Here’s WHY

February 2, 2020

The films screened at the LEARN-WHY Film Festival highlighted issues related to women, particularly those that either go unnoticed or don’t make it to mainstream discourse

Ambreen Fatima takes questions from the audience. — Photos by the author

The Lahore Education and Research Network (LEARN) in collaboration with Denmark’s WHY Films, recently organised a short film festival at Olo Junction, where an audience of lawyers, rights’ activists, educationists, entrepreneurs et al discussed issues related to women in particular and the society in general.

The rationale of making and screening films is to increase the outreach of a constructive message regarding global issues that affect the human population at large. The Denmark-based WHY Films is a not-for-profit initiative that distributes documentary films in order to give people an easy access to information, including statistical data related to women. The films screened at the LEARN-WHY Film Festival in Lahore specifically showcased matters involving women, that either go unnoticed or hardly make it to the mainstream discourse — for instance, early and forced marriages, lack of toilets for women, privilege of attending school, and provision of equal opportunities within the realms of domesticity, education and employment.

The first film shown on the occasion, producer Mette Bjerregaard’s One Bride, Seven Cows or a Box of Heroin, profiles four minor girls who were sold off in the name of marriage, in exchange for a variety of things ranging from cows, alcohol, boxes of heroin, to $ 2,500. While the narration in this film as well as the rest of the short films is done in the soulful voice of Oscar-winning English actress Helen Mirren, the script is overwhelming as it relies on telling the stories of the girls. One of them, the 14 years old Emelda, is from Sudan. She is sold for seven cows. The other, May, 12, from Vietnam, is abducted and no one bothers to pay ransom for her release, as a result of which the kidnappers ‘buy’ her off May’s brother for alcohol.

The stories from Afghanistan continue with a similar fate for girls between ages 6 and 16, with different but equally ridiculous price tags. One common element between these girls is that they all hail from poverty- and war-stricken regions where education for women is considered a burden as compared to the price on their chastity and youthfulness. Mirren’s voice reverberates, when she suggests the price of an engagement ring in the US ($ 4,000), and asks, “How much are you worth?” It brings to mind the demands of dowry in our local milieu, where the worth of household objects, costing millions of rupees, is added to the worth of a woman before she is considered acceptable.

Speaking to the audience on the occasion, Zeeba Hashmi, an educational researcher, pointed out that lack of academic pursuits, including basic schooling, creates the narrative of girls being a burden on the household, which results in early or forced marriages. Pakistan is the second country in the world where only a small number of girls enrols for secondary education.

Elaine Alam, from FACES-Pakistan, also stressed the trickle effect of forced conversions prior to marriages within the marginalised segments of the society that are last in line to receive attention.

“The objective of films is to ensure the message reaches a wide audience. In a world where around 1 billion people lack access to information due to illiteracy, the medium of films can transcend boundaries and enable people to get information.”

In this spirit, the second documentary of the evening, One Extra Year, by Gary George Clotario from Philippines, narrates the essentiality and usefulness of one extra year at school for girls, at any scholastic stage, which can help them as children to understand how forced marriage is not acceptable, or have the courage and sensibility to refuse to become victims of domestic abuse at a youthful age. “Worldwide, 62 million girls do not attend school,” speaks Helen Mirren through the amplifiers, and the audience is gripped by the statistic, only to learn from Ambreen Fatima, a researcher, that one out of four girls in Pakistan is married before she turns 18. Watta-satta, poverty and illiteracy apart, following tradition of marrying girls before or at puberty is the top reason for this practice, Fatima said.

Caroline Sascha Cogez (Denmark)’s What If... is an indirect but forceful representation of a demand for equal opportunities for both genders, irrespective of the roles they are assigned domestically, socially and professionally. The short film is more like a music video where a percussionist, a woman, is creating a rock beat with a drum set. Drumming, usually associated with male members of a band or orchestra, provides backdrop to bits of information such as the fact that “women spend 9 out of 10 dollars of their earnings on their family, while men spend 4 out of 10.”

The call for equal opportunities also suggests that roles should not be assigned according to gender but according to ability, for if that would be the case “150 million less people would go to bed hungry.”

The timbre ends, with the girl taking a bow, a wide smile on her face. Interestingly, the striking figure of a white fox opens the film and closes it. In literary symbolism, the white fox represents wisdom which, in this case, could only be getting rid of gendered lenses.

The fourth and last film of the night, The Benefits of a Toilet, by Simon Norrendan from Denmark, is told with a roll of toilet paper. The most interesting script of all the films is the one about toilets, since it is relative from the first sentence: “Some call a toilet a private room for reflection.” The giggles of the audience are quite telling, for people have always associated toilet-time, if not with reading of a book or a screen then certainly with contemplation.

Nida Usman Chaudhry, the founder of LEARN and the organiser of the festival.

Against a plain but glaring red background, a white toilet paper roll unrolls, and in place of graphics there are illustrations, made with black marker, to support the voice of Helen Mirren, when she relates hard facts, for instance that “half of the girls worldwide attend school without toilets,” and “globally, fewer than one person out of three has access to a toilet.” This short film quite wraps up the narrative of the other three films: forced marriages, because of lack of education, both caused by gender role assignment, boil down to another fact from the film — “access to toilets increases enrolment of girls in schools by 11 percent.”

In Pakistan’s perspective, Elaine Alam suggests gender responsive budgeting in Pakistan, where the departments of education, social security and health for women, are the most ignored departments, and lack proper funding.

Ayra Inderyas, one of the speakers at the festival, commented: “In Mian Mir Pind, only one in three women has access to a 3’x3’ cubicle with a squat toilet, which is used by 26 people on average. Some superstitious people do not want to have a toilet near their residence because that could cause a visit from the witches. Such attitudes cause women to suffer the most since they cannot keep up with their hygiene during menstruation, as a result of which their daily bowels and urinary systems are affected badly.”

The screenings were followed by a round of discussion among the audience and the speakers. Later, Nida Usman Chaudhry, the founder of LEARN and the organiser/curator of the WHY Film Festival, stressed the importance of such events. She said, “The objective of films is to ensure the message reaches a wide audience. In a world where around 1 billion people lack access to information due to illiteracy, the medium of films can transcend boundaries and enable people to get information.”

Zainab Najeeb, Nayab Gohar and Tanzila Khan also spoke at the event.

The writer is the author of two books of fiction,

including Unfettered Wings: Extraordinary Stories of Ordinary Women

Here’s WHY: Highlighting disregarded issues of Pakistani women