Arts Listings

Contemporary Women and Islam

By Helen Rippier Wheeler Special to the Planet
Wednesday February 25, 2009 - 08:02:00 PM

Set against the backdrop of Chaharshanbe Suri, the ancient Iranian tradition that in recent years has taken the form of public protest, Fireworks Wednesday focuses on a young woman from a poor Tehran neighborhood who has been assigned to clean an apartment in another part of the city. It was released as a motion picture in 2006; the DVD is in Farsi with English subtitles.  

All of Tehran is preparing to celebrate traditional Persian New Year. Distracted by the constant fireworks, Rouhi (played by Taraneh Alidoosti) struggles on the first day of her new job. As her long, wearisome day concludes, we have encountered five Iranian women whose problems and ideas involve contemporary and perennial affairs not so remote as we might have assumed.  

Sweet and naive Rouhi is engaged to be married, but her innocence is shattered by her employers’ household. Domestic fireworks include violence, depression, gossip, and accusations of infidelity in the dispute between her new boss and his wife, Mozhde (Hedye Tehrani), while their child watches and listens. Mozhde is crazed by her suspicions—not incorrectly as it turns out (don’t assume)—that her husband is cheating with their neighbor-hairdresser, who is about to lose her apartment because of the gossip. There are subtle and not so subtle evidences of cultural and class dilemmas. For example, Mozhde’s husband is able to beat her with impunity and in public … Rouhi wears a full black chador … Mozhde’s upper-middle-class younger sister considers herself au courant in jeans, lipstick and Ugg boots but wears a concessionary small blue scarf around her head.  

My favorite Fireworks Wednesday review is by Sheila O’Malley, following screening at the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival. In contrast, alas, is Dennis Grunes’ perception: “Asghar Farhadi’s Chaharshanbe-soori is simplistic and melodramatic—yet another instance of how unrewarding cinema can be when it is plot and character driven. With all the great films coming from Iran, how does this downcast, ‘slice-of-life’ mediocrity about a housemaid’s domestic travails rank a best film festival prize?”  

How, indeed. Complex and valid, Fireworks Wednesday is well worth one’s time and attention.  

Nonie Darwish, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Ann Jones, Irshad Manji, Azar Nafisi and Deborah “Debbie” Rodriguez are some of today’s women writing from various perspectives vis-à-vis Islam.  

Upper-class Egyptian-American Nonie Darwish divides her book, Now They Call Me Infidel: Why I Renounced Jihad for America, Israel, and the War on Terror, into sections that convey her personal evolution—growing up in Cairo, living in two worlds, marriage and family dynamics, a new beginning in America, after 20 years, Jihad comes to America, Arabs for Israel, and the challenge for America. She is dismayed by the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) albeit less passionately than some, as she describes her mother’s generation in which “all girls at around age seven had to go through tahara … which literally means ‘cleanliness.’ Batta laughed while describing how for days young girls could not walk because of the pain between their legs. It did not seem to me like something to laugh about. Fortunately, my mother and much of her generation and class stopped doing this to their daughters ... However, it is still practiced in many Muslim and African countries.”  

The April 27, 2008, New York Times article, “Muslim Rebel Sisters: At Odds with Islam and Each Other,” described Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an atheist, and Irshad Manji, a practicing Muslim, as two of the most prominent and outspoken critics of what they see as “mainstream Islam.” Firm in their support for the West, feminism, reason and freedom, they have paid a price: both have been targets of death threats and have needed protection. Their approaches to Islam are strikingly different, one working outside the religion and one within. 

Controversial writer and politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s great concern is the rights of women in Islamic countries. She is a prominent critic of Islam, estranged from her father, Somali scholar, politician and revolutionary opposition leader Hirsi Magan Isse. In 2005, when Ayaan Hirsi Ali was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world, Irshad Manji, author of The Trouble with Islam: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith, wrote the commentary.  

Although her father had instructed his wife not to circumcise their child, Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s grandmother was appalled and took matters into her own hands. Her father married Ayaan off to a cousin living in Canada, but en route in 1992, she sought political asylum in the Netherlands and was later elected to the Dutch parliament. Her screenplay for Theo Van Gogh’s Submission (a short film on the mistreatment of women in Islam shows abused women with Koran texts on their bodies validating their mistreatment) led to death threats.  

Following Van Gogh’s murder by a Muslim in 2004, she lived in seclusion under the protection of Dutch authorities. She considers FGM to be the “cruel ritual [that] does not take place in all Islamic societies. But Islam demands that you enter marriage as a virgin … Female circumcision serves two purposes: the clitoris is removed in order to reduce the woman’s sexuality, and the labia are sewn up in order to guarantee her virginity … ‘Circumcision’ is a term that implies that the practice is acceptable. It is not acceptable. Nor is it culturally ‘excusable.’” 

In 2006 the Free Press published Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Caged Virgin: An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam and in 2007, her autobiographical Infidel. She earned the M.A. degree from Leiden University in the Netherlands and is now a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.  

Azar Nafisi’s bestselling Reading Lolita in Tehran, published in 2003, has been translated into 32 languages and is available in large print, DVD and spoken CD. Its subtitle—“A memoir in books”—alludes to books of Western literature forbidden by the new regime. Almost as well known as Vladimir Nabokov’s erotic “Lolita” love story and his nymphet hero, both Lolitas have provoked numerous analyses and spin-off titles, for example, The Lolita Effect: Why the Media Sexualize Yung Girls and What You Can Do About It and The Long Island Lolita Story.  

Dr. Nafisi’s mother, Nezhat Nafisi, was among the first women elected to the Iranian parliament, and her father was a former mayor of Tehran. In 1981 she was expelled from the University of Tehran for refusing to wear the Islamic veil. She resumed teaching in 1987, but resigned her post as an English literature professor in 1995. For the next two years until she left Iran, she gathered seven former students at her house Thursday mornings to read and discuss. In this forum they learned to speak freely, not only about English and American literature but also about the social, political and cultural realities of living under Islamic rule. Unaccustomed to being asked to speak their minds, these young women opened up and conversed about themselves as well as the novels they were reading.  

Things I’ve Been Silent About: Memories is her second memoir. Published in 2008, it is illustrated and already available in audio and large print editions. Nafisi is a visiting fellow and lecturer at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. 

I first encountered writer-photographer Ann Jones on C-Span2’s Book-TV. She has been a lifelong activist for civil rights, peace and women’s rights. Her books about her research on these issues in Afghanistan, Liberia, Sierra Leone and the Ivory Coast have won awards. Jones grew up in Wisconsin and earned a Ph.D. in literature and history at the University of Wisconsin. Teaching at a black college in the South, she found students getting shortchanged and wrote her first book of advocacy, Uncle Tom’s Campus. She followed with a series of books about women and violence, culminating in Next Time, She’ll Be Dead. 

Kabul in Winter: Life Without Peace in Afghanistan, published in 2006, is Jones’ account of working among impoverished widows, retraining Kabul’s long-silenced English teachers, and investigating the women’s prison. Soon after the bombing ceased, she set out for Kabul to bring help where her own country had brought destruction. She entered a large community of female outcasts: runaway child brides, pariah prostitutes, cast-off wives, rape victims. From what she heard in the streets and markets, the Afghan view of the supposed benefits brought by the fall of the Taliban is that regarding women as less than human is still the norm. 

Her online biography includes a Kabul photo gallery. She is working with the International Rescue Committee on a special project of the Gender-Based Violence Unit, encouraging women through photography to document their lives and speak up for change.  

Michigan mother and beautician Debbie Rodriguez brought a feminine perspective to life in Kabul. In Kabul Beauty School, she reported that she wondered how she could be useful after the fall of the Taliban. The idea of starting a modern beauty academy dawned—students could learn a marketable skill while enjoying social intercourse with other women, and Westerners could get, and pay for, salon-type treatment. 

While not acknowledging the sexism inherent in the requirement that the bride’s virginity be confirmed for everyone, she did find notable removal of all hair of both bride and groom. Her book made the New York Times bestseller list. As Kabul Beauty School concluded, she was the school’s director and owner of the Oasis Salon and a Coffee House, residing in Kabul with her Afghan warlord husband, seemingly unfazed by the discovery that he already had at least one wife. In 2007 National Public Radio reported that Sony Pictures was planning a movie of the book, with Sandra Bullock playing the lead.  

Rodriguez has been referred to variously as a flamboyant beautician and an eccentric mother of two. Initially, the New York Times considered her book “a rollicking story,” but subsequently reported that Rodriguez “used to direct the Kabul Beauty School.” Six women have disputed parts of her book, said to have caused outrage in Afghanistan, where websites have revealed the salon girls’ true identities and they have been denounced as prostitutes who have soiled the reputation of Afghan womanhood. Sisterhood could be powerful. 



Now They Call Me Infidel: Why I Rejected Jihad for America, Israel, and the War on Terror,  

by Nonie Darwish. 2006.  


Fireworks Wednesday (videorecording), by Asghar Farhadi and Mani Haghighi. Produced by Jamal Sadatian for Boshra Films and Dreamlab. 104 minutes. 2008. 


The Caged Virgin: An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. 2006. 


Submission, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. 10-minute film in English directed by Theo van Gogh, shown on the Dutch public broadcasting network (VPRO) Aug. 29, 2004.  


Kabul in Winter: Life Without Peace in Afghanistan, by Ann Jones. 2006.  


The Trouble with Islam: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in her Faith, by Irshad Manji. 2004. 


Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, by Azar Nafisi. 2003.  


Things I’ve Been Silent About: Memories, by Azar Nafisi. 2008. 


Kabul Beauty School : An American Woman Goes Behind the Veil, by Deborah Rodriguez. 2007.  


These works, with the exception of Submission, are in-print and/or in the collections of the Alameda County and Contra Costa County Libraries.