The Tainted Veil—a new documentary on the practice of veiling in Islam—is certainly not trying to set the world on fire. But it does present a multifaceted and refreshingly unresolved look at the hijab at a moment when the nature of everyday life for Muslim people in America is being scrutinized more than ever before.
As pundits who have little actual understanding or experience with Islam politicize the religion, films like The Tainted Veil offer an important opportunity to listen to those whose voices are not often heard in the partisan and profit-oriented media—namely the voices of Muslim people. Even better, dealing specifically with the issue of the hijab gives The Tainted Veil reason to speak to many Muslim women, whose voices are even more often ignored than men's.
It would be an easy criticism to say that this documentary positions its audience as the arbiters on the case of the hijab, and that in doing so The Tainted Veil favors the mindset of Westerners, many of whom believe themselves superior to Muslim women who are veiled. But The Tainted Veil anticipates that criticism and includes the perspectives of both non-Muslims who take issue with the tradition and Western and non-Western Muslim women who wear the hijab. As a result, would be hard to walk away from The Tainted Veil with a unilateral view of the contentious garment, and that is a welcome accomplishment.
Frankly, in the context of documentary filmmaking, it’s refreshing just to get to see so many multifaceted women speak at length about their ideas and identities. The filmmaking team, comprised of co-directors Nahla Al Fahad, Mazn al Khayrat, and Ovidio Salazar, talk to women of all ages and of many nationalities about their experiences with the veil, and to their credit, they find something unique in every subject, even when those subjects are presented without introduction.
For some, the choice to go veiled is born of a desire to feel close to Allah. For others, the hijab merely signals to the world how they’d like to be treated, and serves as a protective armor for the objectification that women face from men. In the film, there are non-Arab women who discuss their choice to wear the hijab, and likewise there are Arab women who discuss their choice not to wear it. For the European subjects of the film, the hijab is a marker of difference, and they talk about their feelings of alienation in the face of ignorance. For each woman the decision seems purposeful and personal, and often they present their own unique perspective on the hijab and its relationship to their particular culture.
The film does not exclude men, but where the women included for the most part are ordinary people with pursuits beyond their religion, the men who are interviewed seem chosen for their specific and varying relationships to Islam. There’s the Arab artist who refuses to paint women wearing the veil because he believes the image necessarily symbolizes oppression. There’s a cleric who advocates for the niqab. And a professor who views the history of the world’s three major monotheistic religions—Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—as a form of authoritarianism, especially against women.
Including as many perspectives as the film does, there are moments when contributors’ comments begin to contradict each other.
One moment of speciousness that stood out to me was the assertion made by one of the participants that it was the norm in the West for women to cover their heads when in public until the 1950s, a claim supported in the film by references to paintings and to photographs. This claim could just as easily be debunked with a different selection of images showing Western women who historically did not cover themselves. Likewise, another professor perhaps oversimplifies by arguing that most women do not separate their religion from the imperfect culture surrounding it.
These moments of doubt don’t discredit the film, as the diversity of informed perspectives succeeds in making every subject feel like an individual and not like a mouthpiece. As ideological disagreements become increasingly central in our ever-shrinking world, maintaining our sense of each other’s individuality is of no small importance. It might seem elementary, but as The Tainted Veil shows, religious garments are not an excuse to assume you know everything about a person.