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.

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