Yemeni filmmaker uses her tortured past to help women

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Updated 09 April 2013
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Yemeni filmmaker uses her tortured past to help women

Khadija Al-Salami, Yemen's first female filmmaker, had a tough struggle growing up. The 47-year-old had to endure betrayal, torture and other abuses in her formative years.
“I had a very painful childhood. My father was a doctor, but then he became mentally ill because of the war going on at the time, making him extremely violent toward my mother."
When she turned 11, she was forced by her uncle into an early marriage. “At one point, I tried to commit suicide to escape from it. However, with my mother’s support I was able to withstand this appalling phase of my life and get a divorce.”
Putting that dreadful chapter far behind her, she found a job with the only television channel presenting children’s programs. She also went to school in the mornings. “It wasn’t easy for me because I had to work and support my mother at the same time because we were disowned by the family.”
Despite this huge and sudden responsibility on her young shoulders, she managed to get good grades and got a scholarship to study in the United States. “Right after high school I decided to move abroad for higher studies. It wasn’t a difficult choice to make because I already had my goals and what I wanted to do with my life. I knew deep within that I just wanted to go to the United States," Al-Salami says.
She often had to face abuse at school. “When I told my classmates about my plans for the future, they simply laughed and would say ‘keep dreaming’ to my face. It was quite embarrassing.”
She has vivid childhood memories of how her fellow country women were enslaved and beaten. “Life was so unfair for women when I was growing up and sadly it still remains so," she says.
When she was studying in the US pursuing her dreams, she yearned for her homeland. She wanted to shed light on her country's problems with her films. “I chose filmmaking because I wanted to tell stories and maybe raise awareness and bring about change, “she says.
Al-Salami has made 20 influential documentaries so far, but the most touching one has been the heartrending story of Amina Al-Tuhaif, the woman who was falsely imprisoned for her husband's murder. “Amina’s tragedy needed to be told to wake up Yemeni society. When I found out that she was a victim, I couldn’t help but get involved to fight for her life." Her film, entitled "Amina," helped to get the woman released from prison.
Her latest film, “The Scream,” which premiered at the Ninth annual Dubai International Film Festival last year, also garnered a lot of attention. “The film is about thousands of women who fearlessly came out to scream about the pain and oppression they have been carrying with them for centuries. It also showed their anguish against the regime that made them suffer and deprived them of their basic rights as human beings," she says.
She has faced lots of opposition for her work. She has never been physically attacked, but has faced verbal abuse and insults. Some had even threatened to kill her. "However, I have received several compliments from others who admire my films," she says.
She feels strongly about girls being forced to marry. “When I hear about girls being married at an early age, I feel quite devastated because every time it happens, it brings back bad memories and reminds me of my painful experiences when I was their age," she says. “The psychological impact of it all is terrible. They start to feel desperate and hate everything around them.”
Her foundation “My Future.org” is playing an active role by providing education for these youngsters. “We can protect these girls by giving them a good education. That’s why I have dedicated my life to combat these actions against young girls and women in traditional societies. I even helped young girls get divorced and placed them in school. Education is a tool that will help free them.”
“I was very disappointed when the Islamic Party in Yemen blocked the law prohibiting marriage before the age of 17 with the help of some tribal leaders in 2009," she says. "It’s a long battle but I have faith we are going to win it."
“The reform cannot come from male politicians. It will have to come from women who dare to come out and challenge the authorities. It feels good to see that women are finally valiant enough to cry foul over injustices. They just need to keep their fighting spirit alive.”
Asked about her life so far and what she still wants to do, she says: “I am very satisfied with my life when I look back at where I came from. With hard work and determination nothing is impossible."
“It’s hard to predict where Yemen will be in the next five years, but my personal wish is to see Yemen more stable, secure and making progress in solving economic issues. A good quality education is vital because it will expose the new generation to progressive and healthy thinking. They will then view the world differently," she said.
She says the other big challenge facing Yemen is the law and order situation. "Whenever I get a chance, I visit my homeland, I can't stop myself from going there. In terms of security, it's getting worse because the country is going through a lot of changes politically and economically. It will take time to solve all the problems. This is only possible as long as the politicians govern with complete integrity without worrying about personal gain."

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Rarer than a Sumatran rhino: a woman composer

Updated 18 February 2019
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Rarer than a Sumatran rhino: a woman composer

  • “I was the only woman in all my classes in the Conservatoire, and it was fine,” said Pepin, who is now working on her first ballet score in her Paris apartment which doubles as a studio

PARIS: Camille Pepin is part of a very rare breed. She is a female composer.
Women have conquered space, risen in the military ranks, but some professions remain resolutely and bewilderingly masculine.
When Pepin turned up for her first day at the Paris Conservatoire — as usual the only woman in a class of men — an official told her that her name wasn’t on the list.
But when she insisted that she was and that he look again, he cried, “Ah, you’re a woman!“
Camille is also a man’s name in France.
“I would never have thought,” he apologized. “There are so many men...”
With so few female composers in the classical music repertoire, it was an easy mistake to make.
Pepin has never let everyday sexism get her down though, laughing it off like water off a duck’s back.
“One male composer told me I was getting commissions because I was a woman and not too bad looking,” said the 28-year-old, whose first album, “Chamber Music,” is released later this month.
After a concert of one of her more combative pieces, “a man came to tell me my music was ‘very fresh, flowery and sweet’,” she told AFP.
“I am a woman so clearly those three words” apply, she said wryly.
Pepin, whose music recalls both Claude Debussy and American minimalist composers like John Adams, said sometimes the sexist stereotypes which persist in the classical music world are hard to take.

One “old school” music professor insisted she sit on his right at lunch “because that was a woman’s place” and sent her off to make the coffee.
“I was the only woman in all my classes in the Conservatoire, and it was fine,” said Pepin, who is now working on her first ballet score in her Paris apartment which doubles as a studio.
Mostly the young composer, who made her breakthrough with the orchestral piece “Vajrayana” in 2015, said she was treated exactly the same as her male colleagues in classes with French contemporary composers like Guillaume Connesson, Thierry Escaich and Marc-Andre Dalbavie.
Beyond the classroom, however, progress is slow in the conservative world of classical music.
Pepin believes it will take generations for the forgotten work of female composers to get just recognition.
Beyond the casual unthinking sexism, she said the biggest problem for young female composers was “a lack of role models.”
A few woman such as the American composer Meredith Monk, Kaija Saariaho of Finland and Tansy Davies from Britain have managed to break the glass ceiling.

But even Pepin admitted that when she was younger she didn’t know of a single female composer.
“We never studied them,” she said.
Who has ever heard of Helene de Montgeroult (1764-1836), Louise Farrenc (1804-1875) or Fanny Mendelssohn (1805-1847)?
Fanny was the older sister of the more famous Felix Mendelssohn, with many at the time saying her work was more expressive.
But after she married she was limited to domestic duties and had to content herself with being her brother’s chief editor and muse, which led him to call her his “Minerva” of wisdom.
“Lots of female composers were crushed like Clara Schumann (the wife of Robert Schumann),” despite being one of the most distinguished composers and musicians of the Romantic era, said the pianist Celia Oneto Bensaid, who often performs Pepin’s work.
“You play my music,” Schumann once bluntly told his wife, a star of concert halls across Europe.

Born into a family in the northern French city of Amiens that wasn’t particularly musical, Pepin began to write her own melodies at 13.
But even at the age of five in her ballet class, her eyes were more drawn to the piano.
“I was so fascinated that I would forget to do my exercises,” she said.
Before settling on composing, Pepin thought about being a dancer. “I need to feel the notes physically,” she said.
Her first ballet will be choreographed next year by Sylvain pad for France’s Ballet du Nord.
Finally, she feels she is getting beyond the dreaded question — “But what do you do for a living?” — when she tells people she’s a composer.
“They thought it was just something I did to chill on Sundays,” she laughed.