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New Arab Women-centered Films Are Not Just About Women

November 08, 2018

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

            Too often, we are overwhelmed with woeful tales, painful memoirs and worn analyses of Arab/Muslim women. Most depictions, whether we’re besieged in a war, or if we’re just trying to get by making small advances like women anywhere, we are invariably portrayed as hapless victims. We’re in need of succor, or reform, or rescue.

            Writings by our own talented authors are popular if they reveal  exploitations or despairs or escapes. These feed enlightened sisters abroad who may feel better about themselves when they can pity others.

            So I approach announcements of new releases—both these are from North Africa-- with some apprehension. After screening the productions under review here, my fear dissolves.  

            Tunisia (through the films of Moufida Tlatli ) and Egypt are highly regarded in the film world. Particularly Egypt with its glorious history of filmmaking and its distinguished line of actors proves its mettle in “Youm el-Setat” (A Day for Woman). This playful drama about serious issues becomes heartwarming and totally engaging in the hands of director Kamla Abu Zek.

            Three love stories and women’s eternal search for fulfillness is the focus of “Youm el-Setat”. The plot evolves around a neighborhood pool where a day a week is allocated for girls and ladies. Azza who initially appears simpleminded takes the first plunge. Eventually the whole neighborhood follows her and together they assert their solidarity and their rights. Scenes of their celebratory escapades are delightful; pool frolicking along with street encounters immerses us in that Cairo neighborhood. The story rises above place and religion, beyond covered or uncovered heads. Emerging romances threaded within this drama could happen anywhere.

            Young Azza, it turns out, is not so simpleminded. She’s just naturally liberated! She’s attracts others with her naive joyfulness. Samiya too is a free-thinking woman from the moment we meet her although neighbors initially view her as a sassy whore. Her humor and honesty explode into courage and passion when, finally, she approaches Ahmed, a longtime sweetheart—both are by then middle-aged—to consummate their love. Laila, a forlorn young widow, belatedly joins others in the pool and awakens. Finally she can respond to the tenderness of the likable guy who as pool manager had launched this day for women. (A day for women becomes the ‘time for women’.)

             It’s a film to swim along with.

            “El Jaida” (The Jailer) by Tunisian director and actor Selma Baccar takes an altogether different approach to oppression and women’s determination to be free of patriarchal domination. In contrast with the Egyptian film, “El Jaida” is humorless. The lives of these Tunisian women seem irredeemable. Although defiant, they are an unhappy lot. The injustices they face are manifest in the family, but the story points elsewhere. Drawing on Tunisian historical experience, the film underscores how gender relations and politics intersect.

            The story largely takes place in the 1950s when across the region the anti-colonial movement erupts. The story begins with a well-to-do housewife confronting her husband’s infidelity, then finds herself confined with others in jail. Initially adversaries, after learning each other’s stories, the women come together. While outside the prison’s walls, the nationalist movement to end French rule is gaining strength. The story abruptly shifts 50 years ahead to 2017. The occupiers are gone; so is the dictator. Baja, the film’s main character, has become a member of Tunisia’s new parliament where we find her reading the newly promulgated code establishing women’s equal rights in Tunisian law.

            Both films premier in coming weeks at the New York Diaspora International Film Festival For more than 25 years, ADIFF has been introducing to American audiences a taste of the extraordinary filmmaking talent at work beyond American shores.

[ New Arab Women-centered Films Are Not Just About Women ]

Will Democrats’ “Getting Out the Vote” Work?

October 28, 2018

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

          There’s a big push underway- it appears to be primarily a Democrat plan-- for GOTV. GOTV is not a videogame; it’s the acronym of Get-Out-The-Vote. Behind this drive is the conviction: ‘If registered Democrats will simply get off their butts, drag themselves to the polls and check boxes for everyone running in their party’s column, this will restore democracy to America’; at the very least it may halt the Trump bulldozer from grinding it deeper into the dust.

            Those embracing GOTV’s strategy and volunteering to work for a campaign are equipped with an array of 2018 genre phone apps. With these gripped firmly in our hands, we can identify, locate, and meet would-be voters, then with one click instantly convey results to a tally center. One of these apps allows phone canvassers to override unanswered calls and jump in when the algorithm stops at a real voice-- someone has picked up! Seeing their name on our screen, we start our pitch.

            Even with this discriminating process, before we’ve finished identifying ourselves, respondents often ring off. But look! My computer indicates one real person seems willing to speak to me! She’s Lorraine, age 55, registered ‘D’. She stays with me for seven whole minutes. This, even though she initially appears diffident, declaring “I don't intend to vote. Have you seen what’s going on there?” she exclaims.

            Is she speaking about the murdered Saudi journalist, the thousands of Honduran hopefuls trudging northwards through Mexico, or NBC network’s threat to dump host Megan Kelly? I’m unsure what to reply and, sensing my hesitation, Lorraine elaborates: “The bombs; explosives in the city! Evacuations of CNN! Are you not watching the news?”

            Mention of these bomb threats seems to remind her that “there’s a Muslim terrorist camp only half an hour from here”. I ask for details and share my recall of a similar report in my district last year, rumors that proved unfounded. Then Lorraine admits she’s unsure about her claim. “It was a while ago; but some car full of ‘people’ was pulled over and there was a big drug bust”.

            I steer the conversation back to GOTV, to the promising Democratic candidate for our district in the state senate race. Although the name is unfamiliar to Lorraine she finally appears interested: “What’s her position on abortion?” When I reply and elaborate on the candidate’s support for the New York Health Act and school finance reform, my potential voter turns less disputatious.           

            Has she met the candidate? Did she see last night’s debate? No reply. Now Lorraine moves the discussion to the governor’s debate, barking about De Blasio (mayor of New York, not currently up for reelection), rather than incumbent governor Andrew Cuomo. Although she names his opponent (Molinaro). I can hardly keep up with her. This woman is not stupid, and, allowing for some factual confusion, Lorraine is better informed than many.

            And she cares; I can tell.

            Lorraine’s not alone in her confusion. Now she starts blaming Obama for the immigrant influx. The Obama administration raised her property taxes, she charges. “$5000 a year now.”

            My I’m-not-voting respondent is angry at the Democratic Party. Even though, like many Americans who feel similarly, she’s a registered Democrat. “There’s no leadership.” By now Lorraine is subtly pleading with me. (Tell me something to believe in, I hear in her voice.)

            She has run out of people to attack. At some point Lorraine actually praises the current White House occupant for what she sees as forthrightness. Although she doesn’t name any specific statement of his, she feels he’s clear-minded.

            What can we learn from this?

            For how long should I engage?

            To end the conversation, I share with Lorraine my own apprehension about the Party; I cite reports of corruption and the irresoluteness I see at the local county level and with the National Democratic Committee. Then I rally; I tell her why I personally am making these calls to support this state senate candidate. I finish upbeat-- “Well it seems you really care Lorraine; I do hope you’ll vote on November 6th. Will you?” Lorraine mutters “Yes, I‘ll vote.”

            How should I register this on my app’s 1 to 5 scale?

[ Will Democrats’ “Getting Out the Vote” Work? ]

What Is It About Bears?

October 22, 2018

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

My editor at Natural History Magazine once remarked how, whenever their cover features a bear, sales rise. A koala bear, a young panda, a sunbathing polar bear or a menacing American grizzly; it doesn’t matter. People like bears.

            Occasional attacks on humans and the aversion of many people to any form of wildlife hunting notwithstanding, bears are irresistible. However vulnerable we may be, humans can’t shake our unparalleled attraction to these bulky, really quite graceless creatures.

            We are smitten not only by pictures of bears; we’re enthralled by the sight of live bears. Whether on two legs grabbing berries or bounding across meadows on all fours, bears in the wild are especially mesmerizing; more than deer who, although not necessarily faster than bears, quickly disappear into the foliage. Our ursine creatures seem to prefer open spaces, even during daylight hours. A spectacle for any passerby.

            I’m talking personally only about black bears here; they’re the ones I encounter in my neighborhood.       

            This year we’ve seen more than usual wandering close to our homes. And we don’t live in Montana or Alaska where grizzlies roam. I’m in upstate New York, hardly two hours drive from New York City with its all-night sidewalk cafes and 24-hour home deliveries!

            My Catskill neighborhood proudly identifies itself as trout country. But our bears are not here to catch fish. Fields and forests are their habitant. Our bears are all black, usually not more than 300 pounds (they can go up to 500). And frankly, they’re common. They are often sauntering from yard to yard in search of food; or they’re simply curious, appearing to be in no hurry at all. The wildlife service says our region has abundant natural food sources for bears. But I suspect that the growing number of apiaries cultivated by retirees who moved here from the city draw bears into our villages. Last spring one was shot by a neighbor while it ravaged his dozen beehives.   

            Do you know bears have their very own adjective? Ursine. Cool. And their own candies:--gummy bears. Rather pricey varieties too. Commercial spin-offs exploiting our affection for bears are legendary. And they’ll continue. Nearby in Pennsylvania, for example, bears are a lure for the Milford annual film festival. (No bear films there; only the wooden sculpture outside the theater is as close as a bear gets to that event.) 

            Bear hunting is reportedly important to our economy. It’s part of the state’s tourism pitch, promoted by the Department of Environmental Conservation. The 2018 hunting season is still underway; in 2017 though, 1,420 New York black bears were killed, with the heaviest harvest in counties around me: 151 in Delaware; 147 in Sullivan; and (closer to NYC) 167 in Ulster County. This, out of an estimated state population of 6,000-8,000. Nationwide, black bears number around 900,000, a population that is increasing annually.

            Anecdotally, from sightings around my own neighborhood, black bears seem plentiful. In August a mid-size ursine creature with a long neck trotted casually along the riverfront of four coterminous family lawns; two days later a mother and three cubs had to be chased off a nearby porch. On a morning walk last month I initially took the black, furry creature sauntering down the middle of the road ahead of me to be a lost dog. It seemed unconcerned about whom it might encounter. “His mother mustn’t be far away; keep your distance”, I cautioned myself. Earlier in the season a big adult followed by a smaller bear scampered across the road in front of me towards an open meadow. My most memorable sighting occurred at midday when I was on the highway en route home from the city; I slowed to watch a huge black animal followed by two smaller ones galloping towards me. They crossed two highway lanes, the grass strip between, then two more lanes onto the verge above me. It must have been autumn because their black coats glistened in the sun, and under their fur, their fat-laden shoulders and haunches shook as they leapt along.

            There must be many bears roaming around at nighttime here; I often see fresh bear scat in the grass, easy to distinguish from what deer leave. “A bear’s presence is easy to determine”, a longtime resident instructed; “its droppings emit an overpowering stink”.  

            I am reminded how fondly we regard our bears when I and friends pause in our local library to admire a photo just posted. It’s a family of four bears—local inhabitants. A surge of envy overtook us when the owner of the pictures identified the three cubs as same ones she photographed last May when they were hardly the size of puppies.

[ What Is It About Bears? ]

For Those of Us Who Believe

October 01, 2018

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

For those of us who watched with innocence, then passion, then consternation, the results of the 1991 senate hearing for supreme court nominee Clarence Thomas; for those who championed film stars, then ordinary women daring, finally, to call out Harvey Weinstein and a stream of male predators; for those who watched with confidence the rise of #MeToo; for those of us who wrote poems and songs and opinions hailing a real cultural shift in female-male dynamics; for those of us still unable to admit being sexually abused; for those of us who finally confessed some discomforts to our lovers; for those of us who overcame difficulties to tell our sons and our daughters about those endemic secrets; for those of us who believe openness and dialogue are healthy and transformative--: we now fear we were misguided.

            The misogynist and white culture of privilege in the U.S.A. was again evident during the recent senate hearing to evaluate Brett Kavanaugh for the U.S. Supreme Court.

            The end of Friday’s judiciary committee hearing suggests accommodation was reached by member senators. But to do what? Demonstrate a real solution was found to test the veracity of the parties involved and affirm that senate confirmation is a noble process? The delay (to call in the FBI) may allow more time for Americans to debate and for our infotainment industry to distract us from the urgent, decisive elections just weeks away. (This while a narrowly circumscribed FBI investigation is conducted in secret.)

            Committee senators have cast their vote; the number in Kavanaugh’s (and Trump’s) favor suggests the nominee’s success. Whether confirmation would drive outraged citizens (Democrats and others) on Election Day to determinedly ouster stalwart Republican office-holders remains to be seen. If Kavanaugh is rejected, there will be a lot of satisfied women and men on one side, but maybe many more recalcitrants on the other. Again, how this will manifest on November 6th is uncertain.

            Simply from the way these hearings evolved –a spectacle L.A. Times' Lorraine Ali descrives as unmatched raw politicizing -- I wonder if the process we have witnessed actually reinforces how deeply misogynist and white male-privileged American culture is. From the arrival of nominee-Dad with teenage daughter, his awesome welcome into the hearing, adorned by senate sycophants, proceeding through rumors, press reports, to a face-off-- testimonies by the ‘injured woman’ and the defending nominee—wrapped up with theatrical declarations by the candidate’s partisans and a phony compromise to bring the curtain down on Friday’s performance, America remains far, far from gender equity and open democratic processes. END

 

[ For Those of Us Who Believe ]

How Many More Women Are There?

September 24, 2018

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

How many more women await our discovery?

            My question is not related to ongoing exposés of sexual abuse suffered by women under a culture of male privilege and dominance-- the culture known by the new trope #MeToo. What concerns me here is a seemingly unrelated silence and need for exposure, namely accomplishments of women scientists. This too is being newly addressed, although desultorily.

            Like millions of others I was alerted to the history of women in science after viewing Hidden Figures http://www.historyvshollywood.com/reelfaces/hidden-figures/. This celebrated film features three African American women working in the 1950s U.S. space program. It’s based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, herself African American whose parents and neighbors were themselves professionals working in the time and place of that story. So compelling were Shetterly’s revelations, it took just two years from the book’s release to the film’s completion. While this film is making a profound social impact, to grasp the full context of the involvement of African American scientists and women in general in the U.S. government’s pioneering space projects, read Shetterly’s full account. Book or film, Hidden Figures will propel more African Americans into the sciences while it impresses on all women the need to move from the margins into the center of public life.     

            Another “hidden figure” is revealed with the recent award of the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics to British physicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell. Had the monetary award not been $3. million, her story likely wouldn’t be featured in a major U.S. newspaper. Nevertheless the article is an opportunity to learn, once again, how a brilliant student of physics, somehow, despite adversarial male and institutional attitudes, managed what many of us cannot: she remained at work, applied her genius and pursued her irrepressible love of science. Burnell persisted despite her Cambridge supervisor, not Burnell, winning a Nobel Prize for his research on pulsars, a discovery she had made. (http://www.msn.com/en-us/news/technology/she-made-the-discovery-but-a-man-got-the-nobel-a-half-century-later-she%e2%80%99s-won-a-dollar3-million-prize/ar-BBMZ9PT?li=BBnb7Kz&ocid=LENDHP That interview with provides the all too common narrative of how modesty allowed Burnell to demure to her male colleagues, and be upstaged by her professor. In this account we hear more about her modesty than her professional history and ongoing work at Oxford.

            This review regrettably includes a flawed note on other “hidden figures”. It mentions the white scientist Rosalind Franklin and the award-winning recent film but fails to name mathematicians Dorothy Vaughan and Katherine Johnson and engineer Mary Jackson featured there. When will we learn to know, repeat and apply these women’s names? Dorothy Vaughan; Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson; Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson; Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson. And add Margot Lee Shetterly http://margotleeshetterly.com/ to that deserving list.

            Not long after perusing Shetterly’s highly readable and conscientiously researched book http://margotleeshetterly.com/hidden-figures-nasas-african-american-computers/ , browsing in my local library, I (by chance?) came across The Other Einstein https://www.bookreporter.com/reviews/the-other-einstein . It’s an historical novel based on credible rumors regarding Mileva Marić-Einstein https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mileva_Mari%C4%87, a mathematician herself and first wife of the famous physicist. In The Other Einstein, published in 2016, author Marie Benedict explores rumors of a woman whom history not only marginalized; it denies her any credit as a working scientist.

            A promising student of physics in Zurich, Marić was a close companion of Albert Einstein in university, a member of his circle of aspiring scientists, and mother of his children. Benedict presents a story of Marić that’s debated by others; that is: she was Albert’s indispensable intellectual collaborator —a tantalizing issue that physicist and writer Dennis Overbye mentions but leaves undeveloped in his 2000 biography Einstein in Love  https://www.theguardian.com/books/2001/may/13/biography.scienceandnature  --in Einstein’s work and deserving of equal credit for his (sic) discovery of relativity. (Did he assign his Nobel prize money to her as compensation for denying her scholarly accreditation?) Benedict explores that possibility, offering a convincing portrayal of how Einstein may have exploited Marić’s brilliance and her trust in him, removing her name from publications of their shared scientific discoveries. (A very serious charge which must be thoroughly explored.)

            Albert Einstein is so lionized a figure that it will take much more research to clarify Marić’s real role in the history of physics, but the work of Overbye and Benedict is a start, just as Shetterly’s work is an essential opening act on women in U.S. pioneering research http://margotleeshetterly.com/the-human-computer-project-1/.

            Women everywhere struggle mightily on. In small steps we cut away the deep roots of misogyny in every culture. While progress is slow at the legal level, headway is being made by the slogging research work by our writers. Doubtless many more histories await our attention and when we uncover them we will find our predecessors broke barriers long before this modern era. Knowing women’s early scientific work, even absent of fanfare or awards, is still empowering to our and future generations.  END

[ How Many More Women Are There? ]
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