Zana Shammi’s “Untying the Knot” Is a Rude Awakening Around Intimate Partner Violence

Zana Shammi’s first documentary feature film, Untying the Knot, follows the story of UBC grad Rumana Monzur, a young student who returned to Bangladesh only to be violently attacked by her own husband. Since then, Rumana Monzur was called to the bar and now is a lawyer at the Department of Justice Canada and global ambassador for Human Rights.

“Having grown up in a sheltered environment, I experienced a rude awakening when I learned that my high school friend Rumana Monzur had been brutally attacked by her husband,” says Shammi. “I have never witnessed nor experienced intimate partner violence and, before hearing Rumana’s story, I was naive to believe that abuse only exists in uneducated or otherwise disempowered families. This film is an exploration of the reasons behind the culture of violence against women in my native country, and a movement to join the fight in eradicating it.”

We asked Shammi about the film this week.

SDTC: What was your reaction when you first heard Rumana had been attacked?

ZS: I was in denial. This couldn’t possibly happen to someone who is middle class, educated and grew up in a similar protective environment as I did. The news of her attack shattered me. And it also raised a lot of questions, which I felt compelled to start asking.

How did making this documentary unfold?

My first reaction was to connect with Rumana. I visited her in Vancouver and felt that her story needed to be told to a wider audience. So I talked to a few people. I was fortunate to connect with Katy Swailes and Lalita Krishna, who signed on to be Producer and Executive Producer, and together we brainstormed the best way in which Rumana’s story could resonate to a wide audience. We talked about doing more research and trying to find other women who are in current situations that illuminate the kinds of challenges Rumana encountered on her own journey. I was amazed at what my research revealed. So many of my friends and relatives contacted me on their own and were keen to participate and share their experiences. The challenge was to convince them to be on camera, and I had to be very sensitive to their safety.

What did you uncover that surprised you?

I was naive to believe that abuse only exists in an uneducated or otherwise disempowered family. The rude awakening for me during the making of this film was knowing that violence against women exists irrespective of education, social class, and financial situation. I spoke to counselors and lawyers and they told me that despite the fact that Bangladesh has some of the best laws to protect women, enforcement is difficult.

What do you want people to know about intimate partner violence?

The most important fact that hit me when I heard the women’s stories is how vulnerable they are after getting married. That is why our documentary is called Untying the Knot. The line used by Sharmin, one of the characters, is, “He changed from day one.” Rumana said the exact same thing. Marriage puts men in charge of their wife’s life, or they see it that way. The women have no recourse as society sees it as a private matter. I want the public to be aware and to recognize this. Marriage is between partners with equal rights, and when violence occurs and is out of the private into the public realm, people can intervene and must take action. As a society, we need to make sure we push for stringent enforcement of laws. And I also want people to know that this is a worldwide phenomenon. One in three women is at risk of violence in their lifetime, which is often intimate partner abuse. To spread awareness, we have created a companion website with shareable graphics and videos, which we’d like to be widely disseminated. 

What are the reasons behind the culture of violence against women in your native country? Do you see a shift taking place in terms of this issue?

I am not an expert on the topic and the issues are very complex. Together with my producers, we wanted to make a film about Rumana’s story so that people could relate to it and for survivors to see a role model. But we are very clear in our message: Violence against women does not only happen in Bangladesh; unfortunately, it happens everywhere. Rumana Monzur’s incident happened in Bangladesh and to tell her story in a cinematic style, we chose three women from her hometown who are living through different chapters of her life.

While doing the research I discovered that Bangladesh has some of the best laws to prevent violence against women; however, the enforcement of those laws is inconsistent and problematic. In addition, there is a social stigma surrounding divorce and marital discord, which makes it especially difficult for women to speak out. But people are becoming more aware and are starting to talk about this issue. So I am hopeful.

What do you hope audiences take away from this film?

This film is about resilience, strength, and hope. I hope it will inspire the audience to join the fight to end partner violence, and to make some positive changes—in any aspect of their life. It’s a story of Rumana’s immense growth in the face of unthinkable adversity. I believe this film will give courage to other survivors and victims, inspiring them to stand up for themselves before it’s too late.

Rumana’s story is one of hope, and we want survivors who have endured abuse to be inspired by Rumana and take charge of their lives. We want people who know of women in abusive situations to take action, to help out in any way they can. We want people who are in an abusive situation to know that they should seek help sooner than later.

Rumana Monzur will be in attendance at the World Premiere of Untying The Knot at Hot Docs Cinema on June 17 at 6:30 p.m. Get tickets here.

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