The Feminist Movement has come a long way from its roots in the 19th century. Since then, women have gone on to work and vote, participate in the economy, and start businesses, and today appear to have far more agency over their lives and careers than ever before. But the fight for equal rights is not over. Sure, women go to work, but they get paid less for equal work. Women do get to vote, but getting to the top of the political hierarchy is still extremely difficult for them in most parts of the world, even in the US. They get catcalled on the roads, rape is on the rise, girls’ parents are still paying dowry, and female infanticide is still a reality. There is still sexism everywhere – at work, in family meals, in colleges, on the streets. We are in 2018, and while a lot has changed, true equality is still a very, very long way off.
Fortunately, these stories of challenge and daily struggles have not gone unheard. We looked around for some of the best documentaries that speak of women’s issues at length if we are willing to listen and understand. These documentaries span developed and developing economies and geographies from around the globe, and go on to show that our challenges might be different, but equality is equally important – and still a long way off – for women in most parts of the world.
Start at the very beginning and see what went into the making of the turning point of the women’s rights movement. She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry is the inspiring story of the courageous, brilliant, and often outrageous women of the 1960s women’s rights movement. The documentary takes us through the founding of the National Organization of Women to more radical factions of the movement such as the street battles of a group called Women’s International Conspiracy From Hell, also known as WITCH. The documentary includes dramatizations, performances, and archived visuals, and tells the stories of women who started a global revolution while fighting for their own rights.
Equal Means Equal takes a critical view of how women are treated in the western world 50 years after the women’s rights movement. It delves into the legal aspects of equal rights. Director Kamala Lopez uses real-life stories and precedent-setting legal cases to showcase how outdated mindsets and laws influence cases of domestic violence, rape, sexual assualt, workplace harassment, and wage gap, among other issues plaguing women. The film strongly advocates for law amendments in favour of women and showcases the urgent need for them using strong real-life examples.
The documentary chronicles the personal stories of three Cambodian women who were forced into sex trafficking due to economic challenges. Beyond the story of how they got into the business, Finding Home showcases the challenges and struggles of being low-rung in the power hierarchy of slave owners and exploitative men. The Cambodian women heal over the years and put their lives back together after years of struggling with the unique challenges that are part of this exploitative trade. They live to tell the tale, and Finding Home does an empathetic job of it.
What could be a safer space for women than schools and colleges, right? The Hunting Ground proves you wrong as it chronicles the horrifying stories of rape, sexual assault, and harrasment of girls in college campuses. The documentary takes a view of the staggering statistics of rape culture in academic institutes – one in five women in US college campuses are sexually assaulted – and why only a small fraction of these cases are reported, and even fewer result in justice for the victims. It sheds light on the systemic cover-up, rationalization, victim-blaming, and denial at the peripheries of the real issue – women are not safe even in their own colleges.
Media – films, TV, advertising – had the potential to showcase women in influential positions and create role models. But they wasted this opportunity in favour of attracting male viewers and encouraged outdated views of gender roles by making women either plot objects or self-sacrificing housewives. In 2018, we can still count on our fingers the number of TV shows, movies, and ads aroud the world that showcase women as realistic or influential. Even when they try, they often get it all wrong. Miss Representation takes a critical view of this missed opportunity. It interweaves real-life stories of teenage girls with interviews with powerful feminists from politics and media, including Hillary Clinton, Ellen Degeneres, Dolly Parton, Oprah Winfrey, and Sarah Palin, among others. The underlying message in the documentary is the urgent need for role model portrayals in the media, or as the documentary says, “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it”.
It is 2018 and women have more rights and agency than ever before. Yet, in India, China, and several other parts of the world, unborn girls are aborted and newborn girls are killed or abandoned, because they are girls. Young girls who survive this first attack on their lives often grow up with less nutrition compared to their male counterparts, even in their own homes. They eat at the end of family meals after the best parts of the food are consumed by the men of the family – and this is if they are lucky. If they are not, they go on to face extreme domestic violence and dowry deaths. The statistics of gender-based violence in many parts of the world, not in the least in India, are staggering.
The power equations and cultural dynamics causing gender disparity have not changed in many circles, even the seemingly elite and educated ones. That is the story and the underlying message of It’s a Girl: The Three Deadliest Words in the World. The documentary is shot in India and China and dives deep into the reasons behind this striking gender disparity that actually eliminates women from many circles of life. It pointedly asks why not enough has been done to save girls and women. Horrifying real-life stories of abandoned and trafficked girls, women who face dowry-violence, mothers who have fought to save their daughters, and mothers who would literally kill for a son make up this documentary. Solutions include interviews with experts and activists who have devoted their lives to advocate for social change through empowerment, education, and several other paths out of this injustice doled out to women and girls every single day of their lives.
In this hard-hitting documentary about rape culture in China, film-maker Nanfu Wang and activist Ye Haiyan travel to the Hainan province to protest against the rape of six elementary school girls by their school principal. In the process, the activists get labelled as enemies of the state and face government surveilance, harassment, and even interrogation. Hooligan Sparrow was shot despite this hostility and intimidation. It uses secret recording devices and hidden cameras to expose the reality of rape culture in China. The film was released for public viewing only after the footage was smuggled out of the country. It chronicles the brave battle of Ye Haiyan and her fellow activists and their uphill battle against all odds for a very basic human right – the right for young girls to be safe in school.
Speaking of rape culture, India’s Daughter chronicles the situation closer home. In the aftermath of the 2012 rape and murder of Jyoti Singh, filmmaker Leslee Udwin and the BBC interviewed the victim’s parents and one of the four men convicted of the rape and murder, Mukesh, along with his defendant AP Singh. What follows is a horrifying story of victim blaming, not only by society at large but also the unapologetic rapist and his defendant as well. Despite being banned by the Indian Government in 2015, the film was made available on the Internet and went viral because it resonated with everyone demanding an immediate change in social values that encourage such gory violence against women.
Art has long been not just a medium of expression for the oppressed but also a harbinger of change through awareness and expression. !Women Art Revolution chronicles the role of art in the women’s rights movement. It showcases the rise of women’s art communities around the world, starting from the feminist movement of ’60s and ’70s America. It includes archive visuals, interviews, and stories of activists like the Guerilla Girls, Yoko Ono, and Judy Chicago. Beyond women artistes, !Women Art Revolution also tells the story of gender politics in art communities.
Focusing on education as a means to empowerment, Girl Rising is a documentary about nine girls from different parts of the world and their journey to basic education. The girls hail from Haiti, Nepal, Ethiopia, India, Egypt, Peru, Cambodia, Sierra Leone, and Afghanistan, and have braved horrifying injustices such as child marriage and slavery as well as circumstantial ones like geographic isolation and poor facilities. Girl Rising is the touching story of these girls and how they found their voices. It showcases the powerful and inspiring spirit of these girls, and at the same time, relentlessly advocates for the right to education as a powerful tool to empower girls around the world.
The documentary is based on a 2009 nonfiction book of the same name by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. Half the Sky travels to 10 countries around the world, including Afghanistan, Cambodia, Kenya, India, Liberia, Pakistan, Sierra Leone, Somalia, and Vietnam, to chronicle stories of gender-based oppression like trafficking, violence, rape, maternal mortality, and education. It also tells the stories of inspiring women who have risen against the odds and discusses meaningful and lasting solutions through better healthcare, right to education, and economic empowerment.
State prosecutor Vera Ngassa and Court President Beatrice Ntuba chronicle the plight of women in the West African country of Cameroon. Through four court cases of violence against women, Sisters in Law showcases the stories of these women seeking justice and change in favour of the rights and privileges of women and children living under Sharia Law in the country.
In 2018, menstruation is still a taboo topic in many parts of Indian society and excludes women from religion, society, and households due to something as commonplace and biological as their menstruation cycles. Blood on My Hands sensitively relates the issues of puberty and sexuality of women in India. It interweaves the stories and opinions of men and women to showcase the weight this monthly phenomenon can have on the lives of women in India.
The Holy Wives is the story of the lives of Devdasi women in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka who are raped in the name of tradition, some even as a minor. It dives deep into the struggles and psychology of these Devdasis, also known as Jogins, Basavis, Kalawants, Paravatis, or Mathammas, as they fight to maintain their self-respect and earn livelihoods in the aftermath of the Devdasi system getting banned in the two states. The ban did not bring any credible alternatives and has eventually led to the increase in trafficking of children and women, just to earn two square meals a day. The Holy Wives also touches upon the struggles of three other communities that have suffered at the hands of caste-based violence against women.
Izzatnagari ki Asabhya Betiyan chronicles the resistance against “honour killings” by Khap Panchayats in India. It tells the story of five young women from the Jat community who dared to take on the powerful Khap Panchayats in Haryana. In the process, these women confront murder, injustice, and the social boycott of women who make “mistakes” like getting married in the same gotra, getting married outside their castes, or sometimes, just having a say in the matter of their own marriage. The narratives of honour killing survivors are intertwined with interviews with the Khap. In the process, Izzatnagari ki Asabhya Betiyan exposes the inherent hypocrisy and violence against women in a country that promises equality for all through its democratic set up.
Honor Diaries is the story of nine brave women’s rights advocates who are part of the gender equality discourse in the Middle East. The documentary also exposes the problem of political correctness that stops this extreme inequality from getting identified and addressed on a global scale. Honor Diaries delves deep into the psyche of a Middle East that has failed to provide basic rights to its women, such as freedom of movement, right to education, agency and choice in matters of marriage, and any opposition to institutionalised abuse like female genital mutilation. It is an attempt to move from storytelling to initiate a movement of sorts. Honor Diaries creates awareness about the issues of women in Muslim-majority societies and seeks the international solidarity needed for the lives of these women to change for the better.
The 2012 documentary Dark Girls is about the stories of struggles and loneliness faced by dark-skinned girls around the world. It delves into the depths of classism and racism that has caused the ostracization of dark girls not just in the arranged marriage circles in India but around the world. An anthology of personal stories that expose the cultural beliefs and attitudes of societies against dark-skinned girls, Dark Girls also presents an opportunity for young girls to heal and accept themselves as they are against all odds and everything society might believe or say about them.
These documentaries do a brilliant job of moving from the superficialities of women’s liberation to showcase the unique ways in which women continue to be ostracised – at home and work, in school, and in social setups. It is about time too – change can’t come fast enough. Awareness is the first step towards real, unconditional gender equality. This Women’s Day is as good a time as any to spread this awareness and spark new conversations in favour of a change in our workplaces and in our living rooms. How are you planning to go about it?