The Barefoot College takes uneducated middle-aged women from poor communities and trains them to become solar engineers and so create power and jobs in their communities. Jehane Noujaim and Mona Eldaief follow Rafea, a remarkable Bedouin mother of four, as she struggles against ignorance, traditional gender roles, and her husband, to train herself and the rest of her Jordanian village, where all 300 people are unemployed. The college’s 6-month programme brings together 27 women from all over the world to India, where learning about electrical components and soldering without being able to read, write or understand English is the easy part. Rafea faces pressure from her layabout husband, her conservative Mother, and her children who miss her. Rafea’s only ally is the wily Raouf, minister for the environment, excited by her as a national symbol of modernisation. We get amazing access to one woman’s discovery of new ideas and one village’s chance to become self-sufficient. With moments of great humour and a window into what might happen if women ruled the world, see grassroots economic and gender revolution in action – “with or without permission. I want to work, to succeed”.
Bunker Roy’s vision for the Barefoot College involves taking women from their traditional, and seemingly non-negotiable, life roles and giving them an immersive experience of new ideas. Whilst in the college, they live, dance and learn in each other’s company, becoming totally different people, given confidence through female companionship and the acquisition of key skills. Bunker believes anyone can be trained to be a solar engineer and sends the women back to spread the skills in their communities. Rafea’s ability to completely give herself to the college is hampered by a husband back in Jordan attempting to retain his control over her by using their children as emotional leverage. It’s a futile effort with such a strong-willed and intelligent person, but her Career Vs Motherhood dilemma is acute and heartbreaking. Especially so in a society where the notion of a woman being educated is still considered a sin by some.
Traditional family roles collide with financial necessity – it’s clear to many in the village knows that any chance, however small or unlikely, to escape poverty is more important for them all than blind adherence to a tradition that’s doing nothing for the economic good of the village. Raouf is clever in playing to their sense of national pride, creating a media storm around Rafea’s symbolic act of acquiring anti-poverty technology that doesn’t involve dependency on Western countries.
We have total access to Rafea’s journey, from this remote village, where everyone seems to be smoking constantly, to the joyous scenes of the final college circuit-making test, and back to the village where Rafea’s attempts to persuade her female neighbours to join the solar revolution are full of twinkling confidence. Shocking to their ears, Rafea explicitly states that men and women are equal and that being an engineer will liberate all the women. Yet doubts remain – the solar company they establish in the village is still a compromise between male need for power and female roles as the reliable ones who won’t get up and leave. Rafea’s outward successes in installing the technology may be limited by the end of the film, but her inner change, and resultant demonstration of challenging both poverty and tradition, is remarkable.