Lohan and Samar are Zuhur’s daughters, although once upon a time they were Zuhur’s sons. We first see them applying make up to themselves and each other, then going to the toilets in Stuttgart’s main station where they put on bras and dresses ready for a night out clubbing. Lohan, Samar and Zuhur are all Syrian Kurds and live in a refugee home at the edge of town.
There’s a worry for a while that Zuhurs Töchter is going to be one of those films which affects liberalism as a way to bash Islam as being a peculiarly intolerant religion. So we see Lohan and Samar explaining how much more liberated they feel in Western Europe, while Zuhur and a passing stranger (who is himself not averse to drinking and whoring) tell them that their lifestyle is Haram.
But as the film progresses, we see that their problems are more universal. One of them starts classes to learn German, but stops going when classmates – and the teacher – abuse her. Zuhur and her husband Talib do worry about what their children are doing, and Zuhur says that she’d have loved to have daughters-in-law and grandchildren, but their troubles do appear to be more generational than motivated by any particular religion.
Zuhur’s other daughter Maryam – who is just as religious as her mother and wears a headscarf – thinks that her elder sisters look great, and is considering borrowing some of their clothes. And ultimately Zuhur and Talib are protective of their daughters, and while they cannot fully understand their choices, they clearly love the young women who have made them.
As the film progresses, the sisters consult doctors about transitioning. This is the one time where their backgrounds make a serious difference. German doctors are only allowed to perform sex reassignment surgery on someone who can prove that they have been consulting a psychiatrist for at least 18 months. One of the sisters tries to organise a psychiatric appointment but the person on the other end of the phone can’t understand what she wants.
No-one is to blame, except a system that makes trans people jump through unnecessary hoops at one of the most traumatic periods of their lives. And when you speak with an accent and you do not yet speak fluent German, its hardly surprizing if you find it difficult to make the required appointment. This only serves to increase the tension and trauma that is already there.
Most of the health workers who speak to Lohan and Samar are polite and understanding. When one sister asks for ridiculously large breasts “just like Kylie Jenner”, they don’t refuse, but gently try to persuade her that her body is too slight to healthily carry a chest that big. More often, the doctors, nurses and consultants are there to reassure the sisters that they will be handled with sensitivity. It looks like they deliver on these promises.
One of the sisters gains a boyfriend, who has the sort of beard that both of them like on a man. He explains that he wants his partner to fully transition – otherwise it would be weird. He, too, is presumably a Muslim Arab, and yet is much more comfortable the situation than many of his Western contemporaries.
Most of the film avoids explicit politics – the girls seem more interested in make up and clothes than in changing the world. This is as it should be. It is hard enough being a trans person in modern Germany without anyone expecting you to be a spokesperson for your generation. And yet politics occasionally peeps through. In one of the interviews, we see posters of Abdullah Ocalan and Rojava solidarity on the wall. Someone in the family is obviously thinking about politics.
The film ends in an open air swimming baths. The sisters look content, happy even. They were not always this much at ease. Transitioning for them is not a lifestyle choice (when is it ever?) but a reaction to being unhappy at being trapped in the wrong body. It’s not that transitioning will solve all their problems – certainly not in a transphobic world, but the fact that a film does not concentrate on the anxiety of transitioning but shows it as a force for good is a rarity that should be savoured.