Mar 28, 2017
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The Tainted Veil: New Abu Dhabi Doc
by Doniphan Blair
The Moroccan scholar Fatima Mernissi typified the highly -romantic and -educated Muslim feminists of the 1960s, although her mother was in a harem and she grew up there. photo: courtesy F. Mernissi
DEDICATION: FATIMA MERNISSI
The brilliant Moroccan doyenne of Islamic scholarship Fatima Mernissi (1940-2015) graduated from the Sorbonne and Brandeis, wrote the groundbreaking “The Veil and the Male Elite” (1987), and remained optimistic about Muslim feminism and democracy.
How has a small piece of cloth come to mean so much?
The kerchief used to be a fairly common fashion accessory. Check out actress Grace Kelly in the ‘60s, a point made early in “The Tainted Veil”, the insightful new documentary from Abu Dhabi, see
Indeed, French women frequently used both kerchiefs or regular veils in mourning or old age, and some still do when getting married or becoming nuns. Alas, even the symbolic veiling of the “hijab,” which covers just the hair, has become an intolerable religious icon to France’s secular society and is prohibited in schools.
Conversely, many women and men of the Muslim faith see the hijab not only as mandated by “The Koran” and part of their cultural duty but stunningly beautiful and romantic.
“I feel the woman is like a pearl and the hijab is the shell that protects them from the outside,” notes a woman so vested in “The Tainted Veil”. In fact, the hijab is supposed to show that she is saving the fullness of that protected pearl for her beloved.
“The Tainted Veil” is unique in that it consists of mostly Middle Easterners, generally lay women and male scholars, speaking for themselves. In addition, it is directed by a threesome, providing an interesting mix of gender and points of view.
The only woman, Nahla Al Fahad, is a well-known commercial, music video and documentary maker out of Dubai. Completely progressive and modern in outlook, she told me by overseas phone that, although she wears the hijab, the team was scrupulously dedicated to a wide-angled and balanced perspective.
One of the directors of 'The Tainted Veil', the talented commercial and doc maker Nahla Al Fahad. photo: courtesy N. Al Fahad
Al Fahad met her partner directors in the vibrant media and art scene of the capital of the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi.
Ovidio Salazar, who also shot most of the film, is from Los Angeles. After following an interest in Sufism to studying Arabic and Islamic Studies in England, he moved to Abu Dhabi, where he produced the BBC series "Faces of Islam" and filmed the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca (twice), among other projects.
The third director, Mr. Mazen Al Khayrat, is a well-known documentary maker from Syria, where much of the movie was shot before the tragic outbreak of civil war in 2011. This makes “The Tainted Veil” a unique glimpse into the mixed culture, replete with many secularists as well as Sunni, Shi’a and Christians, that once was Syria.
Veiling “is a matter of freedom and choice, having nothing to do with men, society, or anti-progressiveness,” according to the film’s press package. “This simple perspective is lost in all the complexity of religion and politics.”
Although that may be true among some Muslim women, the film itself belies more radical views. “I believe the hijab is a pretension, a cover up,” according to one woman, who appears early in the film wearing a kerchief-like hijab.
Indeed, the film skews liberal, starting with its title. Evidently, even as Abu Dhabi’s media market expands, front stage decorum remains essential. Even as the arts introduce new ideas, it is still recommended to follow the tradition of the Arab poets, who used words with multiple meanings to tell more sophisticated secondary stories.
Perhaps this is no surprise, given its executive producer is Alyazia Bint Nahyan, an internationally exhibited painter turned mediamaker in 2007. Her company, Anasy Media, has already produced respected television movies like, “Home of History, Futures’ Nation”, and cultural events, like an international documentary award.
The outspoken 'star' of 'The Tainted Veil' in a shot reflecting the complexity of the subject. photo: courtesy Al Fahad, Salazar & Al Khayrat
“If you gave freedom to 75% of veiled girls, they wouldn’t wear the hijab,” continues the kerchiefed woman, who is also given prominence at the end of “The Tainted Veil”. “It is a pretension, a statement that I am a modest person.”
In point of fact, “The Koran” tells women “to draw their veils over their bosom,” (Sura 24:31)—not their hair, face or entire body, in an obvious reference to pre -patriarchal or -monotheist female fashion in Arabia. To be sure, Muhammad’s wives veiled their faces but that was only as a courtesy to male devotees, with whom they lived in close quarters, to save them the sacrilege of coming on to the prophet’s wives.
According to the monumental Moroccan scholar Fatima Mernissi, who just died on November 30, 2015, the practice of veiling didn’t start becoming custom until four centuries after Muhammad. Indeed, its theology had to be borrowed from other cultures and refashioned for Muslims from a minor “hadith” (sayings of the prophet), which concerned how the ever-polite Muhammad curtained off his wives’ quarters when rude male guests overstayed their visit.
“Violence against women was common during economic crisis,” explains Mernissi in “The Veil and the Male Elite” (1987). In the 11th century, Egypt’s Shi’a leader, “Al-Hakim forced women to veil and forbade mixing when irregularities in the Nile flow brought about inflation and social unrest.”
Female lust was thought to produce “fitna”, chaos in Arabic, a common theme across a region slowly emerging from matriarchal polytheism. Fitna is also the rational behind female genital mutilation (FGM).
“Almighty God created sexual desire in ten parts. Then he gave nine parts to women and one to men,” was how Ali, the Shi’a’s first patriarch, famously summarized 7th century conjugal relations—yet another well-known historical reference to earlier Arabic femaleness.
Even Al-Ghazali, the 11th century Sufi master and scholar, advocated containing femaleness, despite Sufi acceptance of female teachers, as well as students, as Mernissi details in “The Veil and the Male Elite”. Al-Ghazali’s astute, if sexist, inversion of Freudian psychology viewed women as uniquely powerful and hardly “castrated males.”
Ironically, the fundamentalists prove this point ad infinitum with their over-the-top misogyny. Why would you need to cover and micromanage women if they were, in fact, weak?
It should be noted, however, that Islamic limits on gendered contact were also, in part, a well-intentioned attempt to liberate society from rampant sexual obsession and abuse, much as the Christians introduced extreme chastity, a concept Muhammad eschewed as unnatural.
In the end, full body veiling and eye meshing are needed to completely stop the 'male gaze' (not from 'The Tainted Veil'). photo: courtesy Seherazada & entertainmentmesh.com
Alas, hiding and repression inevitably inflames desire.
Moreover, Muslim women did not adopt the veil quickly or quietly, as the historical record clearly indicates. Descendants of powerful pre-Islamic matriarchs and priestesses, they remained expert at sexual politics, beauty and fashion, determined to continue to express themselves and behave accordingly.
Indeed, women journeyed uncovered on the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca until recent centuries. Veiling only reached rural women and distant Islamic lands in the last century or two. Egypt’s world-famous belly dancers delighted attendees of Chicago’s World Fair in 1888 and their descendants were only repressed in the last two decades, with the rise of Egyptian fundamentalism.
In fact, the veil was thrown off publically, sometimes even burned, by Muslim feminists in Egypt in the 1920s. In 1923, in Afghanistan, the princess took off her veil to great astonishment at a Kabul soccer game.
Afghan women worked in the fields and attended marriage ceremonies unveiled until the mid-20th century. The Tuareg women of the Sahara only veiled for the very first time in their entire history after their conquest by modern jihadis, like in Northern Mali, 2012. The women of Baghdad continue to revere matriarchal culture to this day, according to the acclaimed Iraqi-American playwright, Heather Raffo, in her play “Nine Parts of Desire” (2003).
Ironically, men sometimes donned the veil, to facilitate their escape during war or after crime, while women found it extremely useful for clandestine sex, since the veil, often a uniform color determined by region or class, made them indistinguishable on the street. To remedy this unintended consequence, men were obliged to institute heavy penalties and chaperoning, further depleting their work force.
The Kerchiefed Girl, from 'The Tainted Veil', surveys the Syrian sea in another provocative shot symbolizing freedom. photo: courtesy Al Fahad, Salazar & Al Khayrat
As covering women failed to bring hoped-for benefits, conservative clerics decided the solution was simply to increase stringency, further limiting women’s contribution to society, even their very survival ability, when covered head-to-toe—in black— in the Middle East’s summer heat. The supposed “Islamic State” has even added gloves and anklets, which it now imposes on girls as young as toddlers (they used to be exempt from veiling until menarche).
For extramarital sex, “the guilty couple can be stoned to death,” according to Louis Dupree, the famous American anthropologist, author of the comprehensive “Afghanistan.” After living for a decade in Afghan villages, however, he witnessed a lot of clandestine trysts and not that much killing and came to "believe all the world is a matriarchy, although some societies or individuals will not accept that.”
So-called “honor killing” do occur but in varying frequency, depending on the machismo of the families involved. Indeed, immigrant Kurds in Sweden have killed their own daughters, gay Palestinians have fled to Israel and, from Morocco to Pakistan, untold numbers of women have been murdered or gone into hiding.
Nevertheless, in a testament to the universalism of basic human values, romantic love refuses to retreat.
In fact, “If you punish it you encourage it,” according to Abu Nuwas, the 9th century Baghdadi poet. Some scholars even speculate that the West’s elevated notions of romantic love originated in the Middle East and passed from Islamic Spain to the troubadours of Southern France.
"A true lover should be faithful till the end, And face life's reprobated trend,” wrote the 10th century Afghan poet Rabi'a Balkhi, IN HER OWN BLOOD, before expiring from wounds inflicted by her brother. “When you see things hideous, fancy them neat, Eat poison but taste sugar sweet."
Indeed, Rabi'a Balkhi represents only a small portion of the fantastically rich but largely unknown, in Islamic countries as well as the West, history of Muslim women, despite Professor Mernissi’s half-a-dozen books or “Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women” (1994) by the Australian journalist Geraldine Brooks.
As it happens, the filmmakers of “The Tainted Veil” chose not to delve much into this fantastic and colorful history, probably because it remains contested. Indeed, some Muslim scholars insist that “The Koran” does in fact direct women “to draw their veils over their body,” not bosom, due to disagreements in translation.
Hijabs come in amazing varieties, as this shot from 'The Tainted Veil' suggests. photo: courtesy Al Fahad, Salazar & Al Khayrat
Instead, “The Tainted Veil” focuses on what the actual women, long denied a voice, have to say, buttressing that with the opinions of the local scholars, who would be influencing them or their families.
The scholars also include some women, foreigners and converts, with Christian and Jewish clerics and academics rounding out “The Tainted Veil”’s enviable balance. Dr. Ahmed Barkaw, head of Damascus University’s philosophy department, even concludes that both the West and Islam objectify women.
Filmed over nine years, “The Tainted Veil” has dozens of women discussing the matter, often in public, which provides a feeling of open discourse. Although none of the women wear the full “nikab,” which reveals only the eyes (sometimes covered with mesh), one fascinating group, filmed in Syria around 2010, consists of a quartet of handsome women in black, full body hijabs, faces showing, flanked by two Kurdish women in jeans, blouses and long, free flowing hair. When the camera pans to the latter, we could easily be in a park in Paris or Oakland and the dialogue is very cordial.
One of the most striking discussions is between a daughter, sporting a deluxe, double-pieced and colorful hijab, and her mother who is in pants, noticeable makeup and unveiled. She tried veiling, she says, but didn’t like it since it made her look old and youth is critical to her hairstyling business.
In short, “The Tainted Veil” is a fascinating dive into a divisive subject, serving exactly what good documentaries should do. Given that the U.A.E. is one of the richest, per-capita, countries in the world, it is newsworthy they are finally getting into the media game. Aside from internationally, the Middle East is desperate for more stories, not just a few insightful pieces but thousands, to pour alternative ideas and information onto the cauldron of Middle Eastern culture.
A wall of word-based images from Walid Raad, the 47 year-old Lebanese artist, at MOMA/NY, through 1/31/2016. photo: D. Blair
Indeed, “The Tainted Veil” is a welcome contribution to a fertile fall season which also included a massive show at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, by the Lebanese artist Walid Raad, featuring photography, video and conceptual work filling not only the museum’s central, five-story atrium but an entire separate gallery. After my walk through, I found it amazingly long on Arab complexities, such as word play, triple-meanings and obscurity, and short on anti-Semitism.
Meanwhile, the film “Rahmat Islam Nusantara”, or “The Divine Grace Of East Indies Islam”, was recently released by Indonesia’s largest Muslim group, which has more than 50 million members.
"’The spread of a shallow understanding of Islam renders this situation critical,’ said Mustofa Bisri, the head of the organization. ‘Highly vocal elements within the Muslim population at large justify their harsh and often savage behavior by claiming to act in accord with God's commands, although they are grievously mistaken,’” (NY Times, 11/24/15).
"’According to the Sunni view of Islam every aspect and expression of religion should be imbued with love and compassion,’" continued Bisri, expressing what many consider to be Sufi Islamic ideas.
"I see the counter narrative as the only way that Western governments can deal with the ISIS propaganda, but there is not the strategy right now," commented Nico Prucha, of King's College London, in the same article.
Even though Egyptian film exploded across Islam in the ‘50s, the Iranians went award-winning international in the ‘70s, and the Syrians produced a lot of provocative television in the decades before the civil war, it has taken time for Gulf-based mediamakers to develop their skills.
Unfortunately, the Abu Dhabi Film Festival recently closed shop, after an eight-year run. But a Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum will open in there in 2017, with a corresponding boost to the entire "Abu Dhabi Art Explosion", as it hopefully comes to be known. Indeed, in the long run, there is no stopping the examination of fresh ideas or stimulation of greater debate through art and media.
“The Tainted Veil” opens in New York City on Friday, December 11th and hopefully will keep airing its interesting dialogues on Netflix, Hulu or Arab channels like Al Jazeera, which is headquartered 350 miles from Abu Dhabi in Qatar.
Doniphan Blair is a writer, film magazine publisher, designer and filmmaker ('
Our Holocaust Vacation
'), who can be reached
Posted on Dec 07, 2015 - 02:15 PM