My grandmother was married at age 16 to a man she didn’t know. She had four children in a row and had no choice about whether she might like to work or be in love, or anything else of real meaning in her life.
These stories deeply affected me as I was growing up in England—because I knew these restrictions were still being played out for women all over the world. They inspired me to write my first novel, The World Unseen, which I later directed as a film; and to set it in 1950’s South Africa, in the traditional Indian Muslim community in which my grandmother lived.
But I didn’t want to document her life. I wanted to re-tell the story and ask: What does it take to make someone feel that she could actually have a choice in a world where that feels impossible? Who would she have to meet? What traditions would she have to challenge?
That story, along with my previous film, I Can’t Think Straight, tapped into the imaginations of people who watched them. The trickle of emails turned into thousands—often from women, often from restrictive societies. Experiencing the characters’ journeys was not just two hours of escapism for them; they often wrote to tell me they had been inspired change their lives one step at a time. One left an abusive husband. Another, from the “untouchable” caste in India, escaped an arranged marriage and started LGBTQ support groups all over the country.
My new novel, The Athena Protocol, is about a top secret, socially conscious, all-female organization that combats injustice against women and children around the world, taking on the kinds of issues that governments rarely deal with. The protagonist, Jessie, is a young, hot-headed agent embroiled in a daring mission to take down a human trafficking operation in Belgrade, Serbia.
This is not a novel about women taking on a male role, but about women going where men haven’t gone before—moving outside the traditional power structures of government and corporations to tackle disempowerment where it happens.
So often we look to something outside ourselves to make the change we want to see. We wait for a change of government so we can have peace, or better rights. We wait generations for a change in tradition or culture so we can have equality. While we wait, we accept and rationalize. We forget how much power we all carry within us to change the world to experience peace with an enemy in our hearts, or to gently but firmly refuse a tradition that strips us of dignity.
That may be easier in London or New York. How much more difficult can it be in Kabul or Lahore or Jeddah? I can tell you, because I have received the emails. The stories of women who looked to fictional characters to accompany them on their own journeys of personal growth—who braved their parents’ threats, their husbands’ anger, the raw fear of no money, no job, no certainty, to make a change.
Stories expose us to another reality—but sometimes, they also tell us something that’s truer than our own reality. They help us imagine lives, emotions, even freedoms that we didn’t know were possible.
I had always had a quiet faith in my ability as a novelist, screenwriter and director to create other lives. But I had never really thought enough about my audience’s capability to take something indefinable from my fictional world and use it to change their own lives. The stories that people reached out to share with me made me stop to consider why books and movies have such an impact on us.
It’s time that we live in a world where people are judged by their worth, not their gender. It’s that belief that fuels my work. As the women of The Athena Protocol have decided—when the old ways don’t work, shouldn’t we start looking at new ones?