Film Review: Freedom Fields, and the Perpetual Struggle for Choice

I’ve been in London for three weeks now, and I’m already dreadfully homesick for Libya. I know right now that every Libyan’s dream is to get out of the country, but there is so much emptiness (at least for me) outside the enclosure of our society. There’s no familiarity here, and it’s probably a side-effect of the war but I’m finding it difficult to bond with people who haven’t been through that same experience that I have. I’m probably being annoyingly pretentious to my Libya readers (my double-shafra-ness is showing *hides in shame*) but there you have it. Home is home, even if it’s broken.

I got a chance to briefly go back when I attended the screening of the documentary ‘Freedom Fields’, which chronicles the struggles of the Libyan National Women’s Soccer Team (“football team” for you annoying non-North Americans). I got a ticket by being my Libyan self and looking for a wasta (connection) because it sold out quite quickly. I’m sure you’re digging through your memories right now and remembering ‘oh yeah, there was a thing about a women’s soccer team a few years ago’. There was a lot happening in Libya back in 2012 and after the sensation died down we didn’t hear about the team anymore.

This film covers what did happen after the huge controversy, and follows the lives of these women over five years. Specifically it covers three main storylines; Na’ma, a Tawerghan woman living in a camp in Tripoli who’s circumstances have given her a nothing-to-lose iron will; Halima, a bombastic and passionate doctor-to-be; and Fadwa, an ambitious and headstrong young woman.

I think the film is geared more towards foreign audiences, to give them a rare glimpse into the lives of Libyans, but it really struck a chord with me as a Libyan viewer, simply because even we don’t have access to the kind of media that gives us a perspective on how different Libyans across the country live (how many of us have seen the inside of a Tawerghan camp?) but also how similar we all are (that constant societal pressure for women to get married and ‘settle down’ affects us all regardless of tribe or social class). The women portrayed in the movie could have been anyone I know, neighbours or friends or colleagues. For this reason the movie felt so personal to watch.

This point is particularly notable for me (and I believe for other Libyans) because I’m sure many people never looked into the issue of the women’s soccer team, we never realized that behind the controversy and Facebook wars, there were regular Libyan women who just wanted to play soccer (which is not that outlandish an idea, women have always played sports in Libya, it’s just that they’ve never played so visibly before). It’s incredibly sad to realize this in hindsight but the lost battle of the team set the tone for all the struggles that activists fought after the revolution, as our rights as women and citizens were put on the chopping block. If we had known this now, I think more people would have been vocal about this cause back in 2012.

The filmmaker is British-Libyan Naziha Areibi, who came to the premier decked out in a farmela and silver ‘abroug jewelry. She is completely invisible throughout the movie, acting only as a camera, but I’m sure that her relationship with the people played a large part in how she was able to shoot (and because Libyans aren’t the kind of people who would let you just passively watch but get you involved in the conversation), and it would have been interesting to see behind-the-scene footage into how the women interacted with this documentary process.

What I admired most about the structure of the film is that it is free from any kind of political or social statement. To be sure, there are a lot of political undertones in the film, but only in how it immediately ties with the lives of the players, and always told through their voice. You hear of the frustrations they have with a revolution that didn’t fulfill its promise of freedom, of the increasing isolation Libya faced after the 2014 war and all the restrictions that came with it. Even with the social aspect, you just see Libyans living their everyday lives, without any sensationalism or exaggeration. You know how merciless I get when it comes to representation of Libyans, but this film gets my Authentic Libyan™ seal of approval.

Being reminded of my own experiences as a woman in Libya, coupled with the heartbreak of what our country is capable of and yet unable to attain because of the situation, left me in tears at the end of the movie (it might have also been the homesickness). Yes there are still good and strong people in Libya who are trying to resist the hopelessness, but there is always that fear of how long they can last. How long can a person put up a fight and pick themselves up when they’re down, when the fight is against the very reality of your country?

This film is one of a few but growing number of media that covers Libya without casting the war as the main character, including the Tatweer Enjazi documentary on the entrepreneur contest of the same name, and the work of the Elkul channel. Yes, they are few and far in-between, but it’s a great start to begin magnifying Libyan voices and counter the wave of Western-produced garbage about our country.

I’m not going to spoil the film too much because you should definitely go and watch it for yourself. The next screening will be in Amsterdam, and the production team is currently trying to organize screenings inside Libya itself (if the situation permits). Whether you like it or hate it, as long as we can start a discussion in our country on what choices we give to our women and our society at large, maybe one day we’ll have a national women’s soccer team again.

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Project Silphium, a Conversation on Women’s Rights in Libya

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Activists in Tripoli, Libya, taking part in the 16 Days campaign. (Picture taken from the GVB Program FB page here)

You might have heard about the 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence, a campaign that seeks to end violence against women. Every year it starts on November 25 (International Day Against Violence Against Women) and ends on December 10 (International Human Rights Day). These 16 days are used to raise awareness on a multitude of issues such as rape, domestic violence and female genital mutilation, to name a few.

An excellent Op/Ed piece in Libyan Youth Voices has been published recently entitled “Sound the Alarm, Tightening Spaces for Women in Libya“, which highlights a series of worrying developments concerning women in Libyan society.  From the article:

There used to be a glass ceiling in Libyan society, I know it was there because I experienced it first-hand. However, the glass ceiling has since shrunk to a wooden shed. I’m afraid to actually admit this out loud but if everyone keeps brushing off these accumulating incidents, we’re going to end up in a cement grave.

With the eroding state of the country and the ever-growing war, how can Libyan women combat these problems? One group of Libyans decided to utilize the power of the internet and launch Project Silphium, a blog with real life stories and experiences, written by Libyan women for Libyan women. From the blog’s description:

Silphium was a plant that was used in Cyrene (Shahat) as a medicine. Project Silphium on the other hand heals through lots of rants, views and opinions of Libyan women with real life stories and struggles, aiming to reach out and empower women all over Libya.

The blog is the efforts of both Libyan men and women, working as writers and designers. While it’s still relatively new (less than a week old), it has already attracted a lot of attention. One of the co-founders told me that the idea came from the frustration that much of the news articles on Libyan women didn’t represent them and how they felt.

They also expressed excitement at the reaction the blog was getting, especially that “young people are responding” and contributing their experiences.

Part of the success of this project can be attributed to the simple yet powerful impact that sharing real life stories can have. Under the cloak of anonymity, Libyan women can send in their own stories/rants in either English or Arabic. Having a safe platform with which to express yourself and to be heard is one of the greater aspects of the internet and one that has proven to be a profound change-maker.

So far the blog has featured posts like “There’s More To Life Than Just Men and Make-up“, “انا مسلمة و اطالب بحقوق المرأة” (I am Muslim and I Demand Women’s Rights) and “انتِ اكثر بكثير من زوجة رجل ليبي” (You Are More Than Just the Wife of a Libyan Man).

This will give outsiders a chance to hear the raw and diverse narrative of women in Libya, and hopefully, will give Libyan men a chance to better understand the emotions and struggles of their fellow citizens.

(You can check out Project Silphium’s Facebook page here or, if you’re a Libyan woman, contribute your own story and send it to projectsilphium@gmail.com )

Perception of Women and Women’s Rights in the Middle East

I was rooting through some old documents the other day and found an essay I wrote for my civil society class at Georgetown University. I remember spending a few days at the library with Starry Gee researching the issue, and even as an Arab woman living in the region, there were a lot of new revelations, not just about how others perceive us but how we perceive ourselves. Not to toot my own horn, but it’s an interesting read. 

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American exposure to the Middle East increased exponentially after 9/11. There was a desire to learn about the other side. Perhaps because this exposure came with a wave of anti-Islamic sentiment, the perception leaned more negatively. Many saw the region as fostering primitive beliefs and backwards traditions, especially concerning women. One of the main problems was the inability of some to distinguish between the Islamic religion and Arab traditions, and the lack of knowledge of other religions and beliefs in the region.

Generally in the West, the idea of ‘male protection’ or the headscarf is viewed as signs of inequality, and the idea that women would embrace these ideals considered ludicrous. But, what is considered oppressive by some is not viewed the same by others, as is the case here. Cultural relativism plays a large role. The problem is that each side believes the other to be culturally conditioned.

In the book, “Women in Islam: The Western Experience”, the author makes mention to the in-group/out-group perception, where one observes the ‘practice’ of other groups but the ‘ideology’ within their own.

Clearly the missing aspect here is communication, or rather, the lack thereof. This can be seen from the introduction of universal women’s rights in the region. According to ‘Islam and the Challenge of Human Rights’ –

“The modern language of human rights is confrontational and insensitive to traditional resources…” (pg. 145)

What is perceived as westernization by the region is rejected and the people revert deeper into the old traditions. This furthers the impression of intolerance. The media also plays a momentous role in this issue. Again from ‘Islam and the Challenge of Human Rights’

“As soon as women in those societies appear covered in their headscarves…our cries of human rights violations becomes part of media and academic sensationalism.” (pg. 145)

However, Muslims families in America give an altogether different perspective. They tend to integrate themselves to American culture without losing their own, and this is helping to change perceptions and dismantle misconceptions.

With the advances of technology and communications, these gaps between cultures and regions is closing day by day, as people from each group begin to grasp the differences, but also the similarities, of West and East. This understanding will pave the way, hopefully, towards peace.

References:

1)      Women in Islam: The Western Experience. Anne Sofie Roald. Routledge. 2001

2)      Muslims in the United States. Ilyas Ba-Yunus & Kassim Kone. Greenwood Press. 2006

3)      Islam and The Challenge of Human Rights. AbdulAziz Sachedina. Oxford University Press. 2009

Libya: Facing Our Demons

I wrote a post in response to the rape attack on two foreign women in Benghazi a few days ago, you can read it on Mary Haddad’s awesomely Arab blog E7kili (in Arabic)

http://e7kili.wordpress.com/2013/03/30/%D9%84%D9%8A%D8%A8%D9%8A%D8%A7-%D9%84%D9%86%D9%88%D8%A7%D8%AC%D9%87-%D8%B4%D9%8A%D8%A7%D8%B7%D9%8A%D9%86%D9%86%D8%A7/

For the English version

http://e7kili.wordpress.com/2013/03/30/libya-facing-our-demons/