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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Lifting the Veil from Submission

1. Slain director Theo van Gogh
1. Slain director Theo van Gogh

On November 2 of this year, a Dutch filmmaker was shot on the street several times, had his throat sliced, and was then stabbed in the chest. Next to the corpse, the unknown assailant, clad in traditional Moroccan garb, left a note threatening the Dutch government with additional violence. The slain filmmaker was Theo Van Gogh, a distant relation of the bipolar 19th century painter Vincent Van Gogh. In collaboration with Aysaan Hirsi Ali, a right-wing member of the Dutch parliamentary body and a Somalian refugee, Theo Van Gogh made Submission Part 1, a short 11 minute film that harshly criticizes certain fundamentalist Islamic views of women, specifically four verses of the Qur’an that have been interpreted in ways not exactly beneficial to women: 24.2 (concerning the punishment for adultery); 2.222 (concerning menstruation); 4.34 (concerning the treatment of a wife); 24.31 (concerning the proper attire and behavior of Muslim women). For each one of the aforementioned verses, the narrator, a woman dressed head to toe in a black burqa-like robe with veil, cites each and tells of how those verses, mandates of Allah, have caused her to suffer. When it was first aired on Dutch TV back in August of 2004, Submission Part 1 caused an outlash of criticism amongst the Muslim community, a minority of 1 million out of the EU nation’s total population of about 16 million. Apparently the film’s content and message were provocative enough to incite a series of rather grizzly death threats to both the director, Theo Van Gogh, and the writer, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the “ex-Muslim” whose true life story provided the basis for the film’s scenario. In response to these and other threats, Hirsi Ali enlisted a posse of body guards, whereas the bombastic and eccentric Van Gogh refused any such protection, dismissing the notion that anybody killing him over Submission would be unlikely, and just plain silly.Unlikely? Well, evidently not. Silly? Yes, very.Although both Van Gogh and Hirsi Ali had publicly expressed vehemently anti-Muslim sentiments in the past, Van Gogh having been quoted as calling Muslims “goat fuckers” and Hirsi Ali has referred to the Prophet as a “lecherous tyrant,” it does seem a bit silly that a film, not even a quarter of an hour in length, could cause such a violent reaction, especially considering the fact that the views expressed in Submission Part 1 are nothing new or shocking. Islam has long been accused of being a misogynistic and oppressive (in regards to women) religion by feminists (ie: Mariama Bâ in her book Une Si Long Lettre) and human rights groups (ever hear of Amnesty International?), but those persons or groups have suffered little backlash for their opinions. The reason behind Van Gogh’s violent public slaying may be perhaps found in the presentation and content of Submission Part 1.

The film opens up with a long shot of the female narrator praying in a mosque-like setting, clad modestly in her black robe. But, the narrator’s dress is slightly modified to include a transparent portion down the middle of the fabric, so that her legs, stomach, and portions of her breasts are exposed, all adorned with Arabic script. There is an alteration of shots, switching between a nude woman, collapsed on the ground face-down, her dorsal side covered with Qur’anic scriptures and bleeding lash-wounds, and a tight shot of the narrator’s perpetually veiled face. It is actually quite surprising how much emotion the narrator can convey with only her voice and her eyes. Addressing all her words to Allah directly, she tells of how she met a man that was not her husband. They came to fall in love, and found comfort and security in each other’s affections and embraces. But, she said, people began to notice the pair’s fondness for each other. The two fornicators were punished with a hundred lashes each, as dictated by the Qur’an, 24.2.

Then, segued with some rather artsy camera panning over the narrator’s Arabic-adorned and partially exposed body, she begins to tell another tale of woe, of how she was subjected to an arranged marriage at the age of sixteen, forced to wed a man whom she did not know and whose touch she grew to loathe and despise. But still she submits to her husband as she submits to Allah; without question and without complaint. She quotes the Qur’an almost verbatim, reciting that only during her menstrual flow is she left alone by her husband, but once over her period, her husband forces himself on her once more. Her husband beats her regularly, as he believes in commanded by Allah in 4.34 of the Qur’an. That’s right, in several interpretations and translations of the Qur’an it does say that a Muslim man may beat his wife to instill obedience, respect, and enforce punishment. However, according to Ahmed Ali’s translated and annotated al-Qur’an, that is a false interpretation of that particular verse, as it goes directly against several hadith (the oral tradition of the Prophet Muhammed, what he said or did during his lifetime), one in particular where the Prophet states that it is improper to beat one’s wife as if she were a slave.

She, the narrator, then professes to Allah how she obeys his words, how she covers herself from head to toe, how she keeps her eyes downcast in public and hides all forms of adornment from the world to preserve her modesty and purity (Qur’an, 24.31). She also tells of how she longs to feel the wind through her hair and travel to far-away places and meet new and wonderful people. But, she says, that could never happen because she is a good Muslim woman who obeys Allah’s commands. She prays to Him for help after her uncle moves in with her family and begins to abuse her sexually, raping her almost daily. Her father does not believe her when she tells him this, and even scolds his daughter for daring to bring his brother’s honor into question. She directly challenges Allah, asking that why, even after she obeys and submits to all the teachings, customs, and traditions of Islam, she has been made to suffer so much.

The veiled narrator in Submission is definitely blaspheming, directly challenging the codes and teachings of Islam and blaming Allah’s Qur’an for her misery at the hands of the men in her life. A few years back there was another outcry in the global Muslim community concerning a big-name fashion company that incorporated Qur’anic verses onto the hem of a dress simply because the designer found the Arabic calligraphy to be aesthetically pleasing. The reason for the outcry was that the hallowed words of God (the Qu’ran) were being used outside of a religious context and in an “unholy” manner. Virtually all of Submission Part 1 uses that same type of blasphemy to convey its euro-feminist right-wing message: a partially nude woman praying to Allah, a woman’s bare back striped with bleeding whip lacerations and inscribed with Qu’ranic verses, are a couple of the blasphemies utilized by Van Gogh and Hirsi Ali.

As a film, Submission is well directed, acted, and written, especially when one takes into consideration the sheer brevity of the thing. The only aesthetically displeasing thing in the whole movie was the soundtrack: specifically, the corny Middle Eastern techno poop that played in the background (you know, a vaguely Semitic-sounding language being chanted over repetitive drum beats and other typical Oriental instruments) and the whip-crack sound effect that played each time there was a cut to a woman’s battered face or body. It rather took away from the overall tone and effect of the film, making it seem more like a political propaganda piece à la Lifetime than a socially conscious piece of video art. Also, the film’s message is a tad inaccurate; isolating the absolute worst examples of a religion’s followers and accenting their behavior to a point approaching absurdity; I mean, if you get flogged for adultery, get forced to marry a total douche, and get raped by your uncle, then it’s obvious that you’re just on Lady Luck’s shit list. The film refuses to acknowledge any of the non-burqa’d and non-veiled Muslims, choosing instead to focus on the most clichéd examples Van Gogh and Hirsi Ali’s combined imaginative powers could muster up. And what about the spousal abuse and oppression of women in the Hassidic communities? Or in the Church of Mormon? Huh? What about them?

One problem that we, as a society, have certain misconceptions of cultures and traditions, and, out of intellectual sloth and cultural ignorance, we choose to generalize entire peoples simply because it’s far easier to do so. There are many sects within the two main branches of the Islamic faith: Shia and Sunni. Each sect have their own interpretation of the Qur’an and even differing opinions on the legitimacy of certain hadith, as in the previous example of differing interpretations of whether or not to beat one’s wife according to 4.34 of the Qur’an. Christianity is likewise divided into two main branches: Protestantism and Orthodox (lumping in Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox into the same category). Protestantism can be divided further into Calvinism, Methodism, Presbyterianism, Lutheranism, etc., etc., and each of these different sects has their own take on the Holy Bible. Same goes for the different sects of Islam; each have their own traditions and scholarly understandings of their Qur’an. Sure, there will always be some crazy-ass hardcore fundamentalists who would kill a guy over a 10 minute movie, but it doesn’t mean that all Muslims can or will do anything similar. And just because some Christians are Bible-beating walking piles of intolerance and over-recycled DNA doesn’t mean all those who believe in Christ will behave similarly, or have such a narrow view on the world and the people in it. Evidently, neither Theo Van Gogh or Ayaan Hirsi Ali were/are aware of this very simple concept: not all people are the same. I guess the hajaab-sporting gunman who killed Van Gogh wasn’t fully aware of this either, ironically sharing the same short sighted world-view as the man he earnestly believed deserved to die. The problem isn’t the exponential boom of Muslim immigrants in an all too tolerant Europe, fundamentalism, right-wing politics, or even terrorism. The problem, as time has proven over and over again, is ignorance. Yeah, it’s that simple.