Frontrunner: The Afghan Woman Who Surprised the World. Directed by Virginia Williams. New York: The Cinema Guild, 2007. 90 minutes.

Egypt: We Are Watching You. Directed by Sherief Elkatsha and Jehane Noujaim. New York: The Cinema Guild, 2007. 52 minutes.

The Feminist Initiative. Directed by Liv Weisberg. New York: Women Make Movies, 2009. 97 minutes.

Reviewed by Valentine M. Moghadam

What would the world look like if the majority of political and economic decision makers were not men but women?  Could we imagine societies that would be more egalitarian, devoid of corruption, and dedicated to citizen welfare? The three documentary films under review illustrate the possibilities when women take leadership roles. The films are about very different countries—Afghanistan, Egypt, and Sweden—but the common thread is women’s leadership.  The events depicted in the films also occurred around the same time: an Afghan woman’s decision to run for president in 2002 and 2004 and thus challenge Hamid Karzai, the preferred candidate of the George W. Bush Administration; rigged presidential and parliamentary elections in Egypt in 2005 and a co-opted judiciary; an attempt in Sweden by founders of the Feminist Initiative to form a party and run in the 2006 parliamentary elections. The films show the promise of women’s leadership, but they also put the spotlight on the risks and formidable challenges that such women face.

Frontrunner begins in 2002, a year after the bombing of Afghanistan ordered by President George W. Bush and after the Bonn Agreement that had provided for a transitional government to be elected and general elections two years later. This, it should be noted, was to occur in a country where the vast majority of citizens are illiterate and have never seen a polling booth. Dr.  Massouda Jalal is a medical doctor who decides to run for interim president. She is a very courageous woman—but then, she had been a children’s advocate during the Taliban era.

The camera follows her as she campaigns around the country. One man claims that in Islam, there are certain positions open to women, but “a woman can never rule over men.” Dr.  Jalal, however, knows her Islamic history, and so she reminds her audience that Khadija, the prophet Mohammad’s first wife, had hired him to manage her business affairs; Aisha, the prophet’s last wife, famously led a battle against dissidents. She also names the various Muslim-majority countries with women presidents or prime ministers: Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan, Turkey. Why not Afghanistan, she asks?

Dr. Jalal lost the 2002 election that brought Karzai to power but she decided to run again in 2004 (along with fifteen others). The bulk of the film concerns this presidential election, her rather impressive campaign and ability to muster support from otherwise very conservative men, and the monetary and organizational disadvantages she has compared with her chief rivals, Karzai and Yunus Qanooni.  Her campaign slogan, Zendegi va Omid, or Life and Hope, connotes a promise of peace, reconstruction, and social justice while also referencing feminine values and motherhood. The 2004 presidential election was deemed fraudulent by Dr. Jalal and many like her, mainly because the ink used to designate someone as having voted would wash away with soap and water, allowing people to vote again. Dr. Jalal calls this “a dark shadow coming in on a dark day.” In fact, the documentary shows that the Bush government was keen that Karzai should remain president.  After all, he was their man because of his previous association with UNOCAL, an oil company based in California.1 The election outcome disappoints Dr. Jalal, because she “wanted the new Afghanistan to be built by the hands of a mother.”  The film ends by showing Dr. Jalal in a new role—minister of women’s affairs in Karzai’s government—speaking at the United Nations.

The documentary does a very fine job of revealing Dr. Jalal’s strong personality, the home life she shares with her children and a very supportive husband, and the daily grind of a political campaign in a country with unpaved roads, security problems, illiteracy, and unfamiliarity with “democracy.” Though the narrative ends in 2004, it should be noted that the women’s affairs ministry has been powerless and the government remains utterly uninterested in women’s rights.2 At this writing, Dr. Jalal remains active in Afghanistan, and a critic of the Karzai government.

Egypt: We Are Watching You is not only an examination of the little-known story of three remarkable women who formed an on-line political watchdog, Shayfeen (“we are watching you”), but it is also prescient, given the travails of Egypt’s democratic transition since January 2011. This film documents three professionals who leave their comfort zone in the aftermath of the rigged presidential election of 2005 in order to monitor the parliamentary elections of 2006. In the process, they capture the extent of voter fraud and the complicity of the judiciary, and broadcast the footage on their website. As only one of the three women is a professional journalist, this is an example of citizen journalism, in addition to showing the democratic practices of civil society and women’s leadership.

Bosayna Kamel is a former TV newsreader, Ghada  Shahbender a university professor, and Engi Haddad a marketing consultant. The three had become increasingly disillusioned with government corruption, the persistence of poverty, and the hypocrisy of the political and economic elites. They film Egyptian citizens straining to enter the polling stations, only to find their way blocked by police. Frontrunner demonstrates how the parliamentary elections and the violence that ensued were declared legitimate by the judiciary, except for two judges who become the heroes of Shayfeen after they are arrested. As a result, Shayfeen launches a campaign for an independent judiciary and mobilizes ordinary citizens to protest the arrests, but numerous protesters are themselves arrested. The two judges are released, and in a sad turn of events they do nothing to help the release of those who had advocated for them.  The disappointment of defeat is palpable, even though Shayfeen has the support of the global organization World Movement for Democracy. As the film is wrapping up in 2007 more protests break out, accompanied by labor actions and the formation of the 6 April Youth Movement.  But it took another four years for the Hosni Mubarak regime to finally come to an end, in part because of continuing international support, especially from the US government.3

Among the interesting aspects of the documentary is the fact that many citizens tried to vote for Muslim Brotherhood (MB) candidates but were prevented from doing so.  The film, however, does not inform viewers of the surprisingly strong showing of the MB, who won 20 percent of parliamentary seats through members who ran as independents.  In 2011, in the first truly free and fair elections, Egyptians voted overwhelmingly for the MB and the Salafi Al-Nour Party, and an MB leader, Mohammed Morsi, became president. But by 2013, as the economy worsened and Morsi’s authoritarian tendencies revealed themselves, the experiment with an Islamist democracy came to an end. The good news is that in the May 2014 European Union elections, the FI won 5.30% of the vote and thus a seat in the EU parliament.

A feminist democracy is what the next documentary addresses—although we learn that the crafting of such a democracy has its own challenges. We are in Sweden in 2005, and a group of feminist activists, including several well-known ones, form the Feminist Initiative (FI) with the objective of entering politics and changing Swedish society through parliamentary means. Ebba Witt-Brattström is a professor of literature and believes strongly in democratic practices; Gudrun Schyman was previously an official of the Left Party and has considerable political savvy; Tiina Rosenberg is a professor of gender studies and proudly gay; and Sofia Karlson is an ambitious young student activist. Ebba says that she has not felt such excitement since the 1970s. They all agree on the importance of calling for an end to violence against women, and the film’s voiceover has already referred to them as “a group of women who wanted to end all inequalities,” but they need to come up with a broad platform that will appeal to voters. They begin to do so from the bottom up, holding meetings in which members and new recruits are asked to discuss and agree on priorities. This form of direct and participatory democracy turns out to create problems related to strategy and tactics. Ebba and Tiina disagree on a proposal to critique “the nuclear family” in their platform; some of the newer and younger members express frustration at the frequency of long meetings; Ebba prefers movement-building while Gudrun is keen to form the political party.

Eventually, Ebba leaves the Feminist Initiative, and the so-called “cat fight” that ensues becomes a media field day.  But FI carries on with its internal democracy, and instead of choosing one party leader, the decision is made to have a collective leadership, with three chosen: Gudrun, Sofia, and newcomer Devrim Mavi, who was born in Turkey but has lived in Sweden since she was a child. She comes from a left-wing family that was targeted by “fascists in Turkey” and this allows her to withstand—at least for a while—the ugliness that exists even in an officially egalitarian society, when she is subjected to anti-immigrant slurs in anonymous email messages. In addition, Tiina is targeted by homophobes and FI speakers are subjected to verbal abuse and called communists and man-haters by extreme right-wing types.  The women push forward, the FI convention resolves to take part in the 2006 parliamentary elections, and the documentary shows the hard work and excitement that go along with registering as a political party. FI is fortunate in having a millionaire male supporter, a self-declared feminist who provides the necessary resources. But they obtain only 1 percent of the vote, rather than the minimum 4 percent needed to gain seats in Parliament. The documentary ends with a note that the FI had decided to run in the 2009 EU elections.

FI is still in operation according to their website, and I was impressed by the 2009 platform. Unfortunately they again did not earn the necessary votes to gain seats in Parliament, although they subsequently did win some seats in Sweden’s municipal elections.     

The three documentaries reviewed here are examples of fine filmmaking from feminist perspectives. Differences among women are not glossed over, but the films do suggest what societies and indeed the world might look like if organized along feminist values of democratic decision-making, citizen well-being and rights, and non-militarism.  I recommend the films for classroom use—in women’s studies, international studies, political science, and sociology—but individual viewers also will find the films instructive and inspiring.

1 For more information on resistance to US oil interests, see Valentine M. Moghadam, “Transnational Feminist Networks: Collective Action in an Era of Globalization,” in Globalization and Social Movements: Global Solidarity, ed. Pierre Hamel, Henri Lustiger-Thaler, Jan Nederveen Pieterse, and Sasha Roseneil. (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001), esp. 115.

2 For details, see chapter 5, section on Afghanistan in Valentine M. Moghadam, Modernizing Women: Gender and Social Change in the Middle East, 3rd ed. (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2013).

3 For details, see Diane Singerman, “Youth, Gender, and Dignity in the Egyptian Uprising,” Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies 9, no. 3 (2013): 1-27.

Valentine M. Moghadam is director of the International Affairs Program and professor of sociology at Northeastern University, Boston. Previously she held positions as director of women’s studies at Purdue University and Illinois State University; during 2004-2006 she was based in Paris and led research and programming on gender equality and development within UNESCO’s Social and Human Sciences Sector. Born in Tehran, she is the author of many publications on women and gender in the Middle East and North Africa, as well as on transnational feminist networks.