Breaking down barriers with Me and the Mosque

AT A time when Muslim interest in the media is largely relegated to playing the PR game, Canadian filmmaker Zarqa Nawaz rises above the stale PSAs stating in so many ways that “Islam means peace,” and instead gives the Muslim community something it really needs: a big whiff of its own dirty laundry.

Nawaz’s new documentary, Me and the Mosque, co-produced with the National Film Board of Canada, airs perhaps the dirtiest laundry in the basket – women’s prayer spaces in mosques. While her own mosque finds newer and harsher ways to isolate women (ultimately arriving at the one-sided mirror with a brick wall solution), Nawaz puts herself in front of the camera and takes a road trip to mosques across North America. The trip, she says, is meant to investigate why these instruments of segregation, or “barriers” as they are referred to in the film, are being put up in mosques.

But make no mistake, this is not investigative journalism. What Nawaz is really doing is making a case against the barrier by giving the purdah (veil) the Michael Moore treatment. She casts herself as a populist hero – an everyday, hard-working, Joe, or Joann in this case, who is a mother and lifelong Islamic activist. Then she sticks it to the man with a combination of intelligent talking heads, animation, stories of other regular sister folk, irreverent humor and a bias that lies just beneath the surface. A documentary with a bias? We can get into a discussion on the nature of documentary truth, but for now, let’s leave the faceless, fair and balanced material for the History Channel and take on something that channels passion into an articulate argument.

And that is what we get with Me and the Mosque, a cohesive argument that is not so much about the evils of barriers as it is about proving their unfounded existence. Although the film was produced by the National Film Board, it is clear that the target authence is the Muslim community. Nawaz proves that she knows her authence well, and is sincere in her approach by sticking to the subject and not broaching issues of greater controversy. The film manages to push beyond the barriers to get a glimpse of the bigger picture that false traditions have taken over popular conceptions of Islam. But it is just a glimpse; the film’s awkward 52 minute length (not quite a short, not quite a feature) makes it a little too short and sweet.
Nawaz’s approach in reaching the Muslim community finds the right balance between making the emotional case and the factual one. In several interviews with women marginalized by barriers, Nawaz seeks to give a voice to their unheard stories. Their comments can be funny. The mother of a 17-year-old tells pubescent brothers engaged in barrier building, “If you find the sight of me arousing, you have problems I can’t help you with.” Their comments can also be angry. One woman who had pushed for a place to pray in her community’s new mosque sees the construction of a barrier and says, “This is just basically saying, ‘Shut up, we gave you your space.'” However, Me and the Mosque never quite captures the power of fright that Moore and Morgan Spurlock of Super Size Me use in making authences question gun control or consumer culture. The creation of baseless traditions that can become the basis for legal rulings in a major religion is grounds for a horror movie (maybe something like The Invasion of the Sunna S na t chers).

But Me and the Mosque covers itself with scholarly analysis for its hadith-hungry Muslim authence. The likes of ‘Umar Faruq Abd-Allah, ‘Abdullah Adhami and Tariq alSuwaidan all make appearances to place the barrier in context. The conclusion they drive home is that barriers were not found in the Prophet Muhammad’s Mosque, and therefore are not a legitimate tradition. Although they deliver the factual goods seriously, they are wisely played against some very amusing animation, which bring to life Islamic history and hadith in unexpectedly funny ways.

In a self-starring documentary, the director’s character can make or break the film. Nawaz’s presence is not as overbearing as Moore’s, but comes off with a real sense of sincerity and passion for her mission. Yet, at times, she places a little too much importance on being earnest, particularly in interviews with her family in which we hear her voice more than we should. In a scene with her mother, Nawaz starts out listening to her mother’s funny, matronly worries, but then ends up nagging her mother into agreement.

Nawaz’s intentions are clear. The film is not just a survey of women’s prayer space sob stories. It is a call to action. She ends the film with the Qur’anic verse that challenges us to change our condition by changing our hearts.

Although the filmmaking sometimes suffers, mostly from some strange cutting and an unsatisfying treatment of Nawaz’s own conflict within her mosque, Me and the Mosque is ultimately a success. Nawaz is able to take on an issue so personal yet honestly strive for dialogue rather than controversy as the film spells out its position with respect to the viewer. And that is no small feat. No matter which side of the barrier you stand on, Me and the Mosque should be seen and applauded – by all.

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    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

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