“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, director, cinematographer and editor, shows sensitivity and skill in bringing these critical-yet-simple stories to light.
Simple? Yes. They are stories of the woman next door: a neighbor 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. These stories unfold gradually as they weave together across borders.
Maher profile s three women: Huda Al Hasbash from Syria, Suad Saleh in Egypt and Ghina Hammoud of Lebanon. These stories are woven together, each round deepening the contours of their lives. 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. Each round widens the panorama of women’s experience in these Arab and Muslim-majority countries.
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 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 camera.
Dr. Saleh is a very public person, teaching at Cairo’s Al Azhar University and appearing on television call-in programs. “We have reduced Islam to a veil and a beard,” she laments, when there is so much more. Having reported on Islam and Muslims for 20 years I confirm her complaint. This is a problem perpetuated in part by Muslims themselves.
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. Students deeply appreciate the model she provides.
Relationships between women and men are good examples of ongoing stereotypes. Due in part to mainstream media, pop culture, and ignorance, a prevailing view is one of oppression of women. We read of “honor 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. We feel for Ghina Hammoud who suffered years in an abusive marriage. In contrast, Huda Al Habash’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 sit on Egypt’s higher Islamic council, the reality is that the men who have the vote will not receive her. Susan B. Anthony had to struggle, too. Without a cudgel, Maher hammers home the point that Muslim women have rights, can be self-expressed, 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. There are 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 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.
Brigid Maher teaches in the Film and Media Arts Division at American University in Washington D.C. “Veiled Voices” builds on her favored genre: issues of cultural identity and discrimination.
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. Like the efforts of Azizah al Hibri in Richmond, Virginia and Zaina Anwar in Kuala Lumpur, the women in “Veiled Voices” are part of a necessary and natural movement to amplify understanding of Islam in the 21st century.
Anisa Mehdi is a Fulbright Scholar in Jordan. She is a journalist and filmmaker. Mehdi produced and directed the National Geographic Special “Inside Mecca,” and was executive producer of the PBS Frontline documentary, “Muslims.” www.anisamehdi.com