> UN Women appoints its first-ever man to be group’s Goodwill Ambassador

> Doctor is pushing the limits on international abortion laws

> What does the Nigerian election outcome mean for women?

> Prominent Iranian women weigh in on historic nuclear deal

> Pakistan’s first Oscar-winner talks about her new film, “Songs of Lahore,” which was a big hit at the Tribeca Film Festival

> Bollywood star Aamir Khan on shattering the status quo in India

> The debate shaking India

UN Women appoints its first-ever man to be group's Goodwill Ambassador

Why a pop culture sensation is now representing women’s rights at the United Nations

For Bollywood aficionados, the name Farhan Akhtar is synonymous with superstardom and a rap sheet of some of the best movies in Indian cinema. Writer, musician, songwriter, actor, and filmmaker- these are just some of that hats Akthar dons in the arena of pop culture and entertainment.

But recently, Akhtar has also been thrown into the spotlight for his fervent initiatives to champion women’s rights and create a solidarity movement for gender equality. While he launched his own social campaign, MARD or “Men Against Rape and Discrimination,” in India two years ago, he has now taken a global center stage as UN Women’s first ever-male Goodwill Ambassador. Here are some excerpts from his interview with Women in the World, where he outlines his inspiration for the initiative, commitments for the future and hopes for setting a precedent for more male involvement in ending violence against women.

Women in the World: What provoked you to get involved in supporting women’s empowerment?

Farhan Akhtar: I grew up predominantly around women- namely my mother and sister and my formative years had a huge role to play in shaping my worldview towards the opposite sex. My mother played out the role of a typical traditional housewife and I witnessed the effort it took for her to recharge her life after her separation with my father. A lot of it was possible because of the people that rallied around her. 

Everyday, I learn new things because of my wife and two daughters and this all encompassing women-centric presence in my life has made me more cognizant of equal rights in general- whether it is the independence to travel or the freedoms associated with experiencing life with an equivalent perspective.

So when incidents of rape and violence against women starting making headlines in India (the Delhi 2012 bus gang rape and thereafter), the very natural thing for me was to stand up and leverage my position and use my voice to help create awareness on how alarming this was. I was especially taken with the stories of brutality that emerged from these incidents.

Another important starting point for me was the untimely death of Savita Halappanavar in Ireland, which ultimately led to international protests calling for a review of abortion laws in the country. The event and its aftermath were real eye openers for me, and motivated me to seek change for women and their basic and personal rights, both in India and worldwide.

Women in the World: How do you plan to shift the narrative of gender violence to make it more male centric issue? How do you plan to get more men involved?

Farhan Akhtar: First of all, its important to acknowledge the most worrying issue that emerges out of each reported violent act committed towards a woman- that of humiliating and shaming. The brutality of an act shows you that more than a sexual overtone; it is truly about breaking a person. This knowledge is key as it forms the basis to then address the problem, which should begin with steering towards changing basic mindsets.

Everyone knows that we love our pop culture icons, and in India, Bollywood actors and sportsmen are regarded as heroes.  So I would like to use my position in people’s hearts and homes to address the most rampant issues of gender discrimination in my country first. If I can bring about even little shift in perception at home first, then only can I can serve as an advocate for UN Women’s overarching mission to involving the rest of the world in creating a uniform movement.

One way of operating and taking this idea forward is to engage with male students in various colleges and tap into gender sensitization at an adolescent stage. This behavior initiative by MARD (which translates into ‘man’ in Hindi) is to teach parameters of masculinity to boys on the cusp of manhood. A lot of young men take cues from social and cultural references like films, advertising and music, where a lot of qualities put out are aggressive in nature and teaches them not to take no for an answer. I want to try and create an alternate mindset-that it’s okay to be gentle and even to cry or be rejected. And that anything counter to that should not be tackled with violence.

I want to design programs using artistic content (short films, documentaries, music, writing) and collaborate with NGO’s to bring about awareness and serve as a catalyst for change. I recently tied up with Google India to teach women digital literacy and partnered with Magic Bus, Matthew Spacie’s collective drive to generate consciousness through education.

I am heartened by the changing realities and what I have seen so far- the younger generation in India is more open to dialogue, discourse and understanding and I can see that they have been encouraged to be leaders and crusaders, committed towards the gender equality movement.

Women in the World: The defense lawyers/some policemen’s statements in the controversial ‘India’s Daughter’ documentary have created a storm as people are appalled at their narrow conservative outlook- how can one tackle pre-existing mindsets like theirs or those of the older, more traditional generation in India?

Farhan Akhtar: I cannot speak for anyone, but I think it’s rather unfair to paint people with the same brush and go into generalizations. Yes, there are some existing mindsets that cling onto patriarchal values, but the only way to begin is to get them to understand what it is to feel shame and guilt. Every country goes through problems- whether its economic, social issues or political upheavals. In India, we even have the issue of caste and rape to look at, but hopefully, over time they will get weeded out. Look at some of the advances made post the 2012 Delhi Nirbhaya bus incident- not only do we have faster court proceedings, but also we’ve started defining and categorizing issues. Earlier stalking wasn’t even in the purview of sexual harassment, but now it is.

There is a clash of civilizations in India, but my hope lies with the younger generation who is exposed to liberal value systems from other parts of the world and reflects the more mainstream majority mindset.

Published on Women in The World,  March 19th, 2015

Doctor is pushing the limits on international abortion laws

She started by providing abortions on a ship. Next up, WHO pills delivered by drone

Dutch physician and women’s rights activist Rebecca Gomperts spearheaded a global movement in 1999 when she used a loophole in international law to provide non-surgical abortion services to women on a Dutch-registered ship in offshore waters.

Her mission was simple — to provide reproductive health services to women in countries where abortion laws were restrictive or where there was precarious and uninformed access to such services. “The project had the fervor of unabashed advocacy, but it also tugged at the issue of reviewing abortion laws at large,” Gomperts said. She used a simple and clever method to navigate the legal status quo. Once a ship has sailed 12 miles from a country’s coastline, the laws of the country from which it originated take full effect. So if a patient boards Gomperts’ vessel and rides with her out to where the laws of the Netherlands — where abortion is legal — are in effect, the patient is in no danger of breaking her nation’s law by aborting a pregnancy.

“The fundamental issue rests on the assertion that a woman has a right to her own body. How long can an institution or law continue to police information and enforce a sexist mentality and impose an unwelcome morality on a country?” said Gomperts on a Skype call from the Netherlands. Using this as the underlying principle behind her work, Gomperts created Women on Waves (WoW), a Dutch pro-choice, non profit organization to inform, educate, engage, inspire, and provoke social change on the frontline of women’s health.

While Gomperts’ initial plan was to conduct safe and legal surgical abortions by installing a portable gynecology unit on the ship, she realized she could help more women by training them to self-induce medical abortions using WHO-sanctioned protocols with pills that triggered miscarriages. WoW launched telemedicine support services and counseling hotlines and created web resources to train women to handle safe medical abortions themselves. Since 2000, Gomperts’ has partnered with a network of activists — local women’s groups, sex workers, LGBT and youth groups in different countries to get the message out and create a more informed community of people working on the vanguard of human rights.

“When I look back to the pilot project of the ship today, I realize that I only managed to treat maybe 20 women on board. But looking at how far we have come and the numbers today, I just have one thing to say: My controversial, sometimes questionable and stubborn determination has paid off.”

Gomperts’ initiative has grown into a worldwide campaign. Today, not only is she in the process of launching and unveiling an app in 15 different languages that teaches women how to self-induce medical abortions through animation videos and precise instruction, but she’s also gearing up for a test flight of an “abortion drone” this summer.  The drone would help deliver the WHO-administered pills to women with scant resources on ground.

“We are exploring the possibility of delivering the medicines with drones over borders. Initially it will be a very small drone, not a large one like the ones DHL, Amazon and Google are using. We aren’t there yet,” she explained. While the experimentation phase will involve a range of small drones with about 20-30 minutes of flight time, she hopes that in the future with the legal space around developing drones, operations can be expanded to remote areas.

Prior to the drone idea, WoW has utilized everything from stickers, banners, films, flyers, graffiti, television, and even currency to spread the word about its new operation. “Did you know that in Ecuador they even stamped our hotline numbers on the local currency?” said Gomperts.

Today, Gomperts has revisited some of the countries she ventured to initially by ship and has made some stark observations. She is impressed with how the abortion laws in Ireland have evolved. “It was tragic that the untimely demise of Savita Halappanavar led to Ireland passing the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act in 2013, which still has some flaws, but at least people are not intimidated anymore,” she explained. On her most recent visit there, a Member of Parliament helped with transporting contraceptive kits.

The reality in Portugal today is quite different from when Gomperts’ voyaged there in 2004. “The law changed in 2007 and there are free abortions being carried out in state hospitals,” she said.

But Gomperts realizes that there is still a lot of work to be done. “In Spain, a woman is allowed an abortion only if a psychiatrist signs off on it,” she said. “As for Poland, the political landscape makes it immensely difficult. It’s like a fortress,” she said. When the communist regime was overthrown with the help of the Catholic Church in 1953, everything was affected and abortion up until then used to be legal. She went on to note that Poland has a long way to go because the country is still struggling with issues like sexual rights, sterilization bans and even discussion on homosexuality is a taboo. “Underground abortions take place, but nothing is in the public eye.”

She is also skeptical when it comes to abortion rights in America. “There is a fundamental problem with democracy in the U.S. and abortion cannot be viewed as an isolated issue,” she said. While she realizes this is a bold statement, she feels that the appointment of judges on a political level leads to biased and conservative opinions. “There is no rule of law,” she declared.

According to the World Health Organization, 21.6 million women experience unsafe abortions worldwide each year and 47,000 women die from complications. This number matches statistics from the International Planned Parenthood Foundation and Gomperts’ quest is to help remedy this situation and provide an alternate narrative for women’s healthcare and women’s rights at large.

Published on Women in The World,  March 26th, 2015

What does the Nigerian election outcome mean for women?

Newly elected President Buhari faces a mountain of problems–especially when it comes to Bring Back Our Girls

Nigeria saw the most competitive presidential election in its history this week with Muhammadu Buhari defeating incumbent Goodluck Jonathan. The outcome marked the first time that an opposition candidate defeated the ruling party in democratic elections, according to the BBC.

When the transfer of power takes place, former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari will take be taking over Africa’s most populous country at a critical time–Nigeria struggles with corruption scandals, economic woes and insurgencies by the militant Boko Haram group.

Women in the World spoke to New York-based journalist Alexis Okeowo who has lived in and covered Nigeria extensively. She’s also writing a book about people standing up to extremism in Africa, and, in our discussion, she weighs in on what the Nigerian election outcome means for women, specifically the girls from the campaign Bring Back Our Girls.

Women in the World: What are your immediate thoughts about the election results?

Alexis Okeowo: There wasn’t a big voting turnout, 70 million out of 170 million were registered and a lot of votes were cancelled, so it was only about 27-28 million votes at play here, but in places where Boko Haram held territory, like in Yobe state, almost 50 percent of people cast votes, which is a very big deal. Buhari is perceived as military man who can bring in discipline in the army and a man with an iron fist. There are a lot of generals stealing money meant for soldiers on ground. Buhari managed to get a religious plurality in votes. Nigeria is a place where, despite tensions, people will vote across religious lines.

WITW: As the anniversary of the Boko Haram girls coming up, what do you think Buhari will do?

AO: Especially after the girls’ kidnapping last year, Buhari called Nigeria a failed state and he said it was time for an overhaul of the fight against Boko Haram. He hasn’t said anything directly about the girls, which is smart because there is nothing really you can say since he can’t promise to get them back.

WITW: What do you think happened to the girls?

AO: I think they are spread out all over the area- Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger, all these desert-like places where Boko Haram operates, and they have just been paired off with men, kind of like how they have been doing in the past. Eventually maybe some girls run away and come back pregnant or with kids, but most of them can’t escape.

WITW: Do you think the Bring Back Our Girls campaign, represents anything else?

AO: This election feels like a logical next step; the campaign was the first time Nigerians were really questioning the government about this war against BH and the way they were fighting it and what the results were. It was also the first time there was an outpouring of concern over that and also, at the same time, some pushback. And although it didn’t result in the girls coming back, it was the first time the government was put on the spot.

It was a big deal for the Nigerian government to hold press conferences and talk about the operations they were conducting to find the girls. Before, they didn’t answer any questions about anything, they didn’t have to, but the fact that they had to respond to critics in some kind of way was a big deal and that momentum kind of carried on. If that hadn’t happened last year, maybe it would have been a closer presidential race.

WITW: Do you see any correlation between the campaign and corruption?

AO: Bring Back Our Girls is a sort of response to corruption, its about ordinary people pushing back against it and being fed up with it, which raises the question: is Nigeria going to be an example for other places like the Congo thats dealing with similar issues- where citizens are grappling with whether they are going to keep their current governments? What is going to happen to those rulers?

WITW: What’s the role corruption paid in not bringing back the girls?

AO: The most rampant corruption is within the military. I think that at the end of the day Boko Haram could have been defeated years ago if soldiers on the ground had been equipped properly with weapons they need and basic salaries. Soldiers on ground complain they don’t have enough bullets, meanwhile generals have huge homes abroad. That is a big part of the reason why they haven’t been able to defeat Boko Haram till date.

Even now there is this coalition of armies from Niger and Chad and they have taken over most of the towns once held by Boko Haram, and they are waiting for the Nigerian army to get there and resume control.

When Boko Haram began in 2001, through 2009, that group was a response to corruption and the Nigerian government just ignored it – they saw them just as rabble-rousers and continued to ignore them, their demands and the region, thus allowing this group to fester and grow. When the government finally did a crackdown on them in 2009, that’s what really blew everything up. So it was corruption in government policies during that first decade and now its within the military.

WITW: Do you think it’s reached a tipping point where Boko Haram has become an intractable problem?

AO: It actually just depends what happens in these next few months, because now there is some cohesion among these countries’ armies that is not going to hold for long because they will want to go back to their countries. Someone needs to take over from them.

Published on Women in The World,  April 1st, 2015

Prominent Iranian women weigh in on historic nuclear deal

What does the nuclear deal mean for women in Iran?

A landmark agreement was reached on Thursday in Switzerland when diplomats from the United States, Iran and five other world powers announced that they had agreed upon a framework for Iran’s nuclear program.

The deal will require Iran to limit sensitive nuclear activities by reducing its stockpile of low-enriched uranium by 98 percent and significantly scale back its number of installed centrifuges, according to the plan.

In return, the United States, the United Nations and the European Union have agreed to lift sanctions that have crippled the country’s economy for years. While the deal will be finalized in late June, the announcement was seen as promising by a majority of Iranians both in the country and elsewhere, who erupted with joy both on social media and the streets. The deal was received with elation as people from the country viewed it as a sign of optimism and a new beginning. It trended on Twitter with the hashtag #IranTalks. Some, however, expressed skepticism.

Women in the World spoke to a few prominent Iranian women about their reactions to the deal and their hopes for the country.

Negar Mortazavi, Popular Iranian-American Journalist & Commentator

The general feeling of all Iranian men and women alike is that of happiness as people were hoping for this for a long time. The nuclear standoff impacted Iranians in the country as it was an economic and financial issue and their day-to-day livelihood depended on it. On a deeper level it was a major player contributing to the isolation of Iran from the rest of the world and this had a tremendous toll on the lives of the citizens.

So from the photos and videos coming out online, it seemed that people of all ages, and from urban as well as smaller cities were happy. As I see it, the nuclear standoff was also a major mandate of President Rouhani when he was running his campaign and many people voted for him on this premise. It’s good to see that he has fulfilled his promise and once this is executed properly, it will provide him with an upper hand against hardliners.

Hopefully this will be a stepping-stone for him to achieve other social and political issues like women’s rights and involvement of youth, and also issues with the Internet. Once outside pressures have quelled, then only can internal issues flourish and be pushed towards change.

Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center in Washington DC

For Iranian women a nuclear deal will mean relief from their daily economic hardships. Women in Iran, as in other countries, are usually in charge of the family budget and family well-being. In recent years, because of the sanctions imposed on Iran, women have had a hard time providing adequately for their families, especially among lower-income groups.  They will welcome and embrace any deal that will ease economic conditions.

Women, I think, also hope a nuclear deal that leads to a relaxation of tensions with the U.S. and the international community will also lead to a relaxation of the many social restrictions they face at home.

Mana Kharrazi, Nonprofit leader and educator based in New York and Executive Director of Iranian Alliances Across Borders (IAAB), the largest Iranian-American grassroots organization dedicated to community building and youth empowerment. Prior to IAAB, Mana was a Field Organizer at Amnesty International USA. Mana’s expertise is in the Iranian diaspora, community organizing and youth leadership development

The historic nuclear agreement will hopefully usher in a new era in US-Iran relations. It is my hope that this agreement allows for a heightened level of understanding and cultural exchange between Iranians and Americans. The Iranian people have struggled under sanctions and worked tirelessly for this agreement to come into existence. I am overjoyed for them and for our community in the United States. We can finally move past our history and look toward a peaceful future that allows for greater cooperation and understanding.

Farideh Farhi, Affiliate Graduate Faculty of Political Science at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa. She has written extensively about Iranian politics and foreign policy

This framework agreement is a first but important step signaling a change of direction in Iran’s relations with the world. The agreement, although still preliminary and certainly not without bumps in its final implementation, suggests that Iran has been willing to accept limitations beyond expectations in exchange for other opportunities that allow the country to benefit from improved scientific, cultural, an political interactions with many more countries than in the past. The immediate impact on the situation of women is not readily apparent.

At the same time, from my point of view, just the mere fact of threat reduction and relaxation of the economic sanctions noose creates more opportunities and space for various civil society groups, including those active in women’s economic, social, and political rights issues, to become more assertive with less fears of the charge that they are being influenced by “enemy” values and agitations. The fact that the Iranian public has responded positively to the agreement is also a sign that it is ready to move on to and tackle other issues of concern to them.

Narges Bajoghli is a researcher, writer, and filmmaker. As a PhD candidate in socio-cultural Anthropology at New York University and a documentary filmmaker in NYU’s Culture and Media Program, Narges’ research focuses on pro-regime cultural producers in Iran. She is the co-founder of the non-profit organization, Iranian Alliances Across Borders (IAAB)

Women’s rights activists were one of the first civil society contingencies in Iran to call for an end to the comprehensive sanctions on the country for it’s nuclear activity. As such, the announcement on the nuclear accord yesterday is very welcomed by women’s groups in Iran. The women’s rights movement is one of the longest-standing movements for increased rights in the country and one of the biggest thorns in the side of the Islamic Republic.

Nonetheless, women’s rights activists knew that as long as the nuclear issue was outstanding, the Islamic Republic could point to international pressures as a way to silence domestic activism. This nuclear accord and the removal of sanctions will allow women’s rights activists to continue their work for increased rights

Other Iranian women, expressed themselves on Twitter.

Los Angeles-based historian Nina Ansary, PhD and expert in the Women’s Movement in Iran and the author of the upcoming book, Jewels of Allah, shared her thoughts

But Nervana Mahmoud, doctor, a blogger and commentator on Middle East issues was wary

Published on Women in The World,  April 3rd, 2015

Pakistan's first Oscar-winner talks about her new film, “Songs of Lahore,” which was a big hit at the Tribeca Film Festival

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy offers a look at the nitty-gritty of her work process

In 2012, when filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy became the first Pakistani to receive an Academy Award, for her documentary Saving Face, it was a win for her country. But it was a particularly meaningful triumph for the women striving for change in Pakistan. While the victory was bittersweet for Obaid-Chinoy, given that the film’s subjects were the victims of acid attacks, the global attention served a broader purpose—sparking a conversation on the emancipation of women from marginalized societies and on human rights in general.

Since then, Obaid-Chinoy has been awarded the prestigious Hilal-e-Imtiaz award by the government of Pakistan and been featured in TIME magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World list. Her most recent documentary, Songs of Lahore, premiered to rave reviews at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York last week and celebrates a band of male musicians who want to bring their cultural music back from oblivion. In an interview with Women in the World, the director opened up about the inspiration and motivation behind her work.

Women in the World: Your movies all dig into the lives of people living on the edge in Pakistan. Why are you attracted to such material?

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy: I am always looking to bring the stories of marginalized communities to the forefront, and feel strongly about making such narratives accessible to a larger audience. Stories that have been neglected or voices that are unable to tell their own story resonate with me.

In my career, I have focused on human rights, women’s rights and the plight of children in war-torn areas. Although the subject matter is heavy, the characters inspire me because they represent unwavering courage and determination.

Sometimes, a simple news article or short conversation with someone I don’t know is enough to inspire an idea in me. I want to tell stories from an alternative viewpoint, or question preconceived notions. For example, Transgenders: Pakistan’s Open Secret, her 2011 film, revisits a story that has been told many times before, but I wanted to shed a new light on a community that has often been misrepresented.

WITW: How did you begin as a documentary maker?

SO: My interest in documentary filmmaking and narrative based story telling was sparked in 2011, when the tragic events of September 11th shifted the world’s focus to Afghanistan and Pakistan. I was a print journalist at that time, and had had the privilege of growing up in Karachi, and being educated in the United States. As someone who could successfully understand both worlds, I thought that I could play a constructive role in relaying information from the East to the West.

Documentary filmmaking was an organic shift in terms of the content that I was trying to capture; film has a way of bridging differences and providing visceral accounts of situations that may seem foreign or unimaginable in print.

Shortly thereafter, I made my first film, Terror’s Children, which was about Afghan refugee children living in Karachi. That experience taught me that there is always more to the story than what makes it to the evening news, or what graces our headlines the next day, and that those stories are the ones that need to be explored in order for us to understand conflict as a social and real thing, rather than an abstract idea. This sentiment has guided my career as a filmmaker, and has established a theme of sorts; I go after stories that give a voice to those who are not usually given the opportunity to speak for themselves.

WITW: You won an Oscar for Saving Face, in which you chronicled women in Pakistan who had experienced acid violence. How did you get into this story and then get access to the people you followed?

SO: My co-director, Daniel Junge had the idea behind Saving Face after listening to renowned plastic surgeon, Dr. [Mohammad] Jawad, discuss his reconstructive work with aspiring model Katie Piper after she was attacked with acid in London. Daniel called up Dr. Jawad and asked him if he was aware of similar forms of assault in South Asia and the Muslim world, and they spoke at length about Dr. Jawad’s work with acid survivors in Pakistan. Daniel contacted me when the film was in its initial stages and invited me to collaborate with him. I was immediately drawn to the subject matter and thought that Daniel and I would work well together; shooting Saving Face was an incredible experience, and I am glad that it is being appreciated on an international level.

The biggest challenge we faced was overcoming the mindset in local communities. Acid violence is found primarily in the Seraiki belt in Punjab, a cotton-growing region where acid is found easily as it is used in the fields. The Seraiki belt has some of the lowest levels of education and highest levels of poverty in Pakistan. Partly due to these factors, we found it difficult initially—in terms of connecting with local communities and reaching out to survivors. However, once we had spent a considerable amount of time on the ground and had established relationships we did not experience any further obstacles.

WITW: Have you stayed in touch with the main women from Saving Face? If so, what kind of lives are they living now? Any measurable impact after the film?

SO: Ruksana chose to forgive her husband and continued to live with him while Zakia took the brave step of pressing charges against her husband and took the risk of moving out of his home with her daughter and son. Aided by her children, Zakia underwent treatment and fought her court case simultaneously.

I believe that Pakistan is moving towards a more progressive attitude about acid violence. We believe that it is a heinous and unjust act, and we are coming together as a society to reject such acts. A perfect example of this is the fact that now the Punjab government, which is a provincial government, now has special courts set up so as to dispense speedy justice and process cases faster. Punjab was a province where the maximum number of acid-violence cases are taking place. Acid crimes are also garnering more attention and criticism from media channels and newspapers that once would not highlight the issue at all.

WITW: Most of your films are about women. Is this a deliberate feminist statement?

SO: As a woman who has been fortunate enough to enjoy certain liberties, it alarms me that many women around the world are not even awarded basic human rights. I fear that a healthy and necessary conversation about gender will get swallowed by what is often posed as “more important and more pressing” matters. Conversations in Pakistan, whether they are occurring in the drawing room or in the parliament, are almost exclusively about the political turmoil in the country. We are a nation that is currently fighting a number of civil insurgencies, in addition to dealing with rising levels of bigotry and intolerance.

In the past, nations that have gone through similar bouts of unrest, such as Afghanistan and Iraq, have bartered the issue of women’s rights for what was posed as the greater political good. I fear that the same will happen in Pakistan.

WITW: Your new film Songs of Lahore is about men, eight Pakistani musicians whose traditional music has lost its market after Taliban repression. How did you get to this story and why did you want to tell it?

SO: I grew up listening to my grandfather’s stories of our musical past. He would often talk about the orchestras that played at concerts and the musicians who played on Sunday evenings on street corners. By the time I grew up in the 1980s, all of this was a thing of the past. I lived vicariously through his stories and often wondered what it would have felt like to have been part of his generation.

In 2012, I came across the story of a group of musicians from Lahore who had come together against all odds to record music using Pakistan’s traditional instruments, and I knew that was a story I wanted to tell. At that time, I had no idea what the group’s journey would be, I just wanted to preserve their voices and their music. And what a journey it turned out to be. From Lahore to Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York, these musicians found their inner calling. As our cameras filmed them performing at a sold out concert with Wynton Marsalis, I thought back to my grandfather’s stories of our past and knew that I had managed to experience some of those moments that night.

WITW: Who do you admire as a filmmaker? What are the other stories you want to tell?

SO: As a filmmaker, I admire Mira Nair. My favorite film is Monsoon Wedding. It is a beautiful story of several generations set in India. I absolutely love the way Mira has told this story of families trying to hold their ground against change. The wedding, which is at the heart of the story, provides humor but also unveils deep-seated issues that open up a window into a society at war with its culture.

Apart from documentaries, I am currently working on a fiction film for children, 3 Bahadur, which promises to be Pakistan’s first animated feature film. It is a story about three young heroes who save their town from a gang of thugs.

Published on Women in The World,  April 22nd, 2015

Bollywood star Aamir Khan on shattering the status quo in India

His wildly popular TV show is challenging cultural norms there

Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan, who spoke at the opening night of the 6th annual Women in the World Summit, has been addressing women’s issues head on and helping to induce social change in India. Each week, his groundbreaking and wildly successful TV talk show, Satyamev Jayate, or Truth Alone Triumphs, gets an audience of 600 million viewers to re-think cultural taboos, from caste to dowries to rape.

He talked with Iraqi-American humanitarian Zainab Salbi, founder of Women for Women International, about his crusade for women’s rights and justice. Citing his mother as his primary source of inspiration during his formative years, Khan described her compassionate impulses. “I used to play competitive tennis and was pretty good. Every time I won a match, my mom always thought of the mother of the boy who lost against me and how bad she must have felt.” His mother’s concern for a stranger helped shape Khan’s career. He also credited his school friend Satyajit Bhatkal (now the director of Satyamev Jayate), who has worked as a lawyer for less privileged clients. “I felt very guilty when I met him, I wish I could do half of what he was doing—living for others,” said Khan.

The national platform of a hit TV show, along with the goodwill earned through his film career, has allowed Khan to shift the public’s attention to meaningful conversations. “Every day you read about injustice, poverty, and you really want to do something, and I realized I should do what I know best, which is storytelling, to enrich discussion on the issues we face as a society,” he explained. Energized by this mission to transform the minds and hearts of viewers, Khan chose topics and researched them thoroughly. He believes that while change can be effected from the top down, through laws and policy, real progress can only be achieved through the longer and harder process or reaching out to people’s hearts with love.

His first show focused on an unspeakable fact of life in India—female feticide: “It’s a huge problem in India and connects with people on a gut level,” he said. Khan’s show presented the topic as a mother’s problem, not just a woman’s problem, so as to reach the audience on an emotional level. “I started the show asking people who the most important person in their life was, as people usually say it’s their mother,” he elaborated. Khan said that since that first episode aired in 2011, census figures showing 914 girls born compared to 1,000 boys in the states of Mahrashtra and Rajasthan (the worst states on record in terms of gender ratio) had changed radically. Today, the ratio has gone down by 50 to 60 points, suggesting that Khan’s show may have provoked change. “People are reacting to it,” he said.

Khan also alluded to a law in India that makes sex selective abortion illegal. “The law tells us what we are, it’s a reflection of what we are and it’s unfortunately needed for India. In other societies you don’t need this law,” he said.

When it comes to issues like dowry, Khan explained that themes of such a sensitive nature need to be communicated with love. “In India 90 to 95 percent of people have either given or taken dowries, and when you are conveying to a majority that what they are doing is not right, it has to be done with love. Only through that you can effect change,” he said.

Khan has tackled other highly sensitive issues, including honor killings and caste.“People are very touchy and emotional about certain complicated issues,” he noted, referring to the topic of Dalits (formerly called untouchables) in India. Masculinity was an equally challenging topic. “Unless we redefine what it is to be a man, things aren’t going to change. Is a real man a protector or someone who goes and beats people up?” he asked, adding that rigid gender roles should be abandoned and male sensitivity encouraged. “You cannot raise a boy telling him not to cry. You are in effect distancing him from emotion and then you are surprised when he grows up and beats his wife.”

In India, he said, the conventional wisdom is that “real men don’t cry and real men don’t hold their wives hands.” But Khan is certainly not shy about doing either. “I cry all the time, not only on all my show’s episodes, but also when I am researching it.”

Over the last three seasons of the show, Khan said that he has seen the worst and most beautiful of mankind. “There is so much strength, resilience, grace, beauty, and dignity in people,” he said in reference to a woman whose son had been sacrificed in an honor killing.

Khan also brought up India’s Daughter, a film about the notorious New Delhi rape case of 2012, and the controversial ban on the film in India. While he said that he hadn’t personally seen the film, he thought it was unfortunate that it had been banned. “The balance of power in India needs to change. Unless conviction becomes swift, certain things are not going to change and as a society we have to shun the rapist and hold the survivor close.”

Khan ended by laughing at his own weight gain, and said that it was for his role as a retired wrestler in a forthcoming film. In this movie, quite fittingly, it is his character’s daughter who will fulfill his dreams by carrying on his wrestling legacy.

Published on Women in The World,  April 22nd, 2015

The debate shaking India

Who’s winning the fight against sexual violence and gender inequality?

The banning of India’s Daughter, Leslee Udwin’s documentary about the aftermath of a horrifying 2012 gang rape in New Delhi, has stirred many raw emotions and a monsoon of rhetoric. Udwin is British, and some Indians have made clear that they do not welcome an outside critique of their legal system, even if they agree that rapists have too often enjoyed impunity in their country. But for many in India and elsewhere, the film and its banning have provided an opportunity to bring gender-based violence out of the shadows, as the country continues to change at a rampant pace, and adapt to evolving gender roles and mores. Bringing much-needed clarity to the issue of rape in India, and stripping away the hype from the controversy surrounding the film,  journalist Barkha Dutt sat down with the filmmaker herself at the 2015 Women in the World Summit.

Actor-activist Freida Pinto, associate producer of India’s Daughter, introduced the conversation by outlining the details of the crime and its victim, “Nirbhaya,” or “the fearless one,” whose death triggered an awakening in India: an eruption of anger about the treatment of women that, it seems, had been seething just below the surface. Thousands marched to demand justice and accountability. Yet Pinto questioned the pace of progress: “After two years, there has been some change, but is it really enough?”

The government, wary of a backlash, argued that the film would only incite further violence against women. Some officials complained of an international conspiracy to defame India, or that Americans and others were holding the country to an unfair standard regarding the treatment of women. But Udwin and Dutt agreed that the the film was a catalyst for long overdue discourse.

“The gang rape was a tip of the iceberg; it elicited such a response from ordinary men and women in India who came out in unprecedented numbers and displayed such courage and tenacity, that as a woman I wanted to amplify their voices,” said Udwin of her decision to make the film. But once on the ground in India, she was disheartened by what she learned about attitudes toward the perpetrators and the way in which society rationalized their violence.

“Society’s way of shame is to marginalize the women like they are rotten apples in the barrel, but in fact it is the barrel that is rotten and rots the apple.” She elaborated that what surprised her most was how society itself teaches men to regard women. “The fact that the rapist didn’t think he had done anything wrong, and because the girl was out at dark she deserved it really shocked me the most,” she said.

Dutt noted, however, that instead of heightening an environment of hostility towards women, the aftermath of the gang rape had become a “moment of hope for women.”

She “saw the issue of gender move from the margin of news to the center of politics.” Nevertheless, Dutt added that she had a problem with how India was being characterized in the narrative. “The incidence of sexual violence is higher in the United States and the United Kingdom than India,” she said. India, she noted, had a woman leading the country four decades ago, and paid maternity leave, while America has yet to achieve either. “Gender is more complex than that, it cannot be put in a box,” Dutt insisted.

The gang rape of an educated young woman resonated, said Dutt, partly because it was a story of aspirational India. “The father of the victim was a baggage loader at the Delhi airport and his daughter represented the hopes of many women and parents who dream of a better future,” she said.

Udwin described her thought process in choosing to visit the homes and learn about the backgrounds of the rapists. “I wanted a clearer understanding of at what degrees they were victims too,” she explained. This, she said, was not done for shock value, but to educate viewers. “It is crucial that we should not shy away from it and we dare not silence it,” she said.

While there has been harsh criticism from some quarters in India about Udwin, an outsider, making a film about something so damaging to the country’s image, Dutt raised an interesting point on the relationship between India and the West. “Would I be accepted if I came into, say, Ferguson, and had a definite conversation on race?” she asked. She agreed that the ban was regrettable, but said that it was not the result of insecurity or a misplaced sense of national pride, and that, ironically, the ban itself had deepened a conversation about gender in the Indian media.

Dutt brought up an illuminating statistic: “90 percent of women know the men that abused them, and we have failed in this fight of marital rape.” But the failure is a shared one, not limited to one government or society, said the filmmaker. In short, we all have to take responsibility for violence against women, wherever it occurs.

“My documentary is a drop of water on a stone and we should all globally hang our heads in shame [if] we don’t stop war on women,” said Udwin.

Published on Women in The World,  April 23rd, 2015