Zeina Aref x Zilzal’s New Project Breaks Down the Concept of ‘Wifey Material’ in a Playful Video Series

What is wifey material, anyway?

As the name might suggest, a wifey material is a nice, homely girl who you could date and marry. In many North African countries, the wildly sexist phrase can be loosely translated to “bint nas” (which means “daughter of people” in Arabic) and is used to describe a girl who is worthy of being “wife material” and differentiate from which girls aren’t.

But what makes someone wifey material, anyway? Perhaps your hair must be straightened on all occasions and that peach fuzz on your upper lip has got to go. Because the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, his lunch should always be served warm and to his liking, and make sure your chinaware is flawless and your silverware is always polished. At least, that’s how London-based Egyptian photographer and creative director Zeina Aref tells it in her playful new video campaign titled “Secrets to Success.”

A collaboration with objects brand Zilzal Studio, co-founded by Amina El-Sheikh and Jannah Rizk, the 25-year-old uses a spirited dose of irony to address sexist societal pressures felt by Egyptian women in relation to marriage, worth, and happiness by way of two short skits that explore a bleak and depressing reality for many Arab women in a lighthearted way that is engaging but still true to the underlying message. “We wanted to create a creative and subtle balance of digestible and relatable social commentary,” Aref told Mille.

The collaboration came about shortly after Zilzal Studio had released its first capsule collection of t-shirts and totes emblazoned with beautiful illustrations by Rizk. “I really loved their initiative to create wearable forms of social activism in subliminal ways. So I reached out, as I felt like we could do something special together. The whole process was collaborative and hands-on, and I think that experimental energy also comes across in the videos,” explained the photographer. “The idea of creating work that has the perfect balance of social commentary yet is still visually stimulating has always been something I sought throughout my practice,” she added.

Womanhood and its role within the patriarchy plays a big role in the way Aref approaches her art. All of her projects cast a light on the issues and struggles collectively shared by Arab women and aim to change the narrative surrounding society’s definition of femininity and expectations of how a girl should act. Below, we caught up with Aref to discuss her latest project, the sexist logic behind the phrase “bint nas,” using art as a tool to spark change, and discover what is next for her.

What inspired you to create these videos?

When me, Jannah, and Amina first started talking, we quickly realized that the common theme we all wanted to explore was the societal pressures of womanhood in Egyptian society. We discussed different forms of societal pressures that are felt, such as the pressure of marriage and its association with stability, or the certain behavioral attributes and ways of being that are expected of women. Throughout our discussion we began to deconstruct these pressures by addressing the common notion of “bint nas” or in other words, “a decent girl.”

This project was developed from the most trivial, simple, and relatable incidents that we’ve all experienced collectively. These incidents are things that mirror how a woman is socially perceived, even if they had little impact on you. I don’t know of one woman who can’t relate to these things somehow. We have all at some point in our lives received a comment or had a conversation that lead to the conclusion that we needed to behave in a certain way to be perceived as what you’d call “marriage material” or “bint nas.” That is what we wanted to challenge through this project.

How did you decide on the cast? Tell us a little bit more about them.

The cast was really important for this project. We were super keen on finding women who would be your typical Egyptian aunt or older cousin that would very much, in a less satirical way, give you tips similar to the ones in the video. Therefore, relatability was a key factor in deciding who our cast would be. The other important element was the witty, humorous, and ironic Egyptian behavior that was needed in order for the script to come across the way we wanted it to. So much of the culturally-relevant humor needed to be articulated in a way that would be felt, without being too over the top. I think both Nourine and Laila did a great job.

I love the title “Secrets to Success” because in Arab culture, unfortunately, no matter what you achieve as a woman, as long as you are/remain unmarried, society will deem your life to be a failure. Is this something you’ve experienced before?

I think you summed up the reasons for the title and project really well. Although yes, I have definitely had conversations which left me feeling as though the person in front of me fully believed in this, I have worked hard to break down this ideology internally.

There’s this word in Arabic called “hat3anisy,” which basically means you’ll die alone, or you’ll be single for the rest of your life, and it’s usually a comment you’ll hear being made about a woman approaching her 30s. Because many believe that if you’re still single over a certain age, you’ll be deemed undesirable. Part of this video was to try to ridicule this idea and this pressure; That all my worth, success, and happiness is tied to a man, whether it be ending with one or nurturing one.

Womanhood and its role within the patriarchy plays a big role in a lot of your art. What is the main messages you want to convey with these videos? What conversations do you hope this project sparks?

I think so much of my personal work relates to this because it’s a narrative I relate to on a personal and collective level. These patriarchal pressures I’ve experienced or seen so many women I admire greatly experience as well. My creative practice became a way for me to establish new definitions of identity and liberation that exist beyond all that pressure. That’s not to say that I believe freedom comes from letting go of all cultural and social attributes you’ve been raised with, I think there is a lot of beauty in that. But it’s to question and deconstruct which aspects of them are relevant to you as a being and how you want to live your life. To be conscious and self-reflective in your decision making beyond what you’ve been taught. Through creating work like this, I felt I could express and challenge all of that for myself and it could resonate or spark similar thoughts with others.

The satirical approach taken for this project wasn’t necessarily done to say that women who do want to get married are less than, but it is to acknowledge the agency we all possess and to lighten these subject matters with political irony. We wanted to communicate that there is choice in how to be, how one defines what a “successful life” looks like, and to completely break down this notion that there is a way you need to act and behave to be “a good girl” and a “desirable woman.”

While we have made great strides in women’s rights and equality, I feel that we still have some ways to go. Also, Arab audiences have a limited understanding of feminist art. Have you or do you ever encounter resistance or do you think that times have changed?

I definitely think the resistance is less obvious and outspoken. However, whether it’s internal or external, a lot of the pressures are instinctually embedded within you. I think keeping this conversation going and creating an on-going dialogue towards these subject matters does slowly shift and challenge the mentality generationally.

A lot of work has been created over the years to push for this breakdown and change. Recently especially it’s been felt. Resistance is something I have encountered occasionally, but for the most part, I think a lot of people have started to have this mental shift since the rise of the “Me too” movement in the Arab world and people are generally supportive. Times are shifting and I do think that normalizing this type of work does push for change, even if the context is not fully grasped.

Do you believe that art is enough to shift and shape mindsets and ideologies in our region?

Yes, 100%. Art can be educational, help raise awareness, and spark important dialogue. It’s something that can help in working towards shifting mentalities. However, there are fundamental things in society that need to shift in order for this change to be felt across all communities. A lot of that comes from challenging the educational systems that exist now and creating safe spaces for these dialogues to truly exist.

The internet has really aided in this, with educational platforms such as Mauj and The Motherbeing emerging. Platforms that discuss subject matters such as sex education, relationships, and sexuality in relation to Arab women. I think these spaces are extremely important because it allows for information that never properly existed to be accessible to all women. These sorts of initiatives alongside educational art forms and communication can generously help in shaping mindsets on an individual and on a collective level.

What’s next for you?

On a personal note – I’m currently working on developing an exhibition that will be a lot more experiential, site-specific and deals more so with physical space. That’s my big challenge for this coming chapter.

At the same time, I’m constantly taking on collaborative projects with like-minded creatives; whether it be music videos, fashion, or art. Just focused on the multi-disciplinary development of my craft, experimenting with different narratives and visuals while learning from those I work with and trying to create impactful work.

Creative: Jannah Rizk , Amina El-Sheikh
Director: Zeina Aref
Writer: Youssef El-Sheikh
Art Direction: Zeina Aref , Youssef El Sayed
DP: Zeina Aref
Editor: Zeina Aref
Styling: Youssef El Sayed
Music & Sound Design: Ramez Naguib
Colorist: Seif Ragheb, Barbershop
Cast: Nourine Abouseada, Laila Yacoub
Graphics & Illustrations: Jannah Rizk
Makeup: Diana Harby
Production: Jannah Rizk and Amina El-Sheikh

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