- Veiled Voices
The documentary film Veiled Voices offers a glimpse into the lives of three Muslim women who serve as religious leaders in Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt. The film is composed of three segments: The first focuses on the women's past experiences and personal relationships, the second on their struggles to establish an authoritative religious and social voice in the contexts within which they are working, and the third on their hopes for the future. This last section includes interviews with their children.
Ghina Hammoud runs a women-only religious education and charity organization in a working class neighborhood of Beirut. The filmmaker focuses on a very honest discussion of Hammoud's abusive marriage, psychological breakdown, and subsequent divorce. Hammoud explains that she has had to work hard to regain her supporters following her divorce, but that her experiences have allowed her to advise and connect with other women who may be struggling with their marriages. As guaranteed by shari'a law, her husband maintains custody of their daughters, which Hammoud decries and the film implicitly critiques.
Dr. Su'ad Saleh is a religious leader in Cairo. She is currently a professor at Al-Azhar's Women's Faculty for Religious Studies and the author of more than twenty books. She is also a prominent television and radio personality, and the film includes shots of her appearances [End Page 123] on satellite-based programs. Saleh speaks to Egyptian female religious leaders' struggles to carve out niches for their work. While many women study religion, few are able to publicize their knowledge. She discusses her own struggle to gain official recognition as a muftiya (someone who can deliver religious edicts, or fatwas) through the Grand Council in Egypt. The process requires voting by an all-male board, and her application received only one vote. She has since abandoned the goal of official recognition but continues to teach classes, make television and radio appearances, and speak at conferences and seminars.
Huda Al-Habash teaches at a mosque in a middle-class neighborhood in Damascus, and her home life figures prominently in the interviews with her and her family. Her husband describes how Al-Habash travels extensively to speak at Islamic conferences and seminars. She too lacks any official recognition since the Islamic Leaders Foundation in Syria is limited to male participation.
With the exception of Saleh, the film focuses on the women's private lives rather than on their social and political work. We hear little of the women's religious opinions, except that they all believe that Islam makes space for female religious leadership. Yet while all three women serve as "religious leaders"—a term left unexplored—they each serve different communities in different ways, and the filmmaker could have addressed this. Instead, the filmmaker is devoted to exploring their marriages and relationships with their children rather than the content of their teachings. The women often appear isolated in their home communities without any collaborators (except for a few students), and there is no discussion of their own spiritual or intellectual growth. The film may have been strengthened by placing the women in conversation with one another or by showing their activities outside of their home contexts, such as attendance at international conferences.
More generally, Veiled Voices suffers from a lack of critical framing and commentary. It is unclear whether the work is intended as an observation or polemic. The narrator rarely speaks but says during the opening: "These women will surprise you…. They are not liberal or conservative but work within mainstream Arab society." This statement is replete with loaded terms, which are never unpacked, explored, or revisited. Similarly, the film never addresses its provocative title, although the filmmaker's implicit dismissal of "the veil question" is refreshing. [End Page 124]
The film's lack of critical commentary reflects its reality television-like feel. The editing is somewhat meandering and includes shots of surprised or awkward family and friends who seem unnerved by the presence of the camera. Interviews take place in kitchens, car rides, hallways, and doorways. However, the...