March is when we celebrate women. Although March 8 is International Women’s Day, activities take place throughout the month. Some people question as to why we need a “Women Day”? Well we need this to create awareness that women are still not recognized for their complete human rights in many parts of the world.

It’s in this essence that I travelled halfway across the world to participate in the The 49% Film Festival held in Jerusalem from March 6 – 8, 2019.

What exactly is The 49% Film Festival? This is the brainchild of Paula Kweskin, a Human Rights lawyer whose first film Honor Diaries went on to become an award-winning documentary about honor based violence. Why is this festival different? She invited films, film makers and activists to openly address issues that are considered taboo or too controversial to be included in regular festivals, but are the burning issues for women of today e.g. FGM, sexual harassment, religious space for women and forced marriage. The line-up was diverse and international. The participants to the festival included filmmakers and activists from Canada, Egypt, Israel, the US, and the UK.

In creating the Festival she explains:

“Women are disruptors of their societies and the agents of social change. While women are 49% of the population they are only:
* 32% of national parliamentarians worldwide
* 4.8% of CEO positions at S&P 500 companies
* less than 30% of researchers worldwide
* 24% of protagonists in Hollywood films

We believe that women must tell their stories in order for the status quo to change. That’s why we are launching The 49% Film Festival. The 49% Film Festival will feature films from underrepresented female (and male) filmmakers from around the world whose films focus on women’s stories and struggles.”

So it is with a sense of anticipation that I attended the opening night on March 6 with the Canadian Ambassador to Israel as the keynote speaker. This was followed by a screening of In Her Footsteps at the Cinematheque, a film by Rana Abu Fraiha. The film documents an entire family torn between fulfilling the mother’s last wish and social codes that cannot be ignored. During the process of separation from the mother, the film reveals the family intimacy, secrets and dilemmas, raises serious questions about women’s identity, nationality and the meaning of home.

There was also a screening of The Cruel Cut which a film about Female Genital Mutilation. Every 11 seconds, a girl undergoes female genital mutilation (FGM). Leyla Hussein is an anti-FGM campaigner and a survivor who shares her personal experience of FGM with the goal of protecting girls from this abusive practice. Originally from Somalia, Leyla works as a psychotherapist in the UK and addresses the prevalence of FGM around the world. As Leyla reminds us, FGM is a practice of oppressing women and controlling women’s sexuality. It is not an African issue, it is not an Asian issue; it is a global issue that requires a global investment in women.

Other films that were screened were The Youngest and His Cucumber by Sharine Atif. Each film was followed by a panel discussion in which the audience participated.

On March 7, there was the first ever screening of a Pakistani film in Israel. Dukhtar was screened at Cinematheque with English and Hebrew subtitles and I spoke on a panel after the screening. Accompanying me was a Haredi Jewish activist, Fainy Sukenik who runs an organization called Basher Telchi (which roughly translates as “wherever you go”. It was mind boggling to hear her speak of some of the issues faced by Orthodox Jewish women with regards to divorce and child custody. It also made me realise that we have similar issues and it’s so important for women of different backgrounds to come together to discuss and debate these problem. This is why I found this festival so inspiring, innovative and exciting.

Subsequent festivals will be held in various locations throughout the world with a goal toward empowering and emboldening women’s voices globally.
My trip was made even more poignant when upon landing back in Toronto, I was standing at the baggage carousel at the airport, and a stranger came up to me, shook my hand and said “Thank you for the work you do. Please don’t ever stop”….