Representing Gender and Sexual Trauma: Moufida Tlatli’s Silences of the Palace

Tunisian filmmaker Moufida Tlatli’s 1994 Arabic-language feature film, The Silences of the Palace, stages the traumatic situation of female servants in the household of Tunisian princes in the period before and after Tunisian independence from France in 1956. The film focuses on the ways in which female gender and sexuality are lived in a traumatic mode in the palace. Issues of gender, social class, and colonization intersect in the film, which centers on the relationship between a teenage daughter whose father is unknown, Alia, and her mother, the servant Khedija, who are both struggling with issues of sexual abuse. The film highlights the following aspects of gender and sexual trauma: flashbacks; endemic sexual abuse that is widespread and repeated over generations; the transgenerational transmission of trauma due to secrets and silences around sexuality and sexual abuse; resulting physical symptoms (such as chronic migraines, fainting, dissociation, neurasthenia and aphasia); the lack of avenues of escape; and finally, paths to possible healing (such as music and singing and, eventually, national independence). Far from representing an individualized situation, the film portrays Alia as embodying the entire country. This national allegory indicates that if Tunisia gained its independence, Tunisian women’s liberation is still to come since Alia’s life has repeated her mother’s patterns. The film thus seeks to make a feminist intervention into contemporary Tunisian politics and culture. At the end of the film, Alia decides to keep her illegitimate child against her boyfriend’s wishes and to call her Khedija, after her own mother. This open ending leaves the audience wondering whether little Khedija, who is also lacking a legal father, will repeat her mother’s and grandmother’s patterns. The film makes it clear that the answer lays in the future gender politics of the Tunisian nation, which Tlatli hopes to inflect for the better.