A female Syrian doctor who ran an underground hospital in a besieged rebel stronghold says she hopes an Oscar-nominated documentary showing her work will encourage other women and girls to demand equal treatment with men.
Amani Ballour, 32, is seen facing bombardments and shortages of food and medicine while also challenging sexist attitudes in “The Cave”, which is shortlisted for best documentary feature at this year’s Academy Awards.
“I hope it will inspire women to change their situation,” Ballour told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone ahead of the awards ceremony on Sunday.
“Young girls need to ... hear about their rights to know they can do everything they want.”
Ballour grew up in eastern Ghouta, just outside Damascus. She originally hoped to become an engineer, but was overruled by her family, who said it was an unsuitable career for a women but agreed that she could become a doctor.
Having completed her general medical studies, she abandoned her training in pediatrics to treat the injured in rebel-held eastern Ghouta during a five-year siege.
As medical facilities faced constant bombardments by the Syrian army and their allies, doctors were forced to move underground for safety and created the subterranean hospital known as The Cave, where Ballour worked from 2013.
The pediatrics specialist was just 29 when colleagues elected her to run the hospital and had to contend with widespread sexism as well as danger and shortages of essential supplies.
The film shows one man telling her a man would do a better job, and women belong at home with their families.
“Of course that makes me angry,” said Ballour of those who questioned whether she was up to the job. “I wanted to prove that women can do more.”
The film’s director Feras Fayyad said he was inspired by seeing how Ballour and her fellow female medics fought to reclaim their rights in the hospital. Ballour agreed to work with him on the condition that filming never compromised care for patients.
“Our main goal from this film was to tell the truth because we thought at the time that no one will survive,” she said.
But she had no idea that she was to be the main subject of the film and was initially upset that it did not focus more on the suffering on the children she treated.
“I asked him where are my children; the children who lost their legs, who lost their hands?” she said, adding that Fayyad convinced her much of the footage was too traumatic and that her story helped to show the wider struggles of Syrian people.
While the film does not shy from the terrors of the constant attacks and the injured, it shows how Ballour used her role to try to help other women.
“I tried to encourage the women, to tell the young girls that you can be important,” she said.
“When I was a young girl no one told me I could be a doctor or an important thing ... all the people around me said you will get married and have children.”
Ballour finally had to flee to Turkey in 2018 when the Syrian government regained control of the region and the hospital was shut down.
From there, she campaigns on women’s rights and is working to raise funds for the Al Amal fund created in her honour, which will support female leaders in war zones and offer education for young women from Syria and other conflicts. Whether or not the film takes the Oscar, her experience shows that attitudes can be changed, with some of the men who criticised her later acknowledging she had done a good job.
“Why can’t a woman decide for herself and do what she wants to do?” she says in the film.
“Let them say what they want, but I want to change this image.” — AFP