In 2009, I quit my job as Gulf Correspondent for The Washington Post and decided to pursue filmmaking full-time. I had become a journalist to tell realistic stories about the Arab world, having endured years of media sound bites demonizing my culture. Though film was no better, it liberated me from editorial constraints.
I was raised by an idealist feminist father and a fearless free-spirited Sufi Muslim mother. I knew first-hand that Arab stories were deeper and richer than the images in news and films. So I became a filmmaker to put a human face to the political story.
My first film, “Mariam,” tells the story of a French-Muslim teenager who wears the hijab headscarf and is forced to choose between her hijab and school when France passes a law banning religious symbols from public schools, as it did in 2004. The idea was sparked during a trip to France in 2011, when the law banning the full face veil, the niqab, was being implemented. I had just come from Saudi Arabia, where women are obliged to wear the hijab headscarf, even if they don’t believe in it, which is the case for me. I felt a kinship for these women in France who also did not have the freedom to dress as they believed.
But I also understood the revulsion to the niqab. I know that most people perceive women who wear the niqab as backwards and oppressed and lacking intelligence and backbone. I know because that is how I perceived women who wore the niqab. Despite being familiar with the sight of women in niqab all my life, I had very low regard for them.
I didn’t see a woman wearing the niqab — I saw an entity that couldn’t think for itself, a pushover who couldn’t stand up to a father or husband, someone too uneducated to fight for her rights and who couldn’t see how ridiculous she looked with her face covered, only her eyes peering out. Every time I saw women in the niqab I instinctively shrank into myself, resenting their weakness. It made me feel weak and backwards by association. We were both women, we were both Saudi, and we were both Muslim.
But a few years before coming to France, during my research for an article on the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia, I found a petition by a group of women supporting the ban. I was intrigued, so I set out to write an article on these conservative women. The dozen or so who agreed to meet me all wore the niqab.
Under their niqabs I discovered a wide range of women — sultry divorcees afraid of their own desires, activists fighting for the rights of divorced mothers and accomplished professionals including dentists, university professors and award-winning scientists. Talking to them, I realized that I was as guilty as everyone else in bundling a group of people together and thinking I knew who they were, when I did not know them at all.
Still, I do not believe that all women who wear the niqab in Saudi Arabia are as steadfast in their convictions about it as the women I interviewed. I’m sure many are pressured to wear it. But in my brief peek under the face veil, I saw a human, a face, an individual, and I would not be able to view women who wore the niqab in the same way again. That’s why when I saw these women who wore the niqab in France surrounded by policemen, harassed by onlookers, forced screaming into police vans, taken into custody and made to take off their face veils, they were no longer just a weak-minded monolithic mass to me; they were individuals fighting for something I did not believe in, but that they did.
With “Mariam” I provide that opportunity to audiences — the chance to take a peek into the life of a teenager they might otherwise judge. And that is what draws me to film: its power to shine a light on the individual underneath the religion, the skin color and the headscarf.
“Mariam” is now available on iTunes and available for educational and community screenings. Visit http://mariamthemovie.com to learn how you can bring Mariam to your community.
Faiza Ambah is a former journalist turned filmmaker from Saudi Arabia. Her first film “Mariam” screened worldwide and won the Special Jury Prize at the Dubai International Film Festival in 2015. She will start a blog at The Huffington Post in April.