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Shining light on the dark corners of the world

Kristine Berey

April, 2010

The names Rebiya Kadeer and Shadi Sadr may not be familiar to most Montrealers. But those who heard Kadeer speak or learned of Sadr’s work at this year’s Montreal Human Rights Film Festival will never forget these women.

Kadeer addressed the festival audience last month after the screening of The 10 Conditions of Love, which chronicles her struggle to tell the world about the oppression of her people, the Uyghurs, under the Chinese government.

“I never realized before how important these festivals are,” she says. “They shine a light into the dark corners of the world.”

The festival realized its mission “to create through film a space for discussion and reflection on issues related to human rights and freedoms” by screening 63 films from 20 countries. In its fifth edition, attendance was up by 44 per cent over the previous year, with 4,000 participants.

Though difficult to watch, since films which expose human rights abuses uncover a panorama of human suffering, the festival is a celebration of courage and heroism of individuals who risk so much to change the world – and of filmmakers who bring their message to the international community.

Filmmaker Mohammad Reza Kazemi at Cinema du Parc, one of the festival venues. Photo: Kristine Berey

While filming Women in Shroud, which he co-directed with Farid Haerinejad, Mohammad Reza Kazemi solicited the Iranian government’s permission. “I thought it would be good public relations for them, showing civil society is still active in Iran, that it’s still possible to criticize the government. They denied me permission.”

The film focuses on human rights activists, in particular Sadr, who provides free legal counsel to women who have been condemned to death under Sharia law.

“Shroud” is a reference not to the veil, but to the process that precedes an ancient and barbaric form of capital punishment that is still practiced in several countries (though not often and not overtly), called “lapidation,” or stoning.

The prisoner, often young, poor, illiterate and female, is prepared as a dead body would be, washed, wrapped and buried to her shoulders. A group of men stone her to death.

The charges may range from murder, even if it was self-defence, to adultery, even if the woman was raped, as in the case of 13-year-old Somalian Aisha Ibrahim Duhulow in 2008. Sometimes confessions are forced and women are not informed of the loopholes that could save their lives.

Kazemi, a broadcaster with Radio Free Europe, first interviewed Sadr for a story about the fact that in Tehran, women are not allowed to watch football games, because it is “forbidden to see the naked legs of men.”

As he learned of her work and her organization, Raahi Women’s Legal Centre, he became aware of how much more there was beneath the surface.

“I visited the Stop Stoning Campaign website (,” Kazemi says. “ It’s only something formal, they didn’t tell the stories. One must go inside, meet the people and see what’s going on.”

Legally sanctioned stoning, which has roots in several countries including Afghanistan, the United Arab Republic, Pakistan and others, is the most extreme and final form of discrimination against women under Sharia law.

“The life of women is worth half of the man’s life in terms of blood money,” writes Shirin Ebadi, one of the founders of the One Million Signatures Campaign, aimed at collecting signatures to voice opposition to discriminatory laws in Iran. Women may be forced into marriage and have minimal options to leave an abusive husband.

“During a trial, a declaration by a man is worth twice that of a woman. Women require their husband’s permission to work or travel,” Ebadi writes.

Kazemi said he was scared as he filmed secretly. “These women activists have given me courage – I was someone observing them while they were directly involved.” He never sensed the women were afraid. “I think it was because the topic they were dealing with was so horrible [in that situation] you cannot think of yourself.”

The “Stop Stoning Forever” campaign, promoted by Amnesty International, originated with womens’ rights groups in Iran following the stoning of two women in Mashhad in 2006.

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