Islamic Feminism and Its Role in Cinema




As a film student I was aware of an increase of studies on world cinema, writings on Muslim women's agency and high profile Iranian women filmmakers scooping up awards at International film festivals, led to an assumption that there just might be an Islamic Feminist cinema practice. There appeared to be a gap in the literature on the subject of Islamic feminist cinema and therefore furthered my curiosity to explore the dynamics of an Islamic feminist cinema practice.  The reasons for my interest in this project are manifold and are based within personal, political, educational and social.  A keen interest in filmmaking is implemented to discover how the film medium might be used to challenge the Muslim woman oppressed stereotype. The main factor being able to contribute to social change in an effort to subdue xenophobia and Islamophobia, by providing an alternative perspective and approach to the representation of the Muslim woman.  On a personal note, the project offers me the opportunity to learn more about Islam, the Qur’an and various historical accounts of Muslim women in order to colour and inform my own Muslim heritage.  I am thirsty to explore how and the reasons why Muslim women are claiming their human rights along with the challenges that are to be faced, whether they be within an Islamic feminist framework or not and whether Muslim women’s agency extends toward the films made by Muslim women. 

During the preliminary stages of the project I had assumed that Islamic Feminism worked within an Islamic framework, as the title itself appeared to connote Muslim women’s agency.  Drawing from my own understanding of Islam may have formed an opinion on what I considered Islamic feminism to be, as I do not recall my initial encounter with the term.  Coming from a Muslim background I was familiar with the narratives of women role models intertwined with the Islamic faith, the argument that the arrival of Islam had emancipated women fourteen hundred years ago and discussions surrounding Islamic texts.  Furthermore, the project provided the opportunity to delve into Muslim women’s history and heritage and discover how Muslim women were reclaiming their identity in a present day context.  I wanted to share the stories of Muslim women, who were active within society and illustrate that Muslim women had a history and agency as an alternative to the frequent suppressed Muslim woman stereotype that dominated media outlets.  Therefore, I thought a possible action to reconcile the Muslim woman’s image would be to enroll the narratives of active Muslim women by ways of the film medium.  It was and is hoped that the utilisation of visual methods will reach out and engage a wider audience; thus as a consequence readdress the portrayal of Muslim women by the media and the stereotypes perceived by society.  

The hypothesis is as thus: 

In a multicultural society like Britain, to share stories and knowledge of different cultures may create an understanding amongst different racial groups that might enable a resolution to misunderstandings, prejudice and conflict. 

The above poem was featured as a pop-up on PTV channel (2009). Sabina's father extremely taken by the poem kindly noted it down. Translated into English the poem reads:

The people who are scared of knowledge and learning

How they get scared of little girls

How small they are in size and stature

They talk about the Lord in seven heavens
Who commands to gain knowledge, learning and education
Go to every town and city
Declare and announce openly
We do not want these girls
There should be no books in their hands
Nor pens in their fingers
Neither should they be able to write their name
Nor gain the knowledge of feminism
These people who get scared of these little girls
Declare from town to city
We do not want these girls
These girls who fly very high like the birds in the sky
They are going to school and places of learning and wisdom
They are in offices and they have knowledge
They have passion for knowledge and learning
These girls are shining with radiance and great morality
This is the way and this is the knowledge
This is the declaration and order of the day
Girls should attain the utmost knowledge
The people who got scared of those little girls
How little they are themselves
Go and announce in every city and square
Have hope and belief
Have hope and have faith
Bring peace, happiness and prosperity
The people who got scared of little girls


"Muslim women form a highly diverse and complex group and assumptions about them are often ill-conceived, mis-informed and grossly mis-represented.  This is often reflected in images of them, particularly in the West, as oppressed, powerless and victimised.  The voices of Muslim women, striving to keep their religious identity in Western contexts, are seriously under-represented within academic research." 
(Jawad and Benn, 2003:xiv)

In recent years there has been an interest in Islamic culture as a fundamentalist and sensationalist phenomenon.  Conceptions of Islam post 9/11 conducive to the 2006 British debate on the veil sparked by Jack Straw has led to scholarly debates on issues of representation.  Explicitly Muslim women scholar-activists discuss media coverage and western scholarship to often view the Muslim woman as an oppressed mute victim that also ‘asserts or implies that Islam itself oppresses women’ (Wadud, 2000: 1).

This study aims toward an alternative visual perspective of the oppressed Muslim woman stereotype.  The key question driving my inquiry is whether established stereotypes might be subverted, and if so in what ways and to what effects?  As such, the project draws upon Muslim women’s activist-scholarship alongside practice-as-research as a method to investigate the making of meaning regarding visual representations.  

The research sets out to determine an Islamic Feminist cinema practice and aesthetic asking: How might Islamic Feminism be described? How does theory inform the filmmaking practice and vice-versa? What filmmaking strategies would an Islamic Feminist film require? What may be understood from filmmaking techniques in this project?

As there is no scholarly investigation on Islamic Feminism as a cinematic practice the methods applied to previous studies on Muslim women’s agency are important for the practice.  Notably religious scholar Amina Wadud’s gender-sensitive readings of the Qur’an, along with sociologist Fatema Mernissi’s recovery of Muslim women’s history, and literary scholar Mohja Kahf’s critical coverage of western representations of the Muslim woman, are contemporary and key works that underpin this project theoretically.

The analysis of whether the film medium might be used to challenge and subvert mainstream images of the Muslim woman stereotype shapes and forms the aim of the study. A possible action to reconcile such images might be to enroll the narratives belonging to the Muslim woman.  Furthermore, by combining a discussion on historical and exemplary Muslim women figureheads may be used illustrate equal rights under Islam. This initial concept lays the foundation to the hypothesis that led to the creation of the project Islamic Feminism and Its Role in Cinema.

This project’s original contribution to existing knowledge is threefold:
  1. To explain Islamic Feminism. 
  2. To offer a self-reflexive approach to academic and practice-based work. 
  3. To provide a critical examination of the film produced as an audio-visual contribution to debates on gender and representation in Islam.
This research also sheds light on emerging debates in the timely field of practice-based research.  Current thinking covers the relationship between theory and practice by examining how closely intertwined they are, or whether they are to be treated as separate aspects of the research design (Smith, 2009: 1).  This project is an example of practice-as-research, for the research is to ascertain the strength and reliability of the film medium as a method in producing data and as a research practice.   

The practice uses stop-frame animation to recover a medieval historical narrative of a Muslim woman who ruled as a Sultan in India.  The aforementioned approaches of Muslim women’s activist-scholarship are integrated from preproduction through to post.  Animation provides the opportunity to work closely with art materials and film design to observe how the making of meaning may be constructed.  Controlled conditions set from the hands-on engagement with the form will be documented via a director’s audio-visual commentary on DVD, and a written thesis.
The creative practice also serves as an analysis of the film medium that reasons why a film is designed in a certain way.  A semiotic reading of signs and symbols becomes invaluable to an analysis of the mise-en-scène.  This profilmic application that encompasses the visual content staged before the camera introduces a method to interpret the construction of images.  Therefore the analysis forms a response to the aim of this study that considers whether the subversion of stereotyped images may be countered or not, and to what effects?

High Impact and Publicity

This study offers an opportunity to delve deep into history in order to recover the stories and narratives of Muslim women sitting in thrones of power and women role models intertwined with the Islamic faith.  However whilst reading scholarly works (Mernissi, 1993: 2; Walther, 1993: 4, Afkhami, 1995: 64 and Keddie, 1991: 1) a very interesting critique came to surface: Muslim women’s history has often been dismissed by mainstream media and from academic scholarship.

For what is visually lacking in the public domain this project aims to fill that gap.  By using Muslim women's activist-scholarship alongside practice-as-research provides a visual means of  recovery.  The aim is to show that there are and have been exemplary Muslim women, who have also derived their own form of agency. 

By using the film medium it is hoped that the visual practice will reach out and engage a wider audience.  Animation opens the possibility to use communication by visualising concepts that translate academic ideas beyond the written word for dissemination.  As animation is often a feature of children’s entertainment, this film may resonate with Muslim girls; for children too are subjected to racial stereotypes within cartoons:

"Muslim mothers, too, strive to shield their children. Citing scores of old motion pictures being telecast on cable systems, along with cartoons, re-runs of television dramas and sit-coms, plus newly created TV programs and TV movies-of-the-week, they fear the stereotyping has become more pervasive than ever." 
(Shaheen, 1997: 27)

This project is important because it addresses human rights and the dignity that all human beings are entitled to.  The main feature is to challenge the discrimination Muslim women are exposed to within and outside their respective communities; such as racism and Islamophobia experienced by Muslim women and, misogyny that is a byproduct of damaging patriarchal interpretations of religious texts often aligned with cultural traditions.  The film practice is an attempt to contribute to and aid social change by offering a gender-sensitive reading of history and religious texts to challenge discriminative stereotypes perceived by society at large.  Hopefully the outcome engages with audiences in an effort to defuse racial and gender prejudice. 

A Note on Muslim Women's Activist-Scholarship

One of the most significant current discussions is the status and identity of the Muslim woman in a global and contemporary context (The Islamic Feminism International Congress, 2008).  What has become recognised as the other, often referring to Muslim, female and colour is now being grappled with by academics and consideration is being given to how one might approach the subject.  As a consequence, Muslim women's activist-scholarship demystifies the portrayal of Muslim women.  These studies which tackle the enormity of the representation of Muslim women on a global scale, highlight the existence of discriminative stereotypes that concern Muslim women’s identity.  The substantial mass of literature regarding the role and identity of Muslim women, is often written by women scholars who have first hand or personal experience of Islam, who study Islam, Islamic jurisprudence and national and international laws to discuss women’s rights under Islam.  As a consequence, Muslim women’s activist-scholarship adds to, challenges and critiques previous academic discourses on the representation of Muslim women.

Afkhami, M (Ed.) (1995) Faith and Freedom – Women’s Rights in the Muslim World. London: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd.

The Islamic Feminism International Congress (2008) Congrés III [online]. [Accessed 10th February 2009]. Available from World Wide Web:

Jawad, H and T. Benn (Eds.) (2003) Muslim Women in the United Kingdom and Beyond. Boston: Brill.

Keddie, N. R (Ed.) (1991) Women in Middle Eastern History - Shifting Boundaries in Sex and Gender. London: Yale University Press. 

Mernissi,  F (1993) The Forgotten Queens of Islam. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.
Shaheen, J. G (1997) Arab and Muslim Stereortyping in American Popular Culture. Occasional Paper Series. Washington: Georgetown University.

Walther, W (1993) Women in Islam, From Medieval to Modern Times. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Wadud, A (2000) Alternative Qur’anic Interpretation and the Status of Muslim Women. In G. Webb (Ed.) Windows of Faith – Muslim Women Scholar – Activists in North America, chap. 1. New York: Syracuse University Press.