Teaching Materials: Multilayered Lives of Muslim Women

The Multilayered Lives of Muslim Women in the Middle East and North Africa

In August 2010, NYU hosted a three-day workshop that introduced educators to the complexity and diversity of daily life for women living across the Middle East and North Africa.  By closely examining the lives of individual women (through memoir, film, short stories, and more), they learned surprising details about childhood, marriage, sexuality, politics, and the diverse life experiences of Muslim women.  A specialist on feminist movements in Morocco, Nadia Guessous (PhD Anthropology, Columbia University), led the course.  At NYU she teaches graduate courses on the Anthropology of Gender, Sexuality and Islam in the Middle East and North Africa. The course featured a variety of primary and secondary sources; they are listed below along with information about how to obtain them.  With any further questions about the course or these resources, please contact the Associate Director, greta.scharnweber@nyu.edu


Core Text: Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood  by Fatima Mernissi

In 1940, harems still abounded in Fez, Morocco. They weren't the opulent, bejeweled harems of Scherezade, but the domestic sprawl of extended families encamped around a walled courtyard that marked the edges of women's lives. Though born into this tightly sheltered world, Fatimi Mernissi is constantly urged by her rebellious mother to spring beyond it. Worried that Mernissi is too shy and quiet, her mother tells her, "You must learn to scream and protest, just the way you learned to walk and talk." In Dreams of Trespass, an enjoyable weave of memory and fantasy, it is clear that Mernissi's fertile imagination let her slip back and forth through the gates that trapped her restive mother. She spins amiable, often improbable tales of the rigidly proper city harem in Fez and the contrasting freedoms of the country harem where her grandmother Yakima lives.


Core Text: The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi  

Persepolis is the story of Satrapi's unforgettable childhood and coming of age within a large and loving family in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution; of the contradictions between private life and public life in a country plagued by political upheaval; of her high school years in Vienna facing the trials of adolescence far from her family; of her homecoming--both sweet and terrible; and, finally, of her self-imposed exile from her beloved homeland. It is the chronicle of a girlhood and adolescence at once outrageous and familiar, a young life entwined with the history of her country yet filled with the universal trials and joys of growing up.  Edgy, searingly observant, and candid, often heartbreaking but threaded throughout with raw humor and hard-earned wisdom--Persepolis is a stunning work from one of the most highly regarded, singularly talented graphic artists at work today. 


Core Text: Distant View of a Minaret and Other Stories by Alifa Rifaat

Alifa Rifaat opens the world of contemporary Cairo and the importance of Islam in the lives of her characters through fifteen short and short-short stories. There are marketplaces and gardens, traffic, and in the distance always the call for prayers, reminding everyone of the time of day, of Allah, of their position in life. A daughter longs to ask her mother about men's infidelities but realizes it is one of many subjects they won't talk about. An elderly woman is sure that her eye-sight is failing because of the tears she's shed throughout her life and she knows no doctor can help her, the "cure lies in the hands of Allah alone." A woman falls in love with a djinn - an Islamic spirit that appears to her in the form of a snake - and is riveted by her passions as she describes their encounters: "...sipping the poisons of my desire and exhaling the nectar of my ecstasy." Upon the death of his father, a man learns that a grandfather can love a grandchild he has never met. The life lessons in these stories are rarely about great changes; they are about everyday incidents, the strength and faith needed to live, and always, always about Allah. Distant View Of A Minaret takes the reader down narrow alleyways and into people's homes and hearts to show how people find what is important. 


Feature Film: Silences of the Palace (127 minutes)

For Tunisian filmmaker Moufida Tlatli, living in silence is a woman's most terrifying condition, yet all too often in parts of the Arab world it has been their most common condition. Tunisia in the 1950s is the sumptuous setting for THE SILENCES OF THE PALACE, a drama of memory and motherhood, of political and sexual power. Director Tlatli's quietly observant eye records the beauty and the horror of this stifling, now vanished world. 

(To borrow this film for free from the Hagop Kevorkian Center Video Collection, please email nadiaskhalaf@googlemail.com)


Documentary Film: Four Women of Egypt (90 minutes)

Amina Rachid was raised in a non-religious, Westernized, aristocratic household before embracing Socialism and fighting for social justice. Another deeply committed activist, Shahenda Maklad, a Muslim, was a student demonstrator in Egypt’s national movement who lost her husband to a political assassination before pursuing political office herself. Their friend, Safynaz Kazem, is a political journalist and strict Muslim. These four women are the subject of this impressive documentary exploration of opposing religious, social, and political views in modern-day Egypt.  There is little they agree upon—being Christian, Muslim and atheist—and little they won’t speak out about—yet their friendship endures. Though possessed of widely divergent and often incompatible viewpoints, these women maintain a deep and committed friendship with each other, arguing openly but with extreme tolerance for their differences, and often dispelling tension with hearty laughter. Through their friendship, we learn of the reality behind the Western myth of Egypt. Essential viewing for all interested in the political history of Egypt and women’s lives in the Middle East. 
(To borrow this film for free from the Hagop Kevorkian Center Video Collection, please email ra1211@nyu.edu)


Documentary Film: Wide Angle: Young, Muslim and French (whole film available online) (50 minutes)

France’s recent decision to ban the wearing of traditional Muslim headscarves in public schools — a law widely perceived in the Muslim community as an undemocratic expression of “Islamophobia” — has increased tensions between the French Republic and its largest minority population, numbering about five million people. WIDE ANGLE explores this conflict in the town of Dammarie-les-Lys, a racially diverse, working-class community on the outskirts of Paris, where young Muslim women face a choice to obey the ban – or flout it. Also featured is the local high school principal who, as a member of the commission charged with reviewing the use of religious symbols in public life, voted for the ban against headscarves. In nearby Evry, we see the rector of the grand mosque leading Friday prayers and conducting the conversion of a young French man to Islam. Europe’s Muslim population has doubled in the last decade, with the largest numbers settling in France. Their presence is challenging traditional French notions of nationhood and citizenship, and their increasingly vocal demands for integration and recognition — on their own terms — is creating a crisis in the republic. “Young, Muslim, and French” reveals the hopes, frustrations, and political aspirations of second- and third-generation French-born Muslims and explores their potential to alter the landscape of France’s national identity.