She chose to fall in love but not to someone Muslim: new docufilm reveals struggles of inter-faith relationships

Sean Groth with WNN – Women News Network – WNN Interviews

"Hidden Heart" documentary film movie banner
Getting to the heart of the matter with the documentary film “Hidden Heart.” Image: Zygo Films

(WNN) London, UNITED KINGDOM, WESTERN EUROPE: Zaynab is not her name. She prefers to remain anonymous, such is the shame she still feels or, at least, believes her parents feel to this day. Zaynab is a second generation Brit; her parents are from Morocco. Zaynab’s sin, the cause of her shame and ostracism from her family and community, is that she chose to fall in love.

She chose with whom to fall in love and the man she fell in love with was not Muslim.

“One day my excuses ran out,” she says.

“That’s when I got caught. We were in Wembley Market. He bent down to kiss me and I looked up and saw my mum behind him. I stopped breathing. I think I’d rather be taken by the police.”

Zaynab’s story and others like hers, are the subject of a new documentary by filmmaker Zara Afzal. “Hidden Heart,” currently in post-production and in a crowd-funding campaign as it meets its completion, is the culmination of three years of exhaustive research and interviews with women in Zaynab’s predicament; caught between their inherited tradition and the realities of growing up in modern Britain.

“Finding women, getting women to talk about their experience was a challenge,” says Afzal. “You come across so many women who’ve gone through it; they’re out the other end, the dust has settled and they don’t want to revisit that old pain. They’re still carrying it around. And then you’ve got others who are still hiding their relationship. For them it’s just a reminder of what they’re living.”

‘Marrying out,’ for women, she says, is still taboo in Muslim circles. For men it’s a different story. Tradition in conservative circles dictates that Muslim women may only marry Muslim men. For men, however, that’s not the case.

“Most women who marry outside their faith endure a dual life; hiding their relationship and lifestyle from their family. When they’re out, they’re mixing and socializing with other people and boyfriends. Then they’ll go home and they’ll be the good Muslim girl.”

The reception to preview screenings of the documentary film “Hidden Heart,” especially within the Muslim community, has been mixed.

“I’ve had a couple of people come up to me and say ‘you’re portraying Islam in a bad light’, and I don’t think I am.And then there are others: they think it’s a fantastic project. In a personal capacity they’d love to endorse it but they’re scared of the reaction of certain groups. So it’s been quite difficult to rally support.”

The project has had enthusiastic support from a number of key organizations including The Christian Muslim Forum and British Muslims for a Secular Democracy. The film also features interviews with Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra, described as a pillar of the Muslim community and Osama Hussan of the Quilliam Foundation.

Their endorsement and participation, according to Afzal, although welcome, hasn’t always translated into financial backing, hence the decision to go down the crowd-funding route.The campaign will extend through 20 July. The purpose is to raise the money needed to complete the edit.

Despite awaiting final touches, the film has already attracted industry interest.

Afzal and Executive Producer Christo Hird have just returned from a “Works In Progress” screening at the Sheffield Documentary Festival.
“Sheffield has been a tremendous experience for Hidden Heart,” says Afzal. “The film was well received, and amongst the audience we had prominent figures from major festivals and television networks.”

Ultimately she hopes the film can be used to generate debate about the subject of interfaith/intercultural relationships within the Muslim community as well as understanding in the wider community.

“Families like to keep it quiet and I think that that needs to be addressed and understood. We need to acknowledge and understand the trials faced by these women.”

The struggle of those who ‘marry out’ is still palpable in the words and tears of Zaynab, years after her estrangement from her family.

“I could have actually had a better life,’ she says, ‘if they hadn’t made me lie. What I was doing, it was nothing so big. I was crucified for being in love.”

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Women interviewed in documentary film "Hidden Heart"
“I mustn’t tell anybody. I must keep this to myself,” says one of the women who cried during her interview in the new documentary film “Hidden Heart.” What do Muslim women go through when they get involved with inter-cultural inter-faith marriages? This important film works to answer these questions. Image: Zygo Films

In a recent one-on-one WNN – Women News Netowrk interview with documentary filmmaker Zara Afzal the topic goes deeper to explore the process for a woman documentary filmmaker as she tracks part of her own life experience in an inter-cultural relationship as she comes to know closely the struggle for Muslim women who fall in love with someone who is a member of what some family members consider to be the ‘wrong’ religion: someone who is not Muslim:

WNN – Women News Network: Thanks for sharing with us. What personal experiences brought you to making this important film?

Zara Afzal: I have been developing documentaries independently over the last 10 years, and I have always been interested in subjects to do with social anthropology and human rights. However, this particular project stemmed from my own personal experience of being second generation British Asian, born and raised in London.

I was eager to meet other women who, like myself, are in a mixed race relationship.

I wanted to discuss and explore the cultural challenges they face within their families and communities, and find out why it’s taboo – why is there shame, why is there guilt, why is it hidden?

Contrary to what some may believe, a majority of Muslim women are not covered head to toe and locked up in their family homes. I want to lend a voice to those women who have come out of the other side of it; to make an honest film based on personal statements from women who struggle to understand their heritage, faith, and place in a multicultural society.

WNN: Do you feel the battle to stop religious discrimination can be won?

Z.A.: Any form of discrimination exists from fear or a lack of understanding, or stems from personal negative experiences.

We get stuck in those emotions and we grasp on to that unbeknown, or very particular known, building barriers.

I believe the only way we can tackle issues of religious discrimination is by working on ourselves. When we can respect one another for who we are regardless of faith, race, gender and sexual orientation, the battle can be won.

The aim of the Hidden Heart story is to inspire a dialogue and understanding that cuts across cultures and belief systems, alerting people to very common, human experiences.

WNN: Your work is clearly showing how negative judgment in the UK persists. Do you feel those who take a chance to love anyone they want to love are placed in danger? If so what do you feel might be the dangers?

Z.A.: The response to Muslim women in inter-faith or inter-cultural relationships varies, depending on individual and familial circumstances. Some families will be more accepting, while others may have trouble coming to terms with such a relationship.

There have been many reports in mainstream media of forced marriages and honor killings. While mixed relationships can insight violence and intimidation against individuals, this is the extreme end of it.

In making this film, the women I spoke with in inter-cultural and inter-faith relationships felt intense shame and guilt, and were quite fearful of being ostracized by their families or put in a position where they had to choose between their lover or their parents and siblings.

When challenging the kind of life that their parents and more pious peers want them to lead, many women experience a level of stress and pressure that threatens their emotional and mental well being. By highlighting these issues in the public debate, “Hidden Heart” will hopefully inspire communities to develop useful support outlets for these women and their families.

WNN: Do you think that those who want to ban inter-cultural relationships do so because of a basic lack of education or do you think it’s caused by a fear of apostasy that may persist today as families hold on to a national religious identity that goes back generations?

Z.A.: The number of Muslims living in the West has grown substantially over the last generation.

The question of what it means to be a Western Muslim has become increasingly important to the future of the Muslim community; especially for British Muslim women who are actively seeking new ways to coexist within a Western context.

The challenges that young Muslim women face are ones that their parents’ generation never did, which adds complexity to the experience growing up Muslim and British. Many of the younger generation are caught up in an identity crisis – struggling to balance their Muslim faith, ethnic background, and the more secular, multicultural British influence they experience day to day at school and in the public sphere.

I believe apostasy isn’t the main concern here, but rather social expectations; it isn’t easy for the families either.

WNN: How does family tradition play into this?

Z.A.: There is pressure on Muslim parents from extended family and religious communities to raise their children properly, adhering to the traditions within their faith. This includes ensuring that they marry someone who is of the faith.

By not respecting the taboo against inter-faith and inter-cultural relationships, parents from a certain social standing may feel they have failed in their duty to raise their children within the faith and community. No child wants to be responsible for their parents’ failures, or be the failure.

For some, it’s just easier to conform.

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See the recent THUNDERCLAP for “Hidden Heart.” Help this film complete production and reach an international audience through the crowdsourcing page for “Hidden Heart” at Sponsume.

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Hidden Heart teaser from Dartmouth Films on Vimeo.

Hidden Heart is the work of filmmaker Zara Afzal and producer Christopher Hird (Battle for Barking, Inside the Saudi Kingdom, The End of the Line). It chronicles the lives and travails, the joys and sorrows of Muslim women who find love outside their own culture or faith. Hidden Heart is currently in production, with completion expected later in 2014.

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For more information on this topic:

Muslim Women and Higher Education: Identities, Experiences and Prospects,” European Union publications, John Moores University with University of Bristol, April 2009;

Interfaith Marriage UK: Resource Pack,” The Inter-faith Marriage Network, May 2008;

When Two Faiths – Meet Marriage, Family and Pastoral Care (UK): Ethical Principles for Ministers, Imams and other faith leaders,” Christian Muslim Forum, November 2012;

Young British South Asian Muslim Women: Identities and Marriage,” Samia Mohee Doctoral Thesis, University College London, Center for Intercultural Studies, August 2011.

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Sean Groth is a UK-based freelance writer and film maker with 20+ years of experience in London-based broadcast media. Groth is also a public speaker and activist who continues today to work on feminist issues and the rights of all women.

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