A group of resilient young Nepalese girls who, having escaped from brothels, are fighting against human trafficking from Nepal to India.
Afghan women who took the horrific route of self-immolation to set themselves free from their abusive husbands.
A young Iranian woman, who uses poetry to express her vision of a more open future, complete with female empowerment and social justice.
A group of unlettered Egyptian housewives learning how to count in order to avoid being cheated by vegetable vendors.
These are just some of the glimpses from the handful of films, videos, photographs, plays, music, paintings that were recently on display at a gallery in Mumbai. The debut ‘Freedom To Create’ exhibition saw works of artists, photographers, filmmakers from around the world, all presenting voices of courage, reconciliation, strength, unity and hope of people living in oppressive societies.
Freedom to Create, a Singapore-based global organsisation founded in 2006, not only brings a number of artists together but also organises exhibitions like these across the world. In addition, it has established the ‘Freedom to Create’ prize – first awarded in 2008 – in three categories that are decided by a jury comprising well-known artists, social activists and academics from around the world. Entrants to this competition are either nominated by a third party or by the participants themselves.
One of the 2011 winners is Wendy Champagne, a freelance journalist. Champagne credits her win to her subject, 16-year-old Geeta. It was on an assignment for an international magazine that she accidentally met with the lively teenager, who inspired her to make the prize-winning film, ‘Bas! Beyond Red Light’. Champagne shares Geeta’s story: “Geeta was trafficked from Kathmandu, Nepal, when she was 13. She was working at a Catholic-run school that took care of babies when she befriended two men, who later introduced her to their ‘sister’. One time, this woman asked Geeta to help her take care of her two children. That is when she was drugged and a few days later she found herself in New Delhi. She was sold to a brothel in Turbhe in Navi Mumbai. It was two years, before she was rescued.”
Having met her after she had been freed, Champagne was taken in by Geeta’s resilience. “Most girls would prefer to forget such an experience. Geeta was different. After she was rescued and eventually sent back to Kathmandu, she was determined to bring her traffickers to justice. Leaving the shelter that had been provided by the NGO, Maiti Nepal, she kept a look out for the traffickers for a year. When she spotted one of them she immediately informed the police. Later, she even managed to track down the other two and did the round of the courts to bring them to justice. Then she returned to the brothel in Mumbai, took a job with the Rescue Foundation, an organisation that rescues girls from brothels, and also tracked down the brothel keeper who had exploited her so cruelly.” How’s that for determination?
Moved by the plight of the trafficked Nepalese girls like Geeta, Champagne decided to make a film. Widely acclaimed at international festivals, the film – that took more than four years to complete – is now being used for education, training and micro-finance opportunities for rescued girls.
Recalling the difficulties she encountered while making ‘Bas!…’, the filmmaker says, “The biggest opposition came from traffickers and brothel owners in the red light areas. It was dangerous and we had to enlist the help of a local politician at times. But my interest as a filmmaker was to let the girls tell their stories rather than depict the sordid life in the brothels. So to that end I received a lot of cooperation from the girls and the Rescue Foundation.”
In the same way photographer Laura Boushnak had decided to do a series on the importance of women’s literacy in the Arab world. Her pictures show Egyptian women attending literacy classes in the illegal settlements of suburban Cairo.
Elaborating on her work, Boushnak says, “Egypt was among many countries that signed the UN Millennium Goals. One of the goals is the eradication of illiteracy. The NGO I worked with had to implement the Ministry of Education’s nine-month programme, which targeted women between the ages of 15 and 45. I went with high expectations thinking that these women and young girls would seek higher education. But in reality they were there to meet their basic needs. Like the woman who used to get lost in the maze of public transport and wanted to be able to understand written directions. Another wanted to learn how to count money so vegetable vendors couldn’t cheat her. Yet another wanted to read the doctor’s prescription so that she gave the right medicine to her son. The whole idea of these classes was to empower women within their own community and help them raise their children in a better way. All the participants agreed on one thing: They would ensure their children finished school.”
The one regret Boushnak had while capturing these women on camera was that she could never meet any of the men. “I never got a chance to speak to any of them, even though before I started taking the photos most of the women had to seek permission from the male member in the family – husband or father. However, the NGO told me that some men do stop sending their wives to the classes once they’re able to read. They see their education as a threat.”
From Egypt on to Afghanistan. Nothing can prepare the viewer for the at once gruesome and heartrending pictures of American journalist Lynsey Addario; images of women who had set themselves on fire to escape their terrible lives.
Recently released from captivity in Libya, Addario, who has received a Pulitzer for her work in Afghanistan and other war ravaged countries, says, “Hundreds of women in Afghanistan attempt self-immolation in a bid to escape abusive husbands or the daily situations. Several young women see no other means of escape from their predicament.”
But photographing women in this ultra-conservative country is difficult as they aren’t permitted to interact with outsiders or talk about their private moments. It’s by visiting several extremely basic burn centres that she met up with the doctors and nurses who are working hard to save these hapless women.
There are some usual women icons as well – like Salome, a woman rapper from Iran and Lovetta Conto, who designs jewellery from bullets and shells. Both women are living in their own countries and trying to take on the system in their own artistic way.
Salome is one of the few women rappers who emphasises that she isn’t a feeble woman. In the ‘Freedom to Create’ catalogue, she writes: “I am not going to complain about how it is hard to be a female rapper in Iran.” She wants to be known for the values she is trying to promote through her music. Her lyrics focus on social injustice, war, female empowerment and peace.
Conto is a Liberian refugee. She fled from a brutal civil war in which she lost her family and grew up in a refugee camp in Ghana. She has developed a small range of jewellery made from recovered spent bullets that she melts and recasts. Each of them carry a simple inscription – LIFE – which sums up the entire struggle of people across the globe.
Addario, Salome, Conto, Champagne – these are women who have tried to give a voice and face to the till-now silent struggles and sometimes triumphs of millions of oppressed women across the globe.