Thursday, September 26, 2013

198: The Self-Empowered Woman: Wadjda

Dear Followers,

Today, instead of profiling a Self-Empowered Woman, I'd like to tell you about an inspiring new movie that deserves our support. Wadjda is the first full-length feature film ever made in Saudi Arabia and, more importantly, it's the first film directed by a female Saudi Arabian filmmaker, Haifaa al-Mansour.

As anyone who has watched my YouTube video knows, I'm a great fan of ten year old little girls. And this film tells the story of a ten year old girl who lives in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, who dreams of owning a green bicycle. But in her culture--where women are constrained by custom, family "honor" and Islam--this becomes a complicated and challenging goal. As readers of this blog know, I've often lamented the restrictions placed on women in Saudi Arabia. They are not allowed to drive, are discouraged from being seen in public unless a man is with them, laughing and talking in public is prohibited, travel is only permitted if a male relative allows it, and women are expected to all wear black abayas to maintain or honor chastity. Obviously, for a young girl to ride a bicycle would be considered a threat to her virtue.
The movie, which has been applauded by everyone from Gloria Steinem to the Tribeca Film Festival, introduces us to an assertive young girl who wants to find herself and enjoy life. In the photo above, where you can see Wadja's Converse trainers, those shoes serve as a symbol of her independence streak.
For al-Mansour to make this film was no easy feat. Because women are not supposed to be outside--and certainly not in positions of authority or power--she would have to stay in a parked van with a monitor and communicate with the film crew via walkie-talkie while filming. And unlike most of the films from the Middle East, this is actually a happy movie.
The star, Waad Mohammed, is perfect for the role, but it was challenging to cast an adolescent girl because so many parents were reluctant for their daughters to be in a groundbreaking movie. Fortunately, Mohammed had cooperative parents, wore jeans to the audition, and was able to sing (in English) a Justin Bieber song for the director.
What this movie really represents is the lengths that females in Saudi Arabia must take in order to cope with the political structure, protect themselves and invent strategies of subversion. The movie's heroine finds a creative way to blend obedience and rebellion, but the audience knows all too well that the walls of restriction are closing in on her a little bit more every day.
A few repressive rules against women have recently been lifted by King Abdullah, who approved the film. For example, women will be able to vote in municipal elections in the year 2015, Saudi female athletes competed in the London Olympics (for the first time), women are now allowed to work on supermarket checkout lines, at lingerie stores, as well as at cosmetic counters. And in July, the authorities announced that women could (finally) ride bicycles but a) they would have to be clothed head-to-toe, b) could only ride in restricted areas, c) bicycles could be used only for recreational activities, and d) riders would have to be accompanied by a male guardian.
Obviously, Wadjda's relationship with Abdullah, the little boy who is her friend, will soon be taboo, and she will have bigger problems than trying to find out a way to beat him in a race. But in the meantime, we--and our daughters--need to support this 97-minute movie as a way of saying thank you to Haifaa al-Mansour for both her bravery and her creative approach to a troublesome situation.
Looking forward to your comments... 

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

197: The Self-Empowered Woman: Queen Latifah

Dear Followers,

Queen Latifah has a new afternoon talk show that is already receiving good reviews. Her real name is Dana Elaine Owens, and she was born in East Orange, New Jersey on March 18th, 1970. She chose the name Latifah (which means delicate and very kind) when she was only eight years old  Her mother was a high school art teacher and her father was a police officer; they separated when she was eight, and divorced two years later. As a teenager she was estranged from her father (1: No Paternal Safety Net), but now he helps provide security for Latifah and has worked as her driver. 

Although she was raised in the Baptist church, she attended Catholic school in Newark, New Jersey (3: Belief In The Unbelievable). As a teenager she indulged in some risky and unpalatable behavior--she experimented with drug dealing twice "to see if I could," and at 16, had sex with a 40 year old man (11: Risk Addiction). In high school, she performed the song "Home" from "The Wiz," and soon afterwards began beat-boxing for the hip hop group Ladies Fresh (2: An Early Sense Of Direction). Her first album (All Hail The Queen) was released when she was 19 years old.

As one of the few females in the hip hop world, her albums were enthusiastically supported by her fans. Soon she was appearing on TV sitcoms, and by 1991, she had broken into the movies (Juice, Jungle Fever). She helped her older brother purchase a motorcycle for his 24th birthday, but in 1992 he was killed while riding it. For the next five years, she told an interviewer, she was " but not here" (12: Hard Times). She and her mother established the Lancelot H. Owens Foundation in her brother's name to help provide funding for academically gifted but financially underprivileged children.

The 5 foot 10 inch Latifah had breast reduction surgery in 2003, and worked with Jenny Craig's Ideal Size campaign to lose close to ten percent of her body weight (6: Life is Not A Beauty Contest). Her endorsement deal with Cover Girl makeup (the Queen Collection) has been one of the fastest growing lines for ethnic cosmetics.

Latifah once told an interviewer that when young she'd learned that she "had to work harder than the white kids and harder than the boys (10: The Critic Within). Her hard work has insured that Latifah has become a triple-threat talent, excelling in film, music and television. She has earned a Golden Globe Award, two Screen Actors Guild Awards, two Image Awards, a Grammy Award, six additional Grammy nominations, an Emmy Award and an Academy Award nomination (13: More Than Meets The Eye). 

Queen Latifah has recorded seven albums, made close to 20 television appearances, and acted in 36 movies so far, and she's only 43 years old!

Looking forward to your comments...

Sunday, September 1, 2013

196: The Self-Empowered Woman: Ruth Asawa

Dear Followers,

On August 6th, the celebrated artist Ruth Aiko Asawa died in San Francisco, and I'd like to share a remarkable life story with you. Born in Norwalk, California on January 24th, 1926, she was the fourth of seven children born to Japanese immigrants who worked as truck farmers in California. They grew seasonal crops--strawberries, carrots, green onions and tomatoes--but were not allowed to become U.S citizens or to own land in California.

In 1935, Asawa's third grade teacher recognized and encouraged her artistic talent, and in 1939 she won a school competition by drawing the Statue of Liberty in a contest designed to represent what it meant to be an American (2: An Early Sense of Direction). As a young girl she attended a Saturday Japanese Cultural School, where she learned calligraphy and Japanese, but whenever she wasn't at school or working on the farm she would draw. Her mother would have her work alone because she was considered "argumentative"  (5:Life is Not A Popularity Contest), but Asawa liked doing chores by herself because she could daydream.

In February of 1942, her father was arrested by FBI agents and in April the rest of the family was interned--first at the Santa Anita Race Track and then to a camp in Rohwer, Arkansas. She did not see her father again until 1948 (1: No Paternal Safety Net). During this time she graduated from high school (where she had been the art editor for the year book), and won a scholarship from the Quakers to Milwaukee State Teachers College to study to be an art teacher. To support herself during this time she worked in a leather tanning factory and as a domestic servant. In 1945, she and her sister traveled to Mexico City to study Spanish and learn more about Mexican art. To get her teaching credentials she was required to practice-teach in a school, but is told that because of the anti-Japanese prejudice there is no position for her and she will not be able to complete her degree (12: Hard Times).

She then decided to finish her education at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where she lived for three years. During that time her mentors included Buckminster Fuller, John Cage, Franz Kline and Josef Albers (4: Supportive Someone). In 1947, she returned to Mexico and learned techniques for crocheting baskets, which for the next decade she used in her wire sculpture experiments.

At this time, she met her future husband Albert Lanier, and they moved to San Francesco where they married even though both of their families disapproved (17: Dreaming Your Own Dream). Their first home was a loft above an onion warehouse. They had six children, and more than their share of financial difficulties. Late at night and in the early mornings while her children slept, Asawa would draw, paint, experiment with paper, and make crocheted wire sculptures. She chose to work at home to be near her children (16: Intensive Motherhood).

Gradually, her work began to be recognized, and by 1966 she had been commissioned to make the fountain at Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco (pictured above). Her popularity grew, and so many commissions followed that she became known as " the fountain lady." Her sculptures are in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Whitney Museum of American Art. Earlier this year one of her pieces sold at  a Christie's auction for $1.4 million (13: More Than Meets The Eye).

Asawa joined several parents to create the Alvarado Arts Workshop by bringing throwaway objects (milk cartons, egg cartons and scrap fabric) and having artists work with the students. And even though her education had been "challenged," she wanted other children to develop as creative thinkers and problem solvers (7: Magnificent Obsession).She organized the Music, Art, Dance, Drama and Science (MADDS) festival, and soon began focusing her energy on building a public high school for the Arts. In 2010, the school was named for her and is now the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts (8: Turning No into Yes).

In 1985, she was diagnosed with Lupus, and spent a year on her recovery (12: Hard Times). Although the illness went into remission, she never totally regained her strength and died at age 87. She has received numerous awards and honorary degrees, and is widely admired for her unique abstract sculptures.

Looking forward to your comments...