The journey of self-discovery is a recurring theme in francophone Maghrebi literature and film. Characters are often placed in a struggle against forces in both French and Maghrebi society, where authors and directors evoke various themes through which characters define themselves. Despite the differences in how characters choose to define themselves, the similarity they share is that these identities are not rigid. They are fluid and are shaped by a multitude of factors that can be traced to power and power contributes to perceptions and the day-to-day experiences in these societies. One of the common ways characters embark on this journey of self-discovery is through gender. Two characters who do this differently are Nina in Garçon manqué by Nina Bouraoui and Zahra in La nuit sacrée by Tahar ben Jelloun. Each of these characters demonstrates the complexity of gender, the ways in which power shapes these complexities, and how, throughout their evolution as characters, they flow between identifying as male and female for different reasons. In both stories, gender remains central in their quest to define themselves as individuals.
Before diving into the different ways Nina and Zahra approach their identities through gender and how power plays a role in their realities and experiences, these two characters share an important similarity. Throughout both the book and the film, the characters do not maintain one gender. They both, at different moments in the development of their respective stories, identify both as male and female. Moreover, the evolution of their characters and the progression of the plot centers on the change in their self-identification. It is a central conflict for both characters. They also share a similarity regarding the terms of gender they choose to define themselves with—a decision shaped by a combination of voluntary choices and imposed definitions, whether from society or specific people in their lives.
In Nina Bouraoui’s book, Garçon manqué, Nina narrates her experiences as the child of an Algerian father and a French mother. Nina must explore her identity in a world of "opposing dualities," as she frames it. Despite the fact that she was born in France, she grew up in Algeria and a vast majority of her self-discovery took place in Algeria. Beyond the conflicts she faces as a person of mixed origins, she finds refuge in the creation of alternative identities that serve multiple objectives. At the beginning, all the alternative identities, namely her identity as Ahmed, Brio, and Steve, are all male. However, for the sake of concision, her alternative identity as Ahmed will serve as the most relevant example in this context. One of the reasons Nina creates this identity as Ahmed is due to the patriarchal nature of Algerian society. Nina recognizes that men have the greatest amount of privilege and she seeks to attain this privilege by identifying as male. While it may seem that this decision is based on a voluntary choice, the powers in society rooted in this dominant patriarchal narrative are what push her to make this decision. Nina says, “I want to be a man. To be a man in Algeria means to become invisible” (Bouraoui 37). She repeats this desire to attain masculine privilege when she describes her childhood friend, Amine, who is male. She says, “His body is what I desire” (Bouraoui 28). Through physical and psychological means, Nina embarks on a path where she begins to discover herself as Ahmed.