Yemeni filmmaker uses her tortured past to help women

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Updated 09 April 2013

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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At 90, Alaska Native woman is 1st counted in US Census

In this Monday, Jan. 20, 2020 image, Lizzie Chimiugak looks on at her home in Toksook Bay, Alaska. (AP)
Updated 22 January 2020

At 90, Alaska Native woman is 1st counted in US Census

  • The decennial US census has started in rural Alaska, out of tradition and necessity, ever since the US purchased the territory from Russia in 1867

TOKSOOK BAY, Alaska: Lizzie Chimiugak has lived for 90 years in the windswept western wilds of Alaska, born to a nomadic family who lived in mud homes and followed where the good hunting and fishing led.
Her home now is an outpost on the Bering Sea, Toksook Bay, and on Tuesday she became the first person counted in the US Census, taken every 10 years to apportion representation in Congress and federal money.
“Elders that were before me, if they didn’t die too early, I wouldn’t have been the first person counted,” Lizzie Chimiugak said, speaking Yup’ik language of Yugtun, with family members serving as interpreters. “Right now, they’re considering me as an elder, and they’re asking me questions I’m trying my best to give answers to, or to talk about what it means to be an elder.”
The decennial US census has started in rural Alaska, out of tradition and necessity, ever since the US purchased the territory from Russia in 1867. The ground is still frozen, which allows easier access before the spring melt makes many areas inaccessible to travel and residents scatter to subsistence hunting and fishing grounds. The mail service is spotty in rural Alaska and the Internet connectivity unreliable, which makes door-to-door surveying important.
The rest of the nation, including more urban areas of Alaska, begin the census in mid-March.
On Tuesday, Steven Dillingham, director of the census bureau, conducted the first interview after riding on the back of a snowmobile from the airport to Chimiugak’s home.
“The 2020 Census has begun,” he told reporters after conducting the first interview with Chimiugak, a process that lasted about five minutes. “Toksook Bay isn’t the easiest place to get to, and the temperature is cold. And while people are in the village, we want to make sure everyone is counted.”
Dillingham was hours late getting to Toksook Bay because weather delayed his flight from the hub community of Bethel, about 115 miles (185 kilometers) away. Conditions didn’t improve, and he spent only about an hour in the community before being rushed back to the airport.
After the count, a celebration took place at Nelson Island School and included the Nelson Island High School Dancers, an Alaska Native drum and dance group. Later, the community took over the commons area of the high school with a potluck of Alaska Native foods, including seal, moose and goose soups, herring roe served with seal oil and baked salmon.
Robert Pitka, tribal administrator for Nunakauyak Traditional Council, hopes the takeaway message for the rest of the nation is of Yup’ik pride.
“We are Yup’ik people and that the world will see that we are very strong in our culture and our traditions and that our Yup’ik language is very strong,” he said.
For Chimiugak, she has concerns about climate change and what it might do to future generations of subsistence hunters and fishers in the community, and what it will do to the fish and animals. She talked about it with others at the celebration.
“She’s sad about the future,” he eldest son Paul said.
Chimiugak was born just after the start of the Great Depression in the middle of nowhere in western Alaska, her daughter Katie Schwartz of Springfield, Missouri, said. Lizzie was one of 10 siblings born to her parents, who lived a nomadic lifestyle and traveled with two or three other families that would migrate together, her son said.
Lizzie and her 101-year-old sister from Nightmute, Alaska, survive.
In 1947 Lizzie married George Chimiugak, and they eventually settled in Toksook Bay after the town was founded in 1964 by residents of nearby Nightmute. There are five surviving children.
He worked maintenance at the airport. She did janitorial work at the old medical clinic and babysat.
Like other wives, she cleaned fish, tanned hides and even rendered seal oil after her husband came home from fishing or hunting. Her husband died about 30 years ago.
She is also a woman of strong Catholic faith, and told her son that she saved his life by praying over him after he contracted polio.
For her own hobbies, she weaved baskets from grass and remains a member of the Alaska Native dance group that performed Tuesday. She dances in her wheelchair.
She taught children manners and responsibility and continued the oral tradition of telling them stories with a storyknife.
Chimiugak used a knife in the mud to illustrate her stories to schoolchildren. She drew figures for people or homes. At the end of the story, she’d use the knife to wipe away the pictures and start the next story with a clean slate of mud.
“She’s a great teacher, you know, giving us reminders of how we’re supposed to be, taking care of subsistence and taking care of our family and respecting our parents,” her granddaughter Alice Tulik said. “That’s how she would give us advice.”