By Atul Bhattarai
In 2013, responding to an initiative of the United Nations to recruit more women peacekeepers, Bangladesh created one of the first all-female Formed Police Units in U.N. peacekeeping, drawing from its own national police force. In June of that year, the unit was deployed to the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti, or Minustah. A Journey of a Thousand Miles, a feature-length documentary screened by the United Nations Police Department last month, follows three of the officers—Farida, Rehana, and Mousumi—through their yearlong tour of duty.
Geeta Gandbhir, one of the directors of the film (her co-director, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, is a Pakistani filmmaker who won her second Academy Award for best documentary short this year), called the officers the “perfect antidote” to conventional stereotypes of Muslim women: “When given the opportunity to serve their country, they willingly took it, striving to make a better life for their families, their communities, and other communities around the world.” Right away, the documentary establishes how remarkable this undertaking is. The women, who are mothers and wives in addition to police officers, hail from a society that is both modernizing and traditional—the idea of women working might be embraced or condoned by some, but it is still opposed by many. The fact that they’ve pursued their careers is a point of pride, and already some marker of success.
But, once the unit is in Haiti, the women are chastened by a situation that seems beyond them. They find themselves caught in the middle of violence and fury. It emerges that the training the officers had gotten at home is wanting—their movements around Port-au-Prince are unsure and haphazard; while conducting a public march, they fall into disorder; they possess firearms, but cannot properly handle them, having been seconded from a national force that provides only cursory weapons training to its female officers. (These revelations also call into question the objectives and efficacy of the mission, of which the women are just functionaries.) Outside the FPU base, they see locals clamor for the expulsion of the Minustah “occupation,” furious over its alleged role in spreading cholera after the 2010 earthquake, and around the capital, people hurl rocks in their direction. They witness the Haitian police opening fire at a crowd. “Being on duty here, the danger associated with it—we knew nothing about that,” Farida says.
The documentary chronicles, among other things, the women’s gradual recovery from these disappointments. To bring their skills up to par, Minustah provides them with extensive remedial training, which they complete with alacrity. With time, they adjust to their duties and the daily realities of Haiti. They overcome the emotional upheaval that comes with being thousands of miles from home—the profound homesickness, the disembodied quarrels, the pain of being separated from their young children—without letting it impede their work. While these anxieties never fully wane, the women come to accept them as necessary pains.
At the documentary screening, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon spoke about the value of having more female peacekeepers, both for the host country and the country that sends them. In the film, the women and children living in Delmas camp, where the officers conduct public safety patrols, find female peacekeepers more approachable than their male counterparts, and far more so than the often-peremptory Haitian National Police. The female officers, in turn, mingle easily with locals, divesting peacekeeping of some of its martial trappings and giving it a more human touch.
The benefits are more enduring for Bangladesh. As the year wears on, what gradually resurfaces, anchoring the film to a larger context, is the women’s pride. As they grow more competent and assured, they realize what the mission has meant beyond themselves. When the women return, they will train other female peacekeepers, spurring on a virtuous cycle. To ordinary Bangladeshi women, they will come to signify possibility. “We women in uniform is a reason for women to feel courage,” Mousumi says as the mission nears its end. “As Bangladeshi women we are proving we can serve the public.”
Atul Bhattarai is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.
[Photo courtesy Nandita Ahmed]