Arena: The Veil

Broadcast on BBC1 in the UK on May 20th 2000

Directed by Aysha Rafaele
Produced by Anthony Wall


Arena has since 1975 been a documentary and culture flagship of for the BBC in the UK. The episode examined the wearing of the Hijab and Niqaab by Muslim woman throughout history and in contemporary Western society.

Parminder provides an 'in character' voice over narrative as a Muslim Girl.


The Guardian: May 22nd 2000

"In what set out to be an exploration of Muslim women and their attitude towards 'Hijab', the covering of the head and face, lost itself in a welter of visual trickery…This was a shame because the subject of Hijab is intriguing to Muslim and non-Muslim viewers alike, arousing puzzlement and passion in equal measure."

The Daily Telegraph: May 22nd 2000

"Despite its flaws, the programme did a pretty good job of unravelling the Hijab’s various meanings over the centuries."

The Financial Times: May 20th 2000

"The programme never makes clear exactly why Muslim women do wear the Hijab. Instead we get more insalata caprese: three white women chatter inconsequentially about the veil while having a manicure, and end by admitting that they have little idea of what they are talking about…It is as though the programme maker is terrified of making anything clear and is even hostile towards the viewer."

The Evening Standard: May 12th 2000

The paper carried an interview with three of the women featured in the Arena programme, and asks them why they have chosen to hide behind the veil.

"Um Ishaaq said she was not a practising Muslim until she sent her son to a Muslim school, not because of the religion but to get a good education, and became curious about the faith and decided to learn more about it. She says she was surprised to learn that Islam does not repress women, and when she began to cover herself out of respect when she went to the mosque, she "was so comfortable not having to worry about what I looked liked, I began to wear a Hijaab and Abaya [long coat] all the time." She gradually began wearing the Niqaab, which covers her face, as she became more involved in the faith, and although it was sometimes difficult to walk down the street and face abuse, she felt liberated because she had her own privacy and her own space. Nasreen tells a similar story, of being born to non-practising Muslim parents. It was after she was forced into an arranged marriage, and her fight to leave that marriage, that she began learning more about Islam. She said when she first began to practice, she would leave the house for work and go around the corner to put on her Niqaab. Naima grew up in South Africa with her non-Muslim family, but learnt more about Islam on a trip to Egypt. She gradually wore the veil after first wearing the headscarf for some time, and says that "now it feels the most natural thing in the world." The women agree that they are not oppressed in wearing the veil, but rather feel Western women with the pressures they face of looking attractive are being oppressed by this society."

Coming from a small town to live in a large multicultural city, as I do, you can't help but spend some time thinking about the various faiths you encounter on an average day, but you tend not to perhaps fully understand the different beliefs represented. So this documentary, "The Veil", interested me, offering as it did the opportunity to find out some more about a familiar sight where I live (Muslim women wearing the veil). But did it really work?

Well, in a way, no. Perhaps the late slot, or the Arena banner, or the size of the subject matter should have alerted me to the fact I was going to leave here even more confused than I was before. The programme was, in some ways, oddly old fashioned - though typical of Arena documentaries as a whole. It began with seven screens of white on black captions, in silence, explaining what the programme was about. It was explained that the main subject of the film was played by an actress, but she would be stating opinions compiled from several interviews with veiled women, who, as you may have expected, didn't want to appear on screen.

This was the only linkage in the film - which consisted of a series of interviews with various people. Annoyingly, nobody received a full credit, leaving it up to us to work out what relevance they had. So we weren't sure if the white people brought in to comment were just people they grabbed off the street, or, say, politically active. The man interviewed in his kitchen was a case in point - surely he must have had some strong opinions or he wouldn't have been interviewed? It seemed at times, though, like this wasn't the case - we kept on coming back to some women in a manicurists, who gave us their opinion, but at the end, one of them said "I dunno why you're asking us - we don't know anything about it." Was that the point the director was trying to make? That people are prepared to talk about it despite not having a clue?

A further complication was the concentration on the edit suite - we constantly saw film being rewound and edited. One speaker - an Asian woman who said (amongst other things) that by wearing the veil they were unable to live a normal life, regularly had her contributions prefaced by shots of her sitting waiting for her cue, which no other speaker had. This made her look slightly foolish, and seemed akin to the director telling us that her views were incorrect, although they seemed no more questionable than anybody else's.

Despite all this, some information was imparted. Probably the most important item was the idea that wearing the veil doesn't appear to be compulsory at all, and that a woman can choose to wear it. Some women believe it to have a "liberating" effect, perhaps because it offers a sense of privacy - they are able to go about their business in anonymity. Yet again the programme was irksome for what it didn't tell us - a veiled woman was interviewed, and asked if she would like to take it off, which she did. Cue everybody watching going "I didn't know they were able to do that."

It seems that the concept of the veil is a complicated topic, but this documentary appeared to complicate issues even more, especially for the non-Muslims in the audience. The voiceover claimed that one woman's mother tried to dissuade her from wearing the veil, to which she replied "It's only a piece of cloth." Maybe it's the simplicity of this that caused this film to be so confusing.

Reviewed by Steve Williams