The veil as a symbol in cinema

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The important relationship between the veil and the autonomy of Muslim women is particularly relevant considering the turbulent French presidential elections. There was a debate under Macron’s presidency five years ago over the banning of the veil in universities. When talking about the veil in her rallies for the 2022 presidency, Marie Le Pen stated that she will “ban Islamist uniform”. The question that Marzieh Meshkini’s film presents is, instead of completely rejecting this piece of clothing that some know little about, shouldn’t the relationship between the veil and its wearer be understood? 

The Day I Became a Woman is a three-part Iranian film that was released in 2000, directed by Marzieh Meshkini. It depicts the life of three Muslim women: Hava, a young girl, Ahoo, a middle-aged woman and Hoora, an elderly woman, exploring their individual relationship with the veil. The film raises important intricacies surrounding the meaning of the veil for Muslim women, which is pertinent given the current Islamophobic political climate. 

The boundaries of womanhood are blurred

Meshkini suggests there is a deep relationship between Muslim women and the veil, involving a constant negotiation and internal dialogue that is not visible to a Western audience. In the first part of the film, Hava is introduced to the idea of the veil by her mother and her grandmother, and they suggest that she should wear a chador on her ninth birthday to ‘become a woman’. She is no longer allowed to play with her best friend, who is a boy, and she seems to be stripped of innocent childhood activities as she makes the most of her final hours before she becomes a ‘woman’. The boundaries of womanhood are blurred for Hava because she does not know what she is allowed to do or how she is allowed to act, giving her veil away to a group of boys playing on the beach so they can use it as a sail at the end of the first part.  

The labelling of Muslim women as repressed through wearing the veil is problematic, forcing all Muslim women into one collective group identity and neglecting individuality. Additionally, factors like the colour and tightness are all ways of stating political resistance, showing how the veil has been able to create a voice and convey the varied perspectives of Muslim women.

The labelling of Muslim women as repressed through wearing the veil is problematic, forcing all Muslim women into one collective group identity and neglecting individuality

In the second part of the film, it becomes apparent that becoming a ‘woman’ is not transparent and straightforward. Ahoo uses the veil to reject her husband who she wants to divorce, pulling her veil tighter around her head to protect her from her husband’s gaze. The veil facilitates her autonomy because she can reject patriarchal power structures and choose her own fate. The ability to reject male authority using the veil is one of the most important messages in the film.  

In the third part of the film, Hoora is depicted buying all the things that a couple would traditionally buy once they get married and move in together, like a bed, kitchen appliances and home furniture. She does so on her own, which highlights her independence. This scene demonstrates that she is not held back by any boundaries or restraints, either associated with her religion or society. In the final scene, Hoora sails off into the distance using the same veil that Hava gave to the boys on the beach, demonstrating that the veil is literally being used to empower her. 

The rejection of the figure of the Muslim woman by important Western political figures like Boris Johnson and Marie Le Pen is rooted in refusing to understand the personal relationship between women and the veil. We are left at the end of the film questioning whether the three parts of the film follow the life of the same woman, or each part instead about a different individual. On the one hand, the audience can understand the personal meaning of the veil for each character. However, the ambivalence of the plot allows the audience to perceive the relationship between Muslim women and the veil as significantly more complicated. 

Image: Nicola Fioravanti via Unsplash

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