A few weeks ago when talking to a Uyghur acquaintance, I was told: “One the biggest problems among Uyghurs today is the rate of divorce. I think it is as high as 70 percent. Most of it is the fault of women. They have misunderstood what women’s equality is all about. They think that it means that they should be equal to men in every way; or that men should be just like them. They try to control men, stop them from going to bars. They order men to do housework, and then spend all of their money. They don’t understand that that is not their place. If they would be encouraging to men, than men would never cheat on them.”
When I mentioned this conversation to the filmmaker Memetjan Semet, he said: “That’s not true. The main reason people get divorced is because of men. Many men don’t understand just how difficult and stressful women’s work can be. They have to take care of the household, cook, clean, and take care of their children. And they never get paid for any of this. The men go outside the home to make a living so they get the most recognition and then think that they have a more important role in society. If someone tells me that the problem of men cheating on their wives is the result of ‘women not being welcoming and submissive’ to their husbands, I would tell him right to his face that it is his attitude toward women that is the real problem. A real man and a real Muslim would never talk like that.”
Unfortunately, Memetjan’s perspective is rare among urban Uyghur men. Many smart, well-educated Uyghur men fail to see how gender inequality is produced. It is precisely because of this lack of awareness that Memetjan made a new film titled Dad, I Love You. Set in Ürümchi, the film shows us how fathers and husbands fail to prioritize their time in a way that supports their family. Using a realist (if, at the end, slightly melodramatic) narrative it shows us how men often don’t listen to what their children and wives are telling them.
Memetjan said: “These days in the city more and more people are getting divorced. One of the main reasons for this is that men are spending more and more time away from the family. Men might say that it is the result of a misunderstanding of feminism and women’s rights, but actually it comes from the kinds of work urban men are doing and the kind of income that this produces. My feeling is that it is actually quite rare to find people getting divorced in the countryside. Most farming families get married for life. Their life revolves around the world of the farm, and they really don’t have the money to go to bars and meet mistresses. Of course, sometimes women are also at fault; they aren’t satisfied with what they have and so on, but I really feel that most of the problems in Uyghur families comes from a lack of real respect for women.”
Another thing Memetjan was trying to address was the tendency in Uyghur society to privilege the position of mothers over wives and children. His critique was particularly pointed at short films such as With Me, which portrays this tension, but portrays the wife in the family as a dissatisfied, privileged city girl who fails to respect the bond her husband has with his mother. In the end, the wife abandons the family and her young child and goes back to her parents’ home.
As Memetjan said: “I had a teacher who told me that it is never good to compare your wife to your mother. Nothing good will ever come of a mother asking her son who he loves more. There is a story that we often discuss about a man who sees both his mother and his wife drowning in a river and has to decide which one he will save. This is just a stupid idea. That is what that film With Me is about.
“Actually, it reflects perfectly the way wives are treated by their husbands; how they so often have a voice that isn’t heard in a marriage. The problem with the film is that it reinforces these power dynamics, rather than giving voice to a wife’s perspective. The teacher who told me never to ask those sorts of questions was not someone I would call a feminist. It is just that when she sees a problem like that, she thinks rationally about how it can be fixed. She is not just saying that because she thinks women are always right. She is saying it because it is the proper way to address this problem.”
Memetjan’s film Dad, I Love You has received more than 100,000 views since it was released a few weeks ago. Filmmakers across the country have commented on the narrative construction, the realistic use of dialogue, and how it shows the deftness of Memetjan’s direction. Some viewers complain that there is not enough music in it, that the tension building moments of reflection that begin the movie are too long. But overwhelmingly the feedback from viewers has been positive. Particularly from female viewers.
Beige Wind runs the website The Art of Life in Chinese Central Asia, which attempts to recognize and create dialogue around the ways minority people create a durable existence, and, in turn, how these voices from the margins implicate all of us in simultaneously distinctive and connected ways.