From the roots of Arab feminism, to women sailors in the GCC, and passionate Iraqi travellers – seven must-watch docs.
To mark International Women’s Day, we have compiled a list of our must-see documentaries on women across the Middle East, their achievements, challenges, and dreams.
From the “first Arab feminist” in the 20th century to a Palestinian woman leading a quiet farming revolution, to a female militia commander on the hunt for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS), and to the Saudi designers making strides in the fashion industry – these are stories about women in the Middle East that you can’t miss.
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May Ziade: The Life of an Arab Feminist
Marie Elias Ziade, or May, was a key Lebanese-Palestinian figure in the Arab literary scene in the early 20th century who firmly established herself as a vibrant female voice in what was clearly a man’s world at the time.
She is widely known to be the “first female Arab feminist”. She was a journalist but also wrote fiction with strong female characters, poetry, political and cultural books and magazine articles, often on the condition of Arab women.
She questioned the social norms and cultural values of the period; in trying to tackle Arab patriarchy, she wrote: “We chant beautiful words in vain … words of freedom and liberty. If you, men of the East, keep the core of slavery in your homes, represented by your wives and daughters, will the children of slaves be free?”
May played a pioneering role in “introducing feminism into Arab culture,” according to writer and critic Hossam Aql, who credits her as being “the first to use the term ‘the women’s cause’ … She was the first professional writer to take a critical approach to women’s stories or novels written by Arab women.”
Bird of Dawn: The Composer from Tehran
Sara Najafi is a young composer from Tehran. In 2011, Najafi tried to make her dream a reality by hosting a public concert featuring the best contemporary Iranian and French female singers. Public performances by solo female vocalists in front of men have been banned in Iran since 1979.
To stage such a concert, Sara had to coordinate the busy schedules of the performers as well as secure the agreement both of the Iranian culture ministry and the religious authorities.
Over three years, the film traces her progress, the highs and lows as agreements are issued then revoked, permits offered then declined, forcing Sara to start the process all over again.
Bird of Dawn is a fascinating and dramatic film, giving deep insight into modern Iranian voices and views and exploring with tact and sensitivity Iran’s musical heritage and the issues of censorship and prohibition.
Saudi Design Queens
Saudi Arabia has made global headlines for extreme sides of the feminism spectrum of late, as the kingdom makes waves both for finally lifting the ban on women driving, yet prosecuting a number of feminist activists simultaneously. In effect, design, the arts and females leading innovation in the cultural field are not things you might associate with Saudi Arabia.
Young entrepreneur Basma Bouzo is the cofounder of Saudi Design Week, an event that seeks to foster local talent and create opportunities for designers. She has brought in interior designer Wadha Rashed to manage the installation of the event.
But running the fair is fraught with challenges in a kingdom steeped in religious patriarchal traditions.
Witness follows the two young friends as they put on Saudi Design Week and explore how they’re opening up the reclusive kingdom through this unexpected field.
ISIL: An Eye for An Eye in Iraq
Behind the scenes with the controversial female commander of an Iraqi militia group on the hunt for ISIL fighters.
For over three years, ISIL controlled and terrorised large swaths of northern Iraq. Then, after it was militarily defeated and largely driven out by the Iraqi army and international forces in late 2017, local militias took over short-term responsibility for law and order in some of the areas ISIL had relinquished.
They began searching for fugitives, meting out an uncompromising form of justice on captured enemy fighters and their alleged civilian collaborators who came into their hands.
The commander of one of the most reputedly vengeful of those militias was a 40-year-old woman, Wahida Mohamed al-Jumaily, also known as Um Hanadi. She and her 80-man force had played a key role in driving ISIL out of the area and had since shown their utter determination to keep it that way.
The Seed Queen of Palestine
In the fields and terraces of the occupied West Bank, a Palestinian woman is leading a quiet revolution.
Vivien Sansour is distributing rare, ancient heirloom seeds to Palestinian farmers.
Inspired by memories of her grandmother and the delicious food of her childhood, Vivien wants to reintroduce long forgotten Palestinian produce to the tables of people across the West Bank and beyond. And she believes these organic, climate change-resistant seeds are the key to that.
She experiments with growing the treasured seeds in her own garden beside the separation wall, under the watchful eye of Israeli soldiers, and dreams of reviving and celebrating Palestinian food culture.
But can she persuade farmers struggling with the pressures imposed by the Israeli occupation and agri-business to embrace such traditional crop-growing methods?
To convince them of the value of the seeds, she sets up a travelling kitchen, taking her seeds and their produce on the road and reminding Palestinians of the power of food to capture the joy and beauty of home.
Oman’s Sailing Stars
In 2011, four young Omani women decided to break the mould, challenge stereotypes and learn to sail. In a sport dominated by men, Rajaa Mubarak al-Owaisi, Entisar al-Tobi, Raya Rashid al-Habsi and Asrar al-Ajmi made up the crew of al-Thuraya under the auspices of Oman Sail. The crew and their boat take their name, al-Thuraya, from a constellation of stars.
The four young women were part of a government initiative to promote the power of sport internationally, put Oman on the global map and revive the country’s maritime heritage. By doing so, they challenged Gulf stereotypes of women.
Al-Thuraya crew members and coaches paved the way for what’s now called The Oman Women’s Sailing Team and hope their example will encourage young Omani women to follow suit.
Korean Lovers in Baghdad
Korean Lovers in Baghdad follows Heba, a young Iraqi woman, on an emotional journey as she pursues her dream and goes in search of her place in the world, encountering seemingly insurmountable obstacles along the way.
An electrical engineer with the prospect of a decent future, Heba is obsessed with all things South Korean. She uses Korean cosmetics, listens to Korean music, watches Korean dramas on television, cooks Korean food and has studied Korean Hangul with the aid of YouTube tutorials.
Heba represents a new and growing trend among young Iraqis who find in South Korea a vision for the future. While life in Iraq seems chaotic and unpredictable, South Korea offers them an enticing example of order and stability.