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New film explores meaning of veiling for Muslim women

Wed, 18 Sep 2013

A new documentary that challenges the meaning of the veil for Muslim women will have its first public screening at the University of East Anglia next month.

The film, I Wasn't Always Dressed Like This, focuses on three Muslim women from different backgrounds living in the UK and the act of wearing the Islamic veil. They were asked to share their personal experiences and what it means for them to be a veiled women.

It comes amid continued national and international debate about veiling, which for many people is seen a symbol of fundamentalist Islam, oppression and divisiveness. Home Office minister Jeremy Browne has called for a national debate on whether wearing full face-veils in public places should be banned, while a judge in London ruled that a Muslim woman wearing a niqab must remove her veil if she gives evidence at her trial. Birmingham Metropolitan College recently dropped a ban on pupils wearing full-face veils.

In 2011 Belgium and France became the first European countries to ban the wearing of full face coverings, including the niqab and burka, in public. The move sparked protests and in July riots in a Paris suburb were triggered by police carrying out identity checks on a Muslim woman wearing a niqab. The hijab headscarf was banned in French schools in 2004 and there have been calls to extend this to universities.

I Wasn't Always Dressed Like This is produced and directed by Betty Martins, the founder of, an independent cultural organisation producing documentaries, art education and social projects. She collaborated with researchers, writers and academics working in areas related to gender, cultural memory, cultural politics, film and media.

Dr Eylem Atakav, a lecturer in film and television studies at UEA, was an academic consultant for the 30-minute film and has organised the screening on October 2.

"The key message of this documentary is that wearing the veil is about individual choice, it is a personal approach to religion," said Dr Atakav, whose research focuses on women, Islam, media and world cinema. "It is about women's empowerment and how it can free them, it is a part of their identity and life that they are proud of. The veil often has stereotypes and political implications attached to it, for example you are oppressed or you belong to certain religious groups or political parties if you wear it. But these women choose to wear the veil, it is not being forced upon them."

Ms Martins, who will take part in a Q&A session at the screening, said the film was prompted by the ongoing debate about the veil and her own preconceived ideas about it.

"Living in the UK it felt strange having so many women around me covering their hair and faces, particularly in a place where women are generally free to express themselves," she said. "In making this film I found that Muslim women who are choosing to wear any form of veil are part of a growing phenomenon. For them it is a very personal experience and the meaning is very different to the negative one often presented in the media, in society and by politicians.

"The implications of wearing a veil vary from nation to nation and culture to culture. It is an object that has and is subjected to ideological representation from East to West - sometimes to try to impose a certain collective order, or sometimes to justify wars. There is a lack of understanding and often other people speak for these women, so I wanted to present an alternative view of the veil and those who wear it. In this film we hear first-hand about their experiences as women, discover what freedom is to them and what beauty is for them. I want people to see these women as they want to be seen, not as people would like to see them."

Ms Martins added: "These women are challenging the social order when they are deciding to cover in a place where what is acceptable is the opposite. In this context veiled women are highly visible, not invisible. This film presents the beauty held within the veil itself, with its complexities and multiple meanings, while appreciating its critical potential for understanding social, political and cultural values."

I Wasn't Always Dressed Like This is Ms Martins' third film, with previous work having been commissioned by the British Museum and the Wellcome Trust. Further information and a trailer for the film can be viewed here.

The screening takes place at 3pm on Wednesday October 2, in Lecture Theatre 3, UEA, Norwich, NR4 7TJ. The event is free and attendence can be registered here.

A screening will also take place on Thursday October 3 at the P21 Gallery in London, NW1 1JD. For further information call 020 7121 6190 or email Taking part in this event will be Afroze Zaidi-Jivraj, a postgraduate student, community volunteer and activist. She will show her photographic project on hijab-wearing Muslim women and wears the hijab herself.