To Be or Not To Be (Muslim)

Deaf Sisterhood is a short documentary about Aran Slade, a 27-year-old white woman living in Birmingham, U.K., who is thinking of becoming Muslim (you can see the trailer below. For those in the U.K., it’s airing this week, on stations listed here.).  Although her family is not religious, Aran became Christian ten years ago, and is now learning about Islam, partly because her partner, Saghir, is Muslim.

As you might have guessed from the title, Aran is Deaf, and the film is almost entirely in British Sign Language, with English voice-overs and captioning. This makes it very accessible for people who are both Deaf and hearing, whether or not they understand BSL.  Funded by the British Sign Language Broadcasting Trust, the film is clearly made with Deaf people as the film’s audience and not simply as subjects to be looked at.  In other words, it didn’t make a spectacle out of Aran’s Deafness.

Through the film, Aran goes to Islamic lectures in BSL and to a Deaf Muslim conference, and meets some women who have become Muslim, as well as others who have been Muslim all their lives.  She also talks to her mother, an atheist who wants to support her but is concerned about what the rigid rules that she understands Islam to have, and to a Christian friend who questions her exploration of Islam.  Interestingly, Aran’s boyfriend is not interviewed in the film, although he is frequently discussed; Aran explains that he would like her to become Muslim, but is okay with her being Christian.  The documentary is a very open and honest look at one woman’s religious exploration, and the reactions of her friends and family are equally frank.

The image of Islam presented in the film struck me at times as odd.  Although some of the quotes that we see from the lectures that Aran attends – with the speakers talking about the need to actively work to improve society, and encouraging Deaf Muslims to talk to God in BSL, their language – are quite inspiring, other moments were confusing.  When Aran’s mother asks her about whether Muslim women are allowed to work, because Saghir’s brother had apparently said that they aren’t, Aran responds that it’s just that women in Pakistan don’t work, because they cover their faces, which makes it hard to work.  (Most women in Pakistan don’t actually cover their faces, and many women who do cover their faces, throughout the world do manage to work, so I’m not sure where this idea came from.)

In other scenes, the defining aspects of Islam seem to be all about outward practices that differ from mainstream British society.  Aran talks about being interested in Islam because she’s “interested in their culture,” a theme that comes up a few times.  One girl who had become Muslim some years earlier tells Aran that, although the first few months were hard, “I realized I didn’t need to get high or drunk to be happy.” Another tells her that “Before, I drank alcohol, I wore short skirts, I went to the pub all the time, I ate pork.  But then, when I became a Muslim, all that stopped!”  Although it’s kind of nice not to have the focus on cheesy epiphany stories about how these women came to Islam, there’s something strange about Islam being presented as simply a process of eating and dressing differently, given that there’s little else about Islam that we learn from either of these women (of course, they may have said much more than that, and it just didn’t make it into the final version of the film) But what the film shows is an Islam that is made up largely of poorly-explained rules.

Of course, no good “white girl becomes Muslim” story would be complete without something dramatic related to the headscarf.  And, oh, is it dramatic!  Around the middle of the film, Aran meets up with three scarf-wearing girls (one of whom having herself become Muslim at an earlier point), who sit her down in front of a mirror, and then cover up the mirror so that they can put a headscarf on her and surprise her with how it looks in the end.  But then, before they actually put a scarf on her, we see them putting make-up on her, because – well, actually, no one explains that part, and I’m still a bit confused.  Anyway, after a few minutes, Aran is suitably dolled up in a pretty purple scarf, and the cover is pulled off the mirror.  Aran’s first response is “That’s not me!”  This is shortly followed by “It looks good.”  She is teary and obviously emotional; the other girls seem overcome as well.  Later, she describes the moment:

It was like, is this Aran or not?  It looked like a different person.  It looked like a new person.

This moment put way too much emphasis on the hijab as the transformation, or the experience of being a Muslim woman.  Aran still knows relatively little about Islam at the point when this happens, and for this moment to have so much power (especially after such a dramatic reveal) makes it seem as if the biggest change in becoming Muslim relates to one’s outward appearance, instead of much of a religious transformation.

Of course, religious transformations come in wacky forms sometimes, and maybe there was something really spiritual going on in that moment, or maybe it’s not about an inner transformation but rather the sense of belonging to a community, which is something that Aran mentions as something attractive about Islam.  Regardless, it’s not up to me to pass judgment on the impact that this moment is or should be having for her; my complaint has more to do with the ways that it’s constructed in the first place, making this moment of “trying on” a visible Muslim identity to be such a big deal, especially given Aran’s interest in Islam because of the “culture.”  Toward the end of the film, we cut back to this scene, and one of the girls tells Aran to take a photo of herself (wearing the scarf) and send it to her boyfriend, which further eroticizes (and even possibly sexualizes) the headscarf she is wearing.

At the end of the film, Aran has been learning about Islam for several months, and has not yet decided whether to embrace it.  She talks about needing more time to figure it all out, and is candid in her reflections about how becoming Muslim is a possibility, but not something certain.  It’s an evocative ending, because it leaves the focus of the film on Aran’s learning process, rather than making this a story about how she arrived at a certain point.  There’s something powerful in being able to acknowledge and value the uncertainty, instead of being forced to make a decision one way or the other, and I think it’s a much more realistic portrayal of many people’s experiences of coming to Islam than some of the more dramatic testimonials out there.

Although this would not be the film to watch for someone who wants to know more about Islam, it is an interesting look at the often messy and contradictory process of learning about a religion, whatever the final outcome of Aran’s path may be.

  • Dina

    “Of course, religious transformations come in wacky forms sometimes, and maybe there was something really spiritual going on in that moment, or maybe it’s not about an inner transformation but rather the sense of belonging to a community, which is something that Aran mentions as something attractive about Islam. Regardless, it’s not up to me to pass judgment on the impact that this moment is or should be having for her; my complaint has more to do with the ways that it’s constructed in the first place, making this moment of “trying on” a visible Muslim identity to be such a big deal, especially given Aran’s interest in Islam because of the “culture.” Toward the end of the film, we cut back to this scene, and one of the girls tells Aran to take a photo of herself (wearing the scarf) and send it to her boyfriend, which further eroticizes (and even possibly sexualizes) the headscarf she is wearing.”

    This I find actually deeply disturbing. I have my personal objections to hijab, but when I put myself into the position of someone who believes in it and advocates it, this is wrong and disturbing on so so many levels. To put on hijab – to “modestify” yourself – and in the same step to put on makeup she has not worn before, what does this tell about the intention behind it? It sounds like a reality tv makeover, which always has the intention of renderin more ATTRACTIVE an individual. Now with hijab according to the most mainstream underlying sense while it is not meant to make a woman ugly, it certainly is meant to decrease the visibility of some of her charms. to INCREASE her charms firstly by makeup in the same step of decreasing her charms (hair, figure) seems odd and contradictory; to send the pic to her partner enhances the notion of this being about INCREASING attractivity (“marriage material”?!). How very very odd… but it goes with the “fashion” of hijab i have long noted in my community. to some hijab is not spiritual (as much as one can judge that at all), but for some it is ethnocentrist and patriotic and political, and to some it seems like pure fashion. I don’t think I like that take even if I will say if a woman feels she has to enhance her attractivity in certain ways wearing hijab to “compensate” for not showing the hair etc who is anyone else who is not wearing it to judge – so all power to her over her own appearance. Still, sense-wise i cannot help but feel these developments are kind of disturbing.

  • Krista

    @ Dina:
    I hear what you’re saying (and I was definitely disturbed by that scene), but I would also argue that there are a number of reasons why people wear hijab, and not all of them are incompatible with make-up or necessarily understand “modesty” in the same way. I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong (or my business at all) if someone wears hijab for reasons that aren’t strictly “spiritual.” I mentioned in the post, I’m hesitant to judge Aran’s intentions specifically, and I don’t want the comments here to turn into a discussion of the right and wrong reasons and ways to wear hijab. That said, the way it was presented in this film totally had a “reality TV makeover” vibe to it (especially with the make-up and the covering up of the mirror!), and I still really don’t know what to make of the fact that make-up was involved at all (if this is really about the scarf, why not keep it about the scarf?) So yes, it’s still very very weird.

  • Dina

    “I hear what you’re saying (and I was definitely disturbed by that scene), but I would also argue that there are a number of reasons why people wear hijab, and not all of them are incompatible with make-up or necessarily understand “modesty” in the same way. I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong (or my business at all) if someone wears hijab for reasons that aren’t strictly “spiritual.””

    I do not want this discussion to turn into the direction you mention at all, either – I tried to hint at that with me saying I have my problems with hijab and its gender based distinction of what is the correct way of dressing and what is not, and I absolutely believe in women should be able to dress as they wish (whether that will be not veiled, or veiled in the way they see fit for themselves).

    Also I do not believe hijab is incompatible with makeup or that the woman wearing makeup is inherently less spiritual than the one renouncing it (although I can imagine there is something very spiritual in giving up something or sacrificing something for what one believes in doing out of love for God, which can be makeup or sth else). But what I do think is that in the specific context of the “makeover” judging from the trailer and the way you describe it, it seems like the makeup is used to “make up” in the sense of embellish the protagonist. And that to me really is contradictory with hijab – to take away one eyecatching feature (hair, figure) from the public eye and enhance attractivity of other features (eyes, lips), which were not prominently showcast before. Its like a nullification of actions, they balance each other out imo. That does not make sense to me, personally.

  • http://www.muslimahmediawatch.org Krista

    Yeah, I see what you mean, in that if she wasn’t *already* wearing make-up, it’s very odd that putting on make-up becomes part of the experience of wearing hijab. To be fair, it looked like it was mostly some kind of powder they were putting on her face, and who knows, maybe she’d forgotten to put it on when she left the house that morning, and that’s why they were putting it on there? (That’s not likely, I’m just trying to figure out if there’s a less-weird explanation.) But then, if that’s the case, why show them doing it as part of that scene?

    I guess I’m still not comfortable deeming anything in particular to be “contradictory with hijab,” given that “hijab” has a ton of possible meanings, but it is certainly not *integral* to hijab either. To include it in this make-over scene, as if putting on make-up (the embellishment that you describe) is *part* of putting on hijab, is definitely problematic, especially when so much emphasis is placed on her reaction to her reflection once it’s revealed.

  • Donna

    The whole disproportionate focus on the hijab when it comes to women is disturbing. I support the rights of those who CHOOSE to wear it for any reason to do so, however, those who often scream the loudest to be allowed to wear it do not support the rights of those who choose not to do so. I think that you can be a practicing, faithful, upstanding Muslima with or without the scarf, the idea that other human being should be allowed to define for you what makes you Muslim is disturbing. Often the first thing converts are given is a scarf and abaya (this was the case for me over 20 years ago). As a new Muslim who was elated that I had finally found the answers I had been looking for I found that I was really lacking spirituality after about five years into my conversion. I had focused so heavily on learning all the rules and rituals, as this is what other Muslims often emphasize, that I realized there was a really large spiritual void. I then began my quest for a deeper connection to Allah, and quit defining myself by what I thought others wanted me to be. I also found that the real “sunnah” of the Prophet, was his character, his way of dealing with people, his compassion and mercy, his diplomacy and his humility, not what side he slept on or how he brushed his teeth, etc. Over the years it has been sad to see converts who were once so excited about their journey to Islam, leave the faith because of their disenchantment with the behavior and hypocrisy of other Muslims or their inability to “live up” to the unattainable standards set by others.