In Satyamev Jayate we learn – for those of us who didn’t know, including me – that finding out the sex of your child is illegal in all of India. I know that girls are not favored over boys in some parts of India, but I didn’t know that sex determination technologies are illegal: cell-free fetal DNA testing, chorionic villus sampling, amniocentesis or ultrasonography . In other countries, we take for granted and have the option to know the sex of our baby to prepare for his or her arrival: clothes, friends’ and family’s gifts via baby shower etc. And in Trinidad, with a 50 percent majority Indo-Muslim population – from India – that isn’t practiced; there is no law banning knowing the sex of your child. Whether it is a girl or boy the child is welcomed, and parents joke often that ‘once the child has 10 toes, and 10 fingers’ they are happy. That is not to say that boys aren’t shown or given more attention, but girls aren’t killed off or regretted. Nor are daughters walking price tags if they live. It comes as a big surprise then that in this 21st century, this IS a law elsewhere.
Why would there a need for such law?
In rural parts of India – Maharashtra, Haryana, Jammu, Kashmir etc [Child Sex Ratio in India], female foeticide had become a huge problem. That’s not to say that in other urban parts of India or its diasporas that sons aren’t preferred over daughters nor that it was/is not a problem. But female foeticide had to be banned in 1994 in India. The Pre-conception and Prenatal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act law was only passed 22 years ago, but men and women had been killing fetuses in parts of India forever upon discovering that the child was a girl. Matrubhoomi: Nation without Women [Manish Jha, 2003] is a stark exploration of this phenomenon. In the film, female infanticide causes an entire village to be without females, and one father, brave enough to not kill his daughter – Kalki – raises her in hiding, learns to disguise her as a boy until she reaches puberty and can’t look like a boy anymore. But Kalki is discovered and married off for money to a young man who shares her with all of his brothers and single father – the subtext of the the film is Draupadi and the 5 Pandava brothers story in the Mahabharata, which is sacred for Hindus, but which the director also asks us to reflect on. The entire village in the film lusts after Kalki, and rapes her. It is brutally visual, and at times so repugnant that you must turn away from the screen, like a Gaspar Noe’s film with 15 minutes of brutal rape [Irreversible, 2002]. The sexual exploitation and subjugation of Kalki are far from entertaining, and forces us to watch unflinchingly at this barbaric socio-cultural gender discrimination. I cannot include a trailer, for the reality of this problem and the scenes of this film are too visually sickening: there isn’t one single redeeming moment in the film, and no saving grace for girls raped or killed off just because of their gender.
Nine years later, in 2012 Aamir Khan brought to light this issue of female foeticide in Satyamev Jayate because it has not disappeared with a 1994 law. This episode informed us of the reality of the act of pre-natal gender detection followed by foeticide cutting across class and cities, and we saw how mothers today, who want to keep their female child alive face torture and abuse at the hands of their families and others [http://www.satyamevjayate.in/mumkinhai.aspx?uid=E0RIV4]. We also see how doctors blatantly flout the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Determination Techniques (PCPNDT) Act for monetary gains [http://www.satyamevjayate.in/mumkinhai.aspx?uid=E0RIV4].
In 2014, a short film Anamika: a short film dedicated to Women [Mahesh Madhu, 2014] shows the husband wanting a girl, but his wife, Anamika doesn’t. But she doesn’t want a girl for a very different reason. A reason that probably wasn’t considered at all into the making or enacting of the Prohibition of sex-selection law in 1994.
Anamika might not have been killed off as a foetus, but lived only to be raped as a child. She reaches adulthood and is having a baby, but wants to have a boy like a lot of first time traditional mothers in India and other traditional male dominated societies. But she only wants a boy because she thinks that uncles can’t rape boys; they can only rape girls. We see this not only in this film and Matrubhoomi, but also in Monsoon Wedding [Mira Nair, 2001]. And like Anamika, Ria in Monsoon Wedding grows up also keeping the silence of her rape, also by a close uncle. And although Naseeruddin Shah saves the film and day by cutting ties with his molester-brother over this sexual abuse scandal, a woman in the wedding party wonders why the scuttle over such a “small” matter [as sexual abuse]. Thankfully, this is a powerful subplot among all the festivities taking place in the film. But what is salient in the two films and in the two girls is that neither Ria nor Anamika told anyone they were raped as girls, because of women like this woman at the party. Sexual abuse is a shame only for the girl abused, and never for the males who rape. No one would believe the girls if they spoke, including doctors, police and often even their own families. Anamika – powerless then to do anything – does the only thing she could do-she wants to stop that cycle of silence and rape, because she believes that having a girl would repeat history, and the cycle of rape would continue. But, Anamika is trapped by laws: the anti-abortion laws set in place in 1971, and the Prohibition of sex-selection law in 1994. The film shows this ‘hopeless trap’ in which she finds herself not because the film’s intention is to break the law, or is advocating foeticide as in Matrubhoomi, but the real intent is for Anamika to prepare mentally like we do in the US, except that it will take more than a village to protect this girl from sexual predators.
Sex-selective abortion and rape are huge problems and a big crime, both of which we must fight with images and words since laws fail. Dowries drain families of monies they don’t have to marry their daughters so they prize sons instead. But even educated families would abort girls if they could according to one study of an Indian health care group Mamta Health Institute for Mother and Child[Little India Vanishing Land of the Girl July 2006]. And even though a law had already been passed some couples would pay $450.00 to find out the sex of their child, and others would stay inside the house to hide their pregnancies until they knew it was a boy [Little India Vanishing Land of the Girl July 2006]. The sex selection was so uneven in Punjab that the government pays families $11.20 a month for a girl in school [Little India Vanishing Land of the Girl July 2006] to encourage them not to get rid of girls but also to educate them. By taking initiative to make shorts on Pocket Films and Youtube etc young women and men are opening up dialogue to raise awareness because cinema – and social media – is an extremely powerful medium. Films can help change the way we see and look at something by evoking anger, rage, antipathy, disgust, revulsion, driving us to tears and the desire to act and do more than just view passively. Both self-made and commercial directors know that they have to become agents of change before Mother India ends up a mother to only sons, and not daughters, as Aamir Khan rightly suggests. They must continue making shorts, films and using social media because they know that cinema is a temple of desire, and by the same token, it can also provoke desire in people to act, to against women’s silence, against women’s abuse, and for women’s human rights. They know that if women are denied speech their experience cannot be known, their questions cannot be asked nor answered, and they cannot influence the course of their lives, nor of history.
La Guardia Community College hosted its 2nd Amazigh/Berber film festival a few days ago, where brilliant shorts and feature films were shown. The goal of the festival was to ‘break borders’. The discussions were lively and border breaking, all expect for the Daughter of Keltoum [Mehdi Charef, Algeria, 2001], a film I had already seen, and which didn’t trouble me, as I have seen many like those. But on the last day of the film festival, its impact on some left me troubled but wanting more, both during and after the Q&A.
Daughter of Keltoum is the story of 19-year-old Rallia, a Swiss-bred, Algerian-born girl who comes back to trace her roots, but who really is in search of her mother, Keltoum, and not father. She wants to ask her mother why she abandoned her. Her mother’s family lives in a desert of high mountains: a punishment for those whom God doesn’t love according to Nedjma, her aunt. Nedjma tells Rallia that God loves her, because she doesn’t have to climb the hard mountains for food, water, or to catch the bus to go elsewhere. The trek for water is in fact relentless and often overwhelming with the threat of a drought always looming near. Rallia participates in family life while waiting for Keltoum to visit the family, which she does on Fridays. Keltoum works in a luxury hotel in El Kantara, a town with a luxurious hotel. But after weeks of waiting, Rallia decides to go look for Keltoum, and Nedjma follows her along to protect her. But during her journey to El Kantara, we are privy to the many injustices that exist in Algeria, against women. This includes a woman who’s repudiated by her husband: he is on horseback and she on foot, tied with rope like a donkey walking behind him in the hot desert roads. This woman is killed because she recognizes a revolutionary who wanted to [further] silence her so he would not be caught. Rallia meets another westernized girl like herself, who is looking for her father and who is battered for not wearing a veil. Rallia must wear a veil otherwise she, too would meet that fate. Then they hitch a ride from a truck driver who wants to rape Rallia, but Nedjma offers herself instead. After this treacherous journey to get to El Kantara, they finally meet Keltoum, but Rallia discovers she was not abandoned, but sold to buy a donkey to fetch water for the family. The donkey was the only means of survival for the family. She also discovers that it is Nedjma who is her mother, the “Mad Woman” of the village as she’s [not] affectionately known, and who lost it when they took away her child – Rallia – from her. The family made Nedjma sleep with a white soldier and she had Rallia, who looks mostly white. In fact, Rallia is an international model, but incomplete because she has no roots.
At the Q & A, an American man, shocked at what he saw against women, asked if what we see is true. Two Algerian women and one Algerian answered this question saying that what we see in the movie doesn’t exist, that women aren’t treated like that because they’ve never seen that.
Does that mean the abuse of women, poverty, the rage of a young woman “abandoned” by her birth mother, rape of Berber women by men, women repudiation do not exist because they haven’t seen it where they come from? Is it possible that they come from a place in Algeria like the luxury hotel in El Kantara where that may not be seen, since it caters to a western crowd? Maybe they don’t know about research done on inhumanity against women? Maybe they deny that what we see in the film exists because to exoticize Algeria now that they live in the US, à la “Algerias of the mind” [like Rushdie’s ‘Indias of the minds’]? Or do they see from the “male gaze” that doesn’t acknowledge women’s inhumane treatment? Maybe they’ve been conditioned to not see it or find anything wrong with it? But even if someone is blind, does that mean their reflection doesn’t exist in a mirror?
My Algerian friend says that mistreatment against women exists, and in fact her family calls the hijab “cache misère” as it covers up many injustices against women. Her family migrated to USA to end future misery for their daughter. Film studies also believe such injustices against women exist. The lack of women directors – compared to their neighbors Tunisia and Morocco – would certainly point to some problem and lack of freedom for women to make movies on women when Morocco and Tunisian female directors are doing it. Mehdi Charef made the film because he wanted to highlight the injustices against women in Algeria, as few filmmakers were doing it.
The reasons why Algerian women aren’t following up or making films like we see in Tunisian and Morocco need to be opened up. We need to explore the unanswered questions some had at the close of the film with regard to the freedom of women and the freedom to make films on women, to allow them to tell their stories, to bring them to center screen, like Charef did in Daughter of Keltoum, and like other women filmmakers form the Maghreb are doing since the late 1970s, and which Algerian author and filmmaker Assia Djebar was doing from the USA and France, as an academic; it is possible she couldn’t do it in Algeria.
There is a reason why borders remain unbreakable for Algerian women in a country that was ruled for more than 170 years by the french and which left it in political, economic, psychological and gender shambles. When we hear women and men in the audience who represent “all Algerian women” telling us that women are not mistreated, raped, spat upon, repudiated etc. and when others are writing and speaking in other countries about this, including America, we need to ask more questions. Denying eyes and ears that look at border-breaking films which we present in american auditoriums and theaters to start a conversation and awareness on human rights may be a hindrance to that very conversation and awareness, as well as a hindrance to women of Algerian descent to come forward and make [more] films on women.
From Douglas Mcgrath “We have a serious problem” New Yorker 18 January, 2016:
Trump: Excuse me? You’re telling me I gave the Mexicans-are-rapists speech, which was one of the worst pieces of out-and-out racism ever uttered by a non-Southerner and my numbers have gone up?
Jeff [Trump aide]: by a lot
Trump: Let’s review. I said that Megyn Kelly was menstruating. I insulted Carly Fiorina’s face. I did a routine about Ben Carson’s’ belt that should have provoked a psychiatric intervention. I proposed internment camps for Muslims already here, and then I said we should bar all other Muslims from entering the country. And you’re telling me that my numbers are what?
Jeff: the highest ever
Trump: we have a serious problem. I might win.
From Jason Shaltiel “Rudy slams Beyoncé” AM 9 February, 2016:
Former mayor Giuliani blasted Beyoncé’s super bowl performance for its ‘black power’ references. Beyoncé donned black panthers-styled berets and formed an X with her dancers.
Giuliani: I think it was outrageous… I don’t know what the heck it was. A bunch of people bouncing around and all strange things. It was terrible…this is football not Hollywood, and I thought it was really outrageous that she used it as a platform to attack police officers who are people who protect her and protect us, and keep us alive…
Giuliani also cursed Tarantino last month over the director’s stand against brutality, saying he will boycott his movies.
From “Trump, Bush tussling” AM 9 February, 2016:
Donald trump on Jeb Bush: This stiff, Jeb Bush, he’s a total stiff…He’s like a child. A spoiled child.
We call Bush a child for not insulting women. We criticize and berate Beyoncé’s song for its supposed “indirect” political message, but we let Trump rave, rant, alienate, hate, insult, call names, pull out of debates, push women back to 100 years ago. We vote for him.
Presidential run speeches vs song. One directed towards all Americans and everyone else on Trump’s hit list and the other, a song sung by one person for herself, for entertainment, even if it has a message. Hasn’t there been a bloody fatal spate in police shootings of innocents and unarmed black boys & girls and men? If Beyonce likes her negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils, who does that offend? It’s on her own person, not impinging on anyone’s existence or rights; NOT a direct address or harmful to others – women [American or otherwise], good police officers, foreigners, Americans of different faiths- as Trump’s twitterature proves:
Beyonce’s message for trigger happy police is publicly criticized. Her platform, was Superbowl. Trump’ s winning New Hampshire is not seen as problematic. His platform is all of America.
We have a serious problem indeed.
Fashion used to be shot in contrast. The clothes and accessories [bags, shoes, jewelry] were clearly the foreground and in the foreground. Everything else was relegated to the background which itself struck a harmony with what was being highlighted. It was the photographer and the designer who decided what to pay attention to and what should stand out.
But lately, there seems to be a battle of the images, a battle of the foreground over the background in fashion. My eyes have never been so busy. Nor have they had to compete for attention or to figure out what is the thing being advertised.
Allure [November 2015] has images where not only the bold colors compete, but ideas compete, too, and the eyes need to look hard to see the details of the centerfold, because there are so many other details around what’s being highlighted. There’s a kind of chaos and clutter to these images, which make it a bit difficult to settle on the clothes. and hopefully i did see what they wanted me to see. Clothes, right? Or is it bags?
Marie Claire [January 2016] features ads with colors so heavily saturated in the entire image that it is easy to see everything together, or everything else first, then the item being advertised. Then suddenly you realize ‘ah! it’s a shoe or a bag they’re advertising! Not mini figures of characters of games.’
New York Times Style magazine [6 December 2015] had a similar idea where contrasts are all on the heavy side; no longer is there lightness against darkness, and no longer does the jewelry occupy frontal space but here it occupies a small space and everything else, the majority of the space of the whole image:
It is a very different way to shoot, photograph, edit or put images together, especially when your eyes have been trained to see the clothes and accessories being advertised easily. This new way to shoot images for magazines seems to imitate the era in which we live, a fast-paced technological era, where there is so much going on that is vying for our attention that we have to really focus on what we should see. Art imitates life!