Women in Islam: Four Films

by Jennifer Loewenstein

HOLLYWOOD HAREMS. 24 mins., color. 1999. Tania Kamal-Eldin. Women Make Movies, 462 Broadway, Suite 500L, New York, NY 10013; phone: (212) 925-0606; email: info@wmm.com; website: www.wmm.com. Rental: $60.00. Sale: $250.00. Order #: W00665.

CRIMES OF HONOUR. 44 mins., color. 1998. Dir: Shelley Saywell. First Run/Icarus Films, 32 Court Street, 21st Floor, Brooklyn, NY 11201; phone: (718) 488-8900; fax: (718) 488-8642; website: http://www.frif.com/ Rental: $75.00. Sale: $375.00.

THE BORN-AGAIN MUSLIMS. Part One of Beyond the Veil: The Conflict Between the Muslim World and the West (a series of three videos Produced by Kanakna Documentary in association with Mundovision Ltd.) 52 mins. 1999. Filmakers Library, 124 East 40th Street, New York, NY 10016; phone: (212) 808-4980; fax: 212-808-4983; e-mail: info@filmakers.com; website: http://www.filmakers.com/ Rental: $75.00. Sale: $350.00.

FOUR WOMEN OF EGYPT. 90 mins., color. 1997. Tahani Rached. Women Make Movies, 462 Broadway, Suite 500L, New York, NY 10013; phone: (212) 925-0606; email: info@wmm.com; website: www.wmm.com. Rental: $90.00. Sale: $295.00. Order #: W99629.

There has been renewed interest in the Middle East and in Islam of late, for a variety of reasons. One issue that many people have been looking at more closely is the role of women in Islamic culture. Four videos examine this topic from different standpoints and provide us with, among other things, contexts within which this topic can be even more closely examined.

The portrayal of Muslim women in Western films has long been a fascinating topic. In Hollywood Harems, we are shown a series of clips from Hollywood films that portrayed the "Oriental" woman as the object of Western male fantasies: for instance, as a suggestive, scantily dressed, simple creature who lures men to herself through the forbidden territory of the harem, past the inviolability of the veil.

The clips are convincing but incomplete. The earliest is from Rudolph Valentino's famous film, The Sheikh, made in 1921, and the latest are from films such as Son of Sinbad and Kismet, which were produced in the 1950s. As a history of the image of Oriental women in Hollywood films, this video is informative. It does not, however, touch on more discerning issues such as the changing perception of women in Islam over time, and it never looks at the political climate either in the United States or in the various Middle East nations as a possible framework from which our images have developed. The focus here is strictly on entertainment: films are made to entertain us, and the Oriental woman is, at best, the object of sexual entertainment for the primary viewers, who are adult males.

Shelley Saywell's Crimes of Honour, much more serious and memorable, is a well-researched documentary about honor killing in primarily Middle Eastern and North African countries. The stories recorded are chilling. Various people, including women's rights lawyers and their clients, potential victims, and family members of past victims relate all sides of the different stories. The writer does not hesitate to condemn this horrific practice, however.

"Honor killings," as they are still called, refer to the murder, by male family members, of women or girls who refuse to accept an arranged marriage, lose their virginity before marriage, are raped, are victims of incest, fall in love with the "wrong" man, or in some other way "dishonor" their families by "behaving" in socially unacceptable ways or refusing to accept traditional roles. Honor killings take place primarily (but not exclusively) among the poorer classes, where "honor" is a more achievable distinction than wealth. This tradition, we are informed, originated with ancient tribal codes that made women's bodies the property of men. Examples of the practice can be found in Africa, throughout the Middle East, and as far away as Pakistan. Contrary to popular belief, however, honor killings have no basis whatsoever in Islam or in the Koran, and, according to Saywell, they have taken place in Christian and Jewish families as well as among Muslims.

Efforts to stop these crimes are under way in many countries today, but have had limited success. In Jordan alone, for example, a woman is killed every two weeks for bringing "shame" to her family. The only refuge for most women at risk is a prison or mental hospital, which provides only temporary security at best. In more advanced areas such as the West Bank or Jordan's capital, Amman, there are women's shelters, as well as new laws making it illegal for men to commit these killings. But even where the laws have been implemented, the penalty is minimal. This video effectively highlights a serious issue faced by women in societies that still allow them to be treated as the property of male-dominated families.

Part One of the Beyond the Veil series presents a different image of women in Islam. Here, instead of passive victims, we see "born again Muslims," women who militantly practice "Islam" in reaction to the intrusion of Western cultural values.

This film is one part of a study of Islamism--a term that connotes not essential, "pure," or traditional Islam (in which there is no justification for terrorist violence), but rather a modern politicization of Islam that many Muslims abhor. This segment focuses particular attention on the role of women in Islamism. It is nevertheless part of a broader debate referred to by some as the "clash of civilizations"--the meeting of the Islamic East with the secular West. As such, it is over-general in its depiction of Islam as a faith without variation or complexity, accepted blindly and at face value by all who call themselves Muslim. By portraying only the fundamentalists, this documentary does little justice to the millions of people, men and women, who are culturally and religiously Muslim but who are neither dogmatic nor militant in their observance of Islam.

First we watch as Sudanese women train in an Islamic militia outside Khartoum. The image of the "terrorist" comes swiftly to mind, and the narrator reinforces this image by telling us that, "like most Muslims, the people of Sudan believe the West is the aggressor." The filmmakers interview Muslims from places as varied as Sudan, Turkey, and Iran on their reasons for embracing Islamic fundamentalism. Yet while the reasons vary (from the statement that this is "what Allah has ordained" to "because the West is fighting Islam in Palestine"), one can mistakenly get the impression that fundamentalism is a movement of the majority in Islamic countries, which it is not. There is an "explosive Islamic revival under way," claims the narrator. Will this not lead to "a new cold war confrontation?" he asks.

Islamism has indeed flourished in some places, including in Algeria and Iran, and within militant fundamentalist groups such as Hamas and Hizbullah. That this represents the trend for the future, however, is not clear--especially if one examines the recent history of Iran, where the desire for a relaxation of the strict religious codes has long been evident. In only one other Islamic country (Afghanistan, which indeed languishes under the outrageously repressive Taliban) have Muslim fundamentalists taken power or successfully "converted" a majority of the population. Women fundamentalists in Islamist countries are even more a minority, although the images we see here might suggest otherwise.

There are a number of interesting and revealing interviews in Beyond the Veil: Born-Again Muslims. Until recently, one might have come away feeling that the film was intended to scare us with an exaggerated sense of the threat of Islamic fundamentalism from "the East" (in reality, from the poorest, most underdeveloped countries of the Mid-East). Sadly, from the other side of September 11, 2001, the threat feels all too real. On the other hand, the film does make clear that stereotypes about "the East" or "the West" exist on both sides, and that perhaps it would be better to try to understand the "other" so that we become "traveling companions" rather than enemies.

Tahani Rachad's Four Women of Egypt is a remarkable story of four women whose lives are entwined both in friendship and with the history of modern Egypt. Each woman has an entirely different story to tell, making her relationship with the others the more telling. One is a Christian whose first language was French and who grew up in Paris and Cairo. Another has become a religious Muslim. The other two are culturally Muslim but, like many Christians and Jews in the United States, are not particularly observant. All have been affected by the turmoil and change that marked Egypt's post-World War II history. All have passionate opinions about Gamal Abdul Nasser's "revolution" and the regime of his successor, Anwar Sadat. All were active in political struggle of one kind or another. Each story represents another facet of Egypt's internal and external changes in the twentieth century--whether of social revolution (women's rights, unions, economic inequality) or political upheaval (ending British occupation, making peace with Israel, allying with the U.S., etc.)

The documentary is enjoyable to watch because we see the human face of struggle, friendship, women's solidarity, and conflict. There are no clear answers on the direction that modern Egypt will take regarding issues as divisive as women's rights. But the film is also educational, in that each woman chose a way of life that nevertheless intersected with the often dramatically opposed lives of the other women interviewed. The story of their continued friendship is uplifting, especially at a time when modernity and tradition were shaking the old foundations of Egypt and transforming it into the dynamic, if potentially explosive, third-world power it is today.

[Jennifer Loewenstein is a senior lecturer in Business Communications at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A longtime human rights advocate focusing primarily on human rights abuses in the Middle East, she has studied classical and modern Arabic, Islam, and modern Middle Eastern history. Jennifer taught English in the Palestinian refugee camps of South Beirut, Lebanon, where she lived for two summers, and has lived, traveled, and studied in Israel and the Occupied Territories. In 1989, she lived in West Berlin, where her studies led her to the situation of the Turkish Gästarbeiter in Germany. She has written and spoken extensively on human rights and international law, especially with respect to the Israel/Palestine conflict.]


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Mounted November 21, 2001.