Category Archives: Feminist Debates

Jasad & The Queen of Contradictions

Filmmaker: Amanda Homsi-Ottosson
Year: 2011
Country of Origin: UK, Lebanon
Format: Color, DVD
Running Time: 40 minutes
Languages: English, Arabic (subtitled)

This documentary from Lebanese director Amanda Homsi-Ottosson explores the controversy surrounding Jumanah Sallum Haddad’s magazine Jasad. Published quarterly, Jasad is an erotic cultural magazine that aims to educate and provide and outlet for Arab sexuality.  Haddad, a writer herself, decided to create an outlet for other Arab men and women to read, write, and discuss arts and literature surrounding ideas of the body.

Contradiction mostly focuses on the debate that has sprung up around Jasad, both between those who view the magazine as beneficial and those who find it to be inappropriate and shameful and between those who believe that it is not serving women in the way it should be. The documentary focuses mainly on interviews with Haddad herself, those who read (or wish to ban) her magazine, and various professionals whose lives are touched by the issues in covered in Jasad, such as a sexual health counselor.

Contradictions paints an interesting portrait of Haddad and her magazine.  The documentary begins with Haddad explaining why she was motivated to create Jasad and continues with street interviews about perceptions of the magazine. Reactions are predictably polarized, ranging from religious denunciations of the magazine to endorsements of the work by young men and women hoping to spread awareness and acceptance of sexuality.

The most interesting part of Contradiction comes when various Jasad readers explain the importance of having such a publication in the Arab world.  It is explained that it is common for Arab men and women to use French or English words for genitalia and sex acts, because the most common equivalent words in Arabic are either offensive or nonexistent. Jasad is portrayed as bringing back ownership of not only the body but the language surrounding the body to Arabic speakers.  The narrative of Jasad can be written as one of decolonization and reclamation.

Contradictions, although unconditionally supportive of Haddad and Jasad, does allow alternative opinions to be expressed through interviews. One in particular offered a valid and interesting critique of the magazine. Two Muslim feminists – one veiled and one not – argue that Jasad is pushing a certain kind of liberation on society. The women explain that there should be no shame in wearing a veil, and that they are “not represented in this ‘revolutionary magazine'”.

Related readings:
I Killed Scheherazade: Confessions of an Angry Arab Woman, by Jumanah Sallum Haddad, creator of Jasad

The Sermons of Sister Jane: Believing the Unbelievable (2007)

Filmmakers: Allie Light, Irving Saraf, and Carol Monpere
Year: 2007
Country of Origin: United States
Running Time: 53 min
View in Tripod
Visit the Official Site

Sister Jane receiving the Eucharist

Sister Jane receiving the Eucharist
© Women Make Movies 2007

The Sermons of Sister Jane: Believing the Unbelievable presents the story of one nun’s struggle against the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Her activism begins with her attempts to stop sexual abuse and corruption within her local diocese. The film chronicles her quest in battling the abuses rampant in her church, as she first contacts the bishop, who ignores the evidence she presents, and later a representative of the Vatican, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI). When her attempts to deal with Church officials fail, she contacts the press, stirring controversy. Her struggle with the Church hierarchy is not limited to the lack of recognition of the sexual abuse occurring in her parish, but it also includes disagreement with the Church’s teachings on issues such as birth control, homosexuality, the ordination of women, and even the Virgin Birth.

Through its presentation of the story of a single woman, The Sermons of Sister Jane demonstrates the conflicts of faith the wider Catholic Church is experiencing. The documentary juxtaposes images of lay Catholics practicing their faith with interviews with Sister Jane, connecting her discontent with the Catholic leadership and the unmet needs of the people of the Church. With a membership that is more supportive of same-sex marriage than the general population and whose women overwhelmingly utilize contraception, the Church suffers from a large disconnect between the beliefs and practices of the laity of the Church and the official teachings of the Church. Sister Jane is part of a larger movement of Catholics hoping to move away from condemning sexuality and to shift focus to helping the most marginalized populations in society. The Sermons of Sister Jane shows her courage to speak against the Church hierarchy and support social justice through her work with the community dining room at Plowshares, presenting a narrative of Catholic faith that is a much-needed break from the usual coverage of conservative Catholic leaders spouting words of condemnation.

Sister Jane states that “Jesus walked among the poor, the outcasts, the lepers, not the high priests,” spurring her audience to reject the Church hierarchy and instead pay attention to those in need. The format of structuring the documentary around interviews with Sister Jane gives her authority and shifts from the patriarchal Church’s exclusion of women to an alternative model in which women are leading and given a voice. The Sermons of Sister Jane is a powerful documentary exploring the potential for progressive activism in faith communities, women in the Catholic Church, feminist theology, and gender studies in religion.

Ashley Vogel 2013.

Further Reading:

[1] Feminism and Theology, Ed. Janet Soskice & Diana Lipton, 2003

[2] “Pope Francis and the American Sisters,” Mary E. Hunt, Religion Dispatches

[3] “What Should The Vatican Say to the (Last Generation of) Nuns?” Peter Manseau, Religion Dispatches

[4] Catholic and Feminist: The Surprising History of the American Catholic Feminist Movement, Mary J. Henold, 2008

The Business of Being Born (Abby Epstein, 2008)

Country of Origin:
Running Time: 87 min
Producer Riki Lake and Filmmaker Abby Epstein

Producer Riki Lake and Filmmaker Abby Epstein

Format: Color, DVD

The Business of Being Born acts as a long-form argument for the expanding and liberalizing of the American birthing experience. The film follows Maya, one midwife, through a series of home births and private interviews. Meanwhile, we learn from spliced-in interviews with dozens of talking heads about the logistics of hospital births, startling statistics surrounding the probability of c-section, and the harrowing history of the birth experience in America. From the opening, Epstein makes it clear to us that we should question the hospital sterility of certain experts and return to a trust and knowledge of the woman’s body and intuition in birth. In this way, the film is somewhat necessarily gender essentializing, arguing for a natural, wise, and exceptionally gendered experience.

Epstein sets up a constant juxtapositional tug: the audience is swept back and forth from sterile, brightly lit, clearly suspect hospital interviews to graphic but ultimately victorious scenes of women’s home birth experiences. The sheer number of home births prominently featured in the film is impressive, most often including multiple cuts of interviews with the featured mother-to-be. More memorable than the home birth scenes, however, are the shots of hospital births presented. As various radical birth activists within the medical community narrate the seemingly impossible degree to which the typical hospital birth is unnatural, emotionally and literally scarring scenes of women in violent labor or graphic depictions of c-section procedures flash across the screen. Contrasting these scenes with Maya’s incredibly soothing, calm, and wise demeanor, it is clear whose side the audience is supposed to take.

Most interestingly, both Epstein and her producer, actress and talk show host Riki Lake, unexpectedly become pregnant over the course of shooting. The film features both women on screen prominently and often, tracing their own friendship and their prenatal planning. Garnering a lot of press was the scene in which Riki Lake appears totally nude in her own home giving birth, without makeup and shot on a home camcorder. The surprising normalcy of the scene, especially given the number of naked, graphic home-births featured earlier seems much more the point than does the shock value of a naked Riki Lake in labor. Epstein, too, decides on a home birth, but a rather surprising take-away message arises from her birthing experience. Her baby is in danger and premature, causing her, Lake(also present) and Maya to make the swift decision to transfer to the hospital where she delivers via emergency c-section, a procedure repeatedly demonized up until this point. We learn that Epstein’s baby was struggling with prenatal complications and that the c-section likely saved the baby. Only at this moment is the audience sure that the film acts not as a lengthy commercial for midwifery but as an engagement in a fraught argument, as Epstein struggles to reconcile her semi-traumatic birthing experience with the ultimately ideal outcome.

Watch the film on Netflix.

Further Reading:

Film Website:

Davis-Floyd, Robbie E.. Birth as an Americal Right of Passage. Berkely: University of California Press, 1992. Print.

Fox, Bonnie, and Diana Worts. “Revisiting the Critique of Medicalized Childbirth: A Contribution to the Sociology of Birth.” Gender and Society 13.3 (1999): 326-346. Print.

Holden, Stephen . “American Motherhood and the Question of Home Birth.” The New York Times 8 Jan. 2009, sec. Movies: The New York Times Online. Web. 24 Apr. 2011.

“International: Is there no place like home?; Home births. ” The Economist 2 Apr. 2011: Research Library, ProQuest. Web.  26 Apr. 2011.

King,  Kathleen J.. “Interview with Abby Epstein, Director of The Business of Being Born – Page 2 – DivineCaroline .” DivineCaroline: Relationships, Health, Home, Style, Parenting, and Community for Women – DivineCaroline . N.p., 1 July 2007. Web. 24 Apr. 2011.

Macdonald, Margaret. “Gender Expectations: Natural Bodies and Natural Births in the New Midwifery in Canada.” Medical Anthology Quarterly 20.2 (2006): 235-256. Print.

Martin, Karin A.. “Giving Birth like a Girl.” Gender and Society 17.1 (2003): 54-72. JStor. Web. 24 Apr. 2011.

Chloe Browne 2011