I want to tell you a story. It is a warm August evening in Southern California. You are sitting with me in a high-ceilinged art gallery at the southern end of a palm-tree lined Lincoln Boulevard in Venice Beach. Rush-hour traffic is bustling outside. We are seated together in black fold-out chairs, awaiting a film screening, to be followed by a discussion with the film’s producer and two leading actors.
The atmosphere in the photo gallery, a space where youth from Los Angeles come to learn photography and filmmaking, is warm and drowsy. To drown out the noise of the traffic and to create darkness in order to view the film, the doors are closed, making the works that decorate the concrete grey gallery walls difficult to see in the now dim light. Large ceiling fans overhead are doing their best to move the heavy, warm air of this late-summer evening. The air conditioning unit remains off; its noise would drown out the soundtrack of the film.
The movie starts to flicker on the screen. We are transported to Pakistan. An opening scene of an adorned young bride, her face partially covered by the veil of her sari. She is seated on the floor next to a man, her groom. You can tell that they are strangers and performing their duties of getting married. It is an arranged marriage and she looks frightened, yet resolute.
Abruptly, the next scene appears. It is five years later. The young groom is seated in a living room on a couch, blinding white sunlight is streaming through a window, a glass of amber-colored liquor is within reach on the nearby coffee table. There is a woman looking at him in his disheveled and drunken state. She is fair-skinned, blue-eyed, with blonde hair. This is not his bride from Pakistan.
Another scene. The young Pakistani woman has landed in Los Angeles, leaving behind the in-laws her husband abandoned her to. She’d been waiting for his return, for word of his whereabouts, for him to send for her.
For the next 18 minutes or so, we are brought through a nerve-wracking, unpredictable narrative of a woman in a strange land, following clues that appear only through something akin to divine intervention. Eventually, the Pakistani bride finds her groom, to discover he’s married to a white woman allegedly to secure a green card, but with no intention of sending for her as he had promised when he left her half a decade earlier, to care for his parents.
In the climax of the film, in the very living room of the American wife’s home, the husband is calling his Pakistani bride horrible names, accusing her of being ungrateful, undutiful, inappropriate, shameful. Everything he was feeling about himself.
But in her journey to America, and with an acceptance letter to study medicine at the University of California in Los Angeles in hand, she leaves him behind. She knows her worth, she is not expecting someone to save her, to do what is right by her. She tried that and it didn’t work out. She will now set out to do what is right by her — on her own.
The film credits finish. The screen goes dark. There is applause. The lights go up, but remain dim, holding the dream-like atmosphere created by the movie watching experience. The producer and the actors appear in front of the screen and take their seats in the same black folding chairs as we are seated in — to discuss what we just experienced.
The producer, a woman in her late 50s, is dressed in a colorful salwar kameez. Her hennaed hair, showing grey roots, is fastened by a long brown barrette on the side of her head. Her name is Gaya. She begins to talk about traditional marriages and relationships in such marriages, and the experience of couples of South Asian origin. She describes her own marriage and how over decades of being in that union she has worked to create a partner out of her husband. Not a caretaker, not an owner, not someone who believes his worth is greater than hers — which is the value that both he and she were taught as newlyweds in northern India. She spoke about her dream to live a life with less suffering and more love, and that she and her husband now worked together to realize this dream.
The lights are now brightening, signaling the close of the formal program. Audience members are putting programs in their bags and pockets. Everyone is moving to the tables where the cookies and coffee are waiting to be enjoyed. The gallery doors are opened. The cool air of the night blows through them. The atmosphere becomes lighter. The actors are being surrounded by audience members. They are appreciating the attention.
You and I are now folding the black chairs, helping the gallery staff put things back in order in preparation for the activities of the next day. And then we both feel it, that awareness of someone silently trying to get your attention. We look up and there is a woman coming toward us. She is neither tall nor short. Her dark, shiny hair is pulled back into a low ponytail. She is wearing an ornate shawl of turquoise and azure blue, black, with hints of yellow gold threaded through. Her eyes are kind but tired. The lines of her face indicate she’s not a young person, but neither is she old. She reaches out for my forearm, she squeezes it gently, takes a breath. In a voice just slightly louder than a whisper she says:
“I didn’t know…I didn’t know it is ok to talk about these things.” She closes her eyes, she opens them. She places some stray strands of hair behind her ears. And as she speaks, her composure softens, her shoulders relax.
“It is so difficult to find a safe space to talk about the way husbands and wives relate to each other in my community. Tonight, talking about this, watching a film about a young woman from Pakistan who confronts her husband’s infidelity in the United States, I felt that I could share my thoughts and feelings too. Women from my community have so much to say but it is rare that we feel comfortable enough to say it. I’ll never be the same. I need to start talking.”
Let’s delve deeper into what happened for this particular woman. Her name is Nahida. As she watched the film, Nahida deeply identified with the protagonist. She saw her own experience in the struggle of this young woman, who agreed to an arranged marriage, who followed her end of the bargain.
When it became clear that her husband was not going to make good on his side of the deal by returning to Pakistan and caring for her, starting a family, or sending for her to enjoy a better life, she acted. When she confronted him with his shortcomings and her refusal to continue living a farce, the husband did everything he could to shut her down. But she refused.
This is where Nahida saw her hidden, secret aspiration to live a better life projected on the screen. Before her, Nahida saw someone who lived through similar experiences as she, but who did something different — a woman, who looked just like her, took charge of her own destiny.
You might say, this is a work of fiction. In the real world, young Pakistani women left behind with their in-laws do not have the financial resources or emotional support to fly to the United States, to confront neglecting husbands, and then go off to medical school. But the film, although based on a true story, is an example of art imitating life — using license to take things to an extreme to make a point.
Nahida didn’t view the film and then head home. In the discussion following the screening, a real-life person, a woman who looked like Nahida and who shared values and traditions with her, testified to her own experience of exercising her agency in her marriage — demanding a better relationship. A bridge was built between the fictitious world of the film and the real one.
Gaya’s real-life story of building partnership with her husband wasn’t as dramatic as the story in the film, but itisas significant. Gaya challenged cultural norms to create new ones for her family. At least in her family, a husband and wife are equal human beings, deserving of each having a say in the business of marriage and the life decisions made in this arrangement.
How might other audience members have experienced this film? What might have changed about their perceptions of South Asian women, South Asian men, the practice of arranged marriages? Or thoughts about the proscribed roles of men and women?
For audience members who did not see themselves in the film’s characters — their perception of South Asian women was perhaps challenged. The film confronted stereotypes of passivity, old-fashioned mentalities, or people stuck in time — the protagonist’s storyline defied all of these perceptions directly, as did Gaya’s personal testimony of her experience. The film dissolved the separation between “them” and “us.” For viewers who fully immersed themselves in the viewing experience, they let go of “othering” for a moment of time.
The portrayal of the lead male character showed a person suffering deeply, someone who didn’t have the resources or ability to carry out his end of the bargain. Just because a man is a man does not mean that he knows how to be a husband, earn a livelihood, and raise a family. Or that he ever wanted to. The expectation that this was entirely on him was too much pressure. He couldn’t confide in his young Pakistani wife; he had to muscle through this. But he couldn’t; it caused him to break. He escaped into the arms of another woman and alcohol.
So what we, the audience, is asked to see, overall, is that when a woman’s humanity is taken from her in the name of tradition, culture, and so on — quite often order can descend into chaos. Women have so much to offer to a relationship, to a marriage, to society. But how things are “supposed to be” and “look” deprives her of these opportunities. If and when a woman finds her voice, when she can hold the reins of her life, then things can start to be rebuilt, and everyone benefits, eventually. When we tell and show these stories, we start to rewire the way things are “supposed to be” — are “supposed to look.”
A film can be likened to a mirror. Through the story a film sets out to tell, the film offers a reflection of ourselves, of our families, our communities, our societies. What do we see when we look into that mirror? What do we need more of? What do we need less of? What do we need to change?
Here is another story, another equally important film to lead us to the point that I am hoping to convey.
In the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, villages in Iraqi Kurdistan received first aid and trauma relief from groups of foreign and local individuals who managed to acquire ambulances and tended to the needs of Kurdish villages. After a period of time, when these aid workers gained the trust of village members, they sought to help on a deeper level. Women started coming forward and sharing complications from procedures they underwent as young girls. Female genital mutilation (FGM), considered a cultural value in some Kurdish communities, was causing health emergencies, discontent between husbands and wives, and immobilizing anxiety among mothers who sought to protect their daughters from the same fate.
The young Kurdish aid workers decided to dig deeper into the issue of FGM, to see if they couldn’t work with the people to stop this practice. They decided to make a documentary film that they could bring from village to village educating against the practice, to improve the quality of life for all. Included in their film are interviews of married couples frustrated by unhealthy or non-existent sexual relationships, interviews with local imams dispelling the belief that the practice is required by Islam, and footage of the graphic and traumatic nature of FGM procedures.
Then the aid workers-turned-filmmakers took their film, called Handful of Ash, and started screening it wherever they received permission to do so. The screening of this film, coupled with facilitated discussions about the prospect of making change by doing away with FGM and promises of economic incentives to address basic village needs, resulted in village after village taking a pledge to become zero-tolerance zones for FGM.
One short film held the mirror up for women, men, imams, cutters, and decision-makers — to reflect on something incredibly harmful to their society that actually could change. A shift in culture catalyzed by one short documentary, to cease this form of violence against women, led to greater well being for all.
Similar films have been made, particularly by women Palestinian and Israeli filmmakers that deal with the experience of women in their realities. Among the prominent examples are Naila and the Uprising by Julia Bracha, which describes how a woman in Gaza has to make a choice between love, family and freedom at the time of the first intifada; Women of Freedom by Abir Zeibak Haddad, which deals with the problem of “honor killings” within Palestinian society; In Between by Maislin Hamood, which deals with the identity challenges facing young Palestinian-Israeli women coming from their villages to Tel Aviv; Sand Storm by Elite Zexer, which deals with how two Bedouin women, a mother and daughter, relate to the changes in their community; and Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem by the sibling team of Shlomi and Ronit Elkabetz, which deals with the challenges faced by women trying to get a divorce in the ultra-Orthodox community; and Women’s Peace in the Middle East and One Step Ahead: Israeli & Palestinian Women by Shuli Eshel, and Can you hear me? Israeli and Palestinian women fight for peace by Lilly Rivlin, which deal with the efforts of Israeli and Palestinian women to achieve peace between their two societies.
In my work using films that tell real, authentic stories of women and girls from all over the world, again and again I see how film has the power to humanize women in the eyes of women themselves and everyone else. Film employs the most powerful weapon that we as a human race have to protect ourselves against self-inflicted destruction. That weapon is empathy. Empathy, harnessed and channeled smartly, can lead to action, like changed behaviors toward women and girls.
Now more than ever is the time to consider these kinds of films by and about women, made for all, when educating children, decision-makers, our communities, our families, and ourselves on the issue of women’s and girls’ rights.
In February 2021, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres addressed the UN Human Rights Council and proclaimed:
The COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated and entrenched discrimination against women and girls. The crisis has a woman’s face. Violence against women and girls in all forms has skyrocketed, from online abuse to domestic violence, trafficking, sexual exploitation and child marriage. Women have suffered higher job losses and been pushed into poverty in greater numbers. This is on top of already fragile socio-economic conditions due to lower incomes, the wage gap, and a lifetime of less access to opportunities, resources and protections.
The fight for women’s rights has been ongoing for nearly two centuries. So much has been achieved. Yet, we’ve learned from the pandemic how tragically fragile these gains truly are. We lose ground quickly on women’s rights when the going gets tough.
Perhaps even more shockingly, according to the 2020 U.N. Development Programme Gender Social Norms Index, almost 90 percent of men and women hold biases against women. Both men and women believe that men make for better politicians, more qualified business executives, that men have more right to the workforce when employment is scarce, and that they have the right to abuse their wives with impunity.
Twenty-five years after the landmark Beijing Conference, at which then-First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton declared, “women’s rights are human rights,” sadly, we are still missing the mark. In fact, the idea that women’s rights are human rights is yet to have evolved into the make-up of our human DNA.
We are living in a digital age. Wherever we are educating ourselves, our children, our communities, we have the power to challenge stereotypes that perpetuate harmful views and acts against women. For far too long, women’s experiences have been underrepresented. This underrepresentation has led to misrepresentation and vice versa. We are living in a digital world where we have the power to perpetuate the misrepresentations or to challenge them. Watching films by and about women, showing women in their full humanity, is a step toward challenging the stereotypes that are limiting the fulfillment and realization of women’s human rights.
To quote the executive director of UN Women, Mrs. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: “There is no greater force for change, for peace, for justice and democracy, for inclusive economic growth than a world of empowered women.”
If we can increase our empathetic connection with the lived experiences of women, if we can incorporate activities like viewing these types of films into our advocacy work and initiatives and generate empathy, we can inspire actions that change the very mindsets that contribute to undoing progress when crises arise.
This would mean that influential international organizations and countries at the forefront of gender equality efforts must address not only the social, political, and economic policy gaps standing in the way of advancing the status of women, but also the most sensitive topics that contribute to the global culture that discriminates against women. This is more than just establishing quotas, investing in women-run businesses, or putting girls in schools. It’s about changing how we view and think about women and girls, from the inside out, not from the top down.
Film is one of the most powerful cultural influencers of our time. We can shift our global cultural norms that prescribe where and how women are to appear in the world with this form of media. Without this cultural shift, all of our quotas and efforts will see women go home at the end of the day, as vulnerable as ever.
We will know we have succeeded in our mission when communities and institutions show they believe in gender equality by adapting their behaviors and actions in a way that supports the systematic advancement of women’s and girls’ rights. Think of those villages in Iraqi Kurdistan. Remember Gaya and Nahida, whose courage will influence their daughters and their daughters’ daughters to believe in their own dignity. Think of the courageous Palestinian and Israeli women featured in and making films about their lives.
Film is an unparalleled tool to help usher in this new reality. Let’s make it so that life begins to look more like this form of art. We can be the change we want to see; we may just see it first in a movie.
 Antonio Guterres, “Secretary-General Guterres calls for a global reset, ‘to recover better, guided by human rights’."
“Almost 90% of Men/Women Globally are Biased Against Women,” United Nations Development Programme, March 5, 2020, https://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/news-centre/news/2020/Gender_Social_Norms_Index_2020.html.
 Saadia Zahidi, “19 must read gender stories of the week,” World Economic Forum, March 30, 2016, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/03/19-must-read-gender-stories-of-the-week-1/.