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Arts & Culture

Library Screening: Women of Islam

The veiling of Muslim women has always intrigued the West. In recent years, with the increased media coverage of Afghanistan and Iraq, this image has become a symbol of oppression. But San Diego filmmaker Farheen Umar felt that this presented a limited view. So she made a documentary that would explore the tradition of veiling.

Umar begins her film by showing Americans pictures of Afghan women covered from head to toe in blue burkas, and then asking them to describe what they see. They often use the same words to describe the images.

WOMAN "Oppression, no sense of freedom or independence."
FARHEEN UMAR : "What is the main source of information for your opinion?"
WOMAN "Well it's probably not just these images but what I've seen and heard in the news."


These reactions concerned filmmaker Farheen Umar, who is a Muslim. She felt such images were not only influencing public opinion but also affecting U.S. foreign policy.

FARHEEN UMAR : "Fine, the images we're seeing are true in the sense that there is burka in Afghanistan but the way it was being portrayed was very misleading I just thought it was the perfect thing to take up, to make a documentary which would actually show what the veiling means in Muslim society."

Umar invested her own money and years of work to create Women of Islam:Veiling and Seclusion . In her documentary she cites religious text to see where this tradition of veiling began. She then explores what happened in the early days of Islam. She also reveals how Europeans described Muslim women when they colonized their countries the 18th and 19th century.

LETTER : "No where else have I seen Muslim women pray in public and the whole performance is immodest and disgusting... in every way inferior to the Christian women who dwell by them."
NARRATOR : "The foreign men had no access to the private dwelling of Muslim women. Their descriptions of women's lives in the Harem are all too often imaginary tales."

This letter from a British officer as well as photos of prostitutes with their faces veiled but bodies exposed, helped create stereotypes that still exist today says Umar.


FARHEEN UMAR : "I think it's the whole thing on how some stereotypes were born into the western mind seeing those pictures and reading those letters. I think that's how the west initially formed their opinions about Muslim women and the veil."

After laying out this historical background, Umar speaks with women from Iran, Pakistan, Turkey and the U.S. to create a portrait of contemporary Islam. Her objective is to show that Islam is not the same everywhere. She also suggests that the veiled woman has become a potent political symbol.

FARHEEN UMAR : "I think it's something visual and it's something so tangible and that men, both western men and Muslim men and Muslim societies, leaders in Muslim societies have used it to for their own means and purposes."

Faegheh Shirazi, an Iranian writer and professor, explains how women forced to unveil by the Shah later rebelled against that.

FAEGHEH SHIRAZI : "At the beginning of the revolution women took to streets as sign of unity with the regime of the Islamic Republic and as expression of their unhappiness with regime of Shah. As a symbolic gesture, they all adopted the veil. What little they knew at the time, that later on it would be something they would be stuck with."

Umar sees Iran as emblematic of how women are often treated.

FARHEEN UMAR : "What outrages me is when I hear people say that these women are imprisoned in their burkas and maybe they can't breath and they can't see, and if we were to go and liberate the first thing that they would do is throw off their burkas and walk about in mini skirts It's crazy because the culture isn't like that. I think it's something visual and tangible that men -- both western men and Muslim men as well as Muslim societies -- have used for their own means and purposes. We see that in Iran where 40 years earlier women were forced to uncover because the Shah felt that would be something good for the image of the country, and it would show that the country is modern. And now the leader wants the women to cover. So it's forced uncovering and then forced covering. It's really about what the men want and how they want to portray their societies rather than what the women want. Then the West has used the burka just to identify the Muslim culture and maybe just to point to a country that needs to be liberated, the women need to be liberated because they are covered and they're oppressed. So I think it's used by men a lot."

Iran and Saudi Arabia are two countries that force women to veil. But Turkey, which has a secular democracy with a 99% Muslim population, forbids federal employees and university students from veiling. Merve Kavakci, like her mother, chooses to wear a headscarf. In April of 1999, she was elected to the Turkish parliament.

MERVE KAVAKCI : "But unfortunately a few days later when I walked into Parliament with my scarf on to swear in, excuse my language, but hell broke loose and the Prime Minister pointed at me and said put that woman in her place."

She was subjected to what she calls a "political lynching" and within 11 days she was stripped of her Turkish citizenship. She now lives in Boston. Kavakci challenges western stereotypes about Muslim women. She is well educated, appears liberated and yet chooses to veil. Farheen Umar hopes that her documentary Women of Islam will help open Western eyes to the diversity that exists within the Islamic culture.

NOTE: The One Book, One San Diego campaign, initiated by KPBS, is designed to encourage all San Diegans to read the same book at the same time, and to educate and enlighten on topics and themes of concern to the community; this year's selection is Three Cups of Tea . Throughout the yearlong campaign the San Diego Public Library and KPBS will present workshops, lectures, discussion groups and television and radio programming. For a calendar of community events visit the library catalog at and click One Book,One San Diego.