Category: Rights defenders

Building alliances: Indigenous women leaders unite against development-based violence

UN Women, 23 November 2012 The sound of helicopters still makes Soi Tonnampet shake, years later. It takes her back to the first time she and others from her indigenous community, the Karen, fled from an operation to clear areas of national parkland in Northern Thailand. She recalls that during their first three-day escape through […]

UN Women, 23 November 2012

The sound of helicopters still makes Soi Tonnampet shake, years later. It takes her back to the first time she and others from her indigenous community, the Karen, fled from an operation to clear areas of national parkland in Northern Thailand. She recalls that during their first three-day escape through the forest – one of many – an elderly woman died and another woman miscarried.


Indigenous women shared their concerns about development-induced violence,
and the strategies they have used to address it during the four-day meeting.
Photo credit: UN Women/Jo Baker

 

For Lori Beyer, who is helping indigenous women contend with mining operations in the Philippines, gender-based violence has a different face. “Many of the male campaigners have to go into hiding,” she says. “It makes the women more vulnerable to sexual harassment, intimidation and sometimes worse.”

Although they come from villages far apart, indigenous women’s network members from across Southeast Asia found shared ground during a recent consultation on violence against indigenous women, which focused on forms of violence that are worsened or caused by economic development projects.

 

Soi Tonnampet and Kruemebuh Chaya, both members of the Karen tribe from Keng Kra Chan, Thailand, share their experiences of violence and displacement with the group during a story-telling session. Photo credit: UN Women/Jo Baker.

 

Organized by the Asia Indigenous Peoples’ Pact and supported by UN Women, the meeting is part of work to connect indigenous women with each other, rights experts, and the skills they need, to define and respond to pressing issues. As decisions on the sustainable development framework are made, and countries – particularly ASEAN members – open up economically, the need to battle their invisibility and lack of public voice has become increasingly important.

“The impact of the violence on indigenous women that comes with militarization of indigenous territories, with the destruction of our natural resources and with the consequence of displacement, affects them not just as individuals but as a collective – through the social-cultural dimension of their identity and dignity,” says Joan Carling, AIPP Secretary General. “If [indigenous women] are not participating in any decision-making where it concerns them, then this issue is not being addressed”.

Although often found in areas of natural wealth, indigenous groups make up 5% of the world’s population, but 15% of the poorest worldwide, according to the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). Many contend with extensive damage, marginalization and human rights violations as a result of aggressive development processes.

For women, these harms can take on different forms. The influx of non-indigenous workers and security personnel into indigenous areas has seen prostitution increase, for example, along with sexual harassment and rape. As indigenous livelihoods are altered or destroyed, levels of gender-based violence often rise, and economic, social and cultural harms can affect women differently as their burdens shift or increase. Yet with lower levels of education, and held back by multiple layers of discrimination, indigenous women can struggle to highlight their concerns and lead change.

 
Despite language and cultural barriers the women found solidarity –
and lighter moments – during the consultation.
Photo credit: Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact

 

 

Nevertheless, with support, women leaders are emerging as effective advocates.  The Chiang Mai consultation connected twenty-nine indigenous women from eight countries in Southeast Asia  with regional and international human rights experts, women’s rights and indigenous peoples rights advocates – including representatives from the ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children, and the UN’s Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (EMRIP).  “At this workshop I can hear other country’s cases, and how they have overcome [them] so that I learn from them,” says Seng Mai, who has been helping indigenous and rural people to respond to development projects in Myanmar, through the Kachin Development Networking Group. “And I can hear about international law, such as customary law and CEDAW.”

Participants also shared positive progress – whether cases pushed into and through their criminal justice process, interventions triggered from the UN Human Rights Council, or in the case of the Philippines recently, a military court martial successfully campaigned for, for soldiers suspected of extrajudicial killing.

Other network members, with support from UN Women and others, spoke of meeting with decision-makers on international platforms like the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), or the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in 2012 (Rio+20).  Many spoke of placing force behind their lobbying using the women’s and collective rights frameworks, found in international instruments such as the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples  and CEDAW, known as the Women’s Convention.


Indigenous women from three areas of Indonesia meet with women from
Thailand’s Akha hill tribe, during the participants’ trip to a tribal village in
Chiang Mai. Photo credit: UN Women/Jo Baker

 

At the conclusion of the meeting, participants agreed on an action plan – a series of research, advocacy and capacity building steps for the coming year. For women like Soi, Lori and Seng Mai, the solidarity and the strategizing are a source of knowledge, but also critical encouragement and moral support.

This is a chance for me to bring this information to my country, my village and the women there,” explains Seng Mai. “So in the future when we face problems, we can all address them.”

 

The Southeast Asia Consultation on Development, Access to Justice and the Human Rights of Indigenous Women: Combating development-induced violence against indigenous women, Chiang Mai, Thailand, 30 October – 2 November 2012, was sponsored by the Canadian International Development Agency, under UN Women’s Regional Programme on Improving Women’s Human Rights  programme in Southeast Asia

 

Continue Reading Share

Around the ASEAN Summit, the region’s women rally

UN Women, 20 November 2012

As world leaders meet in Phnom Penh to discuss the future of the region at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on 16 – 20 November, diverse civil society groups have been working to keep their fingers on the pulse and their voices at high volume.

Particularly vocal among these have been women’s rights groups, for whom the Summit and its People’s Forum are emotional rallying points – a chance to amplify issues being discussed by women in homes, civic spaces and workplaces across Southeast Asia. These range from gender-based violence to sustainable development priorities and the scarcity of female decision-makers.

At the Cambodian Women’s Forum, held in the lead up to the ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh, a  member of the Cambodian Women’s Caucus takes notes as a campaign statement is drafted.  Credit: UN Women/Jo Baker

For one dynamic network, preparations have been long in the making. The Southeast Asia Women’s Caucus on ASEAN, a constellation of 55 women’s rights groups in 11 countries, has been connecting grassroots women with ASEAN’s decision makers on human rights since 2008, and approached the event as one of many entry points to the Association. Supported by UN Women, with funding from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), the Caucus was formed to help women’s organizations better understand and work with ASEAN mechanisms.

This year, 13 women from the Caucus were sponsored to travel to Phnom Penh and join the rights campaigning and strategizing taking place around the ASEAN Summit. Each brought the concerns and demands of women’s groups in their countries, along with leadership skills honed in consultations and rights workshops.

Orchida Ramadhania, for example, comes from Indonesia’s ‘AKSI’, an organization she founded to campaign for gender, social and ecological justice.  Among other events she spoke in an NGO-organized session on the ASEAN economic community blueprint for 2015, and its potential impact on women. The blueprint is a master plan adopted to guide the founding of the ASEAN economic community in 2015. “It’s crucial for people to gather and work out our thoughts and ideas together about how to prepare for this integration,” she says. “Already with our experience here in Cambodia we’ve learned so much from the women; and we’ve got to know the situation of women in Thailand and Philippines, and how they organize themselves.”  

Other issues on the table have included the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration (AHRD), which was adopted at the Summit in a landmark move for the region, but has been criticised for falling short of international standards and fails to adequately protect women in areas such as migration and sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Puspa Dewy and Wahida Rustam belong to Indonesia’s Solidaritas Perempuan, a member of the Southeast Asia Women’s Caucus. “It’s important to inform many stakeholders what will happen with the ASEAN Economic Community Blueprint,” says Rustam. “We will develop a strategy together on what we can do to ensure that this policy doesn’t make people, especially women’s situation, more poor and unjust.” Credit: UN Women/Jo Baker

Over the past few years the Caucus has seen its profile grow. It has been called into consultations with both the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) and the ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children (ACWC) to transmit the network’s recommendations on issues such as the AHRD drafting process. Many members express hope in the strengthening of such two-way channels, despite concerns that their inputs are not always taken on board.  “We have been recognized as a group to reckon with at the ASEAN level,” says Sumitha Saanthinni Kishna, Executive Officer of the Bar Council Malaysia, and a Caucus Member. “Not a lot of regional groups get that opportunity right now. Some of the national groups have been having very good collaborations with their ACWC representatives,” she added. “So when they come to the regional consultation, they’re no strangers – and that helps.”


Mork Sergegodh (left), 20 is an Economics student at Panachiet University,
and a member of the CWC’s extremely active young women’s contingent.
“I feel that since I’m part of the ASEAN community, I should be a part of
making it better for women,” she says. “I want ASEAN to recognise
women and the skills they are capable of.” Credit: UN Women/Jo Baker

 

In Phnom Penh, Caucus members joined almost 60 other organizations in finalizing and endorsing an alternative draft of the AHRD, which they have called the ASEAN Peoples’ Human Rights Declaration.

Meanwhile in the Summit’s host country, a national women’s caucus on ASEAN, also supported by UN Women, is working to achieve similar recognition. Cambodian women have been meeting through their own caucus to produce more consistent advocacy messages on issues like land rights and access to health care. Its Women’s Forum last week was attended by over 200 women from across the country, many from rural areas, and produced a campaign statement for high level and broader public attention.

 

 
More than 160 women attended the Forum, which was supported by UN Women.
“It’s given me the bigger picture, and how to use it,”  says Yous Thuy, 56, of
the Women’s Caucus, who has worked for the KWWA in Cambodia’s Kratie
Province for nine years. “I want to take my experiences to the government
and ASEAN to make sure there is empowerment, education and protection
for migrant women in our laws”. Credit: UN Women/Jo Baker

“The Caucus has successfully helped us link women from rural and provincial levels,” says its chair Thida Khus, who is also Executive Director of Cambodian NGO, SILAKA and the new civil society representative to technical working group meetings on gender, chaired by the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. “Before, women’s organizations were just doing their own thing, but now we bring all the issues together and advocate together. I think we have managed to build the infrastructure of a women’s movement here – and revitalize it.”

The Cambodian and broader Southeast Asia Caucuses have been working together to keep women informed and involved with the advocacy efforts, in what has been a challenging landscape, while also formulating statements on issues of critical concern to women in the ASEAN region. And while their impact of their actions on visiting leaders has yet to be assessed, the effect on many of the women themselves, their abilities and intentions, is indisputable. “ASEAN is the new arena for power and influence,” says Ramadhania. “It will be difficult to manage the situation and the issues that come if we as civil society and the women’s movement do not work in this arena, hand in hand.”

The Southeast Asia Women’s Caucus is funded by the Canadian International Development Agency, under UN Women’s project, Regional Mechanisms to Protect the Human Rights of Women and Girls in Southeast Asia

Continue Reading Share

Where violence and HIV meet: Intersections are explored at this year’s International AIDS Conference, and the Kolkata Conference Hub

Say NO UNiTE (link), 26 July 2012

Held every two years, the International AIDS Conference is the world’s largest conference on HIV, and plays a fundamental role in shaping the global response to HIV, and keeping HIV and AIDS on the international political agenda.

While the global climate for this year’s event in Washington DC (22-27 July) has seen  funding for the global HIV response diminish, important achievements are emerging on, among other areas, most-at-risk populations, the intersection of violence and HIV, parent-to-child transmission, and treatment as prevention. Attending for the first time as an official co-sponsor of UNAIDS, UN Women has been working to champion gender equality and women’s empowerment in the global response to HIV.

Among the week’s discussions, UN Women convened and moderated a panel of women leaders to highlight achievements in women’s leadership that are driving change and transformation of the HIV response; and co-sponsored events focused on gender-based violence and its link to HIV, in a panel “Taking Stock of Evidence and Setting the Implementation Agenda, panelists highlighted the latest evidence of how violence against women is increasing risk of HIV infection.   A panel discussion with, ‘Together for Girls’ , a unique initiative that UN Women is part of, bringing together private sector organizations, UN entities and governments in the fight against sexual violence against girls, explored the need for better data to document the magnitude and impact of sexual violence as a means to support the development and implementation of evidence-based policies and interventions.

HIV is the leading cause of death for women of reproductive age worldwide, and every minute, a young woman is infected with HIV, as reported by UNAIDS. The impact of HIV on women and girls, compared to men and boys, is intrinsically connected to gender inequality, unequal power relations, gender-based violence, stigma and discrimination. Indeed, women who have experienced some form of violence are up to three times more at risk of HIV infection than those who have not. This is attributable to sexual violence, sexual exploitation and trafficking, and cases of forced or child marriage among vulnerable communities. Yet it is also the case because women across the world are often unable to negotiate the terms of their sexual relationships, including the use of condoms.

“Violence against women and HIV/AIDS are inextricably intertwined and mutually enforcing,” says Meryem Aslan, Manager of the UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women. “Changes must centre on the empowerment of women and girls, and the transformation of social norms around what it means to be a man.”

At the conference Indonesian women’s rights activist Baby Rivona of the Indonesian Positive Women network (pictured left), spoke about the many forms of violence and discrimination faced by women living with HIV. “Among our members, there is a lot of violence after they [are diagnosed with HIV and reveal their status] … psychological violence from family members and partners, physical violence; and discrimination from the health services. The health service workers advise coerced sterilization, and yet women living with HIV don’t really understand its meaning.”

Meanwhile, in Kolkata, India, a parallel conference hub has been organized, to ensure that many of those who are unable to travel to Washington can take part in the discussions. The Kolkata Conference Hub will be supported by the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, which drew seed money from the International AIDS Society, and other agencies, namely UNAIDS. With its strong focus on sex work, the conference aims to highlight the forms of violence, coercion and discrimination faced by those in this group, and the need for violence to be factored into any approach to combat HIV among them.

“Addressing violence against sex workers requires an understanding about how violence actually increases the risk of exposure to HIV,” says Meena Seshu, director of sex workers’ rights organization, SANGRAM, which is participating in the event. “Helping sex workers tackle violence will, in turn, help them respond to reducing their vulnerability to HIV.”

Click here for more on the Kolkata event, more from Seshu on the intersection of violence and HIV in the sex work industry, and from Baby Rivona on discrimination and coerced sterilization in Indonesia.

For tools, resources, and information on gender equality dimensions of the AIDS epidemic, check UN Women’s Gender Equality and HIV/AIDS Web Portal, UN Women’s Factsheet on the linkages between HIV and violence against women, UN Trust Fund report on “Effective Approaches to Addressing the Intersections of Violence against Women and HIV/AIDS” and the Virtual Knowledge Centre to End Violence against Women.

Continue Reading Share

Five Questions for Catherine Smith


In 2011 Catherine Smith, an Australian mother of six, saw her former husband jailed on 17 charges, among them: attempted murder, assault, sex without consent, and detaining with intent to obtain advantage.

It had taken her 30 years of  appeals and petitions to the authorities, during which she and her family suffered repeated brutality. Smith was herself tried during this time (and acquitted) for attempted murder. Her case highlights the barriers that women in Australia face, particularly those living in rural areas, when seeking protection and redress for violence within the family.

Smith and her daughter Vickie spoke at the United Nations in March at the  56th Session of the Commission on Status of Women in New York, where their story resonated with many women from rural areas across the world.

Say NO- UNiTE spoke to Smith about her experiences, her advocacy, and the advice that she gives other survivors. Elizabeth Broderick, Sex Discrimination Commissioner of the Australian Human Rights Commission, also gave Say NO- UNiTE her insights on the legal significance of the case, and her recommendations for laws and policies to address gender-based violence in rural contexts.

1) You suffered extensive abuse at the hands of your husband. Did you feel that you had many options to respond, or avenues through which to seek help?

The first avenue for help with domestic violence is through the local police. In my case I was let down badly. Police here have a dismissive culture to women who report domestic violence. I reported serious abuse to police on 18 separate occasions between 1977 and 2005 with absolutely no charges being brought against Kevin Smith, my former husband.

I had meetings with both police and legal representatives at the department of public prosecutions on many occasions; we also wrote many letters of complaint to police ministers the Attorney-General, Director of Public Prosecutions , police commissioner and the NSW ombudsman, with absolutely no response. We took out a private prosecution, for which the court issued 29 arrest warrants for the arrest of Kevin Smith. The police never acted on the warrants.

2) The arrest finally took place after a parliamentarian lobbied State Parliament in your support. What was the most difficult aspect of the court case for you?

There were many instances throughout the trial that were very difficult to endure, considering that I was kept under threat and control for years. He seemed to have so much control, it often felt like I was back there being mentally abused by him over again. He refused to be legally represented, and kept me on the witness stand under cross examination for as long as possible. I was cross examined for 15 days. At least three times he didn’t even turn up to court; the jury and everyone would be sent home with the hope he would show the next time. There were never any consequences for him. He was allowed to directly cross examine his own children, even though they were also his victims.

3) What do you think women experiencing similar situations need most?

Protection from police at the very first report. The community have a responsibility to help their neighbours and report domestic violence when they hear it, instead of hiding behind their curtains and closing their doors. The community needs to get over the attitude of not getting involved. Domestic violence is not a private issue; it is a crime worse than the assault of a stranger. Women and children should feel safe in their own homes.

4) Having emerged as a survivor, what would you say to other women facing similar situations?

The most important thing is to put a stop to abuse in the first instance. Leave him the first time he hits you. Don’t think he won’t do it again; it gets easier for them each time it happens.

Report any physical abuse to police the first time it happens. Thankfully there are a few good police officers these days. There is no excuse for abuse either physical or emotional in an intimate relationship. If the authorities refuse to intervene to protect you or your children, challenge them, take your complaint to a higher authority immediately. Report the inaction in writing and keep a copy in a safe place. Gather your evidence. Have your doctor keep a detailed record and be sure to photograph any injuries.

5) Although you won your case there is still much work to be done on this issue, in Australia and beyond. How are you taking this forward?

My intention is to expose the authorities’ failures. I have intentionally allowed the media to publish some of the very graphic details of the abuse, and exposed the negligence of the authorities, in an effort to bring about change. We have been the subject of television shows. In 2008 one Australian television show covered my story to coincide with White Ribbon Day. It included the story of another woman, Jennifer Brodhurst. Our stories were similar except Jennifer was murdered by her husband.

My daughter Vickie and I spoke at the United Nations during the Commission on the Status of Women this year, and I spoke at a refuge workers conference in Katoomba, New South Wales. Vickie and I have accepted an invitation to speak at 2012 Sustaining Women in Business Conference, in October.

To learn more about the story of Catherine Smith,  watch a documentary on her, The Courage of Her Convictions, courtesy of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.


Elizabeth Broderick is the Sex Discrimination Commissioner for the Australian Human Rights Commission. Here she speaks on the legal significance of the Smith case, and her recommendations for laws and policies to combat violence against women in rural contexts.

“Catherine’s case highlighted the many barriers to seeking redress that Catherine faced as a woman living in rural areas of Australia: a lack of law enforcement in rural areas, and limited access to legal services and communication infrastructure and transport.

The case has been important in highlighting the importance of States fulfilling their due diligence obligations to prevent, investigate and punish acts of domestic violence. If the State had acted more expeditiously when the violence first began, 30 years of violence could have been avoided for this family.

Some of the recommendations I made at CSW for addressing violence against women in rural contexts included:

  • That national governments work closely with rural women to ensure that the necessary structures are put in place to enable their empowerment.
  • For a suitable independent statutory office to monitor and evaluate the implementation of Australia’s National Plan to be identified and adequately funded. It should contribute to the development of a national research and education agenda and promote best practices.
  • That national governments ensure that there are sufficient services responding to the needs of women and girls who are or have experienced violence regardless of their urban or rural location, including prevention programmes delivered in rural areas;  accessible and appropriate counselling services, shelters, refuges, accommodation, health care, legal services and other support services; additional services and support provided in post-disaster situations; and specific services and support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, culturally and linguistically-diverse women and women with disabilities.
  • Finally there should be universal access to critical services for women, including in rural areas – at a minimum this includes meeting women’s and girls’ emergency and immediate needs through free 24-hour hotlines, prompt intervention for their safety and protection, safe housing and shelter for them and their children, counselling and psycho-social support, post-rape care, and free legal aid to understand their rights and options.”
Continue Reading Share

On World Press Freedom Day – What Hope for Reconciliation and Free Expression in Sri Lanka?

Historical Justice and Memory Research Network, 3 May 2012 * Many countries emerging from conflict have relied on the free media to involve the nation in its inquiry processes, and therefore help to validate them. From Kenya to Peru, the press has broadcast televised sessions, disseminated reports in different languages and formats and, while often […]

Historical Justice and Memory Research Network, 3 May 2012 *

Many countries emerging from conflict have relied on the free media to involve the nation in its inquiry processes, and therefore help to validate them. From Kenya to Peru, the press has broadcast televised sessions, disseminated reports in different languages and formats and, while often divided on issues, has catalysed critical commentary and debate.

This has not been the case in Sri Lanka.

According to Sri Lankan NGOs public interest in the report of its Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission is low. Five months after its release it has yet to be translated into Tamil or Sinhala, and with the exception of state-sponsored editorials and maverick English language platforms online, media analysis of its findings has been rare.

[Link to original article]

Mentions of the Commission, along with most other issues pertaining to national security, minority rights and human rights, are framed largely by the nationalist rhetoric being led by the government.

Reasons for this are not difficult to identify. State officials and state-owned media outlets have for years conducted smear campaigns and issued threats of violence against dissenting voices, often while questioning their national loyalties.

The Minister of Public Relations was quoted in pro-government papers this year saying he will ‘break the limbs’ of Sri Lankan journalists overseas who have ‘made various statements against the country.’ An editorial in the state-owned Sinhala-language daily, Dinamina, denounced journalists by name, before referring to state critics as ‘degenerates.’ The author opined that in some countries, such ‘bastards’ would be stoned to death.

These sentiments are not softened by Sri Lanka’s reputation for targeted killings and disappearances.

The 2012 Impunity Index, just released by Committee to Protect Journalists, has placed it among the four worst nations in combating journalist murders. During President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s time in power none of the nine killings committed against journalists critical of the regime have been resolved (nor adequately investigated according to many human rights groups). This includes the high profile murder of vocal government critic and Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickrematunga in 2009.

The Alliance of Media Organizations marked ‘Black January’ this year on behalf of Sri Lanka’s journalists. For many in the country, self-censorship has become a matter of physical as well as professional security.

Further restrictions indicate that the government’s grip on democratic space will continue to tighten.

These range from its scheme to register websites, to the outright banning or blocking of dissenting sites such as the Sri Lanka Guardian. The latest clench, in March, involved text message alerts from news sites; any related to national security must now be state approved.

Expressions of concern have surfaced from EU heads of mission in Colombo, international watchdogs and NGOs.

During my last visit to the country in late 2009, low spirits and disheartening forecasts coloured my interviews with NGO staff, journalists and editors. They stood in stark contrast to the post-war triumphalism in the public at large.

Three years on, despite the LLRC’s published recommendations for reform and investigation, there is little hope to offer them; public interest in or tolerance for accountability or human rights issues remains low.

As highlighted by the resolution passed at the UN Human Rights Council in March this year, a clear national picture of the roots and content of the conflict has not emerged, nor is one being pursued.

With a free press, Sri Lanka, with its vibrant democratic history, could have utilised the LLRC as a cathartic learning exercise – or at least the start of a road to accountability and recovery. There seems no greater sign of its absence than the call from Geneva this March. Far better, surely, for the call to have come from Sri Lankans themselves.

For more information: See Free Media Movement, Groundviews, Freedom House; Transcurrents; and the blog of exiled Sri Lankan journalist, Sunanda Deshapriya.

*The Historical Justice and Memory Research Network News appeared fortnightly between February 2011 and January 2013. In February 2013, the Historical Justice and Memory Research Network became part of the Dialogues on Historical Justice and Memory, and the Dialogues newsletter replaced the HJMRN News.

 

Continue Reading Share

Q&A with Hanan Abdalla, director of a new film that explores the lives of Egyptian women since the Arab Spring

UN Women, 9 April 2012

This week, “In the Shadow of a Man”, a film commissioned by UN Women, is taking the compelling stories of four Egyptian women to the Istanbul Film Festival, as part of a string of international screenings. The documentary premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival earlier this year, and will be followed soon with a second film by the director on women candidates in Egypt’s 2011-2012 parliamentary elections. In an interview with UN Women, young British-Egyptian director Hanan Abdalla weighs in on the issues the film addresses, and its relevance as the women’s movement gathers momentum in the country.

What drew you to the subject of women’s needs in the aftermath of the Eyptian revolution?
I’ve always known that there is a wealth of stories waiting to be told by women in Egypt. But, the truth is that after the revolution I had mixed feelings about making a film that focused on women: I felt that it was a subject matter that was being fetishized. What made me carry on despite my concerns was an overwhelming feeling, or perhaps duty, to make a film that would open up discussion about how gender is constructed in Egypt, and the uncomfortable truth of how this defines the parameters of the freedom that women have.

What kind of impact would you like the film to have?
One of the most important things that I feel is said in the film, is by Shahinda: “A woman cannot be independent in a country that is not independent… she cannot be free in a country that is enslaved. You can’t limit women’s demands based on their gender… You can’t separate women’s demands from the reality of society itself”.

I hope that from watching this documentary, people will start to reappraise the relationship between women’s emancipation and the emancipation of society as a whole; that women’s demands are intrinsically linked to the wider socio-economic problems that the country is facing. I hope that it will start to open up questions for both men and women about the way in which traditions are engendered, and how we should resist them when they limit us.

How did your own views and ideas change over the course of the production?
I set out thinking that perhaps most women are unaware of the way their social roles are engendered, and that they don’t see their freedom as limited compared to men. If they did, then why wouldn’t they speak out against it? But through the intimate stories they told me, it became clear that an awareness of these limits exists, and, more importantly, that they challenge these limits in the choices that they make.

Do you think that timing was important to the film?
The hope in making this documentary was to create an opportunity for discussion in a time of change, so that we can reappraise the question of women and gender in Egypt. What has struck me is how ever-relevant this documentary has become. In particular, some of the archive footage in the 1970s and 1980s is still poignantly resonant. Where Shahinda cries out “the martyr’s blood is not a sacrifice”, and asks “was our dream for social justice for people wrong?”, it reminds us that our fight has been and is still ongoing. In these last few months there has been particular violence towards women from the army and police, which has in turn seen the renaissance of a women’s movement in Egypt. I feel that the messages that the four women of In the Shadow of a Man give us will perhaps have even more of an impact now, and will continue to provide hope for women’s empowerment and emancipation throughout Egypt.

How has the film been received?
So far all the screenings have had great responses from the audience: they often tell me that they learnt something new, or that they started to look differently at the way gender is framed in Egypt. In a screening in Aswan in Upper Egypt, one woman was particularly touched by the story of abuse that one of the characters talks about. She came up at the end, saying that she felt relieved to know that other women had faced the same experience, and that she felt less ashamed seeing someone brave enough to talk about it openly.

In addition to this, the film was selected for the Berlin International Film Festival (one of the three A-list film festivals in the world), and enjoyed its premier there. It was an overwhelming experience and such an honour. Many other festivals have shown interest in screening the film and I’m excited to see where it will go next.

How did this project lead to your next film with UN Women, currently in production?
UN Women’s Egypt office suggested a premise for the next film, one that would follow women candidates running in the first parliamentary elections after the fall of Mubarak. I thought it would give an opportunity to question Egypt’s patriarchal system, and the relationship between female political participation and how it can affect change. I have been co-directing this project with Cressida Trew, and we are currently in the process of editing four months’ worth of footage. Following the unpredictable events that have taken place since last October, including the genesis of a new women’s movement in Egypt, has been exhilarating and hopeful.

Continue Reading Share