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    Still from Veiled Voices(dir. Brigid Maher, 2009). Used with permission from Typecast Films.


  issue 3.1 |  

Journal Issue 3.1
Spring 2011
Edited by Agatha Beins, Deanna Utroske, Julie Ann Salthouse, Jillian Hernandez, and
Karen Alexander

Editorial Assistants: Mimi Zander and A.J. Barks


Women Like Us. Directed by Persheng Sadegh-Vaziri. New York: Women Make Movies. 2002.
Veiled Voices. Directed by Brigid Maher. Seattle: Typecast. 2009.

Reviewed by Juliane Hammer


Muslim women, for better or worse, have garnered the attention of scholars, journalists, and not least documentary filmmakers for decades.1 The two films under review here are similar in their approach but different in their quality and utility for classroom use.
       Persheng Sadegh-Vaziri, an Iranian expatriate in the United States, sets out to explore the lives of Iranian women in the very beginning of the twenty-first century. Her film Women Like Us is constructed as a journey of her own (re)discovery of the complex lives of Iranian women and a country that has changed since her departure in 1979. We follow her on visits to five women: Sudabeh, a journalist; Kobra, a farmer and widow of the Iran-Iraq War; Maryam, a nurse; Raheleh, a student and activist; and Mahsa, a piano teacher. The interviews reveal how entrenched the women’s lives are with Iranian politics. Filmed in 2000 when reform president Seyyed Mohammad Khatami was campaigning for re-election, Women Like Us has viewers accompany the women through political upheaval and hope for change. Sadegh-Vaziri questions the women on their aspirations in life, their work, the role of women in society, and the significance of democracy and freedom. One of the more powerful sequences is when she asks the women about having to wear hijab and receives a set of diverse, thoughtful, and surprising answers. Sadegh-Vaziri is guided by a set of liberal Western assumptions about Muslim women evident in her questions, most prominently displayed in her questions about polygamy, freedom of movement, and the requirement to cover their hair. These limit the film’s utility for teaching purposes even more than the mediocre filming quality and the need to explain the historical and political context as well as religious practices that are shown but not explained to the viewer. The film does not offer insight into Iranian history or even the background of the current situation, thus leaving the viewer to wonder about the ways in which the Iranian revolution, the Iran-Iraq war, and other more recent events have shaped the protagonists’ lives and society.2
        Brigid Maher introduces us to the lives and teachings of three Middle Eastern Muslim women: Ghina Hammoud from Lebanon, Huda Al-Habash from Syria, and Dr. Su’ad Saleh from Egypt. Each woman, in her country and community, has taken it upon herself to be a religious guide and teacher to other Muslim women (and men) and to offer (sometimes alternative) interpretations of the Qur’an and other scriptural sources relevant for the lives of contemporary Muslims. Faced with obstacles in their personal and communal lives, the women are portrayed as human, energetic, thoughtful, and courageous. The women, through Maher’s film, expose the hypocrisy of male religious and political leaders and affirm the need for new leadership and innovative approaches to the Islamic tradition. Through testimony of their students and followers we learn of the significance and impact of the women leaders’ work on peoples’ lives. The film is elegantly conceived and aesthetically pleasing. Viewers are let in on the women’s personal lives, their trials and victories, and by the end this reviewer appreciated making their acquaintance. Maher intentionally stays away from labeling the women leaders as conservative or liberal, which serves her well in so far as it emphasizes that familiar categories may not work for contexts different from those in the United States or Western Europe. The film is also recommended because of its very informative and user-friendly website including trailers, extra footage, and viewing guides with great utility for teaching the film.
          Both films, intentionally or not, are limited by their approach to Muslim women as essentially different, other, and in need of explanation. Sadegh-Vaziri’s title seems to indicate an attempt to make Iranian Muslim women familiar, by declaring them to be “like us” but the film instead gazes at the women from within a framework that assumes and reaffirms their otherness. Women Make Movies markets the film in a collection titled “Beyond the Veil” ( Maher hints at the Western (feminist) gaze toward Muslim women in her title, Veiled Voices, as well and markets the film by claiming that it “reveals a world rarely documented” ( as if Muslim women were somehow hidden from the world. This still-prevalent Western feminist framework assumes that Muslim women require introduction and liberation at a time when Muslim women have spent decades exercising their own agency, in Muslim majority countries and in the West. The positive intent of the films, to portray individuals in order to humanize and de-other them, here unfortunately results in renewed generalized assumptions about all Muslim women. Only a very critical framework in the classroom would make either of them useful for questioning such assumptions.3            

Juliane Hammer, assistant professor of Islamic Studies at George Mason University, specializes in the study of American Muslims, women and gender in Islam, Sufism, and contemporary Muslim thought. Her most recent book More Than A Prayer is forthcoming from the University of Texas Press in early 2012.

1 The study of Muslim women and gender discourses in Islam dates back at least to early colonial interest and has a history entrenched in both European colonial projects and waves of European and American feminism. For a useful analysis of this entrenchment see Leila Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam (1992; Mohja Kahf), Western Representations of the Muslim Woman (1999), and for visual representation in National Geographic see Linda Steet’s useful study Veils and Daggers (2000).

2 Many works could be recommended for framing the film, including: Fatemeh Keshavarz, Jasmine and Stars: Reading More Than Lolita in Tehran (2008); Mahnaz Kousha, Voices from Iran: The Changing Lives of Iranian Women (2002); Nima Naghibi, Rethinking Global Sisterhood (2007), and Shirin Ebadi’s memoir, Iran Awakening (2007).

3 Saba Mahmood in Politics of Piety (2005) has provided Western feminists with a useful theoretical framework for the study of Muslim women. Also recommended: Afsaneh Najmabadi’s essay titled “Teaching and Research in Unavailable Intersections,” in Women’s Studies on the Edge, eds. J. Scott and E. M. Hammonds (2008, 69-80), and the edited collection On Shifting Ground: Muslim Women in the Global Era, ed. F. Nouraie-Simone (2005). One possible route for balancing these filmic representations would be to assign works by Muslim women, both academic and nonfiction, for example writings by Amina Wadud, Asma Barlas, Fatima Mernissi, Ziba Mir-Hosseini, and others.


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