SAJ: Muslim in America. Directed by Sam Pollard. New York: Third World Newsreel, 2005. 4 minutes.
Unveiled Views: Muslim Women Artists Speak Out. Directed by Alba Sotorra. New York: Women Make Movies, 2009. 52 minutes.
Going up the Stairs: Portrait of an Unlikely Iranian Artist. Directed by Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami. New York: Women Makes Movies, 2011. 52 minutes.
The three films under review address the common theme of Muslim women as artists, agitators, and self-actualized individuals. Even though the geographic context varies in each film, the singular focus on individuals, rather than the collective, unites them. SAJ is a short film about a young, Jamaican-American woman named Saj, who resides in New York City, whereas Going up the Stairs showcases Akram, an elderly Iranian artist in Tehran. Unveiled Views profiles the activism and art of five women: visual and performance artist Alma Suljevic of Bosnia, filmmaker Rakhshan Banietemad of Iran, human and women’s rights lawyer and singer Eren Keskin of Turkey, poet Moshgan Saadat of Afghanistan, and dancer Nahid Siddiqui of Pakistan. Highlighting the creative and political work of women around the world, these documentaries profile the agency and independence of ordinary, yet extraordinary, women who happen to be Muslim. With the exception of SAJ, the films do not focus directly on the theme of religious identity but instead highlight the external constraints these women face as artists and activists and how they struggle with—and sometimes overcome—them. Another common feature is the filmmakers’ limited treatment of the broader geographical, historical, cultural, and political context, which could be rectified in a classroom setting with accompanying readings and discussion.
SAJ is a short film that is sure to stimulate discussion about what it means to be an American Muslim woman in the post–September 11 environment. As the principal narrator, Saj is filmed primarily outdoors in New York City. In brief segments she addresses a range of issues, starting with a comparison of her experiences as a Muslim in Jamaica versus the United States. She addresses the often controversial topic of hijab, or Muslim women’s modest dress, and her religious identity as in flux, evolving, and open to multiple influences. “My Islam doesn’t limit me,” she notes, as she affirms her right to “figure it out for myself.” SAJ features an articulate and self-reflective young woman in a contemporary urban setting who is finding her own way in the world. Recently published scholarship on and writings by Muslim American women would complement SAJ quite well for classroom use.1
In Unveiled Views, filmmaker Alba Sotorra takes her audience to multiple geographical settings, reminding us that Islam and Muslim communities span the globe. An educator who may want to emphasize this point could show the entire film and compare these women’s stories. However, an individual vignette or two may be more useful to showcase in a classroom setting. The film splices together five disparate narratives with few parallels and provides limited background information about geography, culture, or history. Sotorro seems more interested in these women’s personal stories than their causes, offering little context other than what the women themselves and a few supporters, friends, and family present. While none of these five women is represented as passive or victimized, nor are their trials and tribulations as artists and individuals in patriarchal and conflict-ridden societies given the proper attention to cover the scale and toll of their pioneering and courageous efforts. Although the individual vignette on Pakistani dancer Nahid Siddiqui includes considerably more context to appreciate her contributions in the world of dance in Pakistan and her heroic efforts to pursue her art despite familial, cultural, and political opposition, overall, the viewer gets a fractured view of five Muslim women. A single film devoted to any one of these women would have been a worthwhile effort.
The narrower focus of Going up the Stairs is the film’s strength, even though the broader context is similarly absent. Iranian filmmaker Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami has found a captivating and appealing subject in Akram, an elderly woman who discovered late in life her talent as an artist. The film begins with her rather ordinary days of cooking, cleaning, taking care of her husband, and painting and repainting canvases, and it peaks when we learn about an extraordinary opportunity that comes her way. Akram receives an invitation to exhibit her paintings in Paris and must convince her husband to permit her to travel abroad, as required by the law of the Islamic Republic of Iran. While her husband supports her painting as a hobby, he feels threatened by her desire to nurture her public identity as an artist and showcase her work in the outside world. Akram does not relent, and, in the end, she succeeds in gaining his reluctant approval. Going up the Stairs is a simple, yet nuanced, film of an average woman with a unique talent. Akram’s Muslim identity is incidental and not a focus of the film, even though we see her pray and demonstrate other signs of religiosity. The source of her limitations and restrictions is not Islam or Iranian society at large (in fact her children and extended family champion and support the exhibition of her art), but rather her conservative husband and the patriarchal law upholding his right to restrict her movement. Her emerging identity as a self-actualized woman and artist is the film’s central theme. Though the broader context of contemporary Iran is missing from Going up the Stairs, an educator might supplement the film with readings on post-revolutionary and contemporary Iran in a classroom setting.2
1 See, for example, Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad, Jane I. Smith, and Kathleen M. Moore, eds., Muslim Women in America: The Challenge of Islamic Identity Today (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006) and Maria M. Ebrahimji and Zahra T. Suratwala, eds., I Speak for Myself: American Women on Being Muslim (Ashland, OR: White Cloud, 2011).
2 See, for example, Mehri Honarbin-Holliday, Becoming Visible in Iran: Women in Contemporary Iranian Society (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2013); Roksana Bahramitash and Eric Hooglund, eds., Gender in Contemporary Iran: Pushing the Boundaries (London: Routledge, 2011); and Janet Afary, Sexual Politics in Modern Iran (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).