What’s Love Got to Do With It? Amours Voilees’ Representations of Love and the Veil

What’s Love Got to Do With It? Amours Voilees’ Representations of Love and the Veil March 5, 2009

There’s a new Moroccan movie out that, on the surface, seems to tackle the issue of pre-marital sex in the country. They’re a dime a dozen these days, but this one is stirring up controversy like crazy. Why?

I’ll give you a hint: The name of the movie is Amours VoiléesHijab al-hob, which translates as Veiled Love in French, and The Veil of Love in Arabic.

Ta da! Once more, we have proved what is now fact: plug in the world ‘veil’ to anything, and you will immediately gain an audience:

With hints of a Moroccan-style “Sex in the City,” the film follows the lives of five young women living in Casablanca, struggling to forge meaningful relationships in a world divided between the powerful and contradictory forces of tradition and modernity.

Here’s the teaser, the trailer, and a videoclip of one of the movie’s songs. (The latter gives you the best impression of the movie, trailers not so much).

The first question I asked myself when I heard about this movie (especially since ‘The Veil’ is part and parcel of the story) was: does the director fall into the trap of eroticizing Muslim women in order to ‘sell’? The first teaser unfortunately seems do so: it features the main character taking a sensuous shower, compared with the rest of the women, who are clothed:

The covered/ uncovered phenomenon is exploited in other scenes in the trailer, where you have women wearing only towels in what seems to be a spa then contrasted with them all covered up and demure in public. The public/private personas seem contradictory, and in one movie poster (pictured below left) the veiled protagonist is looking down and seems despondent, compared to her exuberance when unveiled.

But once I started researching the movie, it became clear that—bath tub sex scenes aside—there’s a lot more to the movie than meets the eye.

The story focuses on the life of Batoul (interestingly, her name means ‘one who worships a lot’), a 28-year-old Moroccan Muslim from a conservative, middle-class family. She falls for Hamza, a man who is not interested in marriage, and she eventually succumbs to his seduction. When she is caught by her brother at a party (who is there with his girlfriend by the way, but apparently the movie dwells on that fact for only a second mirroring the double standards of society) a high-speed car chase ensues, and her brother dies in a car accident.

hijab-el-hob-2Seeing this as punishment for her sins, (is it just me or is there a message being sent across here, loud and clear?) she repents, and dons the veil (more on that in a bit). She loves God, but loves Hamza too, and eventually she goes back to him, even though he has moved on to other women. Her life gets even more complicated: she gets pregnant.

Batoul’s friends in the movie all have their own stories. One of her friends wears the veil, though she isn’t convinced it’s a religious obligation, so she can marry a religious man. Another woman, a mother of two who has been abandoned by her husband, veils in a different way—she wears a wig—so she can go out with men in relative anonymity.

I haven’t seen the movie, so I cannot critique it. But, according to one reviewer,

I don’t think the movie is in the business of denouncing immoral behavior. I think, rather, that this movie actually laments the unfair burden placed on women’s shoulders to uphold the moral fiber of society, and the constraining boundaries that this burden imposes on them. It is a story that highlights the unfairness of these boundaries, and the immense difficulty women thereby face in their efforts to pursue some kind of happiness within these constraints.

It would be silly to say that this movie is about the role the veil plays in Moroccan society. True, the veil plays a role in the movie, but the story is more about the conflict Moroccan—and by extension Arab—women face in the world they live in today. It’s the struggle these women face in reconciling the principles they’ve been brought up to cherish with their subsequent behavior, and in a greater sense how they deal with the discrepancies between what their culture dictates versus their religion.

In many Arab societies double standards prevail, spinsters are frowned upon, divorced women are viewed as loose, ‘easy’ women, and the schism between the private/ public life gets wider with every passing day. In essence, the movie tackles the issues facing all women: love, marriage, divorce, spinsterhood, sex and motherhood, all within the framework of the community and their impact on the social, political and even intellectual spheres.

Now, the veil. Let’s be frank. There’s no doubt it adds a whole new dimension to the movie, particularly because of the importance that has been placed on it in this moment of time.

The most illuminating outcome of the role the veil plays in the movie is in succeeding in showcasing a multitude of reasons for donning it, as seen with Batoul and her friends. Too often, these reasons are not considered, though they should be.

Batoul wears the veil when she goes through a period of ‘repentance,’ and she could have seen veiling as a way to ‘try and be a better Muslim.’ She could have just as easily started praying more or learning the Qur’an. Or, as a blogger comments:

Batoul’s headscarf essentially serves the same purpose as [her friend’s] wig. Religion, for the women in this movie, becomes more a kind of self-protection than it does an ideological conviction. Religion is not the boundary that confines them, it is not the force that keeps them in line. On the contrary: it is a safe ticket to transgress these boundaries. This is what Batoul’s flirtation with the veil is about. For both herself and her family, this veil provides a material and psychological ‘shield’ that makes them all feel more comfortable about the life she leads beyond the gates of her house.

And that, of course, makes some people uncomfortable: a truth they are unwilling to admit, that the veil does not necessarily a good Muslim make, and that outward religiosity may go hand in hand with hypocrisy.

An article in TelQuel reports:

Less than two weeks before the official release of the film, Abdelbari Zemzmi, member of Party of Renaissance and Virtue, had openly called for its boycott. His reason? “The film gives a very poor image of veiled women. It could have a bad influence on their behavior.” As for Abdelilah Benkirane, general secretary of the Party of Justice and Development, he simply told the news channel France 24 that the [film] is a “Zionist influence,” and it represents “an obstacle to the spread of Islam.”

A two and a half minute report from Al Jazeera, which paints the debate as “religion vs. freedom of expression”, tells us that those who called for banning the movie did so because it “promotes promiscuity and tarnishes the image of the veiled woman by spreading the idea that veiling is superficial and is not based on a religious foundation.” The director, Aziz Salmy, responded by saying he did no more that transmit the picture of the contradictions in Moroccan society and stated: “I challenge anyone to say this does not happen in Morocco and other [Arab] countries.”

Sheikh Mostafa bin Hamza (found him on YouTube) goes on to say:

The directors are trying to engender suspicion in anything that will promote modesty. They are looking for corruption in the body of the veiled women. Why look for corruption in the homes of the believers? True, not every woman is virtuous. But why focus on the minority and not the majority? Why are you making the minority speak for the majority? Aren’t virtuous women part of the reality?

Zemzi, who is also a sheikh, critiques the movie in a 10 minute audio clip, also asking why the focus has to be on the veiled woman. He also asks why the movie has to show her as sinning extensively—not only having sex with a man who is not her husband, but doing so during Ramadan as the call to prayer sounds.

I agree that focusing on the minority may make it seem like they represent the majority, especially when the audience is unaware of the society. I would have liked for at least one of the women portrayed in the movie to have been wearing the veil out of religious conviction, to at least provide a balanced view.

But there’s no denying that the movie showcases some truths. We have become so hypersensitive to how we are represented that we cannot see the reality. In Egypt, for example, boob-and-butt videoclips are the overwhelming majority, and barely anyone comments on them anymore. But when a singer came out a couple of years ago with one of the tamest videoclips ever—him just singing to a girl on a bridge—all of Egypt went up in arms. Why? Because the girl was veiled. Conveniently, everyone forgot that the same bridge the singer filmed at is frequented by dozens of couples every day, and most of those women walking hand in hand with their boyfriends are veiled.

True, airing out dirty laundry is frowned upon, but it’s no use pretending it doesn’t exist, because it does. And what if it’s already in the public sphere and not hidden in the private? Wanting to portray the veiled woman as a saint and trying to fit her into a mold does more harm than good, and is unrealistic. We are human, and we all have the potential to err. True, the veil immediately sends out as sign proclaiming the wearer is a Muslim, but that doesn’t mean her actions need to be attributed to her religion—just to her. And that, at least, the film does: it does not critique the religion, but its followers (if that).

In the videoclip of one of the movie’s songs we see Batoul putting on and taking off the veil—the former perhaps when she feels it protects her/ helps her struggle to be ‘better’ and the latter when she’s ashamed of herself. A powerful reminder that the veil is imbued with the meanings the wearer herself wants it to convey.

It’s especially valid in Morocco and in similar countries, where the veil often becomes a cultural phenomenon. An article in Al-Jazeera points out:

The film was the product of the directors’ environment. […] The “veil” is the background to the film since it has multiple dimensions, however, it is not necessarily linked to the purely religious dimension. Not every woman is aware of its [religious] purpose, therefore they differed in the forms of ornamenting themselves with it. This is the first film where the Moroccan accessory of the “handkerchief” is a dramatic central element which manifests itself in the title, especially when associated with a deep sense of human love.

The veil is not always about religion, and we have to accept that, just like we try and get others to accept that not every veiled woman is oppressed.

And in the end, we have to think of the result of a movie like this. Yes, it can sensationalize, worsen some people’s perceptions of veiled women, and some may come out of the movie thinking Muslims are hypocrites, but it can also give other people more insight into the complexity of Muslims, and more understanding of the veil, and how it means different things to different women. Things are not always so black and white.

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