“Interrupting” the Location of Discourses Regarding Muslim Women

Azra reviewed this film for MMW back in August. In light of a recent appearance on The Colbert Report, heightened press, and an anticipated television premiere tomorrow night on PBS, we are taking a closer look at one of the film’s stars, Ameena Matthews.

The South Side of Chicago, infamous for its crime infestation, history of racial segregation, and sex districts, is home to prominent names such as Jesse Jackson, Louis Farrakhan, and now, Ameena Matthews.

Her right hand bears a colored tattoo; her head is tightly wrapped in a black sequenced scarf.  Silver lightning bolt earrings hang from her ears.  She is a portrait of strength, and she doesn’t back down—even while being amiably badgered by funny man Stephen Colbert in last Wednesday’s interview on The Colbert Report.

Matthews’ mission is clear. She is a part of a three member team known as “the interrupters”—named so because they interrupt violence—working with CeaseFire, a Chicago-based anti-violence, non-profit that uses a peer-based public health-oriented approach and conflict-mediation to stop violence in the community.

Now her work, and the work of her fellow “interrupters”, Eddie Bocanegra and Cobe Williams, is caught on film. Shot over the course of a year, the film, appropriately titled The Interrupters, follows the work of CeaseFire through these three mediators as they intervene in dangerous situations unfolding on the streets of Chicago’s South Side.

Matthews is no stranger to violence. A former gang member herself and the daughter of Jeff Fort, a notorious Chicago gang leader, she says that her trouble past gives her street cred.

Director Steve James said about filming the documentary that,

“Ultimately, [the people in the communities] trusted the interrupters and believed we were not there to vilify and judge, but to illuminate and understand.”

Matthews tells Stephen Colbert in her interview, “…I’m an interrupter in saving lives.” This is no exaggeration. Finding kids on the street engaged in situations of danger, the documentary captures the “interrupters” in the heat of the moment: wrestling a chunk of concrete from the hands of an angry teenager; intervening in a situation where two brothers are about to shoot each other; counseling a teenage girl who just came home from prison.

It’s refreshing to see a Muslim woman in the public eye, being noted for something other than her religion or choice of clothing and advocating for an issue that isn’t related to Islam or being Muslim. Azra notes this point eloquently, saying:

“While Ameena’s faith is shown as a cornerstone in her life, the film portrays the larger portrait of how Ameena’s personal background reflects in her daily work. There are no stereotypes here of the submissive Muslim woman theme—instead there are critical accolades for her and the other interrupters’ portrayals in the film.”

It is these types of broader portraits which discourage essentialist views of Muslim women and allow us to—instead of being precisely reduced and defined as a group—define ourselves as individuals while claiming “Islam” as an essential motif in our multidimensional identities.

In The Observer, British journalist Andrew Anthony says about Matthews:

“She’s so hot on film that she practically burns through the celluloid. Fearless and filled with righteous conviction, she confronts hoodlums and comforts the bereaved with such an extraordinary mixture of sense and sensitivity that you wonder why she isn’t involved in a larger scale undertaking, like running the UN or the world.”

A scene from the film displays this fearlessness and conviction perfectly as it depicts Ms. Matthews charging into a group of enraged men and women, attempting to break up a fight that has just erupted outside the CeaseFire office. Despite her petite frame and maternal demeanor, on screen she firmly admonishes gang members, marches proudly in antiviolence protests, and delicately mentors children.

The domain in which she commands makes null the subject of religion or hijab and allows people to view her as an individual, advocating a cause, acting not as a reply to hegemonic discourses, but as an individual who’s made it her life’s work to save lives.

*“The Interrupters” is set to air in the U.S. on television tomorrow evening, Tuesday, Feb. 13, from 9 to 11p.m. Eastern time on PBS’s Frontline.


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