I’ve known Sarah Polley since she was a young activist. Over the years, I’ve watched her career as a film and TV writer and director with some pride. She helped me enormously by telling me about a concussion clinic in Pittsburg a few years ago, so I was aware that she had been unable to continue directing because of her concussion.
Polley has come back to directing with Women Talking, one of the most powerful films I have ever seen. Based on the extraordinary book by Miriam Toews, Women Talking is a powerful feminist film not only about women organizing to confront or escape male violence but also about the different ways trauma affects us and how to emerge from its grip. As the film begins we see this line “what follows is an act of female imagination.” I am struck by the fact that such a film could even be made within the Hollywood system.
The story, as you may know, is based on a true horror story of an extremely conservative patriarchal Mennonite colony in Bolivia where seven men were convicted of drugging and raping more than 100 women and girls in 2011. The film, as does the book, imagines the women are meeting in a barn to discuss whether to stay and fight, leave or do nothing in face of the realization that so many of them and their daughters have been sexually assaulted over night after being drugged. The men have left the colony to bail out the rapists. There is not much time to decide what to do.
I’m not a film critic but the acting, cinematography, writing and direction is all wonderful enough that a film that is literally about women talking held my interest for the entire runtime without pause. It is a profoundly feminist film for the obvious reason that trauma from sexual assault is central to many women’s lives and gendered violence affects many more. But more than that, we see a group of women who have not been taught to read or write as is the belief of their sect, who are basically slaves to the men in their community, who have taught their daughters to accept these conditions based on their religious beliefs are able to face the horror of what happened to them and then debate, discuss and sometimes fight about what to do.
Most of them believe that leaving the community will mean that they won’t go to heaven. Despite the extreme circumstances, the debate reflects many of the debates we have had about how to end violence against women. Some argue that it is up to the police and courts to punish these men, not up to the group. Others argue that whether or not the rapists are punished doesn’t solve the problem faced by the women, or even guarantee the protection of their children. Can they leave and create their own beloved community? If they stay and fight won’t they become like their assaulters taking their anger out in violence? Despite the extreme circumstance, the debate and discussion reminded me of some deep divisions I’ve been part of debating in the feminist movement and on the Left.
Collection of comedy clips from Anne Marie Scheffler shows (4 minutes)
Debates about violence and non-violence, whether to include men on a march, how to stand up to the Catholic Church on abortion, whether to defy the law. As sometimes the case in social movements, or in the decision of whether to become an activist, whatever they decide will profoundly change their lives. In the film we also experienced how different women are affected by their trauma in profoundly different ways from deeply angry to almost beatific. We also learn that it isn’t only the men who are responsible because mothers have taught their daughters to accept the conditions. And perhaps most extraordinary of all, Sarah respected the religious beliefs of the women.
In the Q and A after the film, Sarah talked about how the process of the film was also feminist. As the mother of three young children, she didn’t want the ten-hour days that are normal practice on a film so she organized it differently. There was a therapist on site to help actors and others deal with the psychological impact of the story. Instead of acting the usual role of the brilliant, domineering auteur writer-director, she encouraged her crew and the actors to contribute to how the film was being made, especially at crucial decisions.
Women Talking made me feel hope for the future. It is coming to a theatre near you in December. Please see it in the theatre. I’m sure it won’t have nearly the impact on your TV or computer.
Publishers Note: This article was originally published in rabble.ca on September 30th after it was screened at the Toronto Film Festival (TFF) 2022. We are grateful for the opportunity to republish this review for our audience! Thank you rabble.ca!
In the 1970s, Germaine Greer called out patriarchal social norms that cut women off from expressing their innate sexuality and true desires. The good news is today’s sex and body-positive entrepreneurs are here to disrupt those norms—once and for all.
Storytelling can help us through challenging situations. By reading other people’s real-life stories, those who are depressed might get a ray of hope, realizing that anything is possible. However, it can be hard to share our pain directly with others. This is why it can be powerful to write our stories, and know that someone is there to hear us.
I started to write about myself on International platforms, including Women For One. But my English is not at all excellent, so there’s the possibility that I might not convey the exact message with the exact feeling I want. Sometimes, this makes it hard to capture readers’ attention, and I can feel my effort is in vain because of the language barrier.
Here in India, the majority of the people speak a regional language, and even if some know English, they prefer to write or share their feelings in their mother tongue.
Still, I would like to try and narrate one incident. A girl from my college followed our tradition and married a guy whom her parents found right for her. Just after marriage, she started facing dowry demands and domestic violence. There was no love, no trust and no attachment, but the girl tried her best to live with her partner as she was very well aware that if she went back to her parents’ house, it would be nightmare for her as well as for her whole family.
She spent a year with her husband, but nothing worked and she suffered bone fractures due to domestic violence. Her parents got her back, but since that day, society started torturing her and ruining her life. She gained 15 KG in a few months for months due to medicines and improper diet. No one dared to stand by her. Her neighbor started giving advice to her parents to settle the matter as a girl living with parents is a burden. A few people ordered their daughters not to talk to her, in case they gave the wrong impression of their married life.
Her parents were not able to give their opinions, nor could she. If she dared, people raise a question, “You couldn’t handle your family, how will you handle this issue!”
One day she decided to commit suicide and posted her warning on Facebook. Timely action saved her, but the question is still there: Who gave society the right to plunge into someone’s personal life?
This girl is still being harassed and she is not the only girl. There are number – students, men, women who are — being harassed for being unable to get good marks, unable to bear a child, unable to get married at 25 and so on.
I give a voice to this kind of incident and try to give it voice so people might start thinking and we can have change.
Publisher’s Note: Dhara Patel is a journalist who lives in Gudjarat, India, and long time member of the LiisBeth community.
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“You are risk takers, don’t listen to that stuff. You are risk takers because, quite frankly, you raise families, you have children, you move countries, you move cities, you have had enormous risk in your life!”
That message from Women on the Move’s CEO Heather Gamble—to ignore such axioms as “women can’t succeed in business because they don’t take risks”—had particular resonance for this audience of women business founders, some of whom had endured extreme risk, such as immigrating to Canada, heading single households, and surviving intimate partner violence. And the point was particularly impactful coming from an entrepreneur who reached $1 million in revenue just 18 months after launching her first startup.
As a revenue accelerator devoted to helping other women entrepreneurs reach the million-dollar milestone, Gamble is also a faculty mentor of The Refinery, a unique business growth program designed by women for women out of the Community Innovation Lab (iLab), a hub for entrepreneurs based one hour east of Toronto in Oshawa, Ont., where it serves the Durham Region.
Pramilla Ramdahani started the non-profit iLab as a way to tackle community social issues through an innovative lens in an ethnically diverse region with pockets hard-hit by job losses. Ramdahani, who has an MBA in community economic development and studied social entrepreneurship at Stanford University, left her own successful enterprise and bootstrapped iLab for three years before landing any kind of substantial funding. Talk about taking a risk. Eventually, the Ontario Trillium Foundation funded iLab’s most in-demand seminar, which morphed into The Refinery and will support 1,335 women through 2020.
Ramdahani says she started The Refinery after noticing two needs in the region: entrepreneurial training for women and assistance for marginalized women. After seeking feedback from the community through roundtable events, Ramdahani realized that women wanted a founder’s program created and staffed by women, to serve women. Women said they felt safer in smaller rooms with doors rather than one large open hall. They also said they have different and more open conversations when the instructors are female. Plus, they like to support each other. According to Brenna Ireland, director of operations for iLab, the women wanted a program to strengthen “business and personal ties to better the community, not just compete against each other.”
So, no, a traditional male-led accelerator would not do.
Yet, The Refinery is more than an all-female accelerator
At the earliest stages, LiisBeth founder Petra Kassun-Mutch designed a curriculum for women-only programs that helped infuse feminist entrepreneurial values throughout iLab’s work—business counselling and training, building opportunities and networks, mentoring, and widening access to capital. (Researchers Barbara Orser and Catherine Elliott define feminist entrepreneurship as “a mechanism to create economic self-sufficiency and equity-based outcomes for women, girls, and other gender-oppressed communities.”) All entrepreneurs at iLab are coached with the end goal of achieving autonomy, and by extension, strengthening their community with hiring and spin-off economic activity from new ventures.
The Refinery includes a three-day boot camp, a year of intensive training delivered online and at the iLab centre, optional seminars on such topics as social media marketing, and opportunities to receive year-long mentoring from an established entrepreneur. Women learn how to access capital, build strong teams, scale processes, and generate sales.
The Refinery supports entrepreneurs working in a variety of sectors including business services, media, wellness and coaching, automotive sector, food, gift products, and human resources (note it’s not just tech). Women are guided to discover their own strengths and ideas, rather than the staff deciding which businesses would be best for them. According to Ramdahani, The Refinery is about “integrating empathy, social justice, and user-led techniques.”
The women-centric support and camaraderie is particularly important for abuse survivors, who face additional challenges when starting a business. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in the U.S., survivors may have endured years of economic abuse, including tactics that damage their credit, deplete their resources, and prevent them from completing education and training. They may face ongoing threats of violence even after leaving an abuser, as well as legal issues and long-term mental and physical effects of trauma. Survivors may also have spotty employment records. Child care is often difficult to arrange after years of social isolation. And while all entrepreneurs may struggle with confidence, survivors must overcome low self-esteem brought on by years of abuse. They may also fear publicity or the idea of bringing their business online given that abusers often continue stalking and harassing their victims, in person and online. To top it off, survivors likely live under the poverty line and struggle to pay for food, shelter, utilities, and transportation expenses, leaving little to bootstrap a new business.
But the same policy research group also notes that survivors have strengths and resilience that may serve them well in entrepreneurship. The reality of managing a relationship with an abusive partner may require the same skills exhibited by the most successful CEOs: calculated risk-taking, thoughtful action, tough-mindedness, the ability to read people, problem solving, and determination.
In Oshawa, where iLab is based, domestic violence calls to police increased by 15 percent between 2013 and 2017, but the actual rate is much higher, as 70 percent of spousal violence is not reported to the police, according to the Canadian Women’s Foundation.
One survivor in The Refinery program (she asked to remain anonymous), who started a new business service while caring for elderly relatives, says she still suffers side effects from an earlier abusive relationship and has been grappling with relocation. She received much-needed sales, marketing, and financial training from The Refinery, but it was the all-female setting that was most critical. “It provides a safe spot,” she said. “Because after you’ve been victimized, you’re vulnerable and your confidence is shot. And so, any time a man is in the room, it’s a different dynamic than when you’re surrounded by women.”
She recommends The Refinery to “anybody that is looking to flesh out their business, anybody looking to ramp up their business, and who needs to build up a network of people. It certainly gives you all the supports that you need.”
The Refinery and iLab strive to create a safe space for all by requiring instructors to undergo police checks, as well as privacy and sensitivity training. The board of directors and staff strive to be as diverse as those they serve.
And here’s another appealing aspect for marginalized women: thanks to funding from Trillium, all fees are waived. Even optional seminars can be subsidized for those who need financial assistance. To help fund their startups, iLab partnered with the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) to widen the eligibility criteria for funding to help women entrepreneurs. Ramdahani also hopes to start a micro-lending circle at iLab to help women who don’t qualify for funding through banks, the BDC partnership, venture capitalists, or angel funding.
A safe space for women nurtures growth for all
Based on the success of The Refinery, iLab looked at other gaps in community services and launched entrepreneurial programming for additional under-represented groups. ILab started incubators for at-risk youth entrepreneurs called NEET (not in education, employment or training), Spice (seniorpreneurs who are 55 and up), and the Social Enterprises Accelerator that helps social entrepreneurs grow to the next level. Said Ramdahani, “If you cannot find employment, why not create your own business? That’s the pathway we see that participants can use to alleviate poverty.”
ILab also offers co-working spaces and rooms to rent for events and meetings—at a fraction of typical costs. Staff are quick to answer questions and find extra resources to accommodate attendees’ personal circumstances. And in order to create a community for entrepreneurs to grow and apply what they’ve learned, alumni from all streams are invited to join a Facebook group once they complete a program.
Elsii Faria, of The Hive Centre Bee and Bee, entered iLab’s social entrepreneur program to get much-needed support in a variety of areas. The business she runs with her husband offers overnight accommodation via a retreat centre that hosts nature, creativity, wellness, and spiritual events, as well as marketing and web design, and a platform called 1Community1 focused on community engagement. While building the business, Faria faced a life-threatening illness, took on a new mortgage for the bed and breakfast and office space, as well as cared for her one-year-old child. Faria says connecting with other social entrepreneurs at iLab gave her “really valuable support from other businesses with similar objectives.” It also introduced her to key partners such as Bear Standing Tall, their first Indigenous retreat leader. She had an arts education but needed to build up business skills. ILab helped her improve her sales skills and understand their business model. The business recently landed a grant that allows them to partner with Durham College to continue developing their 1Community1 platform.
Yet, for all of iLab’s success helping others, it has yet to receive solid funding support from any level of government—municipal, provincial or federal. Ramdahani is frustrated that governments favour investing in tech-based entrepreneurs and large urban-based non-profits. She is pleased that the Ontario Inclusive Innovation Action Strategy, released in June 2019, expands the government’s innovation definition to include “processes that are not tech-based.” But she points out that the strategy will only support women entrepreneurs at the high-growth stage only. “There is no funding for women who are marginalized, and who have just started a business, or have been in business for under three years,” Ramdahani said. Early-stage women founders often find doors for traditional loans closed. Without investment and cash flow to conduct business, Ramdahani wonders, How can they grow?
What funding is available for women entrepreneurs?
The federal government’s Women Entrepreneurship Strategy (WES) has added millions to support women, including new funding for enterprises in the high-growth stage, organizations that help grow women’s businesses, and research hubs. Currently, there is a federally funded women’s business development centre in every province and territory except the Northwest Territories. Provincially, the non-profit Paro Centre for Women’s Enterprise supports women-owned businesses and community economic development in northern, eastern, and central Ontario, excluding the Greater Toronto Area, through federal and Ontario Trillium Foundation funding.
In the U.S., the Small Business Administration (SBA) partners with non-profit organizations to fund and oversee 113 Women’s Business Centres. The centres offer entrepreneurs and small business owners free counselling and free-to-low-cost training. Men can receive services through these centres as well.
American women entrepreneurs are encouraged to register with the SBA for a Women-Owned Small Business or Economically Disadvantaged Women-Owned Small Business Certificate. This qualifies them to bid on contracts with the federal government to supply products and services. During 2017, $20.8 billion in contracts were won by women-owned small businesses. The U.S. federal government strives to award five percent of their supplier contracts to women-owned small businesses.
Like iLab’s innovative programming, these are ideas we can build on. ILab involves participants in curriculum and space design, “rather than building something and inviting them,” said Ramdahani.
Something for funders to chew on.
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