Tag Archives: transnational feminism

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

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (2012)

Country of Origin:
Format: ,
Running Time: 232 min

America Ferrera speaking with Urmi Batsu in ‘Half the Sky’ (via avclub.com)

Half the Sky is a documentary about women’s rights that focuses on women in “developing countries” (countries of the Global South). The film is inspired by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s nonfiction eponymous book. The film itself examines complex moral and cultural issues that are addressed by women from within the community who have experience with those issues. Half the Sky aired as two two-hour segments on PBS in the United States. While it mainly focuses on and features the women who are making change for other women within their own countries, the documentary also features Nicholas Kristof and several actresses (Diane Lane, America Ferrera, Olivia Wilde, Gabrielle Union, Eva Mendes, and Meg Ryan), as well as an appearance by George Clooney and many women’s rights advocates and activists. Some issues of violence against women examined in this documentary include rape in Sierra Leone, sex trafficking in Cambodia, maternal mortality and female genital cutting in Somaliland, and intergenerational prostitution in India.

While this documentary does quite a few things right, there are many issues with its presentation and execution. I will discuss these problems – with Kristof’s reporting, the representation of “global” or “worldwide” women, the inclusion of American celebrities, and the lack of male representation – before I talk about the positive aspects of Half the Sky.

In Half the Sky, Nicholas Kristof portrays himself as something of an Activist-Reporter. He creates a clear “us and them” dichotomy between (generally) white American women and the “worldwide” women of the Global South. Kristof’s continual discussion of “their culture” (my emphasis) demonstrates this dichotomy, especially when he claims that “[female genital cutting] may be [their] culture, but it’s also a pretty lousy aspect of culture.” Furthermore, Kristof unabashedly asks these women (and young girls) of the countries he is touring about the state of their genitals and their experiences as victims of rape; it is doubtful that he would ask these questions so publicly of white American women.

The inclusion of celebrities in this film is problematic. Kristof seems to think that these celebrities create a “bridge” for the presumed-typical white American viewer. While there may be something to be said for generating interest or support for an issue that obviously needs attention, taking female celebrities on what is essentially a poverty tour does not benefit the story Kristof should be telling. Perhaps these celebrities could have lent their star status in a different way (support through advertising, perhaps). Rather than contribute to the telling of individual cultural stories, the American celebrities highlight the dichotomy Kristof has created: sure, it may be aesthetically pleasing to watch Olivia Wilde dance with traditionally dressed Kenyan village women singing “the vagina song,” but there is no reason for that image to be an important moment in Half the Sky.

The portrayal of women of the Global South as “worldwide” women is another problematic topic within Half the Sky. These women are consistently portrayed as unloved, disrespected, and ignored by men. This portrayal only serves to further the “us/them” dichotomy. Additionally, men are not represented at all in Half the Sky. They are simply mentioned as careless, useless, brutal members of society who treat women with cruelty.

Finally, I want to point out some of the positive aspects of Half the Sky. Depicting women native to the countries being explored, women who have experienced the problems/horrors/issues that they are now fighting against, women who are part of the culture they are trying to bring change to? That is an extremely positive representation of women and of a solution for violence against them because that violence is being addressed by women who get it. They understand the culture, the atmosphere, the reasoning behind the actions. Seeing local women activists brings attention to the organizations that are truly fighting the problems in their native countries. While the “us/them” dichotomy in Half the Sky discourages the kind of global female empowerment and relationships that the film seems to attempting to encourage, the overall message is still a true one. Educating and empowering women improves the health of families, the strength of communities, and the growth (particularly economic) of nations.

Relevant, Interesting, and Informative Articles:
[1] “How Nicholas Kristof and Half the Sky Use Women Against Each Other” by Sayantani DasGupta on Racialicious
[2] “On the Ground: Westerners On White Horses…” by Nicholas D. Kristof on The New York Times Opinion Pages: Kristof’s Blog
[3] Half the Sky Documentary Reviewed by Azra on Patheos
[4] Information on the North-South Divide (Wikipedia)
[5] Half the Sky Information (PBS)
[6] Half the Sky Movement: Half the Sky Information

Julia Aversa

Performing the Border

Running Time: 42 min

color, video
Distributor: Women Make Movies


Performing the Border explores a world along the Mexico/US border by presenting an inside look at pervasive maquiladoras, US-implemented factories, in Juarez, Mexico, “the city that produces.” One activist in the documentary describes the border as the result of an unequal power relationship between two nations. Ursula Biemann gives a public voice to the women who live and work in the area through interviews with factory workers, prostitutes, activists, and journalists. She uses experimental documentary methods that include sound image disjunction, scripted voiceover, found footage, scrolling text, and split screens.

The film brings a personal view to industrial work that and forces awareness to the labor that goes into ordinary products, bought in the US, like lingerie and microchips. Biemann’s focus, however, remains on a deeper issue instigated by the use of women along the border. She points out that the gendered use of women as merely part of the machinery forces the fragmentation of the female body into a simple unit of production. This dissociates the women from their bodies, resulting in a gendered dehumanization and transforms a person into a “marketable good.” The younger women are most degraded by the maquiladoras, poverty, and devaluation of female voice. Ultimately, Biemann documents, dehumanizing the women results in their victimization in violent serial murders. The women in the documentary are clearly the backbones of their society, as the hope, sustainers of commerce and mothers of the future generation. In Performing the Border, Biemann encourages them to speak their truths and through their eloquence, reveals the gender disparities corrupt industrialization creates.

Other works by Ursula Biemann:
Remote Sensing (2006)
Writing Desire (2001)

Ch. 7: Videographies of Navigating Geobodies, Transnational feminism in film and media
by Katarzyna Marciniak, Anikó Imre, and Áine O’Healy

Journey Shared: Ursula Biemann’s Been There and Back Back to Nowhere in Transnational Spaces
by Berelowitz, Jo-Anne




Written by Madrianne Wong
November, 2008