‘Bol’: a feminist film

A student of mine whose father is a film distributor in the Middle East was able to hold a private screening for her friends (and me!) of the Indian/Pakistani film ‘Bol’ (speech/words/speak) that I mentioned here on Facebook. I am very happy that I was able to watch it and encourage every Muslim who calls themselves feminist to watch it. Bol is a Hindi/Urdu word that is often a noun meaning speech or words, even lyrics but can also be an imperative to mean ‘speak!’

Bol is Pakistani film producer and director Shoaib Mansoor’s brilliant work. Mansoor has very artfully raised almost all the issues that Muslim feminists address regularly. I would call Bol a bold Muslim feminist film. Some of the general and feminist themes that I noticed Mansoor tackle are:

  1. Deep rooted and menacing desire for a male child
  2. Scorn and hatred for the “third gender” (as has now been officially accepted in Pakistan)
  3. Polygamy
  4. Prostitution
  5. Desire for the female child by the segment of society that lives off prostituting women
  6. Honour killing
  7. Forced marriages
  8. Giving young women in marriage to much older men
  9. Sectarianism
  10. Wife beating
  11. Theft and its micro and macro effects
  12. Extortion and bribery
  13. Denial of education to women
  14. Lack of use of contraception
  15. Scorn for rationalism
  16. Rape
  17. Disregard for public by politicians
  18. Belief amongst the under-educated class that gender of the fetus is determined by the mother
  19. Superstitious belief in tarot reading

The desire for a male child is a theme that runs throughout the film and is one that gives rise to other themes. The “patriarch” (I seem to be really milking this term!) of the family, Hakim Sahab, wants a son and this desire causes his wife to become pregnant fourteen times. The eldest daughter, Zainab, is the protagonist of the film who yells towards the end “why is it that only killing someone is a crime while giving birth isn’t?”

Sometimes indirectly and often directly Mansoor tries his best to educate people about issues that plague many societies especially his Pakistani society. There are some points I found powerfully poignant in the film. For example, in one scene Zainab engages in an argument with her father who is abusing her for making her mother undergo tubal litigation after her fourteenth pregnancy that had made her very ill. Hakib Sahab tells his daughter that even though they are deathly poor this should not stop him from having more children and trying for a son because it is Allah who “gives food if He gives mouths” and that the Prophet had once shown his desire to have “the greatest ummah (following) on the Day of Judgment.” At this Zainab retorts that if the first argument was true people wouldn’t be dying from hunger and poverty in many parts of the world and questions why Muslims always understand “greatest” as in population?! Why couldn’t the Prophet have desired a following greatest in wisdom, honesty and prosperity?! Zainab shows her doubt that the Prophet could have wanted a populated ummah that was poor and “as stupid as an ass”! At this Hakim Sahab slaps Zainab for doubting the words and intentions of the Prophet that only he can understand better.

At another point in the film Hakim Sahab is being interrogated by police for murdering his son (who was not a problem for Hakim Sahab to kill since the child was a hermaphrodite and a tarot reading had allowed the father to make this easy decision). The police officer asks Hakim Sahab what prompted him to kill his own son and the latter replies that it was an “honour killing” (the child had been gang raped!). At this the police officer comments very matter-of-factly that “it is only daughters that are killed in the name of honour.”

Hakim Sahab also takes on another wife without the knowledge of his first wife. The second wife is a prostitute and part of his decision to remarry is his desire to have a son since his first wife is “only good at two things: cooking and producing girls.” Nevertheless, he is almost forced into marriage by his new father-in-law, a pimp by profession, who wants a granddaughter that he could prostitute since he has five “useless sons” of his own and he had learned that Hakim Sahab has seven daughters. It is this pimp who educates Hakim Sahab that science (which he says is often disregarded by homeopathic doctors and religious people) has proved that gender of an unborn child is determined by the sperm and not the egg. He is convinced that Hakim Sahab would be able to give him a granddaughter whereas the former doesn’t believe “faulty science” and is hopeful that the new and young wife would give him a son. He has another daughter.

Hakim Sahab who is portrayed as a deeply-religious man is shown having no inhibitions in marrying again without the knowledge of his first wife. He beats her at one point – quite mercilessly, losing his senses in a fit of rage and kicking her in the stomach several times. He kills his child in the name of honour when he is raped and beats Zainab several times in the film for “raising her voice” and “doubting hadith.” His beliefs are often naïve but also very common. He hates his Shite next-door neighbour, doesn’t believe in birth control, doesn’t believe in educating daughters, dislikes modern science, and holds superstitious beliefs. All this makes him a very strict, unhappy and angry man. The only two times he smiles in the film are when he thinks his wife has given birth to a son (who then is revealed by the doula to be a hermaphrodite) and when he is in the private chamber of his prostitute second wife. His innocent son notices his father’s behaviour very early on in his life. When Zainab encourages him to “act like a man” he says, “how hard is it to be a man? All you have to do is yell at your family and be angry.”  Zainab corrects him that not all men are like their father.

That is the bottom line – while there may be many terrible men in this world, not all men are terrible. This world is beautiful because there are beautiful women and beautiful men. Good men like Hakim Sahab’s Shite neighbour and his son are also shown in the film. I think Shoaib Mansoor himself is a remarkable man for not only identifying but also boldly highlighting such disturbing issues.

Bol is a film that will leave you asking yourselves many questions. It is a film that has a hard throbbing feminist vein and since it is based on the life of a common Pakistani and Muslim family it may prove a valuable resource to those who are interested in exploring the lives of Muslim women in developing Muslim countries who don’t have the luxury, means or even the permission to know Islamic Feminism and what the movement is doing for their rights.

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14 thoughts on “‘Bol’: a feminist film

  1. Lat says:

    That’s a powerful movie.is it shown in Pakistan without any censorship? I applaud the director for bringing these issues out in the open.

    • Metis says:

      Lat, I don’t know. I think it’s uncensored there but the student who took us to watch it said that it was heavily censored where I live. There was a scene in which Zainab tells her father that she wishes she was Allah so she could have made every man on earth give birth at least once to know the pain of labour and pregnancy that women go through. That scene was censored – I watched it on a DVD later on. There was one more that was censored that I don’t remember now.

  2. almostclever says:

    Wow! Will most def check it out

  3. anonymous says:

    I really liked ‘khuda ke liye’, his previous movie. Everyone is raving about this one. People still kill their newborn girls,if not everyday, very often.
    We are 6 siblings. My parents did their best to feed, clothe and educate all of us. I am not complaining. I respect and love them very much, but always think that if we were only 2 or 3 my parents’ life would have been a whole lot easier. I always think of the sacrifices they had to make and all the hardships they had to go through just to send all of us to school and through college. It’s all because of the oppressive mother in law my mom had who thought birth control is haram. And she always hated the daughters of the family. I wonder what would have been if my mother did not send me to school and educate me and my sister, despite a lot of pressure from the in laws. And financial trouble on top..
    Many people may not hate their daughters but always hope it’s a boy when the wife is pregnant. A place, be it a country or a single house, cannot prosper if it’s women are dishonoured and disrespected.
    ‘Why couldn’t the Prophet have desired a following greatest in wisdom, honesty and prosperity?! Zainab shows her doubt that the Prophet could have wanted a populated ummah that was poor and “as stupid as an ass”! ‘ This is my favourite line in the movie.

    • Metis says:

      I enjoyed your comment, anonymous, and liked what you had to say about people secretly or openly desiring a male child. Every time I was pregnant I was told to recite this or that surah so I’d have a boy!

  4. Zufash says:

    I really appreciate Shoaib Mansoor, but, having seen so many movies with feminist themes in them — all of which succeed in arousing emotions, angry emotions within me — I fear this one will be as disturbing as “Khuda Ke Liye.” I didn’t like “Khuda Ke Liye” for many reasons, some of which have to do with the image that he gave of the “Pathan”/Pashtun people, but I’m hesitant to watch this one, despite the fact that it has feminism painted all over it. I just feel like it’d be another of those disturbing films on how oppressed Muslim/Pakistani women are and all, and, frankly speaking, I’m so sick of that talk…. Pakistani dramas are enough to remind us of that.

    But I’m not sure … I might consider watching it at some point . . .

    • Metis says:

      I liked Khuda ke liye but I liked this better. It is a good film and I don’t think he is stereotyping. He just offers one example of one family that actually do exist. I hope you can watch it and tell me what you think 🙂

  5. susanne430 says:

    I enjoyed the review. Has the movie come out yet to all audiences? I wonder what kind of response it has gotten from those who’ve seen it or read what it is about. Thanks for letting us know about it. I wonder how common is Hakim’s view because many would have us believe his is the very slim minority and likely it is, thankfully.

    • Metis says:

      Yes, it has. I think it should be available in the US too. Apparently it has broken all records in Pakistan and has been a great hit in India as well. Hakim’s views exist but are not very common. I guess there are such people in every society – misogynist. He is just an example of what people can become.

  6. mezba says:

    There’s a Bengalli movie called Hilla. I have to watch that and Bol this break!

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