From Pakistan: Women storytellers changing the face of the game, one film at a time – Afia Nathaniel

 Afia Nathaniel

Afia Nathaniel

(On Wed March 21, MMEG will host two special screenings of the film “Dukhtar”, in the presence of the director Afia Nathaniel, award-winning Pakistani filmmaker and 2003 MMEG grant recipient. See program details on this website)

 Brown. Woman. Complicated.

This is the world I have grown up in. And this is the world which inspires me.

In Pakistan, I come from a family of strong women - women who have endured very tough lives in hope of a better one for their children. While growing up as girls, we could never go out and play in the streets or experience life outside as boys could. Cultural norms forbade it. So our entire world was made up of school, books and watching TV.

In the 80s, I watched a show which changed my life completely – Star Trek. I could suddenly experience the infinite possibilities of a world outside my own. It was a liberation unlike any other. My journey as a storyteller stems from this primary instinct.

This instinct came alive when I heard the story of a Pakistani mother on the run with her two young daughters. It was a surreal story of escape and survival spread over several years. What remained with me was this image of the mountains, a mother and child. A lonely road stretched before them - an uncertain future ahead of them.

The story took shape in film school at Columbia University where I was training to be a writer-director. MMEG supported my journey as a graduate film student. By the third year of my MFA, the story grew into a full-fledged road trip thriller. A mother was going to kidnap her ten-year old daughter to save her from a child marriage. She was going to be hunted down. Dukhtar was a woman’s search for dignity in a time when tradition, modernity and fundamentalism had come to a head. It was my way of connecting with home, with Pakistan. It was going to be deep and visceral. It was going to be a love song with some notes of uncomfortable truth.

Since the film deals with the issue of child marriage, I knew it was going to be hard to make this film but I had no idea how hard really. The problem – it turned out – was that it was: Brown. Woman. So it was automatically “Complicated”. The gender of its creator and its protagonist became a real problem for investors.

“There’s no hero in the film?” They would ask me, surprised. “There’s no item number in the film?” No Pakistani financier wanted to finance a film where there were no raunchy songs featuring half-clad women. The objectification of the female body by men is such a standard expectation in the Pakistani film industry that to go against it is to go against every single norm of industry protocol. The idea of a female protagonist who was going to be fully clothed and fully invested in taking on the world to protect her child managed to turn off every possible investor and corporate sponsor. They dismissed it as a “documentary”.

After several years of struggling to make this film - just when I was about to give up - something unexpected happened. An unexpected skype session…which led to an unexpected email. My Pakistani line producer, Khalid bhai said “Pack your bags and come to Karachi. We are going to make this film one way or the other.” A few days later, Dukhtar won a production award from Sorfund in Norway, one of the most prestigious European grants for feature films.

It was as if the universe had willed the film into being.

Quickly, we went into shooting mode. The mountains of the north beckoned. It was a road-trip film which meant we were literally on the road for two months in deep mid-winter navigating a tough terrain. The situation could become precarious in a flash. There were bomb blasts in certain areas, landslides in others. Our filming schedule planned for these contingencies to stay fluid and safe.

There in the mountains, as the sole female crew member in a group of 40 men, I found my voice. I found my freedom as a storyteller. The light on the landscape moved in glorious ways. And I became its slave. This was the moment I had been waiting for all those years; imagining it, preparing for it, receiving it. The frames for Dukhtar sprang from deep within. It was an unforgettable experience.

Dukhtar went onto premiere at Toronto in 2014. At Toronto, our film’s opening night screening sold out within the hour and we saw long rush lines for it outside the theater. The programmers told us it was very unusual to see this kind of excitement for a first-time filmmaker. There was a real hunger in audiences to see a film from a part of the world not known for cinema. Dukhtar’s word of mouth grew from strength to strength standing tall against Hollywood and Bollywood films. Extra screenings were added - all sold out.

In Pakistan, we saw new kinds of audiences coming to cinema theatres for Dukhtar. Women, especially grandmothers, brought their entire families so they could watch the film. School teachers took their students from school to watch the film. We had woven a message of social change in the soundtrack of the film and released several music videos. A special qawwali was composed “Ya Rahem Maula Maula” sung by the fantastic Rahat Fateh Ali. Usually qawwalis are from a man’s point of view. This was going to be a feminist qawwali. Many celebrities came forward on twitter with “ISupportDukhtar” highlighting the issue of child marriage. People talked about the soundtrack, the film and hence about the issues. It was a very fulfilling moment as a storyteller.

From Busan to Stockholm to Dubai to Japan. Dukhtar continued to gain traction and critical acclaim in the international market. Suddenly, there was a tsunami of interest. Suddenly, it seemed that audiences were willing to embrace: Brown. Woman. Complicated.

In New York, Dukhtar became the “Critics’ Pick” by Village Voice followed by the People Magazine’s “Pick of the Week”. Indiewire labelled it “groundbreaking”, LA Times “a stunning, emotive work that takes to task oppressive patriarchy” with Women and Hollywood calling it a “gorgeous thriller”.

The brown female gaze had turned a male genre of the road-trip thriller on its head and made it all her own. It became Pakistan’s Official Submission for Foreign Language Film at the 87th Academy Awards®.  This is not the kind of news you expect coming from Pakistan.

Two years ago, Dr. Stacy Smith, a researcher at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, analyzed the 1,000 highest grossing films from 2007 till 2016. She found that only 4% of the directors in that decade were women. Of these 4% there is not a single sole directing credit for a South Asian woman.

Statistics like these don’t daunt me. If anything, they urge me to do what I do best – tell stories which speak to my own truth and experiences. To continue to mine the very specific while exploring its universal aspect. To continue to fight to tell the untold perspective. We cannot change the industry overnight but we can certainly change the face of the game, one film at a time.

Dukhtar is but the start of a long journey. For out there in the universe, there is going to be more of this: Brown. Woman. Complicated.

Afia Nathaniel

Celebrating International Women’s Day 2018!

women's day poster.jpg

For us at MMEG, every day of the year is Women’s day…. with March 8 being an extra special day!

Each year, around the world, International Women’s Day recognizes and celebrates women and their accomplishments. The first international celebration of this day was in 1911. Many of us know that it was subsequently officially established by the United Nations as the “UN Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace”, and the March 8 date fixed in 1975. But do we know that the UN Charter, signed in 1945, was the first international agreement to affirm the principle of equality between women and men?

This year, of course, appears to be a banner year for achievements in women’s rights and gender parity. A considerable amount of work by different organizations, groups and individuals has gone into these achievements. The campaign theme for this year’s International Women’s Day - “Press for Progress” - does not take these achievements for granted.

At MMEG, we continue to work hard to support and empower exceptional women from all over the world through educational grants. We have invested in women’s education since 1983, awarding over 350 grants amounting to over $3 million. Again, this year, thanks to financing from individual donors, corporate donors and family foundations, we hope to award some 30 grants.

On March 21 and 22, MMEG will mark International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month with screenings at the World Bank and IFC of the movie “Dukhtar”, directed by Afia Nathaniel, a 2003 MMEG grant recipient and acclaimed filmmaker. Check out the program details on the MMEG website!



What Were the Odds?? A win-win-win story!

Barbara Garlock saw an ad for this year’s annual Arts & Crafts Fair in November and decided on a whim to take the subway downtown to shop for gifts for her three daughters and the hostess of her book club.  Little did she know, she’d come home a big winner! And so would MMEG.

Barbara is semi-retired and has had what she calls a ‘peripatetic’ career, working as a buyer for Macy’s, a management consultant, a grant writer and Executive Director for community-based non-profits, and as a Board member for organizations working on behalf of children and victims of domestic violence.  She notes that she is a “connector” in this world, looking to connect people of similar interests and objectives to achieve common goals, primarily those serving the interests of  women, children and those in need. 

On the final day of the Fair, Barbara bought five door prize tickets before leaving; she took the time to chat with volunteers and Board members and learned about the aims of MMEG: to change the world for good one woman at a time.  Just as she boarded the train to return home, she got a call saying that not only had she won the prize of a wine gift basket, she had also won the grand prize of an IPhone X!

Barbara has since met with members of the Board to collect her winnings and to learn more about the great women whose education we support in MMEG; she has offered to continue to work with us to support our work and help us ‘connect’ with the wider philanthropic and non-profit world.  We welcome her participation to the MMEG family of volunteers.

And who got the grand prize?   Her eldest daughter, an architect in New York City who was ecstatic with her special lucky birthday gift.

barbara's daughter.jpg

by Brigid Holleran

“Education over the long-term reduces poverty – poverty of mind, spirit, and means….How can I help….?”

Meet  Reiko Niimi, President of Margaret McNamara Education Grants

RN: MMEG awards education grants to women from developing countries for their university studies. We believe that education is a powerful tool. We invest in the empowerment of these women, confident in our grantees’ capacity to create transformational change by serving as role models, mentors and leaders. MMEG contributes to the World Bank Group’s goal of ending poverty and addresses sustainable development goals # 1 (no poverty), # 4 (quality education) and # 5 (gender equality). Our commitment to women’s education is in line with the 2018 World Development Report “Learning to Realize Education’s Promise”. There is a clear connection between the mission of our organization and the mission of the World Bank Group.

 Reiko Niimi

Reiko Niimi

MMEG was founded in 1981 by members of the Women's Information and Volunteer Services, present-day World Bank Group Family Network, to honor the memory of Margaret McNamara, an ardent advocate for gender equality and education. Margaret was married to Robert McNamara, the World Bank Group’s 5th President, and used her influence to integrate these two critical development components into the WBG’s programs.

MMEG has 501(c)(3) tax-exemption, not-for-profit public charity status. We are the only non-profit to be housed within the World Bank Group. We are constantly striving for wider name recognition within the World Bank Group. We are working to generate visibility for our mission objectives in a way that helps us to build a sustainable donor base. I would like to see us connect further with World Bank Group country offices, especially in countries where we have MMEG programs and grantees.

Let’s talk a bit about the educational grants. How many do you provide annually? What types of candidates do you look for?

RN: We have four university-level funding programs: US-Canada, South Africa, Latin America and Trinity Washington University here in Washington DC.

To date, MMEG has awarded 351 grants amounting to over USD 3 million. In fiscal year 2017, we awarded 33 grants, almost equally divided among our three regions. The number of grants we award annually depends on the funds we have available, as well as the quality of applications we receive.

Our grants go to exceptional women whose education we are proud to support. Most grantees are pursuing masters or PhD level studies but we support all levels of university training and certification. The key criteria for selection are a well-articulated and demonstrated commitment to improving the situation of women and children in developing countries.  Some of our applicants are already well-respected leaders in grass-root organizations, but are studying to formalize their knowledge with university degrees. Other criteria are good academic standing, financial need, and nationality that corresponds to the WBG client group. Grant recipients are selected by volunteer Selection Committees.

MMEG grants are awarded not just for need – which, as you know, cannot always be effectively measured - but because we see potential that is worth investing in.

Interested staff can learn more about our application requirements and the application process on our website

Can you tell us a bit about MMEG grant recipients?

RN: What interests MMEG are women who leverage their work at the community level to work towards policy and governance change, not just at the individual, but at the institutional level. I can give you two wonderful examples.

Mariela Escobedo is a 2017 grantee who advocates access to higher education for indigenous women in Mexico. Her research focuses on the barriers that marginalize indigenous girls and restrict their access to education. Mariela’s ultimate aim is to shape policies based on the reality on-the-ground. This very young woman has the potential to make an impact that will extend way beyond her local community.

Esther Kisaakye, or should I say Justice Dr. Esther Kisaakye, of the Supreme Court of Uganda, received a grant from MMEG in 2005 to support her law studies. Esther’s position alone makes her an extraordinary role model. Furthermore, she has used her position to initiate change from within and outside the Judiciary that has and will continue to improve women’s lives. In 2013, Esther wrote the lead judgment in a Supreme Court case that ruled that upon divorce, a spouse could share in the property that was acquired either during the marriage or before the marriage if she or he could prove contribution either to its acquisition or to its development.  This was a victory for women in Uganda and is now the law. Speaking about this decision at the annual MMEG event held in the WB Atrium last year, Esther expressed her satisfaction that even as a “baby judge”, and “against the background of anti-women’s rights sentiments”, her senior male colleagues unanimously endorsed her position. Let me quote Esther: “empowering women through graduate training strategically positions them to…participate in high-level judicial decision making, with the hope of making a difference for marginalized women and children…[This is] why the work of MMEG is so critically important – providing women such as myself with a financial push to the finishing line.”

Esther and Mariela were great investments for MMEG. Of course, not every MMEG grant recipient will become a Supreme Court justice, but for every application we screen we have the same question - does this story have that kind of potential? 

Tells us a bit about the MMEG Arts & Crafts Fair that will be taking place in the Preston auditorium at the World Bank Group next week.

The annual Arts & Crafts Fair has been our main fundraising tool for the past 32 years. It started out very informally with individual volunteers hosting small-scale events to raise funds. We expanded in 2009 with the Fair’s move from the H Building to the Preston auditorium. 

This year’s Fair took place from November 14 to 16. The proceeds of the Fair go directly towards funding grants. They come from a percentage of sales from vendors, flat fees for vendor participation and sales from MMEG-sponsored treasure and gourmet tables. The Fair is a great time for World Bank Group staff and visitors to stop by the Preston auditorium and take advantage of the beautiful items on sale. With the added benefit of knowing that you are shopping for a cause!

What are the other ways staff can support MMEG?

RN: World Bank Group staff can directly support MMEG’s mission of investing in the education of women through financial donations or by volunteering.

Donations may be made through our website, the WBG’s Community Connections Campaign on e-give, internal transfers through BFSFCU, or directly by check to MMEG at MSN J2-202. (For more details, contact us at

Let me also mention a new giving initiative recently launched by the Bank Fund Staff Federal Credit Union, whose long-time support we gratefully acknowledge. The BFSFCU is collecting foreign coins on behalf of MMEG, so dig out those old unused coins sitting at the bottom of your purse. Use change to make change!

We are also always seeking dedicated volunteers to help organize events, support our fundraising and outreach activities and of course to screen grant applications. Please contact us at to volunteer.

Last but not least, a personal question. What drives you personally to volunteer your time in this way?

RN: I have had the privilege of working in public health and disaster recovery in the UN system and the World Bank Group in Cape Verde, Benin, Turkey, Brazil, Indonesia. After six years with UNICEF in West Africa, a sabbatical year gave me a chance to reflect on professional advocacy versus personal beliefs. Sometimes we take on causes because it’s our job and not because we really care. After all this time, I know that I do care. I am volunteering for MMEG today because I care. With committed individuals we can make a difference to systems. I believe in the power of institutional education to change systems. Education over the long term reduces poverty – poverty of mind, spirit, and means. To get an education, women have to face social and cultural barriers. To help level the playing field, we have to support more women to vanquish the challenges of getting an education and then working to remove these barriers. We can do this collectively.

Personally, I was motivated to donate to MMEG after I picked up a flyer when working in the Bank in the early 1990s. For me, it is a long term commitment to help achieve structural change. MMEG has lasted as long as it has because of committed volunteers.

People who come together and say “how can I help and contribute?”

“I realize architecture is not just about building houses......”

….So says Riddhi Shah (27), a 2017 recipient of a Margaret McNamara Education Grant and candidate for a Master’s degree in City and Regional Planning at MIT in Boston, Massachusetts.


Riddhi is specializing in City Design Development at MIT where her objective is to look to the gap between architecture and planning in the public space, specifically at the relationship of an entire physical space and its effect on children.  In particular, Riddhi wants to study how “physical infrastructure restricts children from pursuing easy childhood activities like playing and studying.” 

This is an extension of the work she has done in India where she observed that children from ages 4 to 9 being watched in mobile daycare/crèches at developers’ construction sites used those facilities primarily to make bathroom visits and to take meals, not to learn. These crèches, provided for the protection of children against safety hazards of construction sites, are often too uncomfortable to facilitate the children’s sitting through lessons with no work space and seating on the ground.  This led to Riddhi’s design of the “Kumej” – a knapsack which turns into a desk for children.  Kumej is a combination of the Hindi words for chair (“Kursi”) and table (“Mej”).

Riddhi won a National Student Challenge for her design which has undergone many revisions with prototypes being tested at NGOs and local schools such as Holy Mother School in the Malad Malwani slum in Mumbai.  Once production can achieve economies of scale, the Kumej is expected to cost USD 10 per unit.  Riddhi’s hope is initially to partner with real estate developers and NGOs to distribute Kumejs to mobile crèches/daycares and street schools in urban centers.  She hopes that their proven success in this setting will allow her to approach local governments to reach out to rural schools where, according to a recent UNICEF/World Bank Group study, an estimated four out of five children live in extreme poverty in a country which houses a full 30% of the world population of children living in extreme poverty.*  At current estimates of India’s population of 1.34 billion people, the number of  young children in India aged newborn to 9 years old is likely to be as high as 267 million … a very large proportion of whom are cared for in the crèches, street schools and rural schools targeted by Riddhi’s product.

Since “school plays a major role in shaping a child’s future,” Riddhi’s long-term objective is to continue to develop and implement design plans to improve education in developing and crisis countries by making the educational environment more comfortable, welcoming, and healing at the grassroots level with minimum resources.  She is likely to be successful; as one of her referees puts it, Riddhi shows “exceptional promise as a socially-engaged architect.  Kumej is the best example I have seen in several years of design’s ability to promote social wellbeing.” 


Riddhi’s studies and efforts provide a testament to the enabling work of MMEG grants and the amplification effect of supporting continuing education for our recipients. Her work and that of the 300 plus recipients of Margaret McNamara Education Grants provide benefits in real terms in grantees’ home countries.  As Riddhi says in her application for her grant, “I realize that architecture is not just about building houses.  If architects can divert some of their attention to rural areas where the majority of the population lives, simple and powerful innovations will definitely help in transforming the rural life.  Design can help create more engaging spaces to help a child’s mind develop freely.”

Brigid Holleran

*Ending Poverty: A Focus on Children, UNICEF and The World Bank Group, October 2016.

The invention idea Kumej is filed under pending Indian National Patent 3522/MUM/2013 (Equally owned by: Ami Matthan, Avinav Venkatachalam, Riddhi Shah and Vishesh Kehtawat)