This past month, filmmaker Mette Reitzel has been campaigning tirelessly to raise funds for a documentary on Muneera Rashida and Sukina Abdul Noor. These two female British Muslims are founders of the “Poetic Pilgrimage,” a movement involving the intersection of social justice, spiritual growth, and creative and cultural expression. Altmuslimah’s Sarah Farrukh asks Rashida and Reitzel about the history of the “Poetic Pilgrimage,” the challenge of being “hip hop hijabis,” and the significance of this film.
Tell us how and Sukina came to know one another.
Muneera Rashida: Sukina and I attended the same secondary school, but I’m a couple of years older than her. Our friendship began when we both joined the school gospel choir and developed further when we became involved in a talent show for young black people in our hometown of Bristol. Prior to the night of the talent show, there were several workshops, encouraging a sense of comradery amongst the people involved. Well, it worked, because we soon found ourselves socializing outside of the show.
Why hip hop?
Muneera Rashida: Why not? We initially started doing spoken word poetry so adding beats and music was a logical progression from there. There was no underlying agenda or a particular reason behind our approach; it’s simply an art form we were attracted to.
Tell us about the mission of “Poetic Pilgrimage.”
Muneera Rashida: I know it sounds strange, but there is no explicit mission behind “Poetic Pilgrimage” and what we do. The name “Poetic Pilgrimage” came about quite a few years before we converted to Islam. During that stage in our lives, we were both interested in spirituality and researching different aspects of religion and we hit upon this term as a way of describing our personal journey of discovery.
We are aware that as black Muslim women writing and performing hip hop music, we have come to represent many things to different people. For the two of us however, what we do is merely an effort to express ourselves to the best of our ability. Over the years we have used hip-hop to talk about various themes that are close to our hearts-women’s equality, peace and social justice. There has been criticism but if the opposition we have faced means that it will be easier for other female Muslim musicians to practice their art, then our struggles will be worth it.
How do you deal with any resistance you face from those who find it difficult to reconcile Islam and public artistic expression?
Muneera Rashida: In the early days, we endured far more resistance than we do now. We would perform at certain events and people would just walk out the room. This was preferable to the heckling we sometimes faced; people would shout “Haram (forbidden)!” at us as we stood on stage. There was a time when a day didn’t go by without some kind of verbal attack by Muslims or racists being thrown at us. Ironically, Muslims were more vicious than the racists and women more critical than men of our performances! We continue to face personal attacks about our work or our character, but I think we’ve become more resilient.
To me, the notion that the Creator of expression would suppress expression just doesn’t make sense. But as recent converts we did initially consult with several scholars who supported the belief I had in my heart—that our songwriting and performances are permissible within our faith. So now we simply continue doing what we do and no longer feel doubt about whether or not it conflicts with Islam. Those who think differently are perfectly within their right to believe what they do. The problem lies in people trying to push their point-of-view onto another in an abrasive manner that demeans the other. The debate about the permissibility of music within Islam, and particularly Muslim female performers, will not be settled by us, nor is that our aim. We simply want to create art that carries positive messages.
It was a pleasure to hear from you, Muneera, thank you. Mette, we are thrilled to have you here as well. Could you tell us what inspired you to make this film?
Mette Reitzel: I’m always interested in amplifying the voices of strong women who are not afraid of speaking out for what they believe. There aren’t enough of these sorts of intrepid women around. I also think it is healthy and productive to try and understand things from different perspectives—after all, that’s what makes life interesting! I’m particularly interested in the role of religion and spirituality in contemporary society. What is it about faith that generates such passionate feelings both for and against? And Islam was the religion I knew the least about, so it was a chance for me to learn more. So all these interests put together were the impetus for creating this documentary.
I had a gnawing feeling we weren’t getting the full story from the media about what it means to be a Muslim woman, and as artists are in the business of expressing themselves, I figured they would be a good place to start. I began researching female Muslim artists and came across “Poetic Pilgrimage.” I thought the fact that two such outspoken women had decided to convert to Islam made for an interesting story because it immediately questions the common assumption that Muslim women are all meek and subservient.
I wanted to explore what benefits they derived from their new religion as well as the difficulties they encountered, both inside and outside the Muslim community. I’m not particularly religious myself, but I do find the occasionally condescending attitudes towards religion in general and Islam in particular to be quite problematic, so that too was a big part of my motivation for making the film.
What is the message you are trying to get across with this documentary?
Mette Reitzel: It isn’t really a campaign film to convince viewers of a particular viewpoint. It is shot in a cinematic, observational style and is most of all a touching personal story of two close friends finding their place in the world through poetry, music and spirituality. However, Sukina and Muneera’s unusual life decisions do touch on some very topical debates about religion, multi-culturalism and gender equality to mention a few.
The fact that they are musicians and generally quite fun to be around hopefully means that some of these potentially dry and academic debates will become more accessible to a wider audience on a personal level, which is where it really matters. I, of course, also hope it will encourage people on both sides of the religious divide to be less judgmental and more compassionate, and that the various workshops and debates we are planning in conjunction with the film will provide a space for constructive intercultural dialogue.
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Sarah Farrukh is an Associate Editor at Altmuslimah and an information studies graduate student at the University of Toronto. She blogs about faith and books at A Muslimah Writes.