Veiled Voices is a documentary that profiles three influential women who are religious leaders, their families, and the communities they serve: Ghina Hammoud in Lebanon, Dr. Su’ad Saleh in Egypt, and Huda al-Habash in Syria. The film is produced and directed by Brigid Maher, who is an assistant professor and head of the New Media concentration in the Film and Media Arts Division of the School of Communication at American University.
When I first heard about the documentary, I thought, “Oh, no, not another take on veiled women who are oppressed”, given the the cliched title, “Veiled Voices”. I asked Maher about this, and she surprised me with her answer,
Naturally we have a play on words with the title “Veiled Voices”, because it both confronts our obsession and moves beyond it. The West may think women’s voices are veiled because of the veil but when you hear the voices of veiled women you understand something very different and far more complex and shatter any notion of a verbal veil…
I particularly liked the idea of “confronting obsessions”, which the film does. All three of its subjects wear headscarves, but discussion of the veil constitutes only two minutes of the hour-long film (thank Allah).
This film left a lasting impression on me personally because it shows the kind of Islam I try to adhere to, from a female perspective. The women filmed are both normal and extraordinary at once. They are religious leaders by profession, but are also wives and mothers. They observe hijab, they are well-traveled, well-educated, well-spoken and well-read. I respect that all our readers do not want to fit this particular mold. For some these women might be too liberal, for others, too conservative. For me, they are the type of Muslim women I admire, and this is why I enjoyed watching the film so much.
Maher shows these women in several different lights, both personally and professionally. We get to watch them interact with their families, their followers, and the media. We also hear their views on sensitive topics like domestic abuse and divorce. I asked Maher why she decided to focus on women as religious leaders in particular.
There has been a lot of ground covered in documentaries about women in Islam in particular with the veil. Yet, I still felt that misunderstandings among non-Muslims was a pervasive problem. If we have so much media on the subject, why are Muslim women still misunderstood? I wanted to move beyond the question of veiling, as that to me was such a small part of what it meant to be Muslim. If women can penetrate leadership in government, agencies, companies, etc., it can be fairly illuminating in regards to what kind of power they’re able to wield. So it made sense to start there in regards to Islam and women and this ground hadn’t been covered yet. I wanted to move beyond question of the veil to more pertinent questions of what kind of leadership roles women are able to have in their communities and who is influenced by them.
Maher includes several interviews with men as well, some related to the women, others from high-ranking religious and political backgrounds, which serve as both a contrast and compliment to the women in question. Each of the three women interviewed are very influential, albeit in different ways.
Ghina Hammoud faces a personal challenge in gaining legitimacy as a leader as a divorced woman, since divorce is controversial in conservative communities throughout Lebanon. However, she has found strength to rebuild her life through her role as a community leader. It is incredibly heart-wrenching to hear about and watch the separation from her beautiful twin daughters. Hammoud”s personality shines through the camera as she laughs and cries.
The story of Dr. Su’ad Saleh demonstrates how, in a country that is known for having the highest number of women religious leaders and teachers, these women still fight for public recognition by the Egyptian religious authority at Al Azhar, the famous Cairo mosque and university founded in the 10th century. Dr. Saleh is also media personality, and wields a lot of authority. Whilst she has no institutional support, the story of her late-husband’s encouragement is very touching.
Unlike her two counterparts in Lebanon and Egypt, Huda Al-Habbash (pictured right) has both institutional support and the support of her husband. She teaches women in Damascus, and lectures all over the Middle East, helping people “move…from ignorance to knowledge.” She comes across like a very rigid woman initially, but surprises viewers later on with her flexibility.
In particular, Dr. Saleh’s story has a a lot of significance, especially when she speaks about her application to become a muftiya (female religious authority) for Al Azhar. Her application was subject to voting by the board, which is exclusively constituted of men. She received only one male vote, and it literally broke my heart when she wistfully asks, “Who would vote for a woman?”. Maher juxtaposes Dr. Saleh’s story an interview with the Grand Mufti of Egypt, Shaykh Tantawi, who is speaking about women’s rights, and welcoming women to become muftiyas. The irony is startling. We also see Dr. Saleh as she moves about from her television show, to the class she lectures at the Al Azhar women’s faculty for religious studies, where she is a professor.
The beginning and ending of the film are both equally poignant. Al-Habbash opens the movie with a narrative about A’isha, the Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) wife, her role in Islam, and her legacy. I thought it quite fitting to open a movie about religious guides with the example of one of Islam’s first and most prominent female religious leaders. The film closes on Dr. Saleh, speaking about her role as a religious leader. She confidently declares that she will continue giving fatawa (religious rulings) without the cloak of Al Azhar: she asserts that “I don’t need it” and “I will continue doing so unofficially”. This sends a very strong message to the viewers about Muslim women – that they do not need permission/backing from men, as is the common stereotype.
The film focuses on a particular type of Muslim woman, and does not export the findings to all Muslim women. It shows them in relation to their own communities and societies only, in their own respective countries.
I asked Maher how she thought these women would affect the way the West views Muslim women:
We have just started screening the film but I had done a series of “test screenings” and people would say to me, “these women must be feminists. They must be on the fringe of Islam or liberals.” The fact is that these women aren’t at all on the fringe and that the notion of feminism can also be quite pluralistic. 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…
I also did not realize how much they would affect me. I found myself being drawn into their lives and stories. The movie certainly offers a rare glimpse into the lives of Muslim women leaders. At times it surprised my own pre-conceived ideas about the women, like when I learnt about Al-Habbash’s daughter studying abroad, or Hammoud having traveled the world.
Maher successfully manages to confront and move beyond the stereotype of a submissive Arab Muslim woman, and I highly recommend everyone to watch it. Though not all will find the women’s views to their liking, the documentary allows them to tell their situations as is, and must be commended for that.