meet Amina, a single mother scratching out a living near the outskirts of Chad’s capital city, N’Djamena, as she cuts up steel belted tires, extracts the steel belts and fabric cords, and uses them to make little stoves that she sells at the market. The film eases us into her daily life, her friendship with another woman seller, and her devout practice of Muslim prayer, done outside of a mosque because women can’t pray with the men.
We first see her teenage daughter in the midst of a crisis—Maria won’t talk to her mother about what’s wrong, and pushes her away, saying “Don’t touch me.” Eventually Amina discovers that her daughter has been expelled from school for being pregnant. In anger, she slaps Maria’s face and bemoans the shame that she has put on them. Her daughter is defiant, and insists that she wants an abortion. But that’s not possible, Amina, says. We are Muslims, and it’s not allowed.
Amina, we can sense, is at heart a gentle person, not the strict mother she tries to be. It turns out that she had Maria out of wedlock herself, and as a result was rejected by her family, and lives under a cloud of rumor and suspicion in her neighborhood for being unmarried. She’s been through a lot, and the wonderful performance by a non-professional actress, Achouackh Abakar Souleymane, brings out more than few unexpected aspects of her character. One of the film’s crucial moments communicates an inner realization on Amina’s part, a changing of her mind, a decision to help her daughter get that abortion, all just from the changing expression on her face, no words. It’s a superb piece of acting and direction.
Amina’s commitment to her daughter is also a change in her relationship to herself. She no longer cares what the local imam, who pesters her about not attending mosque enough, says to her. She no longer lets other people, and especially men, determine who she is and how she should act.
Haroun presents a portrait of the plight of women in Chad—treated as property by their husbands, ordered to cover their bodies and their hair according to religious teaching, and forced to submit to so-called female circumcision as girls. One of the plot threads tells of Amina helping her sister get around by subterfuge her husband’s demand to have their young daughter mutilated this way. Haroun is a progressive filmmaker who is not afraid to criticize the male dominant culture in his country.
The dialogue is almost entirely in French, France being Chad’s former colonizer, and French the official language. But the title, Lingui, we casually find out, is a word in the Chadian Arabic dialect, meaning “sacred bonds.” In fact, the film is being promoted in English as Lingui, the Sacred Bonds. Amina realizes that her bond with her own daughter is greater than any demands her society might make on her. Lingui, the film, tells us that real love in a family and the love between women and their children, are sacred bonds at the center of human life.