Headscarves or not? It has been a point of discussion in the Netherlands for a long time. Is wearing a headscarf a sign of oppression or an expression of your own identity? Do women with a headscarf have no freedom, no will of their own? One thing is certain: to what extent the emancipation of the woman wearing a headscarf may leave something to be desired, compared to Saudi women, women with a headscarf in the Netherlands enjoy an unthinkable freedom, as we see in the documentary ‘Women Without Shadows’.
In Saudi Arabia, in recent decades, women have been inordinately oppressed, requiring them to cover their entire body and face and be completely dependent and in the service of men. Hayfa el-Mansur, the only female Saudi director in a country without cinemas, exposes this repression in her remarkable and important documentary, which has already provoked strong reactions from supporters and opponents alike. But as long as the film is seen by as many people as possible and it leads to discussions, El-Mansur’s mission has been accomplished. She gives the floor to many concerned Saudi women, both covered, oppressed and uncovered, more progressive women.
At the beginning of the film, a woman from the latter category speaks about the dire situation of the last decades. According to her, when she was young, around the sixties, it wasn’t that bad. In the past, people could just walk uncovered and men did not have to dare to belittle women (verbally or physically) on the street. Now it is different. At one point in the documentary, we hear a number of commandments passing through speakers in the street. They are the functions of, or places for the woman: She needs a man to marry, a house to keep her in, and finally a coffin to keep her in. You would almost laugh if it weren’t so troubling, and a daily reality for Saudi women.
Some women, completely dressed in black, have their say and speak candidly about their situation. They explicitly state that they conform to the opinions of others, the mother, father, or husband. It is only when someone or something is approved or suggested by someone else that women have some freedom to agree or not, although they will not often go against the advice of their parents. They also talk about some immoral women that they sometimes meet on the street. For example, they just saw a few more women who just went down the street without a man and who were “flirting” with shop assistants. In their opinion, a woman should not just have these kinds of contacts, and should reserve them for her husband. Although they sound like they really think this is justified themselves, later conversations suggest otherwise. El-Mansur visits the Sheikh to talk about these practices, when it turns out that he is not so strict about the different rules and allows reasonable freedom for the women.
When El-Mansur asks a few covered women if they are aware of this, they say that this is not true, because they would have been walking around uncovered by then. Fortunately, we see that there are also women who are trying to bring about change. We see some women talking to each other about the difficulties caused by such acts, often the woman in question is looked at by her own family and friends, and she must therefore be strong in her shoes to persevere in her principles. A few women have been found to work for themselves and earn money for over a decade without being dependent on a man, and several others feel supported by this. Let’s hope the same goes for all the oppressed women who see this movie. “Women Without Shadows” is an essential, courageous film, which looks and listens respectfully but critically to the women in Saudi Arabia, who are finally getting their own voice here. After seeing the film, the Sheik quickly took his words back, no doubt in order to limit these increasing voices and freedom of the women as much as possible, but this will not be enough to stop them.