What makes a woman cover her hair, or go further and cover her body and her face?
This question had preoccupied the Brazilian filmmaker Betty Martins for a long time as she walked around London, where she has lived for eight years, noticing more and more visibly Muslim women on the streets.
“Everything I knew about Muslim women was through the media, and the discourse was always negative, about oppression and backwardness. People would generally see a woman wearing a hijab and feel sorry for her, or assume she had been forced to wear it,” she says. “But at the same time, the Arab Spring was happening and Muslim women were being involved and that made me think: ‘Wait a second’. The more I started reading about it, the more I realised there were lots of very strong Muslim women. I wanted to explore that.”
Martins decided to seek out her own answers in the best way that she knew how – by turning her camera on Muslim women and hearing their explanations for covering up. The documentary film, called I Wasn’t Always Dressed Like This, follows three women of very different backgrounds talking introspectively about what led them to wear the hijab (and in one case, the niqab), but also about their personal experiences growing up that have shaped the choices that they have made today. Although the women’s names are not shared, they talk openly on camera about their feelings.
“The moment a woman puts on a headscarf, a lot of people who don’t even know her make judgements,” says Martins. “I wanted to let the women in the film represent themselves. They aren’t there to justify or convince you of their choice, they are there to talk about discovering themselves, and they do so in a way which is articulate and poetic. There is an obsession with the hijab in the West, and I wanted to go beyond that because it means very different things to different people.”
I Wasn’t Always Dressed Like This is being screened at various locations in the UK this month, including at London’s Goldsmiths College on Thursday. It’s also scheduled to be shown in Chile and Brazil.
One of the women in the film is a French convert, who knew little about Islam growing up. The second woman featured grew up in an artistic, musical family in Syria — her father was not keen for her to wear the hijab. “He said: ‘It’ll limit your choices’,” she tells the camera, smiling. The third woman, who is British and lives in London, wears a niqab. Though she was born Muslim, she knew little about religion until her late teens.
Martins is hoping to collaborate with cultural institutions globally to screen the film. She says that she wants to challenge preconceptions.
“I don’t see them as ‘Muslim’ women; I just see them as women. I hope the documentary deconstructs that sense of ‘otherness’ that has been attached to women who wear the veil,” she says. “Someone who saw it told me that before, she never agreed with the hijab. Now, after hearing the narratives in the film, she at least respected their choices as women. That is an important connection to make, and I hope the film can break down ideological baggage and lead people to understand differences.”
•For more information on I Wasn’t Always Dressed Like This, visit www.d-aep.org