Face to faith

Among a row of pretty young girls wearing both dark and pastel colored head scarves, and making furiously quick and deliberate movements with their fingers, all the while mouthing the words, we see the profile of a pensive 27 year-old woman. Seated in this lecture hall, she stands out from the others, with her silent demeanor and her curly, chestnut hair unrestrained by a scarf. Aran Slade is the star of “Deaf Sisterhood,” a documentary made by Redbird Productions for British Sign Language Broadcasting Trust (BSL) and available on BSL’s website.
Aran, a teacher for the deaf from Birmingham, is one of thousands of British women who consider converting to Islam each year, and this 24 minute film chronicles her journey in a gentle, although sometimes incomplete, fashion.

An estimated 5,200 British embrace Islam each year, and over 60 percent of these converts are women. Some are also deaf. “Deaf Sisterhood” fixes the lens on this unique fraction of the population in a film that is almost entirely in British Sign Language with English voice-overs and captioning. By including all three means of communication, the documentary becomes accessible to both the hearing and the hearing-impaired; the producers treat the deaf community as a part of the audience, not simply subjects to be studied and understood.

The creators of the film, many of whom are deaf themselves, capture and convey the people who appear in the film with as much sensitivity as they treat the audience. Nearly every person is presented in an honest and multi-dimensional fashion. First, we see Aran’s mother, a firm atheist who is naturally concerned that Aran may embrace Islam and then discover aspects of its philosophy or tradition that she either does not agree with or finds difficult to observe. She feels Aran’s innate moral compass is all her daughter needs, and a conversion will likely truncate Aran’s freedoms as a Western woman. The filmmakers catch a particularly vulnerable moment when Aran’s mother shyly confesses that she worries her daughter may replace her with Islam and Saghir’s (Aran’s Pakistani Muslim boyfriend) family.

Along with being privy to conversations between Aran and her mother, we are also introduced to the local Muslim community in Birmingham. Once again, the producers portray these people in a balanced, nuanced fashion. The young Muslim women Aran speaks to are welcoming, quick to hug and eager to answer her questions. We see that the community is not monolithic; when the women crowd around Aran walking her through the ablution ritual, they quibble over how best to guide their new student and what is most important for her to learn.

While the documentary humanizes the Muslim community for the audience, it does not deliver in its portrayal of Islam. Rather than touching on the larger ideas behind the faith—for example the belief in one God or the Q’uran as the unfiltered word of God—the documentary gets bogged down in the rituals of the faith. For example, one convert explains to Aran, “Before, I drank alcohol, I wore short skirts, I went to the pub all the time, I ate pork. But then, when I became a Muslim, all that stopped!” Islam is presented as a set of poorly explained, arbitrary rules by the Muslims Aran comes across, rather than a philosophy or creed of which rational, reasoned rituals are one part.

To add to the confusion, some “Dos and Don’ts” mentioned in the documentary are factually incorrect. Aran learns from Saghir’s brother that Pakistani women do not work outside the house because Islam dictates that Muslim women must veil their bodies and faces at all times. In reality, an overwhelming majority of women in Pakistan work while donning a head scarf, but do not wear the face veil because Islam does not require a woman to conceal her facial features. Such misinformation only serves to further give both Aran and the larger audience the impression that Islam is a religion of aimless, sometimes stifling, rules. And of course, as Aran quickly points out, a face veil would eliminate one of the key tools used by a deaf person to communicate—facial expression.

The documentary’s excessive focus on the rituals of Islam is particularly obvious when a trio of Muslim girls doll up Aran with makeup, and wrap a head scarf around her head before pulling the cloth off a vanity mirror so Aran can see herself. Upon seeing her reflection, Aran eyes begin to tear and with a smile she signs, “Wow! That’s not me…it looks good.” The time devoted to this moment in the film, and the emotional response of Aran both imply that pinning on a head scarf is a transformative spiritual experience—the experience that defines a Muslim woman. Aran has only recently embarked on her discovery of Islam, and this dramatic reveal suggests that the most meaningful change on one’s path to becoming a Muslim is a change in outward appearance.

Despite its shortcomings, “Deaf Sisterhood” treats the story with gentleness, and rightly places the emphasis on the person and the journey rather than the end. After having embraced Christianity within three months at the age of 17 only to find that her enthusiasm for the faith waned as time went on, Aran is determined to take her time in researching Islam before coming to a decision. She astutely recognizes that she will have to distinguish culture from religion in order to determine whether it is the Muslim lifestyle and strong sense of community that attract her or the belief system itself. “Deaf Sisterhood” does not neatly tie up Aran story with a “yeh or ney” answer to conversion, but rather leaves on a note of uncertainty, and, in doing so, offers a much more realistic portrayal of one’s journey into a new faith than the more dramatic testimonials of religious epiphanies.
Zehra Rizavi is Associate Editor of Altmuslimah.

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