Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Letters from Egypt: Interview with Brigid Maher

As posted previously, I had the chance to interview Brigid Maher, director of Veiled Voices, a documentary focusing on the lives of three women and their struggle to be religious leaders in the Muslim world. I do want to point out that during the interview, I specifically asked if it was more difficult to interview in Egypt as I’ve been told repeatedly that 10 years ago, Egypt was much more liberal as opposed today (you can compare between movies 10 years ago to today’s Egyptian cinema). Maher pointed out that there is a difference in the definition between a Westerner’s idea of conservative and liberal as opposed to what perhaps an Egyptian would consider to be the definitions. I couldn’t agree more. Although I find myself classifying certain aspects of life here using the terms liberal and/or conservative, it is based upon many factors: age, location, life experience, etc.

Read the interview below and at the end are a couple of book and film suggestions with details on how you can order this documentary on Amazon.

From where did you get the inspiration for this documentary?
I’ve been doing a lot of work in the Middle East. This is my 4th Middle Eastern-focused film, [prior to this] I was teaching as a Fulbright Scholar in Lebanon. Dr. Karen Bauer was doing her dissertation research in Damascus for her PhD and a childhood friend. She had interviewed Huda and said she was absolutely remarkable. She said, “I think there might be documentary here for you to explore.” Karen came on board and advised on the film and co-produced and we explored the growing phenomenon of women religious leaders in the Middle East.

Egypt has had the longest history of Muslim women religious leaders. The women are quite varied in regards to their position in the community and how they’re recognized in Egypt as a whole.

Did you interview other women for this film?
We interviewed and documented a number of women in Egypt. Due to story constraints, I had to make the decision to follow these three women. We decided on Dr. Su’ad Saleh because of her background at Al Alzhar University and also her television show (which is aired every Monday night). I have also done a short profile on al-Alzhar. Magda Amer, a 'daiya' or caller for Islam in Cairo called Magda’s Calling and another Sheikha Stories – 5 short films having to do with the subject.

Did you attempt to interview a larger population of male Islamic religious leaders?
We did, I interviewed a Sheikh in Lebanon with Ghina’s story. It didn’t fit within her story to include it. I wanted it to have academic depth and still be accessible to the audience.

What surprised you the most while filming?
I think the candidness of the women. They were also friends to these women, shared their real problems. I found it really touching and refreshing.

The struggles the women have aren’t that different than the struggles we have in the US. We have also have very private and public struggles for empowerment and recognition. There is domestic violence in the US, there are issues of patriarchy within the US, like Huda, there are also examples of women that have positive support.

Have you faced any opposition to the documentary? If so, can you explain?
Not everyone knew what my motivation was and the subject area is controversial. As an American, non-Muslim, I sometimes had to struggle to gain their trust and that was most challenging in Egypt.

How has Veiled Voices been received thus far?
It’s been received really positively. I’ve been really touched and excited. Both by Muslims and non-Muslims.

I’ve been asked in interviews how Muslim men have received the film. We are [currently] doing a university screening tour and I was in California. A young man in the audience asked me this question. I said “I don’t know. There are Muslim men in the audience; can you give me an answer?” The young man gave double thumbs up and said ‘I think it was awesome.’

There’s sometimes a tension when dealing with religious subject matter in particular dealing with Islam. You always have to ask what the person’s agenda behind making the documentary is. I wanted to present it with a critical eye and really reveal the women’s stories so I chose 3 women very different from one another. You might identify with one more than the other, but the documentary demonstrates diversity and pluralism and a pluralism of views in Islam – that’s something that Americans don’t always recognize about Islam.
What do you see as far as the movement for women’s recognition in the Islamic world?

I think there is this movement that’s happening throughout the world now of women who are seeking more participation within and you’re seeing there’s a move for that. You have women who are working within the structures as well and I think it’s the diversity of roles that women play within and outside the religious establishment that provides the foundation for women to play a larger role.

With developments such as the Grand Mufti of Syria having Muftias, although limited to only teaching other women, this is still more than what women had before. It is a grassroots effort, but some governments have already begun investing into [women having larger roles in religious societies]. Some governments are engaging, and then there are also some grassroots efforts which can point to the fact that this is going to continue to grow.

Looking to obtain a copy of Veiled Voices? It will soon be available on Amazon, just follow this link.

Also, we're interested in getting a screening here in Cairo. I will post further information on any updates as I receive them.

Suggestions for further learning on this subject:

Class of 2006 – Documentary that goes to Morocco to an imam academy holding a graduation ceremony with 50 women alongside the usual male-only ceremony.

Politics of Piety by Saba Mahmood analyzes Islamist cultural politics “though an ethnography of a thriving, grassroots women’s piety movement in the mosques of Cairo.”

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