I loves me some documentaries. I could watch a documentary about anything: corn, fish, toothpicks. But I especially love documentaries about women. HBO has made a name for itself by producing and airing some of the best documentaries around, and last night I watched two of them, "Google Baby" and "For Neda". both of which deal with women's issues. By the end of the night, I was plastered to my couch, depressed and in tears. What these docs showed about women's lives in general, and in India and Iran in particular, was disturbing and sad, but don't let that stop you from watching them. Like the best movies, whether fiction or non-fiction, they'll both give you a lot to think about.
The first one I watched is documentary we recently blogged about, "Google Baby." Although the main thrust of the film is the story of how recent advances in technology are allowing motherhood surrogacy to be outsourced to India, the main thing I came away from it with is how badly women are treated, no matter what they do. In India, young, healthy women take on the role of surrogate mothers, allowing their bodies to be used to grow embryos that are flown in from US, the UK, Dubai, and elsewhere. What's in it for these women is that it's a good way to make quite a bit of money. What's in it for the folks outside India is the same as what's in outsourcing to India for anyone: it's a lot less costly. And in fact, there really isn't anything wrong with this idea.
What's heartbreaking is the way the surrogates are treated, both by their husbands, and by the woman who runs the clinic. They are made to stay in the clinic for the entire 9 months of their pregnancy, and are treated slightly better than cattle by the (female) clinic owner. Or, exactly the way whores in a whorehouse are treated by their madames or their pimps: as a source of income who must be controlled. We are told that the surrogates are paid something like $5000, which in India, is enough to buy a house. We aren't told how much the doctor that runs the clinic is paid - but I wouldn't be surprised if it was an additional $5000. And of course, the women sometimes get pushed into it by their men (one of whom calls his wife, who has just spent 9 months as a surrogate and earned enough money to buy the family a new home, "small brained" and discusses how she is going to be a surrogate again so they can get their son a military education).
It's so infuriating to see that whenever women use their bodies to make money -- whether it's selling their hair, or renting out their uterus--they are always taken advantage of by folks higher up on the food chain. What I would love to see is some kind of women's surrogacy co-op formed in India, or a women's surrogacy union, but I suppose that's impossible. And even the American lady who is selling her eggs is only getting a cut of the money; she too has an "agency" that she's a part of. Of course, for her the money is important as well: shown to be living in a backwoods Tennessee town, she and her husband spend most of their money on guns to shoot squirrels and the like. Sigh.
Shocked and dismayed by what I had just seen, too emotionally drained to get up from the couch, HBO then hit me with the second of their one-two punch: a documentary called "For Neda." The film tells the story of the murder of Neda Sultana and the recent Iranian uprisings, but again, the main takeaway is how restricted the lives of Iranian women are. Neda, it turns out, was not just some bystander to a revolution going on around her, as she's sometimes been portrayed, but rather someone who had been rebelling against the restraints the Iranian regime had placed on women since girlhood. In other words, she could have been you, or me. She was one of us. And although the entire world claimed, in protest, that "we are all Neda," I don't think that's as true for anyone as much as it is for feminists. Women in Iran suffer terrible oppression, including restrictions on their appearance, makeup, rights (an Iranian woman's life is worth 1/2 that of a man; an Iranian woman's testimony in court is worth 1/2 that of a man; the legal age of marriage for women was lowered to 9 from 18 after the Iranian revolution). In fact, what this video makes clear is that so much of the Iranian Revolution was focused on the control of women, just like the Taliban in Afghanistan today focuses on the same, making girls' schools one of their primary targets for destruction.
You might want to take away from watching these docs that women's situation here in the US isn't so bad after all; that compared to Iranian women's oppression and the trade in women's uteruses in India. But what both films really end up driving home is that women worldwide are so often controlled for their sexuality, for their bodies, one way or another, some more extreme and some more subtle. The films left me emotionally exhausted, yes, but I woke up this morning more committed than ever to the continued fight for women's rights.
[image of Neda Sultana at top from HBO.com]