Wednesday 25 January 2012

‘Bol’: a feminist film

A student of mine whose father is a film distributor in the Middle East was able to hold a private screening for her friends (and me!) of the Indian/Pakistani film ‘Bol’ (speech/words/speak) that I mentioned here on Facebook. I am very happy that I was able to watch it and encourage every Muslim who calls themselves feminist to watch it. Bol is a Hindi/Urdu word that is often a noun meaning speech or words, even lyrics but can also be an imperative to mean ‘speak!’

Bol is Pakistani film producer and director Shoaib Mansoor’s brilliant work. Mansoor has very artfully raised almost all the issues that Muslim feminists address regularly. I would call Bol a bold Muslim feminist film. Some of the general and feminist themes that I noticed Mansoor tackle are:

Deep rooted and menacing desire for a male child
Scorn and hatred for the “third gender” (as has now been officially accepted in Pakistan)
Desire for the female child by the segment of society that lives off prostituting women
Honour killing
Forced marriages
Giving young women in marriage to much older men
Wife beating
Theft and its micro and macro effects
Extortion and bribery
Denial of education to women
Lack of use of contraception
Scorn for rationalism
Disregard for public by politicians
Belief amongst the under-educated class that gender of the fetus is determined by the mother
Superstitious belief in tarot reading

The desire for a male child is a theme that runs throughout the film and is one that gives rise to other themes. The “patriarch” (I seem to be really milking this term!) of the family, Hakim Sahab, wants a son and this desire causes his wife to become pregnant fourteen times. The eldest daughter, Zainab, is the protagonist of the film who yells towards the end “why is it that only killing someone is a crime while giving birth isn’t?”

Sometimes indirectly and often directly Mansoor tries his best to educate people about issues that plague many societies especially his Pakistani society. There are some points I found powerfully poignant in the film. For example, in one scene Zainab engages in an argument with her father who is abusing her for making her mother undergo tubal litigation after her fourteenth pregnancy that had made her very ill. Hakib Sahab tells his daughter that even though they are deathly poor this should not stop him from having more children and trying for a son because it is Allah who “gives food if He gives mouths” and that the Prophet had once shown his desire to have “the greatest ummah (following) on the Day of Judgment.” At this Zainab retorts that if the first argument was true people wouldn’t be dying from hunger and poverty in many parts of the world and questions why Muslims always understand “greatest” as in population?! Why couldn’t the Prophet have desired a following greatest in wisdom, honesty and prosperity?! Zainab shows her doubt that the Prophet could have wanted a populated ummah that was poor and “as stupid as an ass”! At this Hakim Sahab slaps Zainab for doubting the words and intentions of the Prophet that only he can understand better.

At another point in the film Hakim Sahab is being interrogated by police for murdering his son (who was not a problem for Hakim Sahab to kill since the child was a hermaphrodite and a tarot reading had allowed the father to make this easy decision). The police officer asks Hakim Sahab what prompted him to kill his own son and the latter replies that it was an “honour killing” (the child had been gang raped!). At this the police officer comments very matter-of-factly that “it is only daughters that are killed in the name of honour.”

Hakim Sahab also takes on another wife without the knowledge of his first wife. The second wife is a prostitute and part of his decision to remarry is his desire to have a son since his first wife is “only good at two things: cooking and producing girls.” Nevertheless, he is almost forced into marriage by his new father-in-law, a pimp by profession, who wants a granddaughter that he could prostitute since he has five “useless sons” of his own and he had learned that Hakim Sahab has seven daughters. It is this pimp who educates Hakim Sahab that science (which he says is often disregarded by homeopathic doctors and religious people) has proved that gender of an unborn child is determined by the sperm and not the egg. He is convinced that Hakim Sahab would be able to give him a granddaughter whereas the former doesn’t believe “faulty science” and is hopeful that the new and young wife would give him a son. He has another daughter.

Hakim Sahab who is portrayed as a deeply-religious man is shown having no inhibitions in marrying again without the knowledge of his first wife. He beats her at one point – quite mercilessly, losing his senses in a fit of rage and kicking her in the stomach several times. He kills his child in the name of honour when he is raped and beats Zainab several times in the film for “raising her voice” and “doubting hadith.” His beliefs are often naïve but also very common. He hates his Shite next-door neighbour, doesn’t believe in birth control, doesn’t believe in educating daughters, dislikes modern science, and holds superstitious beliefs. All this makes him a very strict, unhappy and angry man. The only two times he smiles in the film are when he thinks his wife has given birth to a son (who then is revealed by the doula to be a hermaphrodite) and when he is in the private chamber of his prostitute second wife. His innocent son notices his father’s behaviour very early on in his life. When Zainab encourages him to “act like a man” he says, “how hard is it to be a man? All you have to do is yell at your family and be angry.” Zainab corrects him that not all men are like their father.

That is the bottom line – while there may be many terrible men in this world, not all men are terrible. This world is beautiful because there are beautiful women and beautiful men. Good men like Hakim Sahab’s Shite neighbour and his son are also shown in the film. I think Shoaib Mansoor himself is a remarkable man for not only identifying but also boldly highlighting such disturbing issues.
Bol is a film that will leave you asking yourselves many questions. It is a film that has a hard throbbing feminist vein and since it is based on the life of a common Pakistani and Muslim family it may prove a valuable resource to those who are interested in exploring the lives of Muslim women in developing Muslim countries who don’t have the luxury, means or even the permission to know Islamic Feminism and what the movement is doing for their rights.


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