Veiled Voices is a film filled with loud, bright stories that enlighten an audience in need of authenticity about Islam in general and the lives of Muslim women in particular. Brigid Maher, a director, cinematographer and editor who teaches in the Film and Media Arts Division at American University in Washington, DC, shows sensitivity and skill in bringing these critical yet simple stories to light.
Simple? Yes. They are stories of the woman next door: a neighbour who is a mother and wife; a professional who teaches and travels; an individual facing challenges and disappointments who does not yield to inaction but rather overcomes and inspires.
Maher profiles three women: Huda Al Hasbash from Syria, Suad Saleh in Egypt and Ghina Hammoud of Lebanon. We meet them first as professionals, then as wives or divorcées, then as mothers and cooks, balancing the many duties women have worldwide. We meet their husbands, mothers and children.
Syrian mother and educator Al Hasbash defends wearing a headscarf and goes on to demonstrate that there need be no conflict between wearing a scarf and living a modern life. She teaches dozens of women not only to read the Qur’an, but to know their rights. And she sizzles up a fine looking meal for her family while she’s describing her views to the camera.
Dr. Saleh is a very public person, teaching at Cairo’s Al Azhar University and appearing on television call-in programmes. “We have reduced Islam to a veil and a beard,” she laments, when there is so much more.
Hammoud bravely sticks with her career in spite of betrayal by her husband. She keeps the affection and respect of her daughters, who lived with their father after the parents divorced.
Relationships between women and men are good examples of ongoing stereotypes. Due in part to mainstream media, pop culture and general ignorance, there is a prevailing view in the West that Muslim women are oppressed. We read of “honour" killings, of girls forbidden to go to school, and women prevented from divorce in unacceptable situations. None of these is permitted in Islamic law, even if culture in some Muslim-majority countries turns a blind eye. Showing the diversity of Muslim women’s experiences, the film demonstrates that Muslim women are not a monolith.
We feel for Hammoud who suffered years in an abusive marriage. In contrast, Al Hasbash’s husband Samir Khalidi is the picture of an ideal partner. He appreciates and supports her calling and is helpful at home, clearing the table and going over homework with one of their sons. Dr. Saleh notes that while she may be qualified to do so, the reality is that she has been unable to obtain the necessary votes to serve on the Islamic Research Council, the most prominent body of Al-Azhar.
American viewers of Veiled Voices will remember that the well-known US abolitionist and women’s suffragist Susan B. Anthony had to struggle, too.
Without a cudgel, Maher hammers home the point that Muslim women have rights, express themselves and, like their sisters around the world, must overcome hurdles in their lives to accomplish their goals – even if that means redefining their goals along the way.
Some of the footage in this hour-long documentary will surprise viewers. Cameras reveal rooms full of women studying Islamic law and leadership. They refer regularly to early examples of female leadership in the Muslim community, including the example of Aisha, youngest wife of the Prophet Muhammad. At the age of 17 she was already an acknowledged scholar and teacher.
The filmmaker does not impose heavy control on situations, allowing the natural interruptions of life to play out on videotape. A child fussing off camera is not quieted and the interview continues; when a particularly personal question is posed and the subject cries, the crew cries too. This is noted and we – the audience – are privy to a behind-the-scenes moment.
Muslim and non-Muslim women from Malaysia to America are actively engaged in educating themselves and others, leaning on religion as the primary tool in an unwavering call for equality and opportunity. The women in Veiled Voices are part of a necessary and natural movement to amplify understanding of Islam in the 21st century.
* Anisa Mehdi (www.anisamehdi.com) is a Fulbright Scholar in Jordan, journalist and filmmaker. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from the author..