When I was a 14 year old girl, I was transitioning from middle school to high school. Saturday morning cartoons were abandoned for cruising the mall for boys. Rainbow barrettes were shunned for sassy side ponytails and big bangs. It was exciting and none of us really recognized it at the time, but we were blossoming. My friends and I were becoming women and the world, as small as it seemed at the time, was our proverbial oyster. It never would have occurred to me at that tender age that I couldn’t pursue exactly what I wanted for my future self. I dreamed of princess weddings and a dream career. We were naïve, but we were encouraged and supported…
Our culture has instilled in us that we are privileged with great opportunity and freedom. We are taught that we are for the most part equals. Societal norms allow us a reasonable level of comfort-until we are faced with someone whose situation is less fortunate than our own. It’s easy to strap blinders on when presented with the harsh realities of how cultures foreign from our own differ-drastically, devastatingly and inhumanely. The opportunity to see a film that broaches such a foreign and difficult subject was an opportunity that I feel grateful for.
Difret is translated from Ethiopian as ‘the act of being raped’. It can also be translated as ‘courage’ or ‘to dare’. This contrast kind of sums up the turmoil between local tradition and the rule of law. The film tells the story, inspired by a true story, of a 14 year old girl, Hirut. In 1996 she leaves the tiny school in her rural village (this in and of itself is impressive-her mother was not allowed an education and had to be convinced by her husband to encourage her daughters to attend school) elated that she was passed on to the next grade level. She is approached and overcome by a large group of adult men on horseback-kidnapped, hidden away and eventually beaten and raped by her soon to be husband-a stranger to her.
The men all but high-five and sit around a fire congratulating themselves for the awesome catch they secured for their friend. They corralled a 14 year old GIRL that was locked away in a shed and they are taking great pride in it. It was sickening and hard to watch, but even more disturbing is how commonplace this practice was. These men saw abduction with the intent to marry as an actual right. See a girl, like what you see, take her, beat her, rape her and marry her. It was widely accepted, not only by the men who participated, but by the whole community. I had to keep reminding myself that this was not some Hollywood tragedy-this was very real and it happened ALL THE TIME.
Unfortunately these girls for the most part just adapt and go on with their lives. In Hirut’s case, she sees an opportunity and she takes it. Her abductor makes her an offering of some coffee as she sits on a dirt floor, bruised and bloodied. He’s taken her virginity and he’s come to share the good news-“Don’t worry, we’ll be married soon”. It’s offered almost as an apology delivered with giddy pride. The ‘moment’ is interrupted by a flurry of activity outside the shed. The abductor rushes out to see what’s up-but he’s left his gun. Hirut snatches it up and makes a break for it. She almost gets away, but is spotted at the last minute and the men take chase. When she realizes the men are closing in on her, Hirut turns the gun on them and warns them to let her return to her family. In a very tense stand-off, her abductor makes a move and she shoots her soon to be betrothed and kills him. While it’s perfectly legal for a man to take a young girl against her will, apparently it’s against the law for her to defend herself and she’s taken to jail to likely be put to death for her actions.
As hard as it was for me to wrap my head around the fact that this is a way of life for so many young Ethiopian woman, it was equally as difficult to accept that there were some women that were able to transcend such outright inequality. A young female lawyer called Meaza hears about Hirut’s story. She works with a women’s rights group and wants to defend her case. She sees it as a clear-cut case of self-defense. What follows is an epically classic battle of one woman (with the help of a few of her peers and a very FEW male sympathizers) against a male dominated society with very little respect to women’s rights. Meaza makes a comment at one point that she grew up very much like Hirut-in a remote village with a small school living with her family in a shack-poor and hardworking. To see her dressed in modern Western attire, now living in the city in her own apartment with a law degree was encouraging, but the frustration she felt on a daily basis was palpable. I could feel the oppression pressing on the confidence that she exuded. It was heavy and uncomfortable.
It was no great surprise that in the end, Meaza wins her suit and sets a precedence that makes abduction into marriage illegal in Ethiopia-although it’s not easily implemented. Hirut’s one and only wish during this whole ordeal is to get back to her family, the only life she has ever known. The movie ends with a tearful embrace between Meaza and Hirut-then the young girl heads out of the overwhelming city, on foot, back to her family. We are informed that the young girl (Hirut seems to be a composite loosely based on an actual girl of a different name) goes on to work with a human rights group and continues to do so to this day.
I heard a very audible collective sigh of discomfort from the audience when then film ended. It was hard to watch because it was reality. It was a rare treat to see an Ethiopian export on the big screen. Maybe the story being told was overly simplified at times but the content will haunt me for a very long time.