In the documentary “#Female Pleasure,” five women from different cultures discuss the ways “the universal religion, patriarchy” has circumscribed and even traumatized their lives.
A Japanese artist is persecuted for her vagina imagery, a Hasidic woman hounded for breaking with the faith, an Indian woman starts a website to try to drag her country into a century where groping, rape and “honor killing” are ended via her website, a German nun struggles to get the attention of Pope Francis with her story of rape by a priest within Vatican city.
But the money moment, the scene that will stick with your from this Barbara Miller documentary, is provided by psychotherapist and women’s right’s activist Leyla Hussein. Her cause begins with using the proper terms for child marriage and female genital mutilation.
And the fact that this practice, most common in Third World and Islamic countries in Africa, the Middle East and Polynesia, spreads to the First World when refugees — she is a Somali native — bring the barbaric custom with them sets up her indelible scene in “#Female Pleasure.”
So Hussein rounds up young Somali men from the diaspora that she lives among, in Britain, and uses a large-scale clay model to demonstrate the stages or degrees of “FGM.”
We watch the kids cringe, and cringe along with them, as she takes a putty knife to the parts of a vagina that are carved up or removed to “deny female pleasure” in sexual intercourse. The kids realize, as anybody watching this will, that writing off this graphic, gruesome and lifelong trauma as a mere “cultural practice” that we in the West shouldn’t comment on, is a grotesque misuse of custom and religion, horrifically primitive in origin, sexist, cruel and repressive in its continued use.
Hussein, who had this done to her as a child, remembers the aunts and neighborladies who came to carry the “rite of passage” out on her, and notes — “It’s not your body that you lose. You lose trust.”
“#Female Pleasure” roinds up these dispirate assaults on women’s most basic freedom — control of their own body and romantic destiny — to create a sweeping condemnation of millenia of patriarchical thinking.
Vithka Yadav, who set up the Love Matters website in India, recalls the waking nightmare of “growing up a girl-child in India, daily gropings and assaults,” spiraling towards an arranged marriage that too-often is another form of slavery.
“I started to hate myself for being a girl,” she remembers, stopping to debate a sexist monk in the city square (she has to hold back from telling him off) on her way to editing pieces on sexuality written by the coed staff of her website. The country that created the Kama Sutra has taken hundreds of years of backward steps in regards to equality of the sexes, she says.
Deborah Feldman‘s New York Hasidic trials and tests are more familiar and have been documented in books, articles, documentaries and feature films — another arranged marriage, another culture condemning women to lives without choice, without education (and books), without pleasure. That this is allowed to happen in New York, with fathers too often winning custody of children when the rare wife makes her legal escape, is apalling.
Catholic nun Doris Wagner’s story may be the saddest, signing into a patriarchy where nuns are mixed in with sometimes predatory Vatican City priests, “but it is the nun’s responsibility to make sure nothing happens.”
There is one lighter thread in Miller’s film, the story of Japanese artist Rokudensashiko. She draws manga, Japanese comics, and incorporates female and feminist issues into her stories. She also makes dioramas out of scenes from the comics.
Where she runs afoul of tradition, patriarchy and the law is when she starts making plaster casts and then 3D models of her vagina. She makes her vagina a character in her work. She commissions a plastic kayak shaped like her vagina. She and we giggle as she does.
“OBSCENE” say the menfolk, and we snicker along with her at the flaming hypocrisy of this as she walks through Tokyo’s sex shops, sampling the wares — where inflatable sex dolls and all manner of kinky “real woman substitutes” were invented for a culture that is shrinking in population because real sex is apparently too frightening…for some (men).
As I say, much of what is reported here has turned up in TV news magazine segments, articles and other films. But Miller has pulled some far-flung threads together to create a fascinating “state of the struggle” report, one that women like Hussein are fighting, one speech, one interview, one graphic demonstration of FGM at a time.
MPAA Rating: Unrated, frank discussion of sexuality and sexual violence
Cast: Leyla Hussein, Rokudenashiko, Vithika Yadav, Deborah Feldman, and Doris Wagner
Credits: Written and directed by Barbara Miller. An Abramorama release.
Running time: 1:37