Muslim women or women living in Muslim countries are too often portrayed in western media as quiet and submissive. However, if you start to look into foreign cinema, a growing number of movies now feature characters who are strong, assertive women taking control of their own lives. Sure, the characters hit obstacles, experience sexism and live through horrible situations, but their strong personalities shine through.
When I noticed that few articles had covered this subject, I decided to make my own list. I’m not Muslim, nor do I live in a Muslim country. I am just tired of seeing the same stereotypes that fail to present aspects of reality that are more complex and that don’t fall back on typical stereotypes. This subject deserves a full essay or even a memoir. I’ve decided to make a humble list which, I hope, will bring lots of food for thought to everyone who reads it. The following movies have challenged my own preconceived ideas about these cultures.
Please note: The title is somewhat inaccurate: these characters are not all Muslim. However, they all live in or come from Muslim countries. An interesting fact is that many of these films were directed by women.
Set in Saudi Arabia, this film tells the story of Wajdja, a young 12 year old girl who sets her sights on a brand new bike. Her rebellious ways put her into trouble but when she learns that a Koran recitation competition could earn her enough money to buy the bike, she puts herself to work. This is first Saudi-Arabian film directed by a woman (Haifaa Al-Mansour).
Living in the West bank (Palestine), Muna and her teenaged son Fadi receive green cards which earn them entry into the United States. They move to a suburb near Chicago, where Muna’s brother has been living for years. As they settle into life in their new, more stable country, both mother and son are quickly hit with a few hard truths. In 2003, anti-Muslim behavior is on the rise and even though Muna and her family are not Muslims, they are affected by hurtful comments and ignorant behaviors. They also experience culture shock and have to work at entry-level jobs. Through it all, Muna remains determined to keep her spirits up and to provide a better life for her son.
In small village set within a mountainous range, a group of women decide that they simply cannot keep up with their daily workload without getting more help from the male villagers. They voice their concerns but aren’t taken seriously so, as a group, they decide to hold a sex strike. A beautiful example of women coming together to change stubbornly held ideas and attitudes on a small but meaningful scale.
5 women whose lives are intertwined, shown as they experience various problems and situations such as heartbreak, facing conservative families, aging or discovering their homosexuality. Everything is linked together through the strong bonds that link these women together.
5 young orphaned sisters coming of age in a conservative family. Their increasingly rebellious behavior is seen as shameful by fellow villagers and by their other family members. As time goes by, their house becomes a prison of sorts, from which they are only allowed to leave once they suit the mold of the perfect housewife. Of course, things don’t turn out that way.
At first sight, it could come off as just another teen romance movie. However, this movie was very controversial when it came out because of the fact that it features a mixed couple (Jewish and Muslim). It also shows modern women who, in the eyes of conservative people, are overtly westernized because they chase boys, have active sex lives and go out partying.
Madame Aldjeria is an unlikely heroine. Part bad-ass feminist, part mafia boss, she was once the queen of scams. After a three year stint in jail, she has to work her way back to where she was. Over the course of the film, you’re never quite sure if you like the main character but legendary actress Biyouna brings so much strength and spirit to the role that you can’t help but root for her.
In Iran, homosexuality is illegal. This film tells the story of two female best friends who develop a love story. At the same time, one of the girls’ brothers becomes increasingly religious and even joins the morality police.
This movie is very different from the other ones featured on this list because it’s an animated autobiographical story that is mostly set in the past. Marjane Satrapi adapted her collection of graphic novels which describe her upbringing in Iran and her adult life as an Iranian woman living in Europe.
Marjane recalls various events that have shaped her personality. Of her childhood she tells stories about relatives and friends who have been jailed, airstrikes during the Iran-Iraq war and increasingly strict religious authorities who did not react well to her rebellious fits. When she moves to Europe, she experiences isolation, heartbreak and homelessness. Through it all, she remains true to herself and to the things she has been taught by other strong women who have served as role models such as her mother and grandmother.