Videos for Teaching the Middle East in the Precollegiate Classroom
Notes by Michael Fahy, CMENAS, U. of Michigan (Click here for PDF version for printing.)
On Boys, Girls and the Veil
On Boys, Girls and the Veil is an excellent and perhaps unique video
which is less a treatment of The Veil, per se, than a depiction of relations
between young men and women striving to come to terms with their identities
as such. It is worth noting that the term "veil" does not appear
in the Arabic title of this Egyptian-produced film, Subyan wa-Banat, and
its addition to the English translation is indicative of the extent to
which veiling has become the all-but-inevitable shorthand for most standard,
Western treatments of gender relations in the Middle East.
What establishes this film as unique is the extent to which it affords
its audience an insider's view into the topic of gender relations and
the meanings attached to the hijab, or "veil" (which, incidentally,
might be more accurately glossed as "head scarf"). As the video's
American distributor notes, director Yousry Nasrallah "takes us on
an exquisite tour of a subject normally over-dramatized by the West."
Rather than exploring a presumed, univocal meaning of the veiling for
the Arab world, the narrative of On Boys, Girls and the Veil allows the
particular young Egyptian men and women in the film to, as it were, speak
This film is likely to carry a number of surprises for students, teachers
and other viewers who have little familiarity with, or who have spent
no time in, a Middle Eastern society. One such surprise is the fact different
young people, while sharing what is largely the same social and cultural
world, bring a wide range of different attitudes, ideas and experiences
to the question, not merely of veiling, but of what is possible and desirable
in relations between the sexes. Even the least attentive viewer should
come away with the impression that gender relations are no more on crystallized
"mindset" in Egypt (or other Arab societies) than there are
in the West. As in Unites States and other Western societies, gender is
better seen as a kind of social debate, albeit organized around different
fund of cultural values and symbols, of which the hijab or "veil"
is but one.
Novice viewers are also likely to be surprised that the youths featured
in the film do not unanimously regard wearing the hijab as a religious
obligation, as many view it rather, to cite again the distributors notes,
"as a social construction symbolizing a girl's respectability or
sexual innocence." This in a video in which we can witness an animated
exchange between young women, veiled and not veiled, who disagree on the
meaning of veiling and not veiling and the justifications for their respective
preferences. Also presented in the video are young men who speak personally
and candidly about love and relationships with the opposite sex. In one
segment, young men in the video are quite frank about the double standard
between their cavalier attitudes towards their own comportment with women
on the one hand, and their expectations of their sisters or prospective
mates on the other. Although the terms in which these discussions are
framed are clearly distinct from what might be termed "Western ideas,"
the exploration of such themes as desire, sadness, frustration, and the
heartache intrinsic to the business of pursuing relationships is familiar,
and refreshingly available in the accounts of these young people.
This effectively (though quasi-staged) documentary film is structured
around the life of the director's friend and the film's protagonist, Bassam
Samra, a young man who teaches at a school in Cairo but has aspirations
of being an actor. This affords us an even more intimate view into the
life of an Egyptian family, one in which the bonds of love are intertwined
with intergenerational disagreement. Again, there are surprises here.
We learn, for example, that Basam's younger sister's wears the hijab of
her own initiative, and not at the demand of her father and brother; or
that old photos of Basam's parents in their early married life reveal
a time that was more, rather than less, liberal and permissive about notions
of modesty and dress.
The story of Basam, as of the other young people in the film is significant in its grounding the film's exploration of relationships and veiling not in cultural archetypes, but in very real, specific and idiosyncratic human being who rather, than embodying an essentialized "Arab mentality," reveal the particular, situated struggles of young people trying to come to terms with questions which are perhaps on some level universally human, but at the same time necessarily culturally grounded. Much of what is of value in this video should not come as a great revelation but, unfortunately it does, and On Boys Girls and the Veil does an admirable job of providing an insider's view of an aspect of life in Arab societies that is often distorted by more simplistic, if not less sympathetic, presentations.
Notes by Michael Fahy, CMENAS, U. of Michigan
This video is on order and will be available for loan to Northern
California teachers from the Schools Program/BAGEP, WORLD AFFAIRS COUNCIL,
312 Sutter St., Suite 200, San Francisco, CA 94108, tel 415-982-3263.
|Return to ORIAS home|