Veiled Voices: A Film About Women Muslim Religious Leaders

8 years ago

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

The film looks at the lives of three women who are reviving the role of Sheikha, or religious teacher, and are teaching other women about Islam. 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. The film highlights women in countries where the Muslim patriarchy is not uniformly supportive of their actions.


Ghina Hammoud of Beirut, Lebanon.

She is a religious leader and 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. Because of cultural views on divorce, particularly of a religious leader, she lost everything, including custody of her twin daughters and the support of many of the women who studied with her. The film provides a moving view into her life.

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 more than 30 years at a university in Cairo. She has authored more than 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 doctorates 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, D.C. Huda has the full support and admiration 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 of the women have certain qualities in common. 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 further, that the first leader who was female was Aisha, the wife of the Prophet Mohammad, over 1,700 years ago. They all work in the mainstream. None are radical 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, occasionally 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? Or is it going to stay a one-by-one anomaly?

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.

~~ Contributing Editor, Mata H. also blogs right along at Time's Fool

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