A few decades ago, many Muslim countries went through a period of secularization. That was when women took off their veils and began having public functions and visible social lives. Two generations later, women are leaving behind their grandmother’s and mother’s fights for gender equality and human rights, embracing Islam more strongly than before, and wear the veil as a sign of identity. They do it by choice or because of social pressure.

For the contemporary Muslim woman, old models might give a sense of identity. But the society she belongs to often finds answers for its social problems by reinterpreting and re-enacting those old models. This leaves space for abuse and on many occasions she is treated as a second-class citizen. So many contemporary Arab women are now divided   between religion and personal ambition, between old customs and modern aspirations in a constant search for a sustainable identity. I believe that she’s not a victim and doesn’t need any special protection. She needs to have the time, space and strength to decide by herself who she wants to be.

The documentaries discussed below portray this Arab woman, in search of herself, rejecting oppression as tradition and also rejecting the artificial line between belief and public life. This woman needs to be seen and heard and these films raise some relevant questions about her quest.

The Light in Her Eyes tells the story of Houda al-Habash. She founded a Qur’an school for girls in Damascus when she was only 17. But that’s not all. Houba doesn’t only teach the Qur’an, she also gives her students a sense of freedom. She teaches them that they don’t have to choose between living a life according to Islam and having their personal ideals. Her words touch upon a part of the Qur’an that is often ignored or altered in Muslim societies: women’s rights.

The film was directed by Julia Meltzer and Laura Nix before the recent uprising in Syria. We see Houda in the Mosque with her students, telling them that the Qur’an does not require them to cover their faces and that a woman can be president if she wants. She encourages them to study, to work, to have public lives. “Muslims themselves, they deprived women of everything. Even the right to learn. This is ignorance, which has nothing to do with religion. ” she says.

But her teachings do not suggest a step away from having a family, from being a wife and a mother. Houda al-Habash is a full role model and she embodies everything she teaches. She’s not only a preacher but also a family woman, she takes care of her husband and their two children. Her own daughter is a modern young Arab girl. Enas wears the hijab, she is highly educated, speaks fluent English and she is about to go study abroad. Religion is essential to her life and at the same time she lives her life in the modern world. “The society in which we live is changing. How is Islam helping us adapt to this society?” she asks.

The Light in Her Eyes
The Light in Her Eyes

This documentary tells a different story from Damascus. “A city that has always been full of different cultures and religions. Lately conservationism is fashionable again. You see more and more headscarves, unlike what my mother and grandmother used to wear” the narrator explains at the very beginning. This film is about Manal, a young wife and mother of two who quit her job after having children. She misses her old role and says working gave her a sense of being part of something bigger and contributing to society.

Manal comes from a family that encouraged her to take sewin lessons instead of computer classes, a family that considered Manal’s primary purpose to become a housewife. She now decides to look for a job again, but the search is difficult and she is without support from her husband and family. The film makes a parallel between Manal’s life and the Middle Eastern version of Barbie, called Fulla. The doll is an ideal projection of all conservative Muslim values a woman is expected to have. Director Diana El Jeiroudi wonders if this ideal doll really reflects the modern Arab woman.

What strikes me about this film is not the doll parallel but a parallel that I saw between Manal’s story and the life of American women in the 50’s and 60’s. The life of women that also rejected their mother’s and grandmother’s fight for equality, the right to vote, and decided that a woman is meant for homemaking. These suburban wives seemed to have everything, perfect husbands, great houses and wonderful children, but the world inside their perfect houses was just too small. Many of them experienced anxiety and felt unfulfilled but didn’t dare to say anything about being unhappy to avoid being considered “unfeminine”. This parallel was striking as Manal visibly did not fit the reduced role of housewife. This contemporary Arab mother couldn’t help feeling the anxiety inherent in the question “is this it?”.

The title says it all: The Boxing Girls of Kabul tells the story of three girls who dare to do something very dangerous in a country like Afghanistan. They box, and not just for fun; they aim to become champions. Shahala Linkandary and the two sisters Sadaf and Sahabnab Rahimi are being trained in a sports hall without proper equipment and without a ring. The coach, Sabir Sharifi, is an ex-champ who in 1984 was about to represent Afghanistan at the Olympics in Los Angeles. But then Russia invaded and he never left. What is surprising is not that these girls want to do something new and do it well, but the strength they have in following their dream. In the first interviews their eyes sparkle as they talk about boxing and they all aim to win medals.

The film shows the violence that society is capable of when someone breaks the pattern and does something so unusual. Afghanistan used to be a secularized and flourishing country. Now it is dangerous for women to go out by themselves. Many of them don’t go to school. Shahala’s brother is ashamed of her and he is afraid his peers might mock him and dismiss him because of her behaviour. She is being threatened with kidnapping and rape. Sadaf and Sahabnab’s mother is stopped in the street and asked what kind of mother she is. And coach Sabir Sharifi is also threatened in the street.

After a few lost competitions, still lacking proper equipment and with the constant harrassments and threats, two of the girls quit. Sadaf studies for exams. Shahala gets married and is expecting her first baby. But Sahabnab stays. She keeps training. She doesn’t give up.

Filmmaker Nefise Özkal Lorentzen was born in Turkey. She remembers her grandma telling her to always look for the emerald. That emerald meant justice, love and unity. For her grandma that was Islam. But looking through her own past to the present, Nefise sees that this justice has been altered when it comes to women. Her own family history contains painful testimonies to that.

Her grandma was free to say what she believed. Nefise is not. “When I criticize Islam in the Muslim world, I’m considered reform-minded and progressive. When I criticize Islam in the Western world, my words will be used by anti-immigrant and anti- Muslim groups.” Symbolically, she sends a balloon to Allah just like she used to do when she was a child, asking Allah to change the role of women in Islam.

In the documentary, Nefise combines the conservative views of a young Muslim extremist, Sheikh Mahmoud Mekki, a discussion with her mother, and the opinions of remarkable personalities like Gamal Al Banna, Nawal El Saadawi and Professor Asma Barlas. The Sheikh tells her that a woman in Islam is like a jewel, his own wife never went out of the house by herself in their six years of marriage. Mahmoud Mekki feels it is his right to desire any woman that doesn’t wear a veil and to have a second wife once he discovers the flaws of his first. He also thinks it is acceptable for a woman who leaves Islam to be killed.

After this talk, Nefise interviews author and scholar Gamal Al Banna who, at 90 years of age believes that reform is in order. He says: “The Qur’anic text came down with a purpose and that purpose was justice. So if evolution has made this text unable to achieve justice anymore, we have to change it. Because the fundament is the goal of this text, not its letters.” Qur’an reinterpreter Professor Asma Berlas questions women’s role in Islam but doesn’t want to be labeled as a feminist. “Why does this God who is neither man nor female, why does this God empower the speech of the men?” she asks.

A Balloon for Allah is a very personal film by a Muslim woman who needs to come to terms with her past, her culture and what that culture tells her she is supposed to be. “Do I need to have a religious, sexual and cultural identity? What if my identity becomes a hindrance?” Nefise asks.

Modern Times Review