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Unexpected Voices

Oct 4, 2011
by Carrie Pack Chowske, '00

Alumna works with film festival highlighting Muslim women

Of all the news coming out of predominantly Muslim countries, many of the women living there wish the Western media spoke more about women who are fighting against repression and less about the abuses they endure.

Alumna Cassandra Schaffa, ’05, found herself helping spread that very message after she answered an ad on Craigslist last year. Schaffa was in her last year of her master’s degree in cinema studies at New York University when she stumbled upon an ad for an internship at a unique film festival.

Women’s Voices Now was conceived as a way to empower women in the Muslim world by putting cameras in their hand. It evolved to include stories of Muslim women living as minorities around the world and women of all faiths living in predominantly Muslim countries.

Schaffa, a communication and Spanish major, says the idea was simple: “If you give somebody who is facing an issue a camera, then they can highlight their own circumstance. They are being given a voice and being empowered.”

Over the course of 14 months, Schaffa, along with the other staff members, reviewed submissions, secured judges and promoted the fledgling film festival. But there was another aspect that needed special attention.

Because she had literally no personal experience with Islam, and none of the other women working at Women’s Voices Now were Muslim, Schaffa relied heavily on Muslim women to give them advice for the festival. What she heard intrigued her. These women didn’t want sympathy or pity. In fact, they wanted to stay away from a lot of what Western media had been reporting; they simply wanted to tell the world what great things they were doing to help themselves. They wanted a voice.

“What we heard was, ‘Yes, there are problems in these countries. But there are so many women who are empowered, so many women who are making changes within our countries.’ ”

Schaffa said they were able to tell those stories without even trying to steer the submissions in that direction. “We were very happy … that we weren’t getting the same information that was being provided on the traditional news sources, ” she said.

One of the more than 200 stories told through submissions to the festival was a 25-minute documentary of a female prosecutor in Afghanistan who was fighting for the rights of Muslim women. The word “women” is misleading, though.

One of the “women” she helped defend was a 9-year-old girl who had been married off by her father and beaten and burned by her husband for simply trying to sleep. It won first place in the documentary category.

Schaffa says people were shocked – not necessarily over the treatment of the women and girls highlighted in the film, because that was anticipated – but because they didn’t know you could make movies in Afghanistan, let alone that there were female prosecutors who fight for women’s rights.

And it wasn’t just the stories of women told in the films that influenced Schaffa. “What shocked me … was in terms of communication with people in these countries,” she said. “We’ve become more globally connected in the past 10 years or so. I never realized how much.”

Schaffa said she received emails from all over the world thanking her and Women’s Voices Now for their work with the festival. “[I remember thinking] there’s no way we’re going to reach that far into those countries,” she said.

Women’s Voices Now is continuing its work making sure these voices and stories are heard. They embarked on a university tour, booking lectures and screenings at American universities and even in Jordan and Qatar. Their goal is to give the films a longer shelf life.

“It would have been a waste to collect all these films and then not get them out there,” Schaffa said.

Some of the films are having larger impacts than simply story telling. One of the student films, called “Breast Cancer in Qatar – Overcoming Cultural Boundaries,” deals with healthcare in a country where women’s body parts are never talked about. “If a woman talks about a problem with her breasts, it’s taboo,” Schaffa said. “She’s suppose to be covered up.”

And so women stay in the dark about medical conditions, often to their detriment. But the film highlights an effort to raise awareness. Women are gradually becoming more comfortable discussing their health with doctors, and it’s becoming less embarrassing for women to seek treatment.

Schaffa, who has since moved on to look for more permanent work, says that film characterizes her goal for Women’s Voices Now.

“[The women are telling] the world their circumstance, but they’re also being given a voice,” she said.

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