GLOBAL SHIFT: Talking with the Executive Director of Women's Voices Now

October 1, 2010

An interview with Women’s Voices Now Executive Director and Genera Counsel, Catinca Tabacaru, about the conception of WVN, her ties with women’s rights, and her thoughts on using short-film as a device to give voice to underrepresented women.

Talking with the Founder of Women's Voices Now
by Jonathan Wu

October 1, 2010—Women’s Voices Now is a new and unique non-profit organization based in New York City that seeks to empower women by giving them a platform to voice out their lack of and struggles to obtain civic, economic, and political rights.

In its first year of operations, WVN is already making a splash with a its innovative short-film festival, which strives to conjure and elevate the discourse on women of the Muslim world — women living in Muslim majority countries, but also Muslim women who are minorities in their respective communities. Women’s Voices from the Muslim World: A Short-Film Festival is special because, unlike normal film festivals, its focus will be specifically on the rights of Muslim women and its submissions will be available online for the world to see.

Films for the festival fall into four categories: Documentary, Fiction, Experimental, and Student. All submissions will be accepted until November 1st (or Nov. 24 with a $20 fee).

Recently I had an opportunity to talk with Women’s Voices Now Executive Director and Genera Counsel, Catinca Tabacaru, about the conception of WVN, her ties with women’s rights, and her thoughts on using short-film as a device to give voice to underrepresented women.

How did Women’s Voices Now all begin?

After two years of working as an attorney at a big New York law firm, I had become disillusioned with the practice of corporate law and I craved a return to something like the humanitarian work I had done while completing my J.D./LL.M. at Duke Law School. There, I had worked for the U.N. at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Tanzania and for the Guantanamo Defense Team in Washington, DC.

I wanted to feel like I was saving the world again. After some internal exploration and volunteer work in the fine arts, I realized that I wanted to use art to raise awareness about women’s rights, a cause I had been passionate about since my UC Berkeley undergraduate days. Women’s Voices Now was the idea that followed.
Coming up with the first project for WVN took about three months of research and exploration. I spent this time talking to scholars, aid workers, activists and filmmakers. I understood the power of the media and wondered how we could best use it to give voice to underrepresented women in order to support the global movement for the expansion of women’s rights. Short film, especially when available on the Internet, proved to be the most compelling medium through which to reach and educate the largest number of people.

What gravitated you toward working with women’s rights?

It’s been a ten year process. Having grown up in Romania and Canada, I eventually went to college at UC Berkeley, needless to say, one of the most liberal schools in the States. In my second semester there, I ended up in a female sexuality class. In that class, it was me and 21 other women sitting in a room discussing issues that none of us had ever dreamed of discussing with even our family and friends. These issues included body image, the female cycle, masturbation, violence – all these taboo issues that you would never think of discussing in public. That experience created not only a connection within myself with the women in my class and women as a gender, but also my opinion that the genders are different, and we do have different needs as men and women. It created a community in which I became engaged with other women and women-focused issues. That, in essence, made me a feminist. It made me interested in supporting fellow women. For the first time in my life, I identified myself as a woman first (I had spent a lifetime identifying myself as a daughter or as an immigrant).

Ever since that class, women’s issues remained a focus of my personal life and interests, even though I did not take it to a professional level until I started WVN. So, when presented with the idea of taking a 5/6 pay cut and dedicating my time and energy to a worthy cause, women’s rights was the natural target. Not only did I feel personally attached to this issue, but my research showed that there was work to be done in this field that could truly move this world forward.

An idea that comes up a lot is the notion of the sustainability of a community that results as women are given more rights and equality. Could you further that idea a bit more?

There are different angles that humanitarian workers, NGOs, and even governments have taken in order to improve the situation of women. One of the ways they’ve been using is micro-financing — very small loans that both take care of the immediate needs of women and help women establish a small business. The moment you put economic power into women’s hands, that economic power is typically used to further the nutrition and education of their children and the prosperity of their family and their community as a whole. Countless studies have shown that men are more likely to use that money for boozing, whoring, and gambling whereas women will focus that money towards health and education, thus contributing back to their families and communities. Thus micro financing is one way where we see the increase of women’s equality and rights as having positive effects on their community as a whole, which leads to improvement of their country, and ultimately, the global community.

Another way to increase women’s rights and equality is by empowering them. When women are empowered, for example by being given a voice, 50% of the population is awoken. How can a country expect to advance when it must support half its population which is not allowed to contribute back to their communities in any meaningful way? Empowering women facilitates the confidence needed to make changes in both the private and public spheres. By definition, the expansion of women’s rights signifies that a community automatically becomes more democratic; which history has shown leads to extended peace.

So, in a nutshell, the expansion of women’s rights furthers democracy, which by definition furthers peace.

In your experiences so far, what do you see as a major challenge in improving women’s rights and gender equality?

This answer depends on who you ask. The answer may be significantly different from a Western white woman such as myself than from a religious woman living in Saudi Arabia. But I do believe there are at least two challenges that everyone can agree on when discussing the challenges faced by women’s rights activists in the Muslim world.

First, the major challenge to improving women’s rights and gender equality in Muslim-majority countries are the fundamental interpretations of Islam. For example, it is incredibly easy for clerics, communities, legal systems, and governments to look at a verse in the Quran and state with authority: “Well, the Quran says you must dress modestly, so sorry ladies you can’t show your ankles.” The objective reader can see the fallacy in this argument. The Quran actually only dictates that both males and females must cover their private parts and must dress modestly. Obviously, the definition of “modesty” is subjective and can range from covering one’s whole body to not wearing expensive clothing. Because it is such a malleable definition, those with power will interpret the religious text according to what outcomes their little hearts desire; whether that be regarding a woman’s right to dress as she pleases or her right to rule a country. Unfortunately, as with all other religious texts, the Quran is almost always used to limit women’s rights, not to expand them. The list is endless for how religion is used as the justification for disallowing freedom to women, and Muslim-majority governments are masters of such religious manipulation.

Second, the representation of Muslim women by the media is also a major impediment to the expansion of women’s rights in Muslim-majority countries. The media is very turned on by this one dimensional persona of the Muslim woman — she’s veiled, oppressed, abused and most certainly a powerless victim. It’s really hard to be empowered and to fight for one’s rights when the whole world thinks of you as a victim. A major perception shift must take place and it is not difficult to do. The truth is that there are hundreds of thousands of women living in the Muslim world who are independent, driven and capable. They are starting their own businesses, running their households and changing their societies. All the international media has to do is shed some light away from the “victim” and upon the heroin.

I think this is the difference between talking to me and talking to a Muslim woman living in a Muslim-majority country; I think the priorities will be switched. They will name the media as a bigger challenge while I tend to point at the crazy interpretation of Islam. Regardless, I don’t believe which challenge one believes to be the more important, they’re both huge impediments to women being able to access their rights.

Have you seen any places with great potential for overcoming these challenge?

Yes, of course! Iran is a perfect example. it’s a place where women take risks every day in order to further their rights. They wear brightly colored veils instead of the traditional (and legally required black Chador), they dye their hair blonde, they make art and attend underground indie rock concerts. All these behaviors come with a certain amount of personal risk, but because there are so many people takings such risks, the chances of getting caught are lowered (although still significant). In fact, in Iran, women’s emancipation and the expansion of women’s rights has developed further than other countries where women remain divided and aren’t combining their efforts.

Indonesia is another example of a Muslim-majority country where women have and continue to overcome the challenges to their fundamental rights. In Indonesia it is a common sight to see women in burkas walking in public alongside women in skinny jeans and tank tops. The status of women in Indonesia is significantly different than Afghanistan or Yemen. In Indonesia, women are much more involved in the arts, politics and the economy.

A whole spectrum can be identified that ranges from Indonesia, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey where women enjoy many freedoms, to countries such as Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yemen where women can’t be seen in public unaccompanied by a male relative.

Why did you choose to use the concept of short films and a film festival as opposed to other mediums?

First of all, the medium of film is incredibly compelling because it breaks through divisive lines and boundaries. Film itself can be compelling to people of diverse backgrounds, faiths and literacy levels. With image, sound, and art all in one, the message can be conveyed very quickly and clearly – making film more user-friendly than sources like government reports and newspaper articles.

Secondly, we chose the short-film format because it’s Internet friendly. Not only does short film cater to today’s attention deficit, but it allows a visitor to the site to watch multiple films and thus be exposed to diverse points of view; as opposed to being able to watch one feature film. In the same vein, short film allows for people who watch the films clandestinely to learn and get the point quickly –they don’t have to commit to a 2-hour film but can watch and learn from a 7-minute film.

Another interesting aspect of short films is that it allows for the multiplicity of voices. When you watch a feature film, that feature film tells you the perspective of one person or one small group of people. But when you’re able to go online and watch 7 short films, you get the points of view of 7 different people who may be coming from different backgrounds religiously, politically, nationally, etc.

It is important to note that we are bombarded every day by two points of view for discussing women in the Muslim world. The two voices we hear are: (i) the neo-conservatives who are, for all intensive purposes, Islamaphobes, and (ii) the religious fundamentalists who fight for the woman’s right to wear the veil… but do not fight for any other women’s rights. We’re simply not hearing the voice that says, “why should a women’s piety be measured by how much of herself she chooses to make invisible behind a cloth?” Both these two extremes are wrong on the veil issue: taking away a woman’s right to dress as she pleases is unacceptable. It is equally unacceptable to strongly support a practice that has long been considered archaic by modern female leaders. But clearly these are not the only two takes on the issue. Where is the conversation in the middle, where’s the dialogue? This is exactly what we at Women’s Voices Now wants to tap into: The dialogue from the women’s rights perspective.

What advice would you give to young people who want to bring change to the world?

First, and most important: Take action! It is so easy talk about issues, be angry about issues, but the question is, what are you doing to contribute? The best thing you can do is get involved with an organization, or set up a program in your school, or organize dinner parties where you can watch documentaries, learn about the world, and make a plan for how you can contribute to the solution, how you can make your community better. Donate your money and your time. Just do something that actually works towards a result.

Travel is also very important. Travel is the killer of ignorance and intolerance. I think Mark Twain said that. Travel and see the world so that when you are faced with critical issues you can assess them from different points of view.

Lastly, you should educate yourself. If you care about an issue look it up once a day. It is also important to learn about issues from different sources of information so that you can draw your own conclusions.
Talking with the Founder of Women's Voices Now