The Journey to Freedom
“The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything.’’ ― Albert Einstein
Freedom is a noun, described in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action.” It is also defined as “the state of not being imprisoned or enslaved.” In my daily life, I enjoy freedom as a matter of course. Yet, for many people in the world, freedom is anything but. My film, February, about which I write, amplifies the voice of a woman from Iran whose story tells the tale of women’s oppression. This film’s aim is to contribute to the empowerment of women, and to encourage others to do so.
A WOMAN’S VOICE
The idea for February was triggered after a conversation I had with a woman from Iran. The woman seemed depressed and unhappy, which made me curious about her background. When I asked questions about her life, the woman did not hesitate to divulge to me her personal stories, reliving each of her memories with emotion-filled words. Some stories the woman shared with laughter, like how she loved working as a radiologist and the bizarre situations she sometimes encountered at work. Most stories, however, were fraught with tension, like the story of how she one day was forced to leave her homeland, Iran, behind.
In her book, A Life for a Life, Dinah Maria Mulock Craik explains how pouring out words to another person can have a comforting effect on someone suffering hardship. This is supported by life coach Dhara Jani who, in her article “How to Help Someone Feel Loved and Understood,” reveals how sharing her fears, disappointments, and pain actually helped her overcome her own depression. Correspondingly, sharing her voice seemed to have a comforting effect on the Iranian woman. Based on a true-life story,February arose out of this Iranian woman’s cathartic storytelling.
THE LONG JOURNEY TOWARD FREEDOM
One of the major subjects the woman discussed was women’s oppression in Iran. Iran’s 35-year-old Islamic republic requires women to cover their heads. In the same decree, women are forced to cover their bodies. Even during summer, when temperatures reach 40 degrees Celsius, Iran’s morality police keep a vigilant eye on women who defy these laws. According to the Iranian woman, she one day felt very sick and was rushing home from her workplace. Somehow, her chador had dropped back on her head. Unfortunately, the Iranian morality police were on her street and charged her with “indecent behavior.” They called her several derogatory names and when the woman, who was tired of the clothing constraints, asked why the Iranian morality police were cursing at her, they pointed a gun at her chest.
It is known throughout Iran that one is not allowed to argue with the morality police, such a transgression can lead to imprisonment or even a death sentence. “I thought it was my last day,” the woman said heavily. Then, by luck, a colleague passed by and involved himself in the discussion. The Iranian woman was given a chance to cover her head without being taken to prison. In shock, she rushed home. This encounter represents just one of the many types of constraints women face in Iran.
Eventually, the woman was forced to leave her homeland behind and move to the Netherlands where other challenges awaited her. The woman appreciated that the Dutch government absorbed her into the country, but life as an asylum seeker was not much different than being in prison, something she wished she never had to experience.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, an asylum seeker and a refugee are different. An asylum seeker is a person who says he or she is a refugee, but whose claim of refugee status needs to be thoroughly investigated. This means that, from the moment an asylum seeker presents him- or herself in a state where he or she makes a claim, hours and hours of interrogation follow. It is known that it can take years―sometimes even ten years of evaluation and investigation―until an asylum seeker is qualified for international protection. Asylum seekers, therefore, endure years with the uncertainty of whether they will be sent back to their homeland or will be granted asylum. Above all, until they are qualified for international protection, asylum seekers are not allowed to build a new life. The Iranian woman spent five years in an Asylum Seeker Resource Center. Indeed, the journey to freedom was a long one for her.
COMMUNICATION THROUGH FILM
“The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.” ― Ralph Nichols
It was heart wrenching to hear the woman say that no one would ever understand her because they had no common frame of reference. Calling upon Dhara Jani’s wisdom, again, she explains that a major contributing factor to depression is the feeling of not being understood. Referring to her own experience with depression, Jani reveals in her article that, during her time of depression, she felt like the people in her environment did not understand her and lacked the time, patience, or skills to listen effectively. This made her feel suffocated, isolated, and invisible.
In an interview with James Grissom in 2001, actress Marian Seldes acknowledged that we do not live unless we respond to life. And if pain or horror is present, we should do something to alter the balance. Supporting the words of Ralph Nichols above, my encounter with the woman inspired me to respond in two ways: first, to somehow make her feel more understood and, in this way, make the woman feel better; second, to share her voice on a larger scale. Film is a powerful tool of communication because it enables one to compress a substantial amount of information into a short amount of time, to color it, and to convey a particular, perhaps, misunderstood or unknown reality. With these ideas in mind, I decided to make a film about the Iranian woman’s life story.
A DATE BETWEEN A MAN AND A WOMAN
To make the film, I needed to collect more details on the woman’s story. This meant that additional interviews had to be conducted. Soon, we assembled a pile of transcripts documenting poignant experiences from her life. The collected information compiled personal anecdotes from the woman’s life in Iran, to her divorce from her former husband, with whom she had fled from Iran to the Netherlands. The stories were sufficient for a full-length film, but due to limitations of time and budget, we made a short film. With so much information, my team and I soon faced the major challenge of selecting a small part of the woman’s life story and developing it. After months of consideration, we created a story focusing on a date between a man and a woman. InFebruary, something beautiful happens between the man and the woman, but nothing is what it seems.
February would not have been possible without a great team, of which I would like to acknowledge two people in particular. One of them is our executive producer, Michael Florie, who, as an active supporter of women’s rights, encouraged this project from its beginning. Michael has not only backed February as an executive producer, but has also been a friend offering invaluable advice. The other person I would like to acknowledge is our director Siar Sedig. Siar’s parents fled to the Netherlands as refugees from Afghanistan. Siar’s own experience, coming from a family who sought refuge helped him to provide significant input in his capacity as director of the film. With his great commitment and creativity, Siar brought our script and the woman’s voice to life.
They say that one needs to live in an “unfree” state to understand what it means to live in a free state. Since my conversation with the woman from Iran, I am more aware that the freedom I grew up with in the Netherlands is not to be taken for granted. With this better understanding, I appreciate everything more.
Women in Muslim-majority societies face many restrictions to their basic rights, and often these limitations follow them wherever they go. This form of oppression causes much damage to their lives and their ability to fulfill their human potential. February provides one example of this oppression and the women who seek to thrive and succeed in spite of the difficulties and limitations into which they are born. Raising more awareness by bringing these stories to concerned people is a great step toward creating feasible solutions to these issues. In doing so, women, such as the subject of February, will hopefully realize they are not alone. At the same time, I am convinced that being part of a solution to women’s rights abuses will bring more meaning to our own lives.