Her Words: Storytelling with Saris

Monica Jahan Bose and Nandita Ahmed | Bangladesh, USA | 2013 | 30 mins

Storytelling with Saris Synopsis

A life-changing eco-empowerment project empowers twelve Muslim women of Katakhali Village, Bangladesh, to overcome gender discrimination, child marriage, lack of access to education, and climate change with resilience.

Her Words: Storytelling with Saris was an official selection of the 2014 WVN Online Film Festival.

About the Filmmakers

Monica Jahan Bose is a Bangladeshi-American artist, lawyer, and activist. Her work includes painting, drawing, printmaking, installation, sculpture, and performance, as well as advocacy on women’s issues and the environment. Born in Britain, she has also lived in Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Japan, and France, and the US. Her heritage is both Hindu (father’s side) and Muslim (mother’s side). She studied art at Wesleyan University and Santiniketan, India and has a law degree from Columbia University. She has exhibited extensively in galleries and museums in the US and internationally, including in Bangladesh, France, Japan, and India. She now lives and works in Washington DC, spending part of the year working in Bangladesh. She serves on the board of Samhati, a US-based Bangladeshi women’s organization that creates small projects focused on ecology and literacy to empower poor women in Bangladesh. She is also on the board of the South Asian Women’s Creative Collective.

In her work, Monica uses the sari, sari blouse, and other garments as metaphors for the female body and spirit, investigating gender, identity, desire, and women’s role as carriers of tradition. She also uses Bengali script as a political act affirming multilingualism and universal literacy. Her work addresses her own multifaceted identity, religious fundamentalism, gender, sexuality, and climate change.

She has been working on literacy and health projects with the women of Katakhali for many years and wanted to collaborate with them on a special project to mark their victory in learning to read and write. Storytelling with Saris uses the sari as an art material, a story board, and a garment, merging art and advocacy to highlight the empowerment of women and their resilience in addressing climate change.

Nandita Ahmed is an artist, designer and filmmaker. She graduated from Wellesley College with a major in Media Arts and Sciences. Nandita was born and raised in Dhaka, Bangladesh and resides in Brooklyn, New York. She went to Katakhali with Monica in 2013 to document the project. Nandita and Monica did crowdfunding through Kickstarter and then created the “Her Words: Storytelling with Saris” film, which has been shown as part of video installations around the world. Nandita continued work on the film project through November 2015.

More from the Filmmakers

The women of Katakhali were historically denied education and forced into child marriages. Through the eco-empowerment program, women are learning to read and have gained income generating skills, and scholarships are provided to allow girls and boys to finish high school and avoid early marriage. The women are now planning their family size, developing leadership skills, and enjoying much greater autonomy. They have improved their own lives and in turn transformed their entire community. Girls are now going to school in equal numbers to boys, child marriage has been reduced, the birthrate has dropped dramatically, and the preference for male children has diminished.

Her Words: Storytelling with Saris is a collaborative printmaking and story project highlighting the achievement of literacy by women in the remote island community of Katakhali, Bangladesh, which is artist/activist Monica Jahan Bose’s ancestral village and part of an eco-empowerment program started by Samhati, a US-based non-profit group of Bangladeshi-American women. Katakhali is located on Barobaishdia Island (Patuakhali District) in the Bay of Bengal and is severely impacted by climate change. Monica and her mother Noorjahan Bose have been engaged with the Katakhali program since 2000.

In Storytelling with Saris, Monica collaborates with 12 Katakhali women who have survived successive cyclones, learned to read, and rebuilt their lives. The project includes: conducting writing workshops for the women to keep and continue journaling their lives and changes in climate, creating large-scale (18-foot-long) woodblock prints on sari fabric using words and images, recording the women’s oral histories, taking their portrait photos, and documenting the project through photo and video. Each woman keeps some of the saris to wear as a statement of her achievements.

The saris — including the worn saris — have been in installations and performances around the world. The project commenced in 2012 with conversations via mobile phone and research and planning. In January 2013, Monica went to the island to start work with the Katakhali women. The short film above was made about this first stage with filmmaker Nandita Ahmed.

The project continues with further writing in journals, sari printing, performances using the saris, and events around the world. Stage 2 of the project includes research and community education on climate change and adaptation, and continued advocacy for and documentation of this community. Through exhibitions, a book, lectures, workshops, performances, and panel discussions, Storytelling with Saris presents the stories of an inspiring community that is impacted by climate change and may well disappear unless urgent global action is taken.

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