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In Conversation with “Women Behind the Wheel”

Kevin Lee speaks with the creators Catherine Haigh and Hannah Congdon about their documentary.

CW: sexism, misogyny, mentions of rape

In this modern day and age, it is easy to be optimistic about the future of gender equality; the Western world especially has made great strides in promoting women’s rights and interests. However, the fight for female empowerment is far from over. The structures of Western society are still tainted with the unwashed stains of patriarchal oppression, while other countries display proudly repressive regimes.

The creators of Women Behind The Wheel—Cat and Hannah—looked to explore stories of women in Central Asia, taking a 3,000km drive along the Panir Highway across the southern Uzbek deserts, through Tajikistan’s Pamir mountain range, and into Kyrgyzstan capital of Bishkek. Through their grueling journey, Cat and Hannah were able to converse with women from all walks of life, from women’s rights activists against domestic abuse to a 78-year-old gynecologist who lived under the Soviet regime. The editors of Cherwell had the opportunity to interview the creators of the documentary, which screens at the Ultimate Picture Palace, Oxford on Sunday, 5th of March at 3 PM.

Firstly, what motivated you to focus on the lives of women from Central Asia in this documentary? 

Cat: Initially, Hannah and I were really curious about wanting to visit [Central Asia]; it’s not a region that many people travel to, and it’s not talked about often or in the press that much. When we started to do research into the region, we came across stories on Instagram and social media about women who were doing quite cool things to empower themselves. We also read about how this region used to be a part of the Soviet Union—how women had relatively good rights for that time period—but with the collapse of the Soviet Union, a lot of these countries have reclaimed quite a firm grip on Islam, which also greatly impacts the role of women. So we felt this was quite interesting: the dynamics of these two forces of Islam and the Soviet Union. 

That’s where the idea was born. Then we discovered this road—the Panir highway—that goes across the region, so we wanted to combine the idea of us as two women traveling along this road, getting behind the wheel and getting behind the camera, while using our journey as a vehicle or an opportunity to meet local women and gain access to their stories. 

So the motivation definitely evolved over time. 

It’s clear that Social Media plays a large role in your documentary—both in your motivation and how it allowed people to reach out to you with their stories. While many other documentary makers are also adopting social media to communicate with people in repressive regimes, do you personally feel that social media provided an adequate channel for individuals to disseminate their stories in these regions? 

Hannah: Social media played a huge role; we expected most young women to have Instagram. So while social media didn’t certainly open access to older women, younger women we would meet on the road, would end up connecting us to older people. And therefore, Instagram ended up being one of the best avenues for finding people in the initial stages of our journey. 

Cat: But that being said, there were very rural pockets, especially in Tajisktan in the Wakan Corridor, where a lot of the women in the communities we came across we didn’t find on social media. They were actually just women we picked up hitchhiking on the side of the road, and it was very organic how we found these women. There was a lot more disconnect with the internet in these regions, so I would say it was fifty-fifty. We mostly had great success, and I think maybe we assumed wrongly that social media wouldn’t be so important, but it was hugely important to meet people, and allowing us to stay in touch with a lot of the women even now.  

There was certainly a wide range of people and stories present in the documentary; were there any particular shocking or unexpected stories for you? 

Hannah: We kind of read about before, but when we were actually having conversations we were shocked still about stories of bride kidnapping. We had a conversation with a young woman who features in the film, but she talks about [kidnapping] in such a matter-of-fact way as if this is a cultural practice that has been going on for so long it’s not surprising to her, that her sister had been bride kidnapped and forced to marry, essentially, her rapist. The whole story was pretty shocking, talking to someone so young, who was nineteen at time as if that’s just part of life. 

How comfortable were women opening up their stories to you?

Hannah: We were quite taken aback. A lot of women really did open up. We were two 22-year-old women with a small camera and no crew, and that meant that a lot of the conversations that we had ended up feeling quite intimate and frank. We were quite overwhelmed at how brave people were talking about quite difficult experiences. That being said, there were definitely instances when we were told,  “This isn’t a zoo. Put the camera down”, and I think that was quite an important learning curve for us—to not make any assumptions and to not put any pressure to share quite traumatizing stories. 

Cat: There was real importance to build trust before we started filming, or before we started asking questions. I think when we built that trust people really opened up to us. A lot of people were like “why are you asking these questions? Nobody asked these questions before”, and really enjoyed answering our questions. 

Thank you so much for your time! Finally, what is the main message that you would want Oxford students to take away from the documentary? 

Cat: We went on the trip expecting a grandiose, big story—big picture feminism—but when we reflected on the footage and the interview it was really women doing potentially small things in their local communities that moved us. When we take a step back and examine the little actions these women are taking, it’s clear that while they might be small in isolation, they can form an almost a mini-revolution when we put them together. These small changes are what are causing a gradual empowerment of women in the region. These small gestures mean a lot. 

Also, we found that these stories resonate with women all around the world. There is solidarity—a connection between women, between people irrespective of culture and language. There’s always more common ground to be found rather than differences. Especially in the world and the UK, where there is a lot of xenophobia and anti-foreigner sentiment, we hope that this is a nice opportunity for the audience to open their eyes and look at other cultures and look at what we have in common with others.

Women Behind The Wheel will be showing on Sunday 5th March at 3pm – Ultimate Picture Palace, Oxford, followed by a Q&A.

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