“We’re going to Pakistan to screen Beauty Bites Beast!” I told my sister. There was silence and then she replied, “Aren’t you nervous about going there?” I said, “I suppose Pakistanis would be nervous coming here, too. So yes… but I’m more nervous about making a fool of myself, which I often do!”
My attempt at levity was an attempt at deflecting a serious concern. On October 7, 2016, the U.S. State Department issued an advisory — still in effect — for people traveling to Pakistan which began with this phrase: “The Department of State warns U.S. citizens against all non-essential travel to Pakistan.” Now what?
“Non-essential” is relative. Both I and my husband and co-producer of BBB, Ken Gruberman, consider the message of Beauty Bites Beast to be essential in the face of a gender-based violence pandemic. This scourge is directed at populations that are considered to be at the defenseless end of the violence spectrum. Meanwhile, our stated mission with Beauty Bites Beast is to: “normalize” empowerment self-defense as a human need and right; to inspire those on the fence to see that the drive to protect oneself is not a gendered attribute. We strive to make empowerment self-defense accessible, portable and affordable to the populations most at risk: women, kids, minorities and LGBT communities.” (You can see the trailer here)
Ken and I discussed it and agreed this opportunity was a once-in-a-lifetime proposition. How could we not go? After weeks of delays and jumping through one bureaucratic hoop after another, we finally got our Pakistani visas. At the same time, we set about raising the money we needed, as our hosts did not have the funds to bring us there.
We had been cordially invited to the International Islamic University, Islamabad, in collaboration with the Department of State, US Embassy, Islamabad for their “Consciousness-Raising of Pakistani Women on Contemporary Academic and Social Issues” conference held on December 7-9, 2016 at the IIUI Female Campus. It’s all organized by the Critical Thinking Forum, founded and directed by Dr. Munazza Yaqoob; Jennifer Lee, our dear friend and fellow documentarian, had introduced us to Dr. Yaqoob.
I’d met Dr. Yaqoob and became friends with her when she and 8 other Pakistani women visited Los Angeles in 2016. I invited Munazza to see Beauty Bites Beast in our den. She was inspired and asked us if we’d be willing to come to her Critical Thinking Forum pro bono for the winter meeting to show our film. “Yes, of course we will!” Other than our willingness, we had no idea what was about to happen.
Once our Pakistan wheels were set in motion, we kept picking up steam. We had all sorts of support from people in our Landmark Worldwide community, getting us in touch with Pakistani people who had done Landmark programs in the U.S. We had wonderful coaching via phone and Skype from former State Department and USAID employees who had lived in Islamabad. Since I had also been a United Nations Association officer, delegate, and journalist for years, we were also put in touch with United Nations Women representatives in Lahore. I got especially great contacts through Anila Ali, a Muslim woman who lives in Orange County, California who ran for office and lost in the debacle that was our recent election cycle.
In the face of our current political atmosphere, it seemed like everyone was also pulling for us to be US Goodwill Ambassadors… and so, we were. We can now say that we have created friendships in Pakistan that will endure. We often check in with each other and stay in contact mostly through Facebook and WhatsApp.
We were blown away by the affection we were shown once we arrived in Pakistan. Complete strangers would stop and ask us, “Where are you from?” When we answered “America,” we were always, without exception, thanked for coming. “What do you think of us?” they’d ask. “We are so happy to be here,” we said truthfully. On many occasions, the women would hug and kiss me in welcome. A father in Lahore guided his little boys over to us so they could shake our hands, simply for visiting their city!
One concession we made that totally goes against my grain was paying through the nose to stay at the most expensive hotels in Islamabad and Lahore. Considering the current state of affairs in Pakistan, along with the horrible Taliban attacks two years ago, we were told in no uncertain terms that where we stayed mattered. The State Department strongly recommended we stay where they could keep track of us. After years of making myself always do things as cheaply as possible, my frugal self balked at the idea … until I spoke with a few of our larger donors involved with the Generosity.com campaign we had going. I asked them if they’d consider me a spendthrift if we stayed at the Pakistani equivalents of the Ritz Carlton, the Hotel Serena in Islamabad and the Pearl Continental in Lahore.
“No!” they unanimously responded. “Are you kidding? We don’t want you AirBnb-ing or couch surfing in Pakistan!” Guilt assuaged, we bit the financial bullet and booked the hotels.
It turned out to be the right move. These hotels had extensive security measures just to get onto the property, including airport-style scanners, scads of security personnel, and even bomb sniffing dogs. They were mostly Labradors, and dog lover that I am I so wanted to pet them while saying, “Who’s a good dog? Who’s a good doggie?” I had to force myself to not interfere with their working lives.
For the first few days, we moved around Islamabad with a driver supplied by the University. After that, we got around mostly through the good graces of our new life-long friend, retired Pakistani Colonel Azam Qadri and his protegé, Saria Benazir. They appointed themselves as our guides and chauffeurs around Islamabad and even took us into the foothills of the Himalayas for our only touristy activity. Colonel Qadri is 4th generation military and is deeply committed to peace in a way that a person tends to be when they have experienced actual war, up-close and personally. Additionally, both Azam and Saria have deep commitments to interfaith dialogue which my husband and I also share.
On the second day of the conference, we screened our film for around 250 female students and professors at the Islamabad University. They received Beauty Bites Beast with GREAT enthusiasm and we noted that they cried, laughed and gasped in the same places American audiences do. “My goodness,” I thought, “If I had to come up with a test as to whether Beauty Bites Beast has a universal theme, I don’t think I could come up with a better contrast than Los Angeles and Islamabad!” Of course, inveterate suck-up that I am, I brought three 5 lb. bags of American candy bars — Halloween “fun size” — to hand out after the movie, which resulted in a near mob scene. Hey, sweets are an amazing ambassadorial tool!
The audience in Islamabad was 100% female (except for Ken who fulfilled his role as the Tech Daddy, his moniker for both the Huffington Post and his business), were highly educated and mostly affluent. Many of the young women were dressed as any young woman would dress on any campus anywhere; moreover, how they dressed was their choice. Some wore nothing special, some sported hijabs or colorful scarves, while some were fully covered.
One particular comment in Islamabad really blew me away. Dr. Amina Nasir, a respected Islamic scholar in her 70s, stood up during the Q & A section of our presentation and said, “This is the most spiritual and intellectual movie I have ever seen. Rarely have I been engaged to this degree in any film. Thank you.” The only objection we got during the Q & A was based on a meme we also see in the U.S. A young woman stood up and said, “Why don’t you spend your time changing men to not rape?”
I answered with, “We need all manner of solutions when it comes to ending sexual assault. It’s not a binary issue: either men should stop raping women, or women should learn to defend themselves. The men who rape don’t care if you think they should stop assaulting you. As we say in the film, we need all solutions, including changing men.” Binary “either/or” thinking leaves out too many solutions, including embracing the same fierceness we have in defending our children when it comes to defending ourselves.
As we tootled around Islamabad, I noticed just how at home I felt. Islamabad has similar flora to Los Angeles because we are on the same latitude! Thus the bougainvillea and cactus. However, their fauna is distinctive: we do not have the monkeys or leopards! That was a delightful difference.
The Lahore screening had a lot of men in attendance; over half. We were invited to be a kick-off event for an innovative program sponsored by the Province of Punjab, where Lahore is located. Previously, when a woman wanted to report a sexual assault, she was shuttled between a daunting number of agencies, which working women with children can ill-afford to do. To remedy this, the Punjabi government has instituted a “one-stop” office where the woman can report, get medical and financial assistance and pursue prosecution.
The audience in Lahore was also a highly educated group of mostly government and NGO folks. One man said, “Thank you so much for promoting the partnership of men and women together in stopping violence.” His daughter added, “When I first heard about this, I was ‘oh no, a man-hating movie,’ and it wasn’t that at all!” They appreciated the humor and understood that, with my theater background, I would look for the ironies… which I do.
Regarding the Lahore showing, I think I’m most pleased with the attendance of a Mixed Martial Arts guy who was asked to join us on the panel after the screening. A Pakistani-American, he said that seeing Beauty Bites Beast has now fundamentally altered the way he will teach self-defense to women. I fully intend to maintain our relationships in Pakistan and I foresee a return trip. We have good friends that I love and care about there.
One thing I aim to do is show Beauty Bites Beast at Lawrence College, a venerable and prestigious middle school and high school for boys in the Himalayan foothills town of Murree. Many of Pakistan’s leaders have attended this school. The principal there began a “no bullying / no violence / no paddling” policy three years ago and has had the predictable resistance to ending centuries of these practices, started by the British. He’s already said he’d screen our little movie that could. I’m VERY interested in altering men and boys’ views of violence, use of implied force and partnership with women and girls as we take on the gender equality as a human family.
“When a body has cells that attack itself, it is called a cancer or an immune disorder. Similarly, I assert that violence in general, and male violence toward women in specific, is to the globe what HIV/ AIDS is to the body: it creates an unhealthy host that makes it susceptible to other ‘diseases.’ Therefore, empowering women and girls to stop an assault in the moment, and also raising children to see that females are not inherently victims of male violence could allow the planet to recover sufficiently to take on other areas of violence.” — Ellen Snortland, author of “Beauty Bites Beast,” writer/director/producer of the documentary Beauty Bites Beast and playwright of “Now That She’s Gone.”