RIYADH, 21 April 2005 — The film “Women Without Shadows,” produced and directed by Haifa Al-Mansour, was shown privately in Jeddah at the French Consulate last week. Reaction was mixed and ranged from outright objection to sincere empathy. The film dealt with the issue of whether it is necessary for women to cover their faces in public in order to comply with Islamic teachings.
Born in the Eastern Province, Haifa Al-Mansour studied English literature at the American University in Cairo. She then became a filmmaker and her film, “The Only Way Around,” has won prizes in the United Arab Emirates and also in Holland.
Regarding the film’s being shown privately, Al-Mansour commented, “I’m not ashamed of my work. I’m trying to reach our society and that was the only venue I was offered.”
She noted a statement by Sheikh Ayed Al-Qarni, a well-known Saudi religious scholar who said, “The basics of Islam never change, regardless of the era you live in but branch issues have a tendency to change with time.”
Many Saudis — most of whom have not seen the film and have only media reports to rely upon — have praised Al-Mansour for encouraging discussion and raising issues that have been traditionally considered taboo.
Dalah, an English teacher in Riyadh, said: “Modesty is what should dictate our dress. Islamic dress is not confined to a certain form or color; it differs enormously from culture to culture. Even in Saudi Arabia, there are regional differences with some women living with stricter practices than others.”
Hind, a 21 year-old married woman, stated, “There are many strict laws which serve no purpose other than to make women suffer.”
In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Al-Mansour said: “This film illustrates the social changes taking place in the Kingdom with particular emphasis on those concerning women. The object of the film is to raise awareness and encourage women to take action and change certain things.”
Although she has not seen the film, university student Nada expressed her full support and congratulated the director for presenting the subject and encouraging women to express their opinions. “The message conveyed is great, especially at a time when many women look hideous when they try to comply with what they perceive as true Islam.”
Fatima made another point. “We need to be clear about the real purpose of ‘hijab’ and differentiate what is our culture and what are Islamic rules.”
Many who disagree with the Al-Mansour believe that the film doesn’t reflect reality; others are angered by Al-Mansour’s lack of knowledge about Islam. Norah, an Islamic culture teacher, asked, “What gives her the right to pass judgment on such matters? She isn’t an Islamic scholar; she’s a film director!”
Suleiman, a Saudi man, agrees with Norah. “I would advise the director to leave such sensitive issues to qualified individuals in order to prevent our children becoming infected with doubt about our religion.” He accused Al-Mansour of projecting her own perceptions of Islam on the public at large and is concerned about how damaging this might be.
Al-Mansour answered some of her critics by saying, “I didn’t try to force my personal opinion on the public or influence the public in any way. I simply wanted to convey the experiences and opinions of many women here in the Kingdom.”
Al-Qarni Retracts Statement on Hijab
Sheikh Ayed Al-Qarni has retracted an earlier statement in which he said the hijab was the covering of hair, not face. He once again fell in line with the rest of the scholars in the Kingdom with regard to the need for women to cover their face in public.
In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, he explained that his original statement was meant for a French audience. “I regret that my remarks have been misconstrued and caused such distress,” he said.
This is not the first time that a statement by Sheikh Al-Qarni stirred controversy. In a newspaper interview in January 2004, he supported women driving saying there was nothing in Islam that prevents a woman from driving. He said he preferred a woman to drive her car herself rather than being driven by a stranger without a legal escort.
His remarks were reported in Arab News and other dailies. Two weeks later he denied it. “What I meant was that the issue is not related to the basics of our religion. It is a subsidiary issue,” he told Al-Madinah newspaper.