Saturday, March 06, 2010

Veiled Voices. A Film About Women Musilm Religious Leaders

"Veiled Voices", is a documentary about women religious leaders in Islam soon to be shown across many PBS TV stations, starting with a March 8th for Women's Day.

The film looks at the lives of three women who are reviving the role of Sheikha, or religious teacher. For those of us in predominantly non-Islamic communities, the sheika is (to use terms we know) the Islamic equivalent of a combination of Rabbinical scholar, counselor, and educator. And they are teaching women in countries where the patriarchy is not uniformly supportive of their actions.

The women --
Ghina Hammoud of Beirut, Lebanon.
She is a religious leader, operator of her own center for learning and charity. She was abused and beaten by her husband for many years,until she finally divorced him. At that point she lost everything, including custody of her twin daughters and the support of many of the women who studied with her.

Dr. Su'Ad Saleh of Cairo, Egypt.
She is a religious leader, has her own TV talk show where she gives advice based on Islamic law and has been a professor for over 30 years at a University in Cairo. She has authored over 20 books. Yet she has been unable to obtain the necessary votes to serve on the Islamic Research council. She points out that although women have received PhDs in areas of Islamic religious study, "we are regarded to be, in the fields of religious study, incompetent by men." The most outspoken of the three, she also said "We have reduced Islam to a scarf, a veil and a beard. That's it. That is not fair. Islam is more than that."

Huda al-Habash of Damascus, Syria.
She has been unable to join the Islamic Leaders Foundation in Syria, which is only for men. Yet she teaches to groups of women and individual women both in Syria and in other areas of the Islamic world. Her daughter has just started study at the American University in Washington, DC. Huda has the full support of her husband and family for her work. She will say that the veil is just an object, and then add that a believer's faith is not complete unless she wears the veil.

All women have certain qualities in common. First, they love their religion. They all wear the veil. All of them teach other women, and none of them seems troubled by the lack of any formal approval to do so. They believe that the Holy Qur'an does not impede their teaching, and that, further, the first leader who was female was Aisha, the wife of the Prophet Mohammad, over 1700 years ago. They all work in the mainstream walk of life. None are liberal in any vivid sense, although all are surprising in some way.

When Brigid Maher was asked about the film by Safiyyah of Muslim Media Watch, she said:

These women represent mainstream interpretations of Islam in their countries so I think when people realize this, it shatters their stereotypes of Muslim in general. Perhaps they realize there’s little difference between what Ghina dealt with and a personal obstacle they faced. Or they may wish that their husband helped clean up after dinner like Huda’s husband. Or they feel inspired with how Dr. Su’ad Saleh took on the religious establishment and kept on going undeterred. I will say I did not realize how much these women and stories would affect my own life…

This grassroots movement of women establishing themselves as teachers of Islam may seem like a non-event to the Westerner used to female clergy, female teachers, religious and secular classes and worship where the two sexes sit next to each other.

But in most parts of the Arab world, the realities of the West are as foreign to them as their realities are to us. And as Huda's daughter says, all Americans are not George Bush, and all Arabs are not Osama bin Laden.

This film is an attempt to humanize our view of women in the Arab world, particularly women who wear the veil, who have the visual trappings of a culture and a religion that we largely misunderstand. Yet the view through this lens is a narrow one.

The women are all educated, all financially well-off, all living in very nice surroundings. Their clothing is well tailored, richly embellished. They may represent a slice of women of a certain income/social strata who have chosen to take a role in their faith that is counter to their culture's drift from the days of Aisha, but they raise as many questions as they answer in this film.

Are they feminists? Or, are they mainstream trail blazers? Is this the beginning of a stirring of a new Muslim feminist activism? Is this education of women about their rights in Islamic law going to bear culture-changing fruit?

It made me think. When Professor Su'ad Saleh says, matter-of-factly "Those trying to oppress women are going against Islamic law," is she planting the seed for a new reality for Muslim women? What is the resistance going to look like?

And how far down the class strata will any new reality stretch? Of course, as these women are in three different countries, their political realities are different. But the fact that they are from different areas of the Arab world surely points to a kind of movement that is beginning to take place, and is worth watching -- as is this film.


Blogger Faiqa said...

Thank you for posting this, I wouldn't have known about this documentary were it not for your post! I'm def. going to watch it, so forgive me if the rest of my comment reeks of ignorance of something said in the program.

The truth is that Islamic feminism (initiated by men) has been around since the turn of the last century and has prompted a lot of tangible results. I think a great example of that would be that many Muslim countries can boast that they have had a female head of state, whereas we in the US still cannot. It's also evidenced by dramatic increases in the latter part of the 20th century in higher education degrees attained by Muslim women.

And yet, many Muslim women remain subjugated emotionally and physically in these societies.

Personally, I think it's due to the paradigm of Islamic feminism itself.

As a Muslim feminist (which is a different entity than an Islamic feminist-- I do not rest my liberation only upon my rights as they are outlined in the Quran but also as they have been established by the evolution of human thought), I think Islamic feminists have run their course in terms of what they can do for Muslim women.

My reading and experience has shown me that Islamic feminists, because they seek to navigate completely within the context of religion inadvertently reinforce patriarchal ideals because they focus on the Quran and Sunnah and seldom acknowledge secular ideals and, not to be rude, but the entire twentieth century and beyond.

Of course, I don't mean to disparage these women... they are brave, beautiful and admirable women. Yet, in my heart, I feel like they're still operating within a context that will never really allow women to experience freedom. And their elevation to the status of Sheikha feels almost conspiratorial to me. Poorer women will admire them and look up to them, only to be told that they cannot, in fact, take off their headscarves if they choose to because the Quran says they can't.

I just think that Muslim women (and men!) across the globe would be better served by a hybrid of secular and religious approaches.

The fate of Muslim women's rights lies in the ability of the Islamic faith to evolve. I just don't know if these women are dedicated to that kind of change.

Yikes. Sorry this was so long.

11:03 PM  

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