I never thought it would be so difficult to find a Muslim woman willing to be filmed putting on her veil perhaps because finding my subject is somewhat obvious? Fathema Syeda works in a high street shop behind the till. “That’s funny,” she says, “my family and I have just been interviewed by a television channel as part of a programme on minorities in small communities.” So the idea of being interviewed does not frighten her. That’s a good start, I think. But when I explain my idea to her, her eyes slightly narrow. “I don’t know,” she says. I visit the shop about three times before we finally fix a date for filming. I want to start with an interview. It will put her at ease in front of the camera and help me with the central piece later. After all, this is going to be a collaborative project?
On the day of filming, I take a taxi to her home after work happy to get on with the practical stuff instead of writing the diary. I checked the equipment the night before; the camera battery is full and I have a spare mini DV and batteries for the microphone. The room is small but comfortable - so far, so good. She offers me a glass of water while I unpack the equipment. "Oh, no!" a small part is missing from the tripod. I left it on a rental camera at The Phoenix Media Centre. I fear this is an omen for the entire project. It might have a leg to stand on now but it will eventually reveal what is most lacking. Already Folake has troubled me by praising the slightly unfinished quality of the diaries. What does she mean by that? I substitute the tripod for a pile of books and advise Fathema to pause a moment or so before answering my questions for editing purposes. Despite being a confident teenager, Fathema’s voice is feeble. “I started wearing the veil when I was eleven. It was earlier than I needed to but all my sisters were wearing it and, I felt a little left out really.”
Afterward, she asks to watch the interview, all 13 minutes. She seems satisfied with the content while I worry about the sound. "What about filming you covering up? Have you thought about it?" She has indeed and her answer is NO. Her refusal to participate any more in the project is a huge disappointment because in my mind, the film has always been a follow-up to the interview featuring the same woman. Suddenly, I don't know what to do with the recording anymore.
A few weeks later, I stop a woman in the street wearing a hijab. Again, she’s a teenager, a 19-year-old girl from Kuwait. Her name is Noha. Her appearance is less modest, trendier than Fathema’s but her assurance is equal. Soon after, she calls me to meet her and her mother at a café. Both are eager to tell me about Islam. We all have tea and coffee. Noha is coolly smoking. She looks at me then points at her hat. “This is modern hijab.” I notice her mother’s jewellery, nail polish, sunglasses and the scarf fashionably tied up around her neck. There are highlights in her hair. No, her mother does not cover and Noha’s decision to do so was entirely hers, I learn. Their kindness is overwhelming. A French woman once told to me she did not like Arabs for their lack of deference and instant familiarity.
I understand Noha might agree to be filmed putting on her veil. Her mother has little objection but Noha’s father is away and I have to wait for his return for a full authorisation. I give them a sample of my work and a recording of Panorama about four women in the UK “Covering up” (BBC1, 13th June 2004, 10.30 pm.); I’m hoping to convey the seriousness of the project. As it happens, I won’t be filming Noha and it takes me a couple of months to realise this. Noha is about to go to a college in Plymouth and commute every day from Exeter. The month of fast, Ramadan, is approaching. Lack of time and exhaustion are not the only problems though; her father has objected to his daughter being on the Net in what he understands is a political film. This time, I don't even have a recording to fall back on and, I can't write about my non-existent work in my diary; it just seems pointless.
I live around the corner from the Mosque in Exeter. One weekend, I talk to a few women there. Resolute and hopeful in my search, I can’t help but think that one of them will grant me more than a passing interest at last. I introduce myself, Watershed and Kuumba. I patiently explain the aim of the project. The group is made of mature and younger women. All of them flinch at the thought of being filmed without their veil. I insist that digital technology offers sufficient protection and privacy, that any unwanted footage would be erased and remain unseen by the public except for the parties concerned (me and the veiled woman). A woman volunteers to bring up the issue the following week without my presence and contact me soon after.
In the meantime, I proceed to interview a professor at The Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at The University of Exeter. Dr. Nadje S. Al-Ali clarifies the term “veil” for me and invites me to a discussion about the subject with her students. She also introduces me to a colleague of hers, Anissa Daoudi. Anissa is Algerian. She’s doing a phd in linguistics whilst tutoring at the university. I videotape our chat over coffee. Anissa describes Algeria to me and the consequences of living outside one’s native country for too long.
When The Institute e-mail my request for a practising Muslim wearing the veil to its graduate and postgraduate students, no one comes forth and, when the Mosque finally gives me the contact details of a woman who might help, many weeks have passed since my visit. The woman in question is in Exeter for the day at her in-laws'. She gives me one hour to explain and complete the filming for which I have not brought the necessary equipment. Once again, I go home empty-handed.
Obviously, I need to rethink the project.