A woman takes photographs in front of the New Mosque along the Bosphorus Strait in Istanbul in this Jan. 12, 2016 file photo. (Reuters Photo/Murad Sezer)

From Iran to Indonesia, Muslim Feminists on Film Upend Stereotypes of Oppression


JANUARY 16, 2019

Kuala Lumpur. Traveling to cities and villages in five countries with a backpack, Sarah Zouak filmed 25 Muslim women – from single parents to fisherwomen – to dispel dated religious stereotypes.

With documentary screenings and debates across the world, the Women SenseTour tells the story of female changemakers in Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey, Iran and Indonesia through five one-hour films, said French-Moroccan filmmaker and activist Zouak.

"I researched the women on the internet, by reading books or through word of mouth," said 29-year-old Zouak, who organized three screenings in Indonesia late last year and hopes to stage similar events throughout Asia in the future.

"They had to be feminists, Muslim and have founded a project for women's empowerment," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Paris.

Muslim women are seen in many countries, particularly the West, as oppressed and having limited freedoms and the films aim to reshape these clichés with stories of strong Muslim women.

Crowdfunded and shot during a five-month trip by Zouak three years ago, the films include women of all ages and backgrounds, working in health, education and with refugees, as well as those helping drug users and domestic abuse victims.

Having never made a documentary before, Zouak often lived with her subjects, filming the women going about their daily routines.

"In Indonesia, I met a woman who founded a feminist organization for fisherwomen – even in the fishing industry there are feminist women working," Zouak said. "It was interesting to see that sexism is everywhere – even industries you wouldn't think."

The project has won the backing of UN Women and the Institut de France, which promotes the arts. It has toured schools, universities, city halls and cinemas across France and the world, with plans to make one film free to view online.

Zouak – who also formed an association called Lallab to counter Islamophobia, which has more than 300 volunteers – hopes the documentaries will challenge narratives and provide inspiration to both men and women.

"A lot of Muslim women who come, say it is the first time they have seen a positive image of themselves," she said.

"They then want to be like the women in the documentary and start their own projects."

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