Between Their Stories and Our Realities -- Chapter 8


Chapter 8: Fire Code

Fire Code tells the story of an immigrant family from Bangladesh living in New York. The family is made up of a grandmother (Ma), her two adult sons (Hussein and Mazhar), the spouse of one of them (Sameena), her little girl and an aunt.

To earn money for survival, the women prepare baked goods in their kitchen which are sold by Hussein and Mazhar. In the video we see some of the power relations and real economic difficulties that women must endure.

Members of the family are living in poverty and illiteracy, and they suffer from discrimination like many immigrants. Moreover, Sameena, as a woman and a wife, experiences another type of discrimination as well -- violence against women inside the home.

Violence against women is present in most cultures and geographical regions, and takes place at different levels of every society.

The practice of "burning wives" continues to be a problem in Southern Asia. Recent cases of burned wives have also occurred in communities in the United States and Canada. Fire Code shows that even the threat of this practice can produce devastating consequences that affect the psychological and physical well-being of women.

Approximate duration: 15 minutes.

How is Fire Code related to the Women's Convention?

The story is centered on Article 15, which deals with women's equality before the law, principally parts 2 and 4, along with Article 13, parts a and b which establish full equality in economic life. Fire Code also addresses cultural stereotypes (see Article 15) that lie behind all kinds of discrimination, and Article 16, parts c and h, which guarantee women equality in marriage and within the family.

A. Raising Awareness and Sensitivity

Possible Activities:

There are threats that are powerful in themselves, producing fear, terror and desperation. Even if they are not carried out, they can be so strong that they hold the power of the threatened act. Violence against women is manifested in many ways, defined culturally, and can be subtle or explicit.

Ask the group to think about the scene where Hussein asks Sameena: "You want to be burned?" and the consequences, physical and emotional, for Sameena.

Have the group identify phrases or threatening situations that are paralyzing for women, and then write them on a large sheet of paper. For example:

  • Shut up, or I'll hit you!
  • You'll know who gives orders around here!
  • You are useless and worthless!

Speaking to the Characters

The coordinator can ask participants to work in groups of 3 to 5 people. Each participant can describe the character which moved her or him the most, and why. Then each person can talk to the character. What would you say?

B. Analysis and Comprehension

Possible Activities:

Violence Against Women

Violence against women has grown out of the patriarchal character of our societies, which historically have considered women as inferior and subordinate, and as "property" of men. Actual or potential violence based on gender -- physical, sexual, economic, or psychological -- produces suffering for women. Violence can include threats, coercion, or restrictions on women's fundamental liberties, in public or private environments.

The coordinator can present the following statistic on a poster:

Between 20 and 50 percent of women experience some kind of domestic violence during their marriage.

While we often believe that such problems only happen to others, statistics show that violence affects women in all situations -- in cities or in rural areas, without regard to income, education levels, culture or religion.

The coordinator can divide the group into teams of approximately 10 people.

The teams can discuss the distinct forms of violence in their communities, including both explicit and subtle manifestations of violence, physical and sexual violence, as well as psychological and economic violence.

Each team can choose one form of violence and write a short story about it. Then stories can be presented to the rest of the group.

The group may also read part 1 of General Recommendation No. 19: Violence Against Women: "Gender-based violence is a form of discrimination that seriously inhibits women's ability to enjoy rights and freedoms on a basis of equality with men."

It would also be important to read the rest of the Recommendation, especially points 11 and 23.

Power Relations

There are many characteristics that differentiate human beings -- sex, age, race, religion, ethnicity, culture, etc. As these differences are organized hierarchically, they become inequalities and consequently, create relations of power.

The coordinator can present the following poem on a poster:

Why would it be absurd to think about this chain of events and violence in the opposite order -- the dog that kicks the child, who hits the woman, who mistreats the worker...?

Ask the group to describe the hierarchical relations that are shown in the video, then to try to describe, in general, the hierarchical relations in their communities.

Then discuss the following questions:

  • In a family group, there are at least two basic differences, sex and age. Are they both organized hierarchically?
  • In the video, why do the grandmother and Sameena, of the same sex, hold different positions of power?
  • How is the power distributed between Mazhar and Hussein?
  • Why do Sameena and Hussein not share decisions within their marriage?

Read Article 16 of the Women's Convention, especially part c. Discuss the relationship between this article and the previous discussion.

Legal Equality

When a woman cannot make a contract, or she can't have access to financial credit, or when she can only do so with the consent and/or the backing of her husband or father, she lacks legal equality and autonomy. Restrictions of this type prevent women from exclusively owning property, from legally administering their own affairs, and from entering into any other type of contract. These restrictions seriously limit the capacity of women to provide for their own needs or the needs of their families. (From General Recommendation No. 21, relating to Article 15 of CEDAW.)

Think about the scene where Jamil asks Hussein, "Who gives orders in your house?"

Ask the group:

  • Who gives orders in the family business shown in the video?
  • Can the women working in the business make any decisions?
  • Can they buy what they need?
  • If it is the grandmother who runs the business, why does she talk sweetly to her son as she accepts his decisions?
  • Are the women in the video allowed to go out freely?

On a poster, rewrite Article 15, parts 1, 2, and 4. What are the realities in participants' communities related to Article 15?

Family Business in the Home

Working at home is a strategy available to women so they can both earn a salary and manage household responsibilities delegated to them (child care, housework). It is often said that when women work in a family business, they are "helping." If we calculate hours and efforts, however, women provide far more than simple family support.

Ask the group to think about the following:

In a family, the husband, along with doing all the housework and taking care of the children, works in the family business making home-baked goods. The couple wakes up very early, and the wife is in charge of selling and delivering the product. She comes back very tired, after arguing with a client who refused to pay for the baked goods. Her husband comments that he needs a new set of jar lids; she does not agree. He insists softly; she says she will think about it tomorrow.

The next day, they all wake up as usual. When the woman goes out to sell the products, she mentions that she will apply for a bank loan. In this community, only women may get loans, because they are the only ones who "work."

Have a discussion about this. Is this absurd? Unfair?

In small teams, think about:

  • Could this happen?
  • What are some of the prejudices against women who work at home to make a living? What are some of the obstacles they face? What kind of work do they do?
  • What do we think about men who help women with housework?

The teams can share their thoughts with the group, then discuss the following, written on a poster:

"States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in other areas of economic and social life, in order to ensure, on a basis of equality of men and women, the same rights, in particular: ... the right to bank loans, mortgages and other forms of financial credit...."

-- CEDAW, Article 13

In what ways does a lack of economic independence force many women to endure violence?

C. Strategies for Change

Possible Activities

Defining Our Responses

A few years ago, referring to sexual violence against women, we began talking about gender violence as a collective, social, and political problem, not an individual or psychological one.

Women generally are not passive in response to violence against them. Within our communities, and thanks to many creative women, responses are being expressed every day. Here is an example from Peru: When neighborhood women heard a man beating a woman, they warned neighbors and congregated around the house, making noise and throwing rocks on the roof. The man stopped the abuse.

The coordinator can ask for volunteers to prepare a short play. The coordinator can tell them, in private, to recreate a scene of family violence (any type of violence.) Ask them to concentrate their efforts on developing the character of the woman in the family, showing what she does and says during and after the violence. The group can think about its skit for a few minutes.

The spectators can be informed that they will see a play about family violence.

The group can present the play, to be followed by discussion. The coordinator can ask the participants to answer the following questions:

  • What can we do to address the problem of violence experienced by ourselves or someone we know?
  • Do we know of centers for victims of domestic violence in our community?
  • Do we know of organizations (governmental or non-governmental) working to prevent violence? What are they?

Changing Our Images

Images of women as docile, suffering all types of violence, reinforces the stereotypes of women as weak and defenseless, and men as strong and aggressive. This feeds the vicious cycle of violence and reproduces ideas of inferiority and superiority based on sex.

Propose to the group the following challenge:

Begin to change stereotypes about men and women

that lead to violence between the sexes.

Ask the group to begin a campaign for the prevention of violence against women and children. Some examples of possible slogans:

  • Our Right to a Life Without Violence
  • Violence is Everyone's Problem
  • We are Different, but Equal

Propose activities to develop the campaign: pamphlets, drawings, posters, theater performances, video presentations. Contact other organizations in the community, like schools, clubs, health centers, police, community radio stations and local television stations, to publicize the campaign.

D. Evaluation

Possible Activity:

When I Hear Your Song ...

The coordinator can invite the group to chose a popular or traditional song that refers to a particular woman, or women in general, and that is often heard in the participants' communities.

Comment on and analyze the content of the song. How has the workshop changed your understanding of the lyrics? Can we re-write it to reflect a sensitivity to women's human rights?


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