Postcard: New York

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 June, 2013, 5:49pm

Traditional values have often proved a barrier to making progress on human rights issues. Ideas or opinions that have been present in a society for many years can become embedded in the culture and gain a form of credibility, even if they contravene the basic rights of some members of that same society.

This is much in evidence when it comes to the human and political rights of women. In some parts of the world, cultural tradition means women can be sold into marriage by their parents, forbidden to vote, and even forbidden to drive.

Tradition also means sexual abuse in some cultures, and organisations, is customarily ignored by the authorities - including in first-world countries such as the US, where the widespread instances of rape in the military are only just coming to light.

The 24th edition of the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival (which began on June 13 in New York and ends today) spotlighted these issues in its "Traditional Values and Human Rights: Women's Rights" showcase. The largest of the festival's five themed sections, it opened with Freida Mock's Anita.

The documentary recounts the hostility that lawyer Anita Hill encountered when, in 1991, she attempted to report that Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her when he was her supervisor at the Department of Education and the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. A discussion with the director and Hill followed its sold-out screening.

Also featured in the section is Jeremy Teicher's Tall as the Baobab Tree, about an 11-year-old girl whose father sells her into marriage in Senegal. Because its first screening was sold out, it will have an encore screening that will be attended by Teicher.

Festival director John Biaggi identifies Moroccan filmmaker Karima Zoubir's film - which received its US premiere at the festival - as another highlight of the annual event organised by international advocacy group Human Rights Watch.

" Camera/Woman is a beautiful little film about a Moroccan woman who works as a videographer, over the objections of her family," Biaggi says. "They don't like the late hours she works, and they don't like the fact she is out without a chaperone. They just don't want her to work at all. The irony is that she is the breadwinner - her father and elder brother just lie on the couch all day, telling her that she shouldn't be going out."

Divorce is also an issue in Camera/Woman, Biaggi says, pointing out that its protagonist "is also a divorcee, something which is stigmatised in many of these countries. The way some societies spurn divorced women and treat them like pariahs is another case of human rights bumping up against traditional values".

Although women's issues are prominent among human rights workers, he feels that society does not give the rights of women the attention that they deserve. "Major problems like rape in the US military, which are related to women's rights, have been kept under the radar, and not properly addressed or dealt with," Biaggi says. (Last year, the festival screened The Invisible War, a documentary about sexual assault in the US military.)

Progress in women's rights goes in fits and starts, Biaggi notes. It can take a horrific incident, such as the recent rapes in India, to bring an issue back into the limelight and motivate some action, he says.

"The film Anita is a great case in point. Here you have an incident that happened a long time ago. Watching this film is enraging. Because a lot of what happened to Anita Hill still happens to women in the workforce all over the world.

"The issues have been around for a long time, but have been kept under the radar."