Last weekend, I saw the movie “Yentl” for the first time. The RAISE Hope for Congo campaign was highlighted at the world launch of a new movie series, Films that Changed the World. The series, organized by Kat Kramer, celebrates the empowerment of women and kicked off with a private screening of the groundbreaking film, Yentl. A fitting film to begin with, Yentl was produced, directed, written by, and starred a woman – the legendary Barbra Streisand.
Renowned songwriter and composer Marilyn Bergman told the crowd about the obstacles that Streisand, as a woman in the industry, had to overcome to get this movie made. And fight Barbra did, because she was passionate about telling the story of Yentl, a young woman in Poland who wants nothing more than to study the Talmud (a codification of Jewish Law), but has to do so in secret because girls were not allowed to learn the law in those days. When her father passes away, Yentl decides to leave her home village and disguise herself as a young boy so that she can gain admittance to a Yeshiva and study.
Watching this film, I couldn’t help but think about the obstacles that women continue to face today, particularly women in Congo. As a female producer, Streisand had to fight in the 1980s to get a movie made that ironically told the story of the many obstacles that women faced many decades before. And while I’d like to say that three decades later it’s a different story, unfortunately women are still disempowered all around the world. In particular, women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo not only face gender discrimination and lack basic rights, such as access to health care and education, they also have become pawns in a decade-old war for control over natural resources. As Immaculee Birhaheka, a Congolese women’s activist, told me last summer, “Armed men do not negotiate the sexual relationship.” And so, women’s bodies have become the battlefield in Congo, as armed groups seek to terrorize and control communities.
In the film, after various twists and turns and a love triangle gone awry, Yentl finally sheds her male identity and heads to America where she can study freely as a woman. Unfortunately, the women of Congo do not have the luxury of picking up and moving to a new place where they will not be persecuted. They must stay and fight for protection and peace. And courageous women like Immaculee are fighting…every day, despite the obstacles and dangers they face.
Just as Barbra fought to break the glass ceiling for women in the entertainment industry, and just as Yentl fought for other women who wanted to study and educate themselves, women all over the world must stand in solidarity with Immaculee and her Congolese sisters, and fight right along with them. We can raise our voices, and advocate for their protection, for their empowerment, and for a future in Congo where the country’s natural resources are a blessing for women and the society as a whole, not a curse.
Just as Yentl saw the promise of hope that awaited her in America, so too do Congolese women see the promise of hope in the solidarity of their sisters around the world.
Watch actress and Enough Envoy Emmanuelle Chriqui speak from red carpet about her involvement with RAISE Hope for Congo.