The Tainted Veil is a documentary that asks vital questions for our time. What does the hijab, the veil that Muslim women use to cover their heads, mean? Is it a symbol of a paternalistic, male culture that perceives women’s sexuality to be dangerous and sinful? Is it a woman’s right to choose to express her devout religious closeness with God? Is it a socio-political statement that Muslim countries will not have their religion and culture secularized? Is it an unspoken dictum pushed by men on their women to indicate that the woman is his property only obedient to his will? Is it the blindness and occlusion of the soul, body, and mind that a Muslim woman accepts because of tradition and mores? Is it merely a statement of fashion to enhance a woman’s mystery, beauty, and allure? Is it a measure of defiance that Muslim women signal to Western men that they are not interested in being with anyone not of their religion? Is it the symbolic move to embrace the religious conservatism that is taking over the Middle East?
The Tainted Veil, directed by Ovidio Salazar, Nahia Al Fahad, and Mazen al Khayrat suggests that the hijab has many meanings based upon the country and personal beliefs of the women wearing it. Filmmakers who began in 2008, were forced to put the shooting of the film on hold during the Arab Spring. As the situation partially sorted itself out with regimes being overthrown, they resumed, then pushed through and finished as the issues about women’s identity and power in the Muslim world broke out front and center. As women’s rights issues gained a foothold for Muslim women who were denied the right to drive, to work, to be educated, there was a push to support Muslim women to express the power of their own voice and identity. In The Tainted Veil for the first time ever, women express in their own power and voice why they wear or don’t wear the hijab.
As a symbol of tremendous significance, the hijab is a powder keg: on the one hand it means oppression, on the other it means a woman’s right to choose to cover or uncover her head. But the Western media doesn’t understand the difference. To diffuse the explosive elements of hyperbole fueled by the media, the American director (Salazar), traveled to the United Kingdom, Norway, the Netherlands, France, Egypt, Denmark, Morocco, Syria, and the UAE and elsewhere. He interviewed men and women from disparate educational, cultural, national, religious, and social backgrounds. Among these were included a London martial-arts instructor, a former grand mufti from Egypt, a Danish MP, a Greek-Orthodox Bishop, women college students, academics, musicians, and average women older and younger. The opinions and viewpoints were amazing, as were the accents of the different languages spoken, all subtitled.
A strength of the film is the variety of individuals the directors interviewed and the beautiful shots of the locales where the interviews took place. A weakness of the film is that in the directors’ earnestness to represent a multitude of opinions, the documentary becomes mired in the talking-head syndrome. What would have served the filmmakers’ intent would have been to effect the history of the veil, through drawings, film clips, photographs, etc., and its significance from the past to its evolution into the attitudes of these who were interviewed. What would also have enhanced the overall understanding of how the hijab is perceived in various nations would have been to identify the nation categorically and a brief history of it, and then show the interview clips of those in that particular nation discussing why they wear it or why not. The national contrasts would have been informative and the concepts would have been more easily understood and remembered.
It would have also been extremely important to correlate the women’s opinions about the hijab related to their efforts to work, to drive, to have power, and identity in their lives with their husbands. If those who uplift the hijab as their right to be close to God, are prevented from driving, are prevented from working, and are second class citizens in their own household, then the portrait is very different from a woman who wears it to be close to God, and nevertheless enjoys all the rights of a woman of identity, power, and equality in her household. In the second example, the woman’s ability to choose is manifest. In the first example, the woman is a product of her husband and the patriarchy set up to oppress her.
Unfortunately, the documentary jumps from interview clip to interview clip. The opinions expressed from group to individual to group are haphazard and the result deadens the import of what is being said. This is a tremendous disservice to the power and themes of this film at a time when enlightenment about traditions and mores of various Muslim countries or cultural nationalities are needed more than ever.
Two vital themes did break through all of the discussion about wearing or not wearing the veil and the socio-political ramifications of what it means. Scholars pointed out that as Muslim countries realized that the freedom of the West didn’t really offer a freedom that they could participate in or identify with, they reverted to their traditions in an attempt to embrace stability and the familiar. Another theme was that as women decided to wear the hijab to embrace this stability, they felt ostracized, stared at, and alienated by those in the West, ie in the U.K. and elsewhere where they lived. Indeed, some Western countries like France have banned it altogether insisting that there be no obvious religious preference represented by clothing. The U.K. and the U.S. have not banned it. However, the time may come that to preserve the peace, the hijab may be banned because of what it may be interpreted to mean: as that which symbolically is associated with violence, subjugation and abuse of women in a repressive culture which is likewise violent toward any who do not adhere to their religious faith. It may be banned to protect the innocent wearer.
The documentary indeed points out that the associations of the veil/hijab have been tainted by media and by the guilt of those with blood on their hands who have murdered in the name of Allah, though the filmmakers never go that far to state this. That association has done a tremendous disservice to those religious Muslims who are not violent, who are loving, kind, happy, social, and enjoy having friendships with all races, creeds, and colors without bias, without discrimination with a live and let live attitude. Of those interviewed in the film, this is their attitude represented and this is who and what they are. The hijab, unfortunately, has been used by the violent to make the simple piece of cloth worn as a head covering, an example of love for God, into a symbol of hatred of “the infidel,” the antithesis of what the cloth is supposed to mean.
The debate about the hijab will continue as will its misalliance to those who do not represent closeness to God, but who embrace a closeness to death and killing. However, this film has gone a long way to opening the doors to debate. And it shines a light on a meaningful symbol in the life of that Muslim woman who has the power of her own voice and identity in the freedom to choose what she wants for herself.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00QAH7RLW [amazon template=iframe image&asin=0743289692]