From “Iron Girls” to “Leftovers”: Independent Women in China. Directed by Milène Larsson. New York: Vice Media, 2015. 32 minutes.

Black Feminist. Directed by Zanah Thirus. New York: Women Make Movies, 2019. 53 minutes.

Feminism Inshallah: A History of Arab Feminism. Directed by Feriel Ben Mahmoud. New York: Women Make Movies, 2014. 52 minutes.

Reviewed by Navaneetha Mokkil

“Have you ever been called a leftover woman?” is the opening question the director and reporter Milène Larsson asks a young Chinese woman in From “Iron Girls” to “Leftovers.” Although referring to a specific time and place, this question points to the way historical legacies shape the daily lives of women based on gender norms and categories. The three films reviewed here focus on the social and material structures that intersect to marginalize women and the varied forms of resistance that emerge as a result.

Larsson’s film explores the shifting configurations of gender in contemporary China, especially after the 1980s as the country reoriented its relations to global capitalism. Using interviews with women in urban China and insights from the historian Wang Zheng, the film plots a narrative of how strong and revolutionary working women—“Iron Girls”—were idolized during the Cultural Revolution, but after this period there was a greater investment in re-entrenching women within structures of domesticity. The film records the voices of women who are questioning the labeling of unmarried women in their late twenties and thirties as “leftover women.”

The exploratory form of From “Iron Girls” to “Leftoversoffers glimpses into the massive wedding and dating industry in China—speed matchmaking sites in theme parks, glossy advertisements, and marriage brokers hired to identify suitable brides and grooms. Interviews with professional women tell a more complex story of how they have dealt with these pressures of domesticity and conjugality. In a meeting of Lean In, a working women’s organization, the participants say that “they are brave to be leftover women” and want to define life and relationships on their own terms. The film also touches upon the experiences and risks of being a feminist activist in China, mainly in light of the arrest of The Feminist Five in 2015 for planning a protest against sexual harassment in public transportation.1

The film primarily addresses an audience outside China and can be useful to generate discussions in classrooms about the changing global formations of gender, economy, labor markets, and the structure of the family. Because this impressionistic film gives us an outsider’s view of urban China, I suggest that educators further contextualize these topics by screening it in conversation with more nuanced and embedded accounts of being a woman in contemporary China.2

Both pedagogic and chatty in its form and content, Black Feminist is a “crash course” on being a black feminist for an audience who might be new to the field of black feminism. The director, Zanah Thirus, tells us that her aim is to correct misinformation about black feminism. She does so by providing an introduction to key readings and definitions of race and feminism and drawing on popular culture, historical records and writings, and interviews to open up the relationship between feminism and womanism, the relationship between black men and black feminism, and the framework of intersectionality.

The candid and conversational form shows that feminism is not “just an academic experience but a life experience.” The viewer is given access to a range of speakers—actors, producers, an ordained minister, academics, activists, journalists, writers, business owners—to throw light on the challenges faced by black women in private and public spheres. They address us directly and draw on their personal lives as well as on structures and histories of discrimination to unpack how race and gender place black women in a marginal position within both feminist and black liberation movements.

Educators can use this film to explore the question, how we can build a community and alliances that will support the struggles of black women? This question is the driving force of the film, and it may provoke difficult conversations as students explore the visions of black feminists. Also notable, Thirus’s filmmaking practice itself contributes to the labor of community building, and those teaching courses in film studies may want to screen Black Feminist to discuss this topic.

The reading list provided at the end of the film, alongside the comprehensive exploration of black feminism, adds to its pedagogic value. It would be useful to assign with other films that position US black feminism in relation to transnational networks of black feminism such as Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years 1984 to 1992 and Yari Yari Pamberi: Black Women Writers Dissecting Globalization.3

“I support the uprising of the women in the Arab world,” is the closing statement of Feminism Inshallah—an extremely relevant immersion in the many facets of Arab feminism. This French and Arabic film on the long durée struggles for Muslim women’s emancipation moves beyond the myopic lens through which the Arab world is often viewed. It provides us with nuanced accounts of feminist movements in different countries in the twentieth century—with an in-depth focus on Tunisia and Egypt and touching upon struggles in Algeria, Morocco, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia. This complex picture locates Arab feminism within projects of nation building as well as economic and military developments in the region. Whether it is the violence faced by women in the Tahrir Square protests or the controversy around the nude self-portrait of Tunisian blogger Amina Tyler, the film shows that these burning debates on women’s bodies, honor, and resistance have to be situated in the histories of feminist struggles in these countries.

One of the strongest aspects of this film is the vibrant array of archival materials that embodies the protests of Arab women. Multigenerational interviews with pioneering feminists from Egypt and Tunisia; photographs of women’s mobilizations during the 1950s in Tunisia and Algeria in the 1960s; images from women’s journals and pamphlets from the 1950s and 1960s as well as audio and video recordings of political speeches and events—together they present an animated account of women’s struggles for liberation. This historic context is interwoven with footage of women’s recent mobilizations and activists discussing their strategies in the present. Interviews with prominent figures such as the Egyptian sexologist Heba Kotb, recordings of theatre performances in Morocco that bring to the public domain “taboo” subjects, and commentaries by historians and journalists additionally illuminate contemporary entanglements between modernity, religion, politics, and feminism.

The film also conveys the many layers that iconic questions about veiling and family codes acquire within Arab feminism. This generative journey exposes us to archives and narratives of feminism that have not gained global circulation so far. Thus, it makes an invaluable intervention in contemporary debates on feminism by shattering the monolithic ways in which the “Muslim woman” is often framed.

These three films that cover different contexts provide enriching frames to journey through the dense and varied trajectories of feminism in the past and the present. They function as animated sites to engage with the challenges and possibilities of feminist politics in a global framework.

1 For discussions on feminist activism in China today see: Wen Liu, Ana Huang, and Jingchao Ma, “Young Activists, New Movements: Contemporary Chinese Queer Feminism and Transnational Genealogies,” Feminism and Psychology 25, no. 1 (2015): 11-17.

2 See Tani Barlow, The Question of Women in Chinese Feminism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004); Jin Yihong, Kimberly Ens Manning, and Lianyn Chu, “Rethinking the ‘Iron Girls’: Gender and Labour during the Chinese Cultural Revolution,” Gender & History 18, no. 3 (2006): 613–34; Li Xiaojiang, and Tani E. Barlow, “From ‘Modernization’ to ‘Globalization’: Where Are Chinese Women?” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 26, no. 4 (2001): 1274-78.

3 Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years 1984 to 1992, directed by Dagmar Schulz (New York: Third World Newsreel, 2012), 79 minutes; Yari Yari Pamberi: Black Women Writers Dissecting Globalization, directed by Jayne Cortez (New York: Third World Newsreel, 2007), 75 minutes.

Navaneetha Mokkil is assistant professor at the Center for Women’s Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Her research and teaching focuses on cultural practices and the non-linear imaginations of sexuality in India. She is the author of Unruly Figures: Queerness, Sex Work and the Politics of Sexuality in Kerala (2019) and the co-editor of Thinking Women: A Feminist Reader (2019).