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(cover picture) Maher, Brigid
2009 Veiled Voices. Seattle: Arab Film Distribution.

Notes: DVD, 59 minutes
Reviewed 10 Jul 2011 by:
Jack David Eller <>
Community College of Denver, Denver, Colorado, USA
Medium: Film/Video
Veiled Voices reveals a world rarely documented, exploring both the public and privates lives of three Muslim women religious leaders. Each triumphs over difficult challenges as they carve out a space to lead both in Islam and in their communities.

ABSTRACT:    In an important and highly professional presentation, three modern Muslim women are portrayed making valuable contributions to Islamic law and culture in societies where, according to Western stereotypes, women are forbidden from having any public impact.

Do Muslim women really need saving? That is the question posed by Lila Abu-Lughod (2002) in reaction to the American wartime rhetoric about Islam, terrorism, and women’s rights—all of which, she argues, are often condensed into the thick symbol of the ‘veil.’ Abu-Lughod is not arguing (I think) that all is well in the Muslim world for women, but rather that the discourse of ‘saving’ implies a number of problematic assumptions about what is wrong, what needs to change, in what direction it needs to change, and who will have the privilege of doing the changing. As she writes, “When you save someone, you imply that you are saving her from something. You are also saving her to something” (788).

“Veiled Voices” is a very professional look at three modern Islamic women who follow the model of Aisha, the wife of Muhammad, much more than they follow the tenets of groups like the Taliban or al-Qaeda. Aisha taught Islam to both men and women and is ranked third in the religion among teachers of the sayings of the Prophet. The potent message is that women have not been absolutely excluded and oppressed in Islam, and the film shows definitively that women today are redefining Islam and their role in it—not just conservative/fundamentalist women or secular Westernizers but those working in mainstream of contemporary society.

Ghina Hammoud in Beirut, Lebanon founded her own Islamic center, working mostly with middle-class women. She also heads a charity that feeds needy people. In her organization she teaches theology and Islamic law, but she also has the hardest personal story. When her future husband asked her what she wanted as a marriage contract, she said “Don’t stand in the way of my calling. I want to dedicate my life to God.” He agreed, but after they married, he changed completely, hurting and hitting her. Sadly, her mother advised her to stay with him, but she eventually divorced. Now she advises women to take care of themselves, within an Islamic context. She believes that what happened to her was wrong in Islam and by any human standard, and like many divorced women in Islam she has lost custody of her children.

Dr. Su’ad Saleh is a professor of Islamic jurisprudence and media personality in Cairo, Egypt, hailing from long line of Islamic leaders. She insists that Islam strikes a balance between spiritual needs and practical needs and that it is not just about the veil for women. When it comes to gender and marital relationships, Islam teaches mutual respect, obedience, and loyalty. She also insists that it does not force a woman to marry someone she does not love. Like Hammoud, she has an outreach to Muslims, in her case in the form of her weekly television show, during which she answers questions from the public. She stresses that the present-day suppression of women goes against Muslim principle and history.

Finally, Huda al-Habash lives in Damascus, Syria where she teaches religious lessons at the mosque. She is the most orthodox about the veil, regarding veiling in public as an obligation to God that does not interfere with her work and her freedom. “A believer’s faith is not complete until she wears the veil.” (She is also seen teaching that all religions “exist to preserve five essential things for human beings,” but unfortunately the film does not mention what those five things are.) She also seems to have a successful home life, with a husband who found her teaching work attractive from the first time he met her and who continues to support her as an important religious influence as well as “an exemplary wife.”

Having introduced the three women, the second half of the film alternates between them as we see them going about their work and their lives. Hammoud travels to teach and brings students along with her, including younger and more liberal ones who do not wear the veil. Saleh, significantly, holds a position at al-Azhar University, the most important Islamic educational institution in the country which has graduated women for forty years. Indeed, Sheikh Tantawi, Grand Imam of al-Azhar and the highest religious authority in Egypt, asserts that “We welcome a woman if she is suitable as a mufti [Islamic scholar].” Both she and he agree that she is welcome to submit an application to join the Islamic Research Council, but she explains that men will not vote for a woman’s acceptance and that her candidacy received only one positive vote.

Al-Habash is a teacher too, a non-scholarly instructor in the fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence, or comprehension/interpretation of the Qur’an). According to her, Islam does not mean blind faith in tradition or simply following what everyone else believes: “My work is not based on tradition” but on Islamic law, she emphasizes. As proof, the film shows young female students discussing the virtues of disagreement and divergent opinions. Ahmad Hassoun, Grand Mufti of Syria: “When we have women muftis educating and talking to women, we prevent other flawed thoughts to enter the women’s groups or other Islamic groups.” And again, female muftis existed from the beginning of Islam. The only function they cannot perform would be leading men in prayer.

Not all women in Islam are alike, any more than all Christian or Jewish or Buddhist women are alike. Saleh defends the virtues of both working mothers and stay-at-home mothers. Al-Habash’s daughter attends a university in the U.S. and says that the Arab world should accept the best of the West while keeping the best of their own culture. However, that learning can go both ways, as her daughter discovered how little students from around the world know about Islam. The film ends where it began, with Hammoud and her dictum that “teaching is everyone’s responsibility.” The women portrayed in “Veiled Voices” are teaching Islam, but they are also teaching about Islam to the outside world—a world that desperately needs to know that Islam is a dynamic, complex, and modern cultural system. All is not perfect in the Islamic world, nor in the Western world, but, as Abu-Lughod concludes her essay, a “more productive approach” than accusing Islam of all of the evils in the world and than claiming all virtue for the West “is to ask how we might contribute to making the world a more just place…. Can we use a more egalitarian language of alliances, coalitions, and solidarity, instead of salvation?” (788). “Veiled Voices” not only suggests that we can but illustrates what that looks like.

Level/Use: Suitable for high school classes and college courses in cultural anthropology, anthropology of religion, anthropology of women/gender, and Islamic studies, as well as general audiences.


Abu-Lughod, Lila 2002 Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others. American Anthropologist 14 (3): 783-90.