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Jordanian Filmmaker Tracks a Transgender's Recovery

Friday, July 5, 2013

For 26-year-old Maryam Jum'a, the story she found in the files of Jordan's National Commission for Women was too compelling to ignore. She hopes it will help humanize an issue that many in the conservative society still treat as off-limits.

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For 26-year-old Maryam Jum'a, the story she found in the files of Jordan's National Commission for Women was too compelling to ignore. She hopes it will help humanize an issue that many in the conservative society still treat as off-limits.




 

Manal works on her art at home in Amman, Jordan, February 2013.
Manal works on her art at home in Amman, Jordan, February 2013.

 

Credit: Maryam Jum'a.

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AMMAN, Jordan (WOMENSENEWS)--With taboo topics all around, Maryam Jum'a, a 26-year-old Jordanian filmmaker, says she has no end of subject matter.

Currently, she is working on a film about a 32-year-old woman who suffers psychologically as a result of being molested as a child. The woman at the center of the film, Manal, is diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and gender dysphoria, also known as gender identity disorder, when there's a conflict between a person's physical gender and the gender he or she identifies as. Manal has mustered the courage to speak out publicly against sexual abuse in hopes that her story will prevent or alleviate others' suffering.

"There are so many untold stories around me about people who don't conform to societal expectations. We in the Arab world tend to sugarcoat things, but I want to present these stories in the raw, without filter," said Jum'a in an interview at a cafe here.

She believes that doing so will humanize victims of social discrimination and eventually push society toward greater openness and inclusivity.

Raised in Amman, Jum'a graduated in 2008 from the University of Kent in England with a Bachelor of Science in multimedia technology and design. Upon graduation and her return to Jordan, she joined the Royal Film Commission and directed her first short documentary. Then, following a stint as a producer at an international advertising agency in Amman, she quit her job to devote more time to "telling stories that matter." She now freelances as a corporate filmmaker in addition to pursuing her independent film projects.

While her films grapple with myriad social issues, Jum'a strives primarily to portray dynamic Arab women in a way that dispels stereotypes of weakness and oppression.

Her first short film, "She the Policeman" (), counters the prevalent notion that women are ill-suited for, or incapable of performing, police work. It enjoyed critical success at several local and international film festivals.

Discovering Manal's File

Then, in early 2012 while combing through records at the Jordanian National Commission for Women in Amman in search of subject ideas, she came across the file of a woman named Manal, who was undergoing psychiatric treatment for self-destructive behavior. (Manal's family requested that her last name not be used.)

Manal's distress stems from the twin traumas of being molested by two male family members at the age of 4 and her conviction since 2008 that she is a man trapped in a woman's body. Grappling with either of these sensitive issues is difficult anywhere in the world, but especially in Jordan, where LGBT discrimination is prevalent and child sexual abuse is inadequately addressed. A 2008 child-protection law specifies punishment for abuses against children, including the death penalty for the rape of a child, but fails to explicitly outlaw domestic violence and lenient sentencing is common, particularly in cases involving family.

Speaking openly about either subject is taboo and consequently Manal suffered silently for many years. Shortly before her wedding, she confided her traumatic past to her husband-to-be, admitting the experience had rendered her afraid of sexual intimacy. Loving and supportive, he assured her they would work through it and suggested she seek psychological counseling. Through therapy she came to understand that her malaise was rooted in the heretofore unidentified feeling that she might be transgender and/or homosexual.

Despite her husband's best efforts to make her happy, Manal grew increasingly depressed after their wedding until she finally cracked under familial pressure to have children. Once divorced, she swapped dresses for androgynous clothing and cut her hair short. Despite these newfound comforts, she continued to spiral out of control. Neither her family or friends, nor any human rights advocacy group, was there to support her.

Alcohol addiction, medication abuse and suicidal behavior (cutting her wrists and knees) landed her in a public psychiatric and addiction hospital, which Jum'a describes as "dangerous" for failing to provide adequate care.

The Jordanian National Commission for Women then facilitated Manal's transfer to a private hospital better suited to addressing her needs. Notwithstanding signs of progress during her hospitalization, Manal continued being self-destructive after her release and was eventually readmitted in early 2012.

Real Ramifications

Jum'a first visited Manal during that second hospital stay, determined to make a feature documentary about her to shed light on the dangerous effects of sexual abuse and the social pressures women endure in conservative societies.

Those who do not conform to societal norms face legal and societal discrimination and harassment in Jordan, according to a 2012 human rights report released by the U.S. Department of State. The report cites police misconduct and hate crimes directed toward members of the LGBT community, though Manal has not experienced this herself.

Although homosexual acts between consenting adults is legal and gay culture is visible in certain areas of Amman, parliament has yet to pass any laws addressing sexual identity-based discrimination or bias motivated crimes, and no political party has expressed support for LGBT legislation. There are also no government-recognized LGBT advocacy organizations in the country, and so far the government-funded National Center for Human Rights (founded in 2006) has not addressed LGBT issues.

During a period when heavy medication left Manal unaware of her surroundings, Jum'a returned every week to keep her company. Out of respect, she refrained from asking any questions or proposing the documentary until Manal's condition improved and she felt comfortable divulging her painful past.

"I showed up at the right time," said Jum'a, "because she was at the lowest point of her life and in need of a friend."

When Manal opened up to her, she also showed her the emotionally fraught art she was making as a form of therapy. One piece has violent blood-red marks painted over her wedding photographs and is scraped with a knife to look like cuts. Pursuing this art has given Manal more confidence and hope for the future and she now aspires to become an artist.

The key to change, Jum'a said, is encouraging enough women to come forward and show they are not afraid to speak out against sexual violence. She hopes her films will send a clear message in support of women's empowerment, constituting "baby steps" on a path toward creating a more open and accepting society.

Manal agrees, which is why she agreed to make the documentary using her real identity, despite the risks associated with speaking openly about subjects so taboo.

So far, Jum'a has filmed the trailer for the documentary and, along with her Germany-based producer, is hunting for production funds.

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