Documentary: (Un)veiled: Muslim Women Talk About Hijab

Claire Panetta – WNN Review

(Un)veiled is a new documentary that looks at the role of the hijab, or veil, in the lives of Muslim women. Through interviews with a group of women living in Dubai and excerpts from a lecture given on the topic at the University of Sharjah, the film attempts to provide a range of views relating to the veil and the practice of veiling.

Young fashion and hijab. Image: Ranoush

(WNN) Review: “(Un)veiled: Muslim Women Talk About Hijab,” by filmmaker Ines Hofmann Kanna, is a 36-minute documentary comprised of interviews with young Muslim women living in Dubai, along with excerpts from a lecture led by an American professor, Dr. Laureen Hamdan, at the University of Sharjah.

The film focuses on the role of the hijab in the lives of women and in Islam. Over the course, we see a range of perspectives in the practice of veiling, challenging the media stereotype of the monolithic Muslim woman.

In the interviews, we meet a group of women from different cultural, ethnic, and even religious backgrounds. All of the interviewees live in Dubai, but few were born or raised in the UAE. In fact, only one participant, Badriah, identifies herself as Emirati. The women, who all speak fluent English, share their experiences growing up in various countries in the ‘East,’ such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, as well as in countries in the ‘West,’ such as Switzerland and Canada.

They compare and contrast their lives abroad with their experiences living, working, and studying in Dubai. Their comments highlight their varied and divergent views on life in the Emirate. While some of the women, including Dina an Egyptian student, and Yasmin a Saudi woman, note its openness, tolerance, and modernity. Dr. Hamdan, in contrast, mentions her frustration with the very same conditions.

The interviewees talk about their relationships with Islam, which are as diverse as their ethnic backgrounds. All self-identifying as Muslim; not all of the women consider themselves to be religious. Sunny, an Iranian-American, claims that she is not religious because she was raised in a family where cultural practices were emphasized over religious ones.

Hala, an Iraqi-Canadian, notes that, while she considers herself Muslim, she does not practice. In contrast to these views, Juwayrah, a Swiss woman, and Dr. Hamdan, both of whom converted from Catholicism to Islam as adults, talk about the centrality of Islam to their lives—particularly their daily lives.

These divergent religious views are underscored by the women’s varied styles of dress; while some of the interviewees are veiled, others are unveiled.

Regardless of their choice of attire, all of the women talk with marked enthusiasm about their views on the veil. They discuss a variety of issues, including the different veiling laws and practices in their home countries and the Quranic basis for the practice. They also articulate different theories about why women veil and what it means to do so.

Susan, a Palestinian-Canadian, argues that women frequently take up the veil because of societal or familial pressure, a phenomenon that reflects the cultural differences between the ‘East’ and the ‘West.’ Manar, a British woman, concedes that she was forced to veil but asserts that she understands and agrees with her father’s request.

Similarly, Hala maintains that the niqab represents a misinterpretation of the Quran and robs a woman of her identity. Somalia, an Egyptian woman, counters this view by claiming that wearing the niqab has not hindered her participation in—or enjoyment of—life.

These interviews are intercut with excerpts from Dr. Hamdan’s lecture. Included with her talk, we learn that the University administration has actually canceled her event. Nevertheless, Dr. Hamdan is present in the audience. After identifying herself, she proceeds to speak to the students who have gathered to hear her.

As Hamdan talks about a number of issues related to the veil, including the origins of the hijab as a practice that pre-dates Islam, she asks why non-Muslim women, who are covered, are seen as pious while veiled Muslim women are seen as oppressed.

Challenging the stereotype of the veil as a symbol of subjugation, extremism and/or inequality, she argues that a Muslim woman who adopts the veil is elevated and respected. Hamdan also discusses the ongoing controversy surrounding the veil in France. Challenging the widely held view that the controversy of the veil is a recent issue, she contends that the controversy has a much longer history, dating back to the 1980s, when Muslim women around the world began to take up the veil in large numbers.

In the final scene we learn that Dr. Hamdan was fired from her job at the University. As with the cancellation of her lecture, no explanation is provided. The absence of any discussion about what happened is somewhat problematic. The filmmaker implies that the lecture was canceled because of its subject matter. This is never stated explicitly. We are never provided with any ‘voice’ from the University administration to confirm this.

Underscored by frequent shots of the Emirate included throughout, “(Un)veiled,” the women in this documentary come from diverse backgrounds. Their comments about the veil slide between the veiling practices found in Dubai and those found in the countries in which they were born/raised.

This diversity is one of the film’s primary strengths for viewers who may be unfamiliar with the range of veiling laws and practices found throughout the Islamic world. A shifting between cultural contexts works to blur the boundaries between law and practice in the documentary.

The most significant criticism I have in this film is its use of the veil as the primary lens to get at some deeper understanding of what it means to be a Muslim woman. Filmmaker, Ines Hofmann Kanna, privileges the veil as the source of a Muslim woman’s identity, implying that by discussing the hijab we will be able to gain critical insight into the interviewees’ lives and identities.

It is worth noting here that the film fails to distinguish between the different kinds of veiling that are practiced by Muslim women: the hijab, the niqab, the sheyla, and the abaya all represent different forms of Islamic dress for women. Even the title of the film plays on this and suggests that by exploring the role of the veil in these women’s lives they will somehow be unveiled for us.

There is no exploration of Muslim identity beyond the veil and the implication here is that one cannot be religious without being veiled. Recent research has now moved forward and reflects a new understanding of the veil as representing only one facet of what it now means to be a Muslim woman.

Although the film is short, Hofmann Kanna does a good job letting the women speak and juxtaposing their divergent perspectives. As a result, the women’s voices really stand out and their individual views are clearly articulated. This documentary is effective in presenting viewers with a range of interpretations of both Islam and the purpose of the veil.

In a time when Western media depicts Islam, especially Muslim women, as monolithic and beset by backwardness, the women in the documentary film (Un)veiled show the diverse, lively, argumentative debates happening in Muslim societies today about the meanings of modernity, emancipation, and feminism. Filmmaker, Ines Hofmann Kanna, shows the complex face of contemporary Arab society today in Dubai, UAE (United Arab Emirates). This film trailer is distributed by Documentary Educational Resources. To purchase the film:

Reviewer, Claire Panetta, has an M.A. in Anthropology from Columbia University, N.Y., and is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York. She has studied Arabic in the U.S. and Egypt, and was the rapporteur for the Columbia University Seminar on Iranian Studies from 2007-2008.  From 2008-2010, Panetta also held a fellowship at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad in Cairo.

Panetta, Claire, 2011 Review of (Un)veiled: Muslim Women Talk About Hijab. Anthropology Review Database, January 12, 2011.

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