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Four Daughters Review: Revolt Against a Broken Home

posted on: Apr 24, 2024

Four Daughters’ Trailer

By: María Teresa Fidalgo-Azize| Arab America Contributing Writer 

Olfa: It’s a tragedy. I hate girls. I didn’t want to have daughters. 

Hend Sabry: What I understand, is that for you, their bodies are dangerous. 

Olfa: There’s no doubt about it. The body, it’s really where the line is drawn. It is the   private property of one single person. 

Hend Sabry: The husband. 

Olfa: Yes. 

Four Daughters, Kaouther Ben Hania

Subjected to an ideology where women’s autonomy is viewed as threatening, thus requiring to be controlled, it comes as no surprise that when girls come of age, revolt against social conservatism, and the family’s power structure are explored. The meta-documentary Four Daughters, directed by Kaouther Ben Hania, depicts the background story of why Olfa’s two eldest daughters, Rahma and Ghofrane, abandoned their home in Tunisia to become members of the Islamic State in Libya: an unforgiving, abusive household. Olfa and her two youngest daughters, Eya and Tayssir, re-enact the traumatic memories of childhood alongside the actresses Nour Karoui and Ichraq Matar, who play Rahma and Ghofrane, with a commanding sense of composure and with humorous irony despite the still pulsating pain suffered.

The documentary includes instances where actress Hend Sabry interprets Olfa in the moments too close to traumatic events and questions the leading causes for their fractured family dynamic and Olfa’s patriarchal domestic rule. Four Daughters uses a Brechtian approach to tilt the audience’s perspective from uncritically hating Olfa’s understanding of motherhood and the radicalization of her daughters to one not condoning their involvement with evil but exploring a morally troubled empathy. The film’s sapphire blue production set memorializes a past that would favor hiding over daylight screening. Ben Hania’s Four Daughters is an open-ended question on how to love those who hurt you and how to forgive those who leave. 


The Islamic State, a self-proclaimed caliphate that operates as a state, governs through a strict interpretation of Qur’anic Sharia law and enforces it through terrorism threats that include beheadings, torture, sexual abuse, and systemic manipulation. Undeterred by the violence against women, ISIS is still successful and influential at recruiting women and assigning them the roles not only as wives and mothers supporting ISIS soldiers but also as active participants of operational tactics such as translators, fund-raisers, and proselytizers. As detailed in the article “The Hidden Face of Terrorism: An Analysis of the Women in Islamic State” by Amanda N. Spencer, ISIS, despite its cultural conservatism, propagates a perverse offer to women that is both a better quality of life and a revolutionary purpose. 

The media’s fixation with female terrorists and their display in media outlets morbidly functions as a propaganda tool for ISIS as it provides mass viewership and widespread advertising in the portrayal of women as active players in the political and ideological spheres. Once women arrive in the caliphate, they are escorted to Islamic State-controlled safe houses known as maqam, where they are enrolled in a jihadist-style finishing school, Al-Zawra. They learn: “1. First aid training; 2, social media marketing and computer programming; 3. Islamic law; 4. Firearm and explosive training; 5. Domestic affairs” (79). Despite the patriarchal hegemony embraced by ISIS, women’s participation is mythologized as revolutionary, counteracting the possible former lives of women trapped in already abusive households and conditions of financial poverty. 

Four Daughters’ Intergenerational Trauma

Still Image of Four Daughters.

Tayssir: I haven’t been able to I can’t hate him. Despite everything he did to me, I just can’t. Yes, I am angry. Yes, I want him to pay for it. I’m not able to hate him. It’s weird. 

Four Daughters, Kaouther Ben Hania 

Throughout the film, a quasi-non-intentional exercise of Cognitive Behavior Therapy is practiced: expositional therapy. The scene where Eya and Tayssir speak to an actor[1] who plays their mother’s boyfriend, a drug-addict, and confront him with the years of sexual abuse they endured feels like they are tearing scabs into open wounds. Their mother knew of this abuse yet because she loved him, in her silence she condoned his vile behavior. In this moment, Olfa is not on screen. Yet her reaction is captured as she sits in a medium close-up in front of the camera wearing a face not only of excruciating guilt but also of how I was supposed to know better.  As seen above, Tayssir’s testimony expresses the difficulty of reconciling what it is to love someone whose actions lead you to hate. Four Daughters looks beyond enacting judgment on Olfa, not for the sake of moral relativism or justification of her actions based on the defense of generational trauma, but to illustrate how even the most threatening monsters are able to carry a recognizably human and loving face. 

 Poverty and recurrent hunger played a significant role in the childhood and adolescence of Olfa’s four daughters. Playing a game where an empty plate would be passed around the table, imagining it carried a succulent meal, was a chronic reality for Olfa’s four daughters. Tunisia’s weakened economy and its scarcity of opportunities suffered by Eya, Tayssir, Rahma, and Ghofrane guide the audience into understanding why the eldest daughter’s radicalization was fervent.  In addition to the wrongdoings committed by their mother, father, and mother’s boyfriend, if the girls continued residing at home, they would be withdrawing themselves from the possibility of having a life beyond survival.


Olfa: She is afraid for her babies. You know, Kaouther, I am like her. They say that a cat— no don’t scratch me—is so afraid for her babies that she eats them. I was so afraid for them that I was unable to protect them. I didn’t eat them, but I lost them.

        Four Daughters, Kaouther Ben Hania 

Complicating the image of a remorseless mother, Olfa is seen sweetly caressing and holding a pregnant cat while speaking to the camera, disclosing that it was fear that drove her to be abusive. Olfa acknowledges how her behavior led her children to leave her. Just like the audience judges her, she judges herself, not shying away from its merited moral retribution. In the film’s last act, the newsreel of Rahma and Ghofrane as 15- and 16-year-old girls shows when they were put under captivity in Tripoli’s Mitiga prison. The backstory of these damaged youth’s fresh faces deters the audience from categorically blacklisting them as the face of terror. Four Daughters walks on a fine line between justification and explanation. When will you be held accountable for your actions if you were raised with no supervision, right or wrong? 

Kaouther Ben Hania’s direction inquires on choice and is it even in given context a myth. Four Daughters leaves you in silence, riding on the insufferable unpaved road of doubt. 

Works Cited: 

Ben Hania , Kaouther, director. Four Daughters. Jour2Fête , 2023.

“Doc Day 2023 | A Conversation with Kaouther Ben Hania.” Marché du Film-Festival de Cannes, YouTube, 4 July 2023,

“Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.” Edited by Adam Zeidan , Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., 22 Mar. 2024,

Jones, Emma. “Four Daughters: The True Story of the Teenage Sisters Who Joined Is.” BBC News, BBC, 4 Mar. 2024,

Saleh, John. “The Women of Isis and the Al-Hol Camp.” The Washington Institute, 2 Aug. 2021,

Spencer, Amanda N.  “The Hidden Face of Terrorism: An Analysis of the Women in Islamic State.” Journal of Strategic Security 9, no. 3 (2016) : 74-98.

[1] Tunisian actor, Majd Mastoura plays all the male characters. 

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