Women’s Voices: Why Now?
This article was published in tribute to Leslie J. Sacks (1952-2013), founder, seed funder, and board chair of Women’s Voices Now. Leslie passed away on September 26, 2013, after a valiant, decade-long battle with cancer.
Let me begin by addressing a question I have heard from friends and associates since the discussion of a film festival about women in the Muslim World began. This question, very simply, was: Why? Or, more specifically: Why do you care?
The question was not callous, but curious. Even folks who are well informed of the generally dismal state of women’s rights around the world wanted to know why I—a Jewish, South African, American, gallery owner from Los Angeles—was invested, particularly, in the plight of women in the Muslim World. The answer is two-fold.
First, I am—and always have been—deeply concerned about the state of womankind in general, and women’s rights in particular. I believe the condition and equality of a society’s women is the ultimate marker of the justice characteristic of that society. As the source of life, women are particularly well disposed to cherish and protect it. It is unsurprising, then, that the more empowered a society’s women, the more empowered are all of its citizens, better protected from the abuses of governments and other power brokers, the freer to express themselves, and to determine their own fates. Nor is it surprising that the larger role females play in politics and other forms of decision-making the less likely a society is to violently repress its own people. Indeed, these links between women’s rights and democracy, and women’s empowerment and peace have been confirmed by scientific research.
Women’s rights are also critical to a society’s economic vitality. Women are so often among society’s most resourceful and entrepreneurial members. Thus, very simply, an economy in which at least half the labor force is stymied in their efforts to excel and achieve will, inevitably, be stunted and stagnant.
The second and separate reason for my deep interest and commitment to this issue is more specific and, admittedly, at times more controversial. I believe that the promotion and expansion of women’s rights in the Muslim World is critical to the security, prosperity, and— ultimately—the survival of the Free World. A free and democratic way of living is of utmost importance to me, and I make no apologies for pursuing its best interests—especially when those interests are so closely aligned with the interests of both womankind and mankind.
The generally unequal, downtrodden, and oppressed state of women around the world is symptomatic of a larger rejection of humanitarian, liberal, progressive, and tolerant values by certain leaders of societies. Sadly, I believe it is also indicative of a deeply worrying intolerance toward basic civil liberties, a lack of respect for the individual, and, subsequently, for each and every human life. It is these rejections and intolerances—epitomized by, but not limited to—radical interpretations of religion, which fuel fanatical violence and terrorism, homophobia, misogyny, and a general distrust for those who are different. I believe women are the key to changing this state of affairs. In the Muslim World, particularly, I believe women are the great and often overlooked agents of change.
Women’s Voices Now, through its film festivals, shows exactly what I mean. While some films that we receive perform the important task of giving voice to the voiceless, of communicating the unjust and often inhumane conditions under which many of these women toil, other films tell courageous and utterly inspiring stories of women overcoming obstacles to create change and progress in their societies. Imagine, for a moment, a world in which these women were allowed to operate freely and individually, imbued with much fuller and less precarious opportunities to contribute to the political, social, and economic development of their countries, their cities, and their towns. Indeed, even the films explicitly dealing with injustice and oppression reveal to us this potential, for it takes courage and dedication to raise your voice when you are required to be voiceless.
This is why Women’s Voices Now was created. This is not a movement fixated, as most are, on ideas and politics—rather it is about each person, every individual everywhere, equal before God. We believe the fulcrum for democratic change and equality for women in the Muslim World is the freedom of expression: the freedom to say what you want; to believe what you want; to read, write, and watch what you want, and, thus, be who you want to be. Furthermore, the ability of women to bring their manifold talents and new perspectives into the marketplaces of goods and ideas not only reinforces female equality by demonstrating its clear value to society, but also facilitates the fusion of these societies with modernity, improving the general lot and opportunity set of everyone, not just women.
Fighting toward women’s legal and social right—without fear—to have a voice, to exercise unfettered freedom of speech and expression will undermine their inequality, their subservience, their lack of ownership of their own lives, over their own sexuality, over their religious views, and over their children and families. Ensuring widespread tolerance for the open expression of women’s views, by its very nature, brings about the most fundamental political and social reformation of their societies, including challenging men’s often-abusive control over them. Once freedom of speech cracks the edifice of indentured prejudice, the horrors of honor killings and beatings, stonings, female genital mutilation, rape, and pervasive domestic abuse are no longer suffered in silence, and the forces pursuing the end to these grave injustices multiply.
On another note, I also fervently believe that giving space to the voice and freedom of women will result in a greater capacity for each individual, woman or man, to be able to express, more freely, his or her own unique and individual sexuality and gender. The voices and concerns of any individual who does not conform to societies’ intolerant and narrow views of acceptability, such as those of homosexuals, are inevitably tied to the respect and freedom granted to women.
Giving and amplifying women’s voices, without apology, is surely the center of it all, and that’s where we find ourselves with our film festivals and our future goals. In bringing these incredible films and stories to the societies from which they have come, and broadcasting them widely via the Internet, we have identified the Achilles’ heel of oppressive regimes and societies. So we focus on giving women more voice, more opportunities to share their stories and successes, especially amongst themselves, and to change, from within, their restrictive worlds. In short, and in sum: Women are the catalysts and their voices are the medium.
Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1952, Leslie Sacks, Founder and Chairman of the Board of Women’s Voices Now, was second of three children of Jewish South African immigrants. While studying psychology and computer science at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa, he quickly became a leading figure in human rights activism, fighting against apartheid, demonstrating his support of the Johannesburg Jewish community by being elected Chairman of the South African Union of Jewish Students, and serving on the Executive Committee of the World Union of Jewish Students. As an African citizen, Leslie also felt a profound understanding of the aesthetic linkage between tribal African art and the most forceful movements of early European Modernism (e.g. Picasso, Matisse, Braque). Foregoing his technical studies at university, Leslie instead opened an art gallery in Johannesburg called Les Art, surrounding himself with artworks by the great European Masters.
Upon moving to California in 1991, Leslie opened two more highly successful art galleries, becoming internationally known as a consummate, dedicated art expert and world class dealer (and collector) of works by the modern and post-war contemporary masters, along with accumulating a staggering collection of important tribal African art. Leslie wrote and published exponential articles, letters, theses, books, and blogs on every subject from art to politics, from religion to philosophy. Some of these art publications include: Passions, Moderns & African Art, the catalogue raisonné of the graphic works and paintings of Italian artist Marino Marini; and most recently published in 2013, Refined Eye, Passionate Heart: African Art from the Leslie Sacks Collection. All the while, he tirelessly proselytized his core beliefs, promoting moderate Islam, women’s rights, and freedom of expression in politically-oppressed societies. Leslie Sacks died peacefully in his sleep Thursday, September 26, 2013, in Los Angeles at the age of sixty-one, following an extraordinarily valiant decade-long battle with cancer. Women’s Voices Now, founded by Leslie in 2010, promotes democratic change and equality for women in the Muslim World through its film festivals and international tours, which will carry on in his stead.