Any stage that women as brave and interesting as Haifa Zangana, Golshifteh Farahani, Binalakshmi Nepram, Ima Ngambi and Caroline Fourest share, is bound to stir controversy. The fact is, as Fourest (a French journalist of some distinction who has made a documentary on the radical feminist group Femen) said, women are not expected to be unsmiling, to be aggressive.
The charismatic Nepram turned the session into an impromptu protest against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). It was a strong, impassioned cry against the state-sponsored murder and rape in Manipur. She was joined by Ima Ngambi, one of 12 ‘grandmothers’ who stripped naked to protest the rape of Thangjam Manorama, kidnapped by members of the Assam Rifles one night in 2004. After the men finished, they shot her in the vagina several times.Â It is because of horror stories like this that the Meira Paibis exist, women torch-bearers forced to take to the streets to fight for peace, justice and representation. Ngambi and Nepram held up signs onstage putting the death toll in the Northeast due to AFSPA at 50,000. The women’s combativeness upset one member of the audience who protested against the one-sidedness of the condemnation of the Army.
Not that Nepram had any intention of mollifying anyone. The international community was excoriated for selling weapons in Manipur. “America may never have heard of Manipur,” she said, “but its weapons flood the area. The rebels use Israeli uzis.” Irom Sharmila, she continued, fixing the audience with a look, has been on a 13-year fast but has “failed to prick the conscience of the rich Indians, the artistic Indians in this room. We are not Amitabh Bachchan or Robert De Niro, we are normal people.” Point taken.
Nepram is fiercely individual, unafraid, determined to stand her corner. It’s exactly her sort of individuality that, earlier in the session, the Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani said the state feared. In Iran, she said, the shadow cast by religion and culture is long, that the need to respect family, tribe, and society inevitably militates against the individual. And “I was always trying to be an artist, to speak with art.” Implicit in being an artist is the desire to extend the limits of a society’s imagination. “When you break a barrier for the first time,” Farahani said, “it’s hard.” Hard is an understatement. Once a darling of Iranian cinema, winning acclaim at just 14, she was persona non grata after posing nude for a French magazine spread and then topless in a short film by the French photographer Jean Baptiste Mondino.
But by then she was already a scandalous figure for not wearing a headscarf at the premiereÂ of Body of Lies, a Hollywood film in which she starred alongside Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe. She was in Goa when the controversy over her nude spread broke, “doing yoga and drinking coconut milk.” It was her family she “felt terrible for”, having to deal with threats of a graphic, disturbing nature. One letter promised that her breasts would be cut off and presented to her family on a plate.
Haifa Zangana, the Kurdish-Iraqi novelist imprisoned for her activity against Saddam Hussein’s regime, offered a reminder that repression was not the province of countries in the Middle East, or for that matter India. Iraq, she said, had a “robust women’s movement before 2003.” Contrary to stereotype, Zangana added, “Iraq women are not submissive and weak.” American creativity, she said, had manifested itself not in music or literature but in various forms of gender-neutral torture. The only equality in Iraq, the joke goes, is torture by the Americans and their British henchmen. American-imposed ‘democracy’ has harmed women’s interests in Iraq. The “sectarian regime’s policy on religous garb”, Zangana wrote in an article back in February, “is forcing women to retire their hard-earned rights across the spectrum: employment, freedom of movement, civil marriage, welfare benefits, and the right to education and health services.”
In the context of the other women, Femen, represented on the panel by Fourest, might seem gimmicky but they have had a galvanizing effect on women all over the world. Perhaps what Femen, despite all the questions about their attention-grabbing topless protests, expose (obligatory pun disclaimer) most effectively is society’s discomfort with female anger. And why would women be angry?