Nina Trige Andersen is a historian and freelance journalist. She is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.
ISLAM: In 2015 the Syrian–Finnish Dane Sherin Khankan decided to create a woman-lead mosque in Copenhagen. Director Marie Skovgaard has followed her struggle between individual vision and the challenge of creating a collective.
Director: Marie Skovgaard
Producer: Jesper Jack
Country: Denmark, 2019. 58 min

«Do not burn bridges» is a challenging slogan to set up for yourself when your vision is to create a woman-led mosque. Probably this would be true any place in the world but not least in Denmark, as the Syrian-Finnish Dane Sherin Khankan set her mind to do in 2015.

That there would be resistance to a mosque with female imams was predictable.

With a small crowd of (more or less) like-minded Muslims, men and women, and the donation of an apartment from a fellow traveller in the art of controversy, the Mariam Mosque became a reality in 2016. In The Reformist, director Marie Skovgaard has followed Sherin Khankan closely throughout the process, with the last recordings being from December last year.

Resistance from within and without

That there would be resistance to a mosque with female imams was predictable. On one hand there are Muslims who object to the idea that women can lead the prayer. On the other hand there are non-Muslims who object to the idea that Islam can be many things. These later include the white Danish ladies in colourful clothes and coloured hair who besiege Sherin Khankan after a conference on «radicalisation» in the Danish Parliament. They inform Khankan that while it may be true that Christians once could pose a threat to world peace, today the threat is unilaterally from Muslims.

«I don’t agree,» says Khankan quietly, impressively calm while clearly affected by the siege.

And siege is something she comes under in many contexts. From right-wing Muslim men, after having said her piece during a debate at the University of Odense, bombarding her with questions and accusations of not having sufficient knowledge of the Quran. From journalists eager to pick up on any sensation that might emerge from the project even if it means inventing facts, such as when the daily paper Politiken states that the Mariam Mosque keeps their location a secret out of fear of retaliation. «Why would they write such a thing?» Khankan wonders.

The Reformist – A Female Imam. Marie Skovgaard

Within the group of people behind the Mariam Mosque, disagreements and misunderstandings regarding theology, tactics, strategies and personal style also lurk. This becomes clear in an early scene of The Reformist. The question of gay marriage comes up and just by the facial expressions of the three board members present in the camera angle, it is more than obvious that they do not see eye to eye – and are not equally invested in the issue.

The strength and liability of devotion

While the Mariam Mosque is a project of community and congregation, the project is, for better and for worse, tied particularly to Sherin Khankan and her vision, as the title of the film and the documentary’s plot also suggest. The strength that lies in Khankan’s devotion – to the cause and to her personal beliefs and integrity – is also a liability that several times is dangerously close to making everything fall apart.

The strength that lies in Khankan’s devotion is also a liability.

She wins, she fails, she learns, she cries, she embraces – herself and others alike. She pushes some away by insisting on following her own heart, and almost pushes others away by resisting following her own heart.

The Reformist – A Female Imam. Marie Skovgaard

The Reformist is a moving portrait of a committed and determined soul, subtly fearless, who is not immune to threats or attacks, or to the positive and negative reactions of her colleagues.

Elegantly weaving together the collective and the personal, the private and the public, Marie Skovgaard has created a unique documentary about a unique project. The camera is bold and insistent without ever being indiscrete or disrespectful, and as such captures what seems to be the core of Mariam Mosque in all its, as yet, unfulfilled promises and visions.