Exploring the Voices of Female Clerics

Brigid Maher, Assistant Professor in the School of Communication at American University, recently took a journey of discovery into the worlds of three female Muslim religious leaders in Lebanon, Syria and Egypt. The result is an hour-long documentary named Veiled Voices, illuminating the challenges these three women face not only in the public sphere, but also in their private lives as wife and mother.

The subjects of the documentary are Ghina Hammoud of Lebanon, Dr. Su’ad Saleh of Egypt and Huda al-Habash of Syria. While all in the Middle East, the three women face very different battles  in religious and social environments.

Lebanese religious scholar Ghina Hammoud has been a TV personality for over 15 years – in fact, she was one of the first veiled women on television.  However, her self-founded and run Islamic Center lost many followers in the wake of her divorce. Egyptian scholar Dr. Saleh enjoys a high level of visibility in her country with her own TV show Women’s Fatawa, a call-in show in which Dr. Saleh dispenses advice based on the Shari’ah or Islamic law. In a country which has the highest number of female religious leaders and teachers, Dr. Saleh still says the patriarchal order prevents her from advancing to a higher level of leadership. Al-Habash however is introduced as an example as to what is possible if both the public and private sphere support a woman’s bid for religious leadership.

One of the most interesting aspects of the documentary is that it captures these three women at turning points in their lives: Ghina Hammoud is a recent divorcee; Dr. Saleh is a recently widowed grandmother; and al-Habash is a happily married woman preparing her daughter for university.

Producer/director Maher spoke of the unique challenges of venturing into this territory, “I really needed to gain the trust of the women I was filming and also their communities... I had to demonstrate my own knowledge of Islam to prove that I could capture the complexity of the issues on film in many, many conversations with women, men and students throughout the process of filming.”

As a non-Muslim American, one can hardly expect to dodge the political mire of making a documentary about veiled Muslim clerics. Maher agrees that it was “a delicate venture”. However, she says that being true to her sources and representing them fairly and accurately earned her much success in the Middle East and the world over.

Maher even found parallels to her own struggles as a female filmmaker in the stories of these women. “Women often have to prove themselves more than men in their areas of expertise. I have felt that pressure and the women in the documentary have [as well], but they also have moved beyond it, which I find remarkable.”

To market Veiled Voices, Maher turned to social media for the first time and reported huge success. She says that any and all exposure the film has received has been almost entirely through audience members pushing the movie on Facebook, Twitter and blogs. Maher also describes her Internet fan base as a “remarkable opportunity to connect with people all around the world.”

                                                                Sabina Giado

Sabina is a screenwriter, freelance reporter and a member of the first all-female stand-up comedy troupe in the Middle East, Funny Girls.