Canadian filmmakers Zarqa Nawaz, creator of CBC’s Little Mosque on the Prairie, and Francine Zuckerman have both made groundbreaking documentaries (respectively, Me & The Mosque and Half the Kingdom) that explore the efforts of Muslim and Jewish women to reconcile deeply held religious beliefs with their desires for equal access to communal and ritual spaces.
Zuckerman and Nawaz will share a stage at Toronto’s Noor Cultural Centre on April 30 in a program entitled “Trailblazers and Troublemakers.” Their joint appearance is presented together with the exhibition Blood, Milk and Tears, an art installation created by local Muslim and Jewish women that runs until May 24 at FENTSTER, the gallery located at Makom: Creative Downtown Judaism (402 College Street).
What will you be talking about in your appearance?
Zuckerman: We’ll both be showing clips of our films and interviewing each other. We’ll be asking each other questions, sharing experiences, and then it will be up to the audience. I’m excited about our commonalities more than our differences. It’s something we need to celebrate so much more.
Are your commonalities as women, as members of an Abrahamic religion, or both?
Zuckerman: The emphasis is as women, for sure, but we’re going to be focusing on similarities on what we’ve both been up against in our religions as women.
Nawaz: The National Film Board had given me Francine’s documentary when I was making my documentary, because at that time, I was worried about how to explain something like this. What will people say? My producer said, “It’s actually not that unique. You’d be surprised.” When I saw Francine’s documentary, I was blown away, because I had no idea that the practice of putting women behind curtains and up in balconies was something others faiths also practise. For me, it was important to see that, because it’s a difficult thing to make a documentary about. You’re looking at the patriarchal practices of your community, and for me to realize it was practised elsewhere was really important. People need to be reminded that Muslims are not unique in this practice.
But in Judaism, segregating women takes place only within Orthodoxy.
Nawaz: Yes and it only takes place in some mosques. Lots of mosques don’t practise it. It was brought over here by Saudi Arabia, which is a tiny part of the Muslim world, because oil money has had a huge and undue influence on our world and we’re shaking it off now. My documentary was an example of how the actual religion doesn’t practise it and did not when Islam began. It was exacerbated by the Wahhabists in Saudi Arabia.
At the hajj [the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca], men and women pray side by side. And Muslims are aware of this. Even today, if you go to hajj, there’s no segregation. There was even an argument after the Prophet died. The Prophet himself allowed men and women to pray together. Over time, as Islam spread, the cultural practices of the curtain started. When Saudi Arabia got its oil money, it started imposing it on the community and declaring it as the only way of doing things. Their theology impacted the Muslim world in a very detrimental way, because of the intense amount of money they have. They were able to export imams. That’s what happened to our mosque in Regina. We had an imam come, and he said there was too much intermingling between men and women, and he forced the curtain. And so I wanted to make a documentary showing this was not something that has any theological validity.
Who defines theological? Who put that in there? Male scholars. When male scholars speak, they sometimes promote their own feelings and belief systems, which don’t exist sometimes.
Zuckerman: I grew up Orthodox but completely rejected my background, because I felt it wasn’t appropriate for who I am in this world right now. But I think what I learned from scholars like Norma Joseph, who has been an inspiration to me as a very open-minded Orthodox Jewish feminist, is that in Judaism, we’ve been under great illusions as to what women can and cannot do, because of who’s controlling the texts, the education and the interpretation of the texts. And that’s where I think we can find a common bond as Jews and Muslims – that we are up against some of those entrenched ideas and customs that aren’t necessarily based on Halachah, from a Jewish point of view. We are focusing on barriers, but also looking at the bigger story of our relationship to our religion as Jews and Muslims.
I have a huge problem with Muslim women bring covered up. As a feminist, it affects me at my core. I don’t know what to do with that. It makes me sad and angry. How can you put yourself through that?
Often, women who wear the hijab or niqab say they find it empowering.
Nawaz: It’s hard for me to speak for women who wear burkas and niqabs, because I don’t. They need to speak for themselves. I follow one on Twitter. I find it fascinating. It’s her right to control who sees her in her sexuality and who has access to it. I have to go with what she’s saying.
Zuckerman: I would push that a lot further. How entrenched is that? Does she also have to walk behind her husband? I have a lot of questions.
Nawaz: There is nothing in Islam that says a woman has to walk behind her husband.
Zuckerman: I know, but I see it all the time.
A true conservative might say it’s not anyone’s business what a woman wears, and we shouldn’t interfere in private lives.
Zuckerman: You’re right. Of course we shouldn’t. I want to be able to wear what I want. It just pushes those buttons. It makes me feel compelled to ask, “Are you aware of your rights? Do you really feel equal to your husband?” All those things I have fought for my whole life as a feminist. So I do have a very emotional response to it because I feel that, yes, this is what you want, but I’d love to dig deeper and really understand if that’s something that’s entrenched, or is it something that really makes you happy?
Francine, your film examined the prayer in which Jewish men thank God for not having made them a woman. Zarqa, is there anything similar in Islam?
Nawaz: We are more concerned with how men have interpreted the law to give themselves benefit. As Muslims, we feel that’s not why the religion was revealed. We believe it was revealed because there were oppressed, poor, women and slaves, and they needed rights, and those rights came out through the text. And there was a great deal of pushback because the men, the people in power, did not want them.
Are you brought together because you are both artists?
Nawaz: Both of us care about women, feminism and faith. Sometimes, the way to get through to our communities is through art. These are difficult conversations to have, particularly in conservative elements in our communities. They don’t like that light being shone on them. Sometimes, art is a gentler way of getting through to them.
Zuckerman: As a filmmaker, my work can go way beyond where I can go. If I have something to say, as I have with all my films, it can travel, and we can continue the discussion. It can go on without me there.
Do you expect Israel to come up in your discussion?
Zuckerman: It’s interesting how it’s so hard for us for that not to come into our discussions when we are finding more common ground than not. I spent a lot of time in Israel, and I know how difficult it is for us. I’m pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian, and I’m struggling with how we move on. I just am really excited to be on a panel with Zarqa, because I feel there’s so much we can celebrate in terms of our commonalities as feminists as opposed to the divisions.
Nawaz: People coming together is always a good thing. I think we need to know each other and hear each other. It always helps building peace and understanding between people. The conversation is critical, and I think this is one part of that puzzle.
Should more men be doing this?
Nawaz: They should be, but it tends to be those who have vested interest in change who are doing it. And sometimes, that’s not the men.
This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.