Meet the Gritty Gloria Steinems of the Middle East
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because modern feminism is more than #MeToo and the Future Is Female.
Young children smile and laugh as they slide down snowy hills on makeshift sleds made from fuel containers, the gorgeous whitecapped mountains of Afghanistan dotting the distance. But moments later, the tone is darker, as a young girl speaks of a deadly incident where a boy killed his sister in a nearby town. “I don’t want this, cook me something else. Make me eggs,” the boy said, and when his sister refused — saying, “I am not your maid” — he took a gun and shot her.
Such is the graphic beauty and sudden cruelty of the upcoming documentary I Am the Revolution, polar opposites often presented side-by-side by director Benedetta Argentieri. The Italian war-zone journalist shows the varied, female faces of revolution through three central characters in three separate nations — exploring political opposition in Afghanistan, grassroots activism in Iraq and military action in Syria. Their work echoes the legacies of some Western feminists, such as Gloria Steinem, but with a context where the stakes are much higher and the starting point “way backward” compared to the civil rights-era United States, Argentieri says.
This is an up-close look at brave and empowered female leadership, developed from weeks of time spent with each one.
Sifting between atmospheric shots and gritty action, this well-shot film challenges stereotypes of Middle East women being either “veiled victims” or “sexy guerilla fighters,” as Argentieri puts it. “What I really wanted to say is that there is no one formula.” Unlike other documentaries from the region, which either showcase mostly male military leaders or spotlight the plight of subjugated women, this is an up-close look at brave and empowered female leadership, developed from weeks of time spent with each one.
Consider the story of the first protagonist, Selay Ghaffar, a spokesperson for the Solidarity Party of Afghanistan — and the world’s most wanted woman by the Taliban. As she travels from city to city, she meets with women and male allies in secret, always surrounded by a large security detail. “You will take all these goals to your grave, I hope in the near future,” a male co-panelist says to her while speaking on a televised panel.
The risks are real, as Yanar Mohammed, a prominent women’s rights activist in Iraq, hints at when she says Arab women need “a feminist Spartacus” to “tell them that this is not how a human being should be living.” Mohammed had resettled in Canada in the ’90s but, in the early aughts, a fellow activist told her women were being kidnapped in Baghdad, and she returned –- leaving behind her stable life to go to a region where one signature scare tactic includes chopping the palms off of female victims and pinning them to the doors of their family members. Her plan was to create a house where girls and women could regain their dignity and “avoid the knife on the neck, or being turned into a tramp on the streets,” as she puts it in the film.
Even amidst conflict, there are moments of levity. After Mohammed organizes a women’s rights “March of Freedom” — it’s shut down after 22 minutes over security concerns — activists sing a song called Sugar, Sugar while riding away on a bus. Perhaps the most fascinating figure of the film is Rojda Felat, a top commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces who has led nearly 60,000 soldiers — both men and women. In a lighter moment, Felat yanks a few young soldiers away from a fence, complaining that while they pursue the perfect selfie they might step on a land mine. “Then your photo will go to the sky,” she says sternly, although the shake-your-head humor of it is latent.
The film could have spent more time exploring the problems of colonially minded military engagement, a skepticism of American involvement felt by each of the three women, Argentieri says. Even Felat, who worked with U.S. troops to retake Raqqa, the de facto capital of ISIS, was critical. Argentieri got the sense that Felat believed “right now, they have a common enemy, so they are friends,” but wasn’t sure about the future — that newsworthy tidbit didn’t make the final cut, although to be fair, it may have been a difficult sentiment for Felat to voice on camera. “The situation is so volatile, she didn’t want to expose herself too much,” Argentieri says.
In another director’s hands, the subject matter may have quickly descended into feel-good programming against a #MeToo backdrop. But the documentary reveals itself to be something much deeper: a reflection on what it means when a woman acting in resistance is tantamount to painting herself as a target.
While I Am the Revolution never shies from the risks and tragedy facing its rebel women, it also provides moments of hope. In telling its story, the documentary succeeds as both an encouraging reminder to celebrate small victories toward progress and as a must-watch feminesto for the marginalized and reform-minded.
How to watch: The documentary premiered in New York City in mid-November and is currently showing in the festival circuit and public screenings. The film will be available shortly for educational showings; Universities and other cultural institutions can purchase via educational distributor Women Make Movies. Inquiries about screening the film can be made via Women Make Movies: email@example.com. For commercial releases and the most up-to-date viewing information, follow @womenmakemovies or the film’s Facebook page. (OZY received an advanced screening).