By Jana Monji
Can you imagine a female-only police force? What about one predominately Muslim? If you can’t then you need to re-think what you know about Muslims and Muslim women. After what happened in New Zealand and from the prejudices displayed in the US against Muslims, there can’t be a better time for A Journey of a Thousand Miles: Peacekeepers. The documentary already has made the festival rounds and in its truncated form is one of four documentaries that makes up the PBS program Women, War & Peace II.
A New York Times article about women being sent out on peacekeeping missions from India intrigued Indian American Geeta Gandbhir. Gandbhir was born in Massachusetts but she visited India often and still has family there. She was surprised that she didn’t know about peacekeeping missions by women, especially the all-female units that India had been sending for over a decade.
Two- time Primetime Emmy® winner Gandbhir had been looking for a project to team with Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, a two-time Academy Award® winner and two-time Emmy® winner. Gandbhir had hoped to follow a group of Indian women deployed to Liberia, but due to the timing, that trip didn’t work out for the two. Instead they discovered the UN had an all-female unit of women being sent to Haiti from Bangladesh.
“Sharmeen and I thought this was more interesting because the women from Bangladesh were going to be Muslim and defying stereotypes,” Gandbhir said in a recent telephone interview. With Obaid-Chinoy in Bangladesh and Gandbhir in Haiti, the two women focused on three women and their families who were part of over 100 who made A Journey of a Thousand Miles (Tuesday, March 26 at 10:00 p.m.), but for the PBS television version of the documentary seen as part of the Women, War & Peace II, you’ll only see two.
The Bangladeshi police officers hope this assignment will help them advance in the ranks, so they took on the assignment despite having to leave their families for one year in order to be part of the UNs MINUSTAH (an acronym for the French name Mission des Nations Unies pour la stabilisation en Haïti) team in Haiti. In Bangladesh, female officers are relegated to administrative duties, but, as the documentary shows, even those can be harrowing. A trip to a domestic violence clinic is not viewing for the squeamish.
The first MINUSTAH arrived in 2011 and ended in 2017 and not all of the Haitians welcomed them. MINUSTAH male soldiers were accused of sexual assault and sexual misconduct. An all-female force sounds like a bandaid for something that requires major surgery and the women are ill-prepared. Remember in their own country they are administrators. In Haiti, they require more weapon and crowd control training. They are unprepared in other ways: They can’t communicate in the local language and they are not forewarned the locals believe the previous mismanagement of UN peacekeepers resulted in a cholera outbreak in 2010.
The documentary does shows protests against the MINUSTAH and protesters voice their grievances, but Gandbhir and Obaid-Chinoy keep the focus on two of the peacekeepers: Farida Parveen, an assistant sub-inspector, and Mousumi Sultana, sub-inspector, section commander.
Farida Parveen’s father and first husband were in the police force. Although her father is a police constable, he didn’t encourage her to join the police force, but her mother, Karuna Bibi, is proud that her daughter has a career. Her first husband was killed on duty before their first child was born. Parveen remarried to a businessman when her son was four, but the husband doesn’t approve of her journey to Haiti. Parveen still goes, causing problems within the marriage.
In her own family, Mousumi Sultana witnessed domestic abuse and was determined to help women out of those situations. Her husband is sweetly supportive while Parveen’s husband can be somewhat petulant.
Gandbhir noted that a third peacekeeper’s story, the “vivacious” Rehana Parvin, was originally included but was edited out for the PBS series. Farida Parveen was the stronger story with the direct opposition and on-camera anger expressed by her husband and a tragic backstory. Rehana Parvin was surrounded by an increasingly fundamentalist conservatism, one that even infected her own son. That would have likely provided a balance to both Sultana and Parveen’s supportive children.
Gandbhir noted that it is always painful to edit out material. Getting to the original Toronto International Film Festival world premiere version of an hour and 35 minutes of footage was painful. That version won the Jury Award for Best Documentary at the Bentonville Film Festival in 2016 and the Humanitarian Award at the 2016 RiverRun International Film Festival.
After the documentary airs on PBS, it will be available to stream online.
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