Tag Archives: Rebuilding

The Brazen Optimism of “Girl Rising”

girlrisingWe parked a few minutes before the viewing was scheduled to start and hustled towards the Barrymore Theatre in Madison, WI. Two members of the group did not yet have tickets to see the documentary Girl Rising, so they made their way to the end of the long box office line snaking around the building. In the other “line,” groups of tweens and teenaged girls pushed their way to the front with chaperons assertively pushing after them.

I had a hard time keeping my cool in the chaotic crowd, but I felt grateful at the end of the film that all those young people had watched the movie. I hoped they felt inspired as I did, possible, I think, because of the film’s bold optimism and omission of some dark details.

Richard E. Robbins’s Girl Rising succeeded aesthetically and narratively and in promoting its theme that educating girls will make the world a better place — for everyone. Girl Rising featured the stories of nine girls from nine different developing countries and (in most cases) overcoming their plights towards education.

Each of the girls shared their experiences with an author from their home country, who in turn interpreted the stories with a unique voice. These are not face-to-face interviews à la traditional documentaries, there’s reenactment, dream sequences, and animation on top of the lovely narratives.

Artistic shots captured the details of the landscapes each girl called home and the lines and details of their faces. (Alert: Spoilers ahead.)

Ruksana’s family in Kolkata, India manages to stay in the city to send three girls to school even though they live in a makeshift house on the pavement. She is a budding artist whose father bares the expense to buy her art supplies. The footage of her story is overlain with fantastical animations of a blue monkey and flowers that reflect the art in her notebook.

The stories feature obstacles that the girls overcome to attend school, and throughout the entire film we see poetry, song, art, and even physics embraced by the girls as survival tactics. My favorite character, Senna of La Rinconada, Peru, turns to poetry after the death of her father, and begins to write her own. Her father named her after the title character in the television show “Xena: Warrior Princess.

Bravery and fortitude also run through the various stories of the nine featured girls. The stories of two, kept anonymous through name changes and actress portrayals, demonstrated strength but touched on the tough themes of rape, youth marriage, and early motherhood. Yasmin’s story in which she defends herself against assault is told via animation, where she takes on a superhero persona. We see Amina as a neglected girl child, who gives birth when she is still a child herself.

The stories of these girls ends with an almost brazen optimism that I bought into, because I became wrapped up in the story. And yet, as I left the theatre, I felt sad for all the stories of Yasmin and Amina that ended with a flourish of hope but unconcluded stories.

The Girl Rising website offers a follow-up to each of the girls, and Yasmin’s and Amina’s next steps cast a shadow on the hopeful sheen of the movie: “…despite our partner NGOs efforts to enroll [13-year-old] Yasmin in literacy classes, Yasmin’s mother considered a marriage proposal to be a more secure investment in her daughter’s future,” reads the website.

This video was well crafted to uplift (as evidenced in the title, Girl Rising). It also conveys the remaining problems for girls throughout the world, albeit with a glossy, optimistic over layer. It ended with a call to mobilize, and I hoped the young girls in the audience got the message: appreciate your education, it’s a right we all deserve but don’t all have access to.

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Women’s Rights Paradoxes After the Arab Spring

One paradox of the Arab Spring, said Fatima Sadiqi, is that women took a primary role in the uprising but their political rights regressed after the turmoil. The number of women in Egyptian parliament dropped since the uprising in January 2011, for example.

In her presentation to over 150 people at UW-Madison’s Union South earlier this month, Sadiqi quoted the beginning lines of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities to capture contradictory sentiments about the Arab Spring: “It was the best of times it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was epoch of belief, it was epoch of incredulity…it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”

Sadiqi visited UW-Madison on November 8 to speak about “North African Women’s Rights in the Aftermath of the Arab Spring.” She discussed the challenges that face the Maghreb, the region of North African now struggling to build democracies alongside political Islam.

Sadiqi argued that women’s rights are a “genuine prerequisite for democracy.”

Sadiqi  started the Gender Studies program at the University of Fes in her native Morocco, and she was introduced as the first female linguist in the Arab world. She serves as a professor of Linguistics and Gender Studies. In 2006 she founded the ISIS Center for Women and Development  and, three years later, co-founded the International Institute for Languages and Cultures.

I had the pleasure of interviewing her in advance about her personal journey into the fields of women’s rights and linguistics. But I also learned a lot from her lecture about the Arab spring and the future of women’s rights in the region.

The Qur’an

She shed some light on political Islam and its influence on the Middle East and North Africa (which have unique histories and political dynamics). Political Islam grew from the Iranian revolution, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the rise of the United States, explained Sadiqi.

Islam comes with its own forms of feminism, and Sadiqi pointed out that the women involved in the Arab spring ranged from Islamic feminists to secular feminists; they ranged in age, and they had support from NGOs and some men as well.

“Islamic feminism is the unwanted child of Islamism,” said Sadiqi.

Islamic feminists have been reviewing the Qur’an and other Islamic doctrine to separate the religious tenants from the politicized interpretations. (But this is a big topic for consideration on another day.)

Sadiqi pointed out that Islam is changing, along with Maghreb democracies. She said that there is a diversification in the religious field in North Africa, and while society is not becoming more secularized, there is perhaps a growing separation between Islam and politics. That separation may be facilitated by movement in women’s rights, she said.

In her talk, Sadiqi explored numerous paradoxes inherent in the aftermath of the Arab spring, but she also presented solutions. She suggested that gender equality be included in new constitutions and the policies of formative democracies and that legal action can be an important way for women’s equality to progress. She ended with the slogan from a growing political party in Tunisia:

“Democracy will happen with women, or it will not happen at all.”

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Defining “Human Rights”

Over the last year I’ve been honing a specialty for my pursuits in the field of journalism, and on several occasions I told people that I wanted my beat to focus on human rights and social justice. But I feel like I’m only just starting to understand what human rights even means.

In my work for a course on “Women’s International Human Rights,” I have to keep a glossary of terms. “Human Rights” stands as the first term on my list, and I realized after a few class meetings that it’s a complex concept with a rich history.

The United Nations are largely responsible for the establishment of codified human rights, and that process began after the genocide of World War II. The UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, but it still didn’t have any teeth for reinforcement, and its language betrayed some gender bias.

In an intense criticism of the Declaration, Catherine MacKinnon asks, “Are Women Human?” citing the language in Article 1 of the document: “All human beings…should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Men would not feel included if that document suggested all humans treat each other as sisters, suggests MacKinnon.

Furthermore, Article 23 reads, “Everyone who works has the right to just and favorable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity,” yet women today still do not receive equal pay and many struggle to support their own families to a dignified existence.

The establishment of codified human rights did by no means put men and women on equal footing, but it proved to be an important step in universalizing the idea that all humans deserve life, and dignity, and other immutable rights.

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights….Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. (Articles 1 and 2)

Other rights set out in the initial UN Declaration go beyond the US Bill of Rights and the “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” of the Declaration of Independence. In addition to the right of a fair trial and freedom from torture, the Universal Declaration states we all share the right to have a family, health, education, cultural life, leisure time, and more.

But the Universal Declaration does not do into depth about how to protect minority or underrepresented groups who experience systemic oppression. So more committees formed in the UN to monitor abuses against these groups and to support them. These groups include the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965) and The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979), among others.

All these details about international human rights are new to me. But I’m thrilled to learn about which countries have adopted various UN treaties and how that reflects on state protection of particular human rights. With each new discovery of the fascinating history of human rights documentation, I learn about more human rights violations. And these rights are violated in the United States as much as the next country. In this blog I’ll be sharing my discoveries and criticisms around human rights issues as I delve in deeper this semester and beyond.

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Women’s Shelter Opens Doors on Coldest Nights

This winter may seem mild, but Madison’s homeless residents feel it when the temperature drops.

“When you’re outside, it’s cold. Cold is cold,” said Pamela Brunk, evening supervisor at the Single Women’s Shelter.

 The playground and small community garden rest dormant and untouched outside the building, but the Salvation Army facility opens wide its doors on the coldest nights.

When the temperature drops below 21 degrees the shelter takes everyone in, even beyond the 30 bed capacity.

“If I have to have people sit in the reception area, if I don’t have beds, I’ll try and do that just to get them out of the cold,” said Brunk.

Brunk conducts intakes of clients at the shelter and serves as a problem-solver in the evenings. She has a large, generous smile and a small nose ring. Her counseling background serves her well in mediating disputes and addressing the needs of clients.

The shelter, located on the 600 block of East Washington, remains the only shelter for single women in Dane County. Brunk explained that single women have little access to housing support and health care.

The shelter is drop-in only. That means that women can arrive at the shelter at 5pm, sleep on a mattress in the facilities’ gym, and leave by 8am. Guests receive dinner and breakfast for each overnight visit.


Women visiting the shelter also benefit from certain health services including visits from MEDiC providers and Meriter Health Program which offers mental health assessments and prescription drugs.

During the day women can take shuttles to Porchlight’s Hospitality House to stay warm and access other resources during the winter.

According to Brunk, the shelters and service centers experience more traffic in the summer.

“Summer is our busier time of year,” said Brunk. “I think people are more mobile in the summer.”

But with the recent closing of the central library for renovation and restricted access to the capitol, homeless women and men gather at the shelters on winter nights of all temperatures.

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A Look Back at Haiti Through Sontag’s Good Writing

I visited Haiti in the summer of 2007, and although I traveled for professional reasons, the experience was emotional. I maintain a powerful interest in and empathy for the people I met, the program I participated in, and the country in general.

Deborah Sontag’s coverage of the 2010 earthquake earned her a Pulitzer nomination and has kept me in touch with a country I struggled to understand, even when I worked and lived in Jacmel and Leogane.

I reviewed Sontag’s articles after I learned she was nominated in the International Reporting category of the 2011 Pulitzer Prizes, and one caught and kept my attention. On October 17, 2010 the New York Times published, “Weary of Debris, Haiti Finally Sees Some Vanish.”

This article focuses on an American character involved with clean up, but Sontag conveys the burden of wreckage in Haiti, on Haitians, after the earthquake. Sontag tells this story though Randal Perkins, whose pressed jeans stand in stark contrast to the collapsed funeral home he’s clearing. And she does not lose sight of the way Haitians are experiencing the clean-up.

Aside from nice pacing, appropriately placed quotes, and interesting character development throughout, I loved her phrasing:

“It has been obvious since January that clearing the wreckage is the necessary prelude to this country’s reconstruction, physically and psychologically. But the problem was so dauntingly big and complex that the government and donors got stuck in visionary mode, planning the future while the present remained mired in rubble.”

In two sentences she manages to summarize the complex situation, while layering insight on scene-setting.

Sontag chooses not to end with something from a bureaucrat or contractor involved in the clean-up. Instead she grounds the end of the story as she started it in the headline, with emotion, honesty, and a Haitian perspective. She ends with a bittersweet quote from an onlooker:

“‘It’s beautiful,’ Ernst Saint Albor, 36, said as he leaned on his bicycle watching one building come down. ‘It looks like destruction, but it’s progress. We cannot bear to see these collapsed buildings any longer. Be gone with them.’”

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