International: Hirsi Ali's film - a review of its contents

Fahima Sahabdeen
WLUML does not usually carry letters from networkers on its website. However, in the spirit of protecting the precious remaining space for discussion among ourselves and with a wider audience, we would like to share a letter.
This letter is from a woman who requested we publish it in our magazine (WLUML does not produce one) and so we are including it here.
WLUML upholds both the right of filmmakers such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali to comment on the status of women in Muslim contexts and the right to disagree with such representations. In the context of Submission, WLUML wholeheartedly condemns the murder of Theo van Gogh, the film's Director.

WLUML would like to point out that there are multiple interpretations by progressive scholars of the various Qur'anic verses quoted, many of which take an even more gender-sensitive approach, including a complete re-reading of Surah al-Nisa (4): verse 34. Some interpretations are of the view that wife-beating is not permitted at all, and that, as reflected in Morocco and Turkey's new family codes, maintenance of the spouses must in today's world be mutual.

I am a Muslim woman who has worked for a Muslim women’s Rights Organisation in my home-country Sri Lanka. Having also been a student of screen writing, I was pleased to have the opportunity to hear Ayaan Hirsi Ali speak and to see her controversial film Submission at the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts) on 25th November. I went with an open mind but was disappointed both with her film and in the subsequent interview following the screening. The film showed a naked woman clad in a flimsy jilbab (outer covering), standing on a prayer mat and spouting verses of the Quran that supposedly belittle women. Ms. Ali had taken verses of the Quran out of context and given her interpretation of them in a short 11 minute film. It was soon obvious to me that it was a film made by a woman with a closed mind.

Ms. Ali claimed that according to the Quran (and she quoted a part of a verse from it - Chapter 4, verse 34), men are allowed to beat their wives. The lines immediately preceding it were not mentioned. Read in context, this verse states that if the wife is guilty of lasciviousness, a husband must advise her, sleep on separate beds and then, (once his anger has abated) can he lightly tap her as a sign of his displeasure. The verse was meant to deter men from angrily beating their wives as was the norm in this society. It is also a deterrent to divorce which is allowed in Islam if all other means fail. Incidently, the wife can initiate a divorce prior to this stage if she is in any way being abused. This is the Sharia or Islamic law that Ms. Ali mentioned.

Ms. Ali then quoted from the same verse in the Quran which begins by stating that men are the protectors and guardians of women. She did not quote further (as she should have) whereby the verse qualifies this statement by giving reasons for it namely the superior physical strength of the male and that men are required to support women from their means. A woman therefore had the Right, in that day and age, to expect of her husband, all comforts in life. She fails to appreciate the fact that the Quran facilitated this Right in a century when women did not have the right to divorce in Europe. The Quran was revealed to people belonging to harsh tribal communities where women were treated as a man’s posessions. At this time, baby girls were buried and men married their own stepmothers (both abolished in the Quran) But it gave women rights - the right to govern, vote, own property, inherit, choose a partner and initiate divorce ­ long before Democracy took up this flame in Europe.

Ms. Ali carelessly commented that the Quran forces women to cover themselves and stay at home but there are many Muslim women including myself, who do neither. At the time of early Islam, conditions were such that Muslim women converts were harassed by non Muslim Arabs and their excuse to the Prophet of Islam was that they were ignorant of the fact that these were Muslim women. The verse was directed in this context, advising that these women wore the jilbab when they went out of the houses ‘so that they will be recognized.’ (Chapter 33, verse 59)

Typically, Ms. Ali stated only part of the verse. Muslim women may cover themselves if they wish to, for modesty and they are free to express themselves in this manner. No one need tell them if they should do so or shouldn’t, least of all Ms. Ali who is a classic example of the saying, ‘a little learning being a dangerous thing.’

Ms Ali stated that the objective of this film was to benefit Muslim women but she has clearly failed to do so. Firstly, many Muslim women are in relationships that are fulfilling. Secondly, if there is physical abuse, under Islamic Law it is a primary ground upon which a woman can instigate divorce proceedings and finally, all women married to Muslim men do not have to follow the Shariat as Muslims in the Quran are allowed to marry non Muslims.

Her film has the unproductive effect of setting back the agenda for Muslim feminists because it has strengthened fundamentalists and given them reason to justify their behavior towards women. Blaming God for a human man’s actions serves no purpose and defends the culprits, Ms. Ali has therefore performed a disservice to womankind.