Friday, August 23, 2013

My First Feature Article!

I'm really happy to announce the publication of my first feature article in an online magazine.

It's called Contenders Magazine and my article is Filming El Hijab.

Check them both out! 

Here's the link to my article. 

It appears the server for this magazine no longer functions. Here is the text and photos from a copy I made:

Contenders Magazine
the journal of the perpetually up-and-coming

Filming El Hijab
August 23, 2013, Lemia Mahayni
When I flew to Damascus, Syria in the fall of 2010 to begin making my documentary film El Hijab, I     had no idea how monumental the task I had set for myself was. I believed that my primary challenges would be getting people to take a woman seriously as a filmmaker, and functioning in a language I hadn’t spoken regularly for many years. While that was certainly the case, they represented only the beginning of my logistical problems, and didn’t include the most important: myself.
The five years between my birth in Oregon and my family moving to Syria had biased me against hijab – the practice among Muslim women of wearing modest garments to show their submission to God. Yes, I said God, not men, not government. While family and peer pressures are a major factor, the whole practice of hijab in Syria is commonly viewed as an act of personal conscience and culture, not government. Among those who choose it, wearing hijab can signify that a girl has reached womanhood (menses), or that she has set aside her carefree youth and is serious about Islam. In the society where I grew up, she is then seen as mature enough to become engaged to be married. Instead of seeing hijab as a right of passage like my cousins did, I saw it as an unreasonable restriction, an archaic affectation.

One of my cousins playing in the snow with her daughters
Knowing my opinion was so strong, I had previously recused myself from approaching the topic of hijab in film or in writing. But upon graduating from film school, I was challenged by my friend Bérénice Reynaud, international film festival curator and lecturer, to make a documentary about hijab. She felt that no one had made a film about it from the perspective of Arab women. I agreed that most films focused on hijab worn in the West – where it stood out as alien – or approached hijab from the outside looking in. I saw a mission I could embrace: capturing Arab women speaking for themselves.

I could also see that Syria was a good place to make such a film. Historically, women in Syria have not been forced by law to wear any type of hijab. On the contrary, in July of 2010, the government banned the face veil style of hijab – called niqab – from all classrooms, public and private. With the law, Syria joined Tunisia and Turkey in the small club of Muslim states to have banned any form of hijab (a similar ban was lifted in Tunisia after 2011, and in Turkey veiling remains a contentious issue, with the constitutional court there upholding a constitutional ban against wearing hijab in public buildings in 2008, much to the chagrin of the conservative parliament). This ban caused ripples of hostility that contributed to the civil war, giving Muslim fundamentalists, Bashar Al-Assad’s most outspoken opponents, a cause to seize on. However, zealots who favored the niqab were in the minority. The most common form of hijab in Syria is a scarf covering the hair and throat along with clothing extending to the wrists and ankles. And it’s far from a universal dress code: many Muslim women in Syria choose not to wear hijab at all, and there is a significant Christian population. Even members of my conservative Muslim family were satisfied that the new law safeguarded our university students against people cheating on exams or attending under false identities. When I arrived in October the controversy seemed dead.

I believed that since I’d grown up in Damascus, my cousins and aunts would treat me like an insider, that I would have unprecedented access to their lives for my film. I underestimated the extreme privacy in Syrian society and the effect of my years of absence. Instead, I experienced frequent but polite instances of misdirection and ran up against restrictive family politics.

A view of Damascus from Quassyum Mountain
The centerpiece of my film was to be a personal view of a teenage girl making the transition into wearing hijab, but scheduling my trip to Syria around my father’s vacation meant that two of my top subjects were so busy with school once I arrived that I had little hope of interviewing them, much less following them through their days or filming them with their friends. Everywhere I turned, I got encouraging words, but little cooperation. I credited this deficiency to a lack of familiarity with the film process, but my father explained that single women didn’t want to ruin their chances at marriage by being so immodest as to appear on camera. To my face, women agreed to appointments that were never to be confirmed. Married women were at least frank enough to say they were camera shy.

Hauling Gear through Old Damascus
Cooperation wasn’t the only problem. I’d brought a high-definition camera and microphone with me, but for lighting equipment I was relying on local vendors, since Syrian power was 220 voltage – double North America’s 110 voltage standard. You can’t do much in Syria without connections, but usually anything involving trade is just a matter of finding the right shop and striking a deal with the owner. I was unhappy to find that Syria was infatuated with small halogen bulbs that produced harsh directional light best suited for horror films. All I needed were three lights and some colored light filters, simple items, but searching for them became a futile month long project.

Next came certification. For decades Damascus has been a primary producer of Arabic language soap operas, so there is no lack of film professionals in the city. However, I was told that in order to work in film or television in Syria every cameraman, director, or producer was required to be certified through the High Institute for Theatrical Arts. The right connections could have gotten me around this barrier but I didn’t have them. To rent lights, or engage assistance, I would have to approach production companies and beg for favors from people who did not know me and were legally not supposed to help me. To get a production permit as a foreigner through the Ministry of Tourism meant months of ingratiating myself, submitting my project proposal for approval, and having to share copies of my footage, putting all my interviewees in a precarious position. I didn’t want the Ministry of Tourism to become my de facto producer and editor, or worse: forbid my film from being circulated. I’d have to do without certification, and improvise lighting.

For some in my family, my filmmaking “hobby” was puzzling. Mostly they just declined to engage in the project, and asked me to dinner instead. To a few, the fact that I didn’t wear hijab was an affront. In one instance, I was all but openly attacked on camera by an in-law for not wearing hijab, implying my arrogance disgraced the family. I’d dreaded the possibility of such a confrontation. I didn’t know of any other Mahayni woman who didn’t wear hijab and my family took great pride in their conservative reputation. Could I gain the confidence of my interviewees if they thought I was insulting them?

A hint of wedding bling!
On another occasion, I was invited to a segregated wedding (conservative Muslim weddings hold separate receptions for the men and women). Excited to show at least the opulent fabrics women wore – think, awards show meets drag queen competition – I snuck a small still camera in with me, only to have my cousins caution me not to take any photos. I was shocked. When I was growing up, there were always some women who refused to have their picture taken at weddings and some who didn’t mind, as long as you promised not to show the photo to any men. I thought the anonymity of showing ruffles and sequins rather than faces would fly under the radar, but apparently not. In the end, a cousin took my photo alone on the bridal dais – hardly the shot I was hoping for!
That night, a cousin in-law refused to shake my hand – like I was a stranger – even after she was told who I was. Family names are important in Arab culture; the Mahaynis are well known and highly respected throughout the Middle East and I’m a granddaughter of a powerful family leader, so snubbing me at a family wedding was a big deal. My cousins were embarrassed and apologetic. Back in the days when my mother was a foreign bride, no one had ever dared do that to her, and here I was, a blood relation, dissed by an in-law! A few weeks later, the bride’s father died. Knowing how rampant superstitions and gossip were in the family, I was glad not to have made a scene with my camera. For all I know there are women in that part of the family who think I put the evil eye on the wedding. 
A few of my close relatives figured out I was Christian and I shot up several levels in their esteem. They had probably suspected all along, since my mother is a devout Christian. I was relieved. For years my father had asked me not to reveal my religion because inheritance laws in Syria used to forbid Christians from inheriting from Muslims and vice versa. He feared that, even though the laws had changed, my relatives might make trouble. But, to my family, being a “sister in the book” – what Arabs call fellow followers of the Abrahamic Religions – was far preferable to the prospect of a non-practicing Muslim. My grandmother had taken pride in being sure my mother never wore a scarf on her head in public; grandmother didn’t want the neighbors to think the family had forced hijab on my mother. A famous 18th Century Mahayni had been commended by Napoleon III for protecting Christians during a civil war, so grandmother wanted everyone to know she was proud my mother was a Christian. But, in 2010, my grandmother’s generation was gone, and I was not making very good progress with my own peers who feared the disapproval of in-laws and neighbors. The lively story I’d planned to tell was quickly pulling out of reach.

Equally challenging was that there seemed a general belief that no one woman had the authority to speak for all. I tried to convince women that if a diverse sampling of them spoke, it would reveal that their opinions were unique, each one valid. That was not reassuring to them. In a culture where the group is more important than the individual, there seemed a hope, especially among my family, that all women were alike in their thinking.

When I approached one married aunt for an interview, she responded by asking why I insisted on playing at filmmaking instead of being a dutiful daughter. Why didn’t I put my family first? She urged me not to show anything ugly about Syria. “Show [the West] something beautiful. Don’t let them think it’s all ugliness here. Give them something to respect.” But she refused to appear on camera even to tell stories of Old Damascus, when Christians, Muslims, and Jews were proud to live side by side, working and worshipping in the same ancient city. Another aunt, an outspoken widow, was willing to be filmed. She offered stories of wearing a full face veil in her youth because she believed it was theologically correct, but changing her mind over time as she studied the Qur’an. I knew she would be a fantastic interview, but my father kept delaying my return visits to her home because there was an unrelated argument between her and another aunt who lived in the same building. The feud was so schismatic that even the hope of interviewing the two together, thereby giving them equal time, was impossible.

Finally, a male friend from grammar school helped me set up an interview with a businesswoman who had gone to our alma mater. She had even worn hijab during her time there (her early teens). After a wonderful warm-up interview, it became apparent that she had not understood I was intending to videotape her. One moment she was informing me that women’s rights in Syria were legally and politically the best in the Middle East, the next, she began pulling at her scarf and her sleeves, saying she could not do Islam justice; I should speak to a scholar. She then declined to be filmed. When she promised she’d find me someone else to appear on camera, I was doubtful. But, she was as good as her word, better even. Her sister, Sabah, also a businesswoman, was a Muslim scholar and willing to be videotaped. I eventually filmed some eight interviews while I was in Syria, but the interview with Sabah was the one that gave me the most information, insight, and inspiration. As I edit the film, Sabah’s is the voice I am most passionate to bring to the public.

This project has been more of a personal journey than I was prepared to take. I thought making this film would establish me as a filmmaker; instead, it taught me about innovation and expectation, exposed my vulnerabilities, and rewarded me in ways I had not foreseen. El Hijab is still teaching me, as I sift through footage and memories of a culture and people that have an uncertain future, increasingly aware that I am the portal through which their voices will reach people in the west.


Lemia Mahayni is a filmmaker based in Eugene, OR. In 2010, her short film Alpha and Omega: the Struggle for Survival earned an Accolade Competition Award of Merit and previous documentary work include Earl in Our Memories (2008) and Beladi: Syria (2006). She is in the midst of editing El Hijab, but in the meantime you can follow her work on her blog (   This is her first article for Contenders.

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