Veils, Cleats, and Other Attire in Zanzibar

September 5, 2013 - Zanzibar, Tanzania

We've launched our Kickstarter! A generous grant from Megan's graduate institution has covered the majority of our expenses, but we're fundraising for the odds and ends that the grant won't cover. Thank you so much to those who have contributed, not only with funds, but with kind words, long-distance hugs, and constructive feedback. We are sincerely touched by the support and encouragement we have received from our friends and family in the first 24 hours of its launch.

In the wake of the Kickstarter launch, we have received some tough criticism in response to our proposed title for the documentary, "Veils to Cleats." Blogger and Muslim footballer Shireen Ahmed has pointed out (very validly) that women can wear both veils and cleats, and cites FIFA's recent overturning of the hijab ban on the soccer field. In her view, our title implies that it is only once the women remove the veil that they are liberated.

This was not our intention, and I want to offer my sincere apologies to Shireen and rugby player Hala Iqbal, as well as my appreciation for taking the time to talk with us about these issues. Your feedback has been invaluable in shaping our understanding of the political and cultural issues surrounding the veil. We chose our tentative title because it provided compelling visual imagery of the women's unusual participation in football, and because "veils to cleats" is true for the players on the New Generation Queens. Though not all the players wear a veil off the field, those who do wear it choose to remove it while they play, opting for bandanas or bare heads instead. But this is not true for all hijab-wearing footballers, and our proposed title does an injustice to women who make the choice to wear it off and on the soccer field. It is not deveiling that I support; my wholehearted support is for a woman's right to choose her own path, whether she chooses to wear hijab, to play soccer, to do neither, or to do both.

Taking into account the feedback we've received, we want to make some changes. First, we are searching for a better title for our documentary, whether we opt for "Veils and Cleats" to underscore the prevalence of both in Zanzibar, or opt for a title that circumvents the highly-politicized nature of hijab entirely. Regardless of the title, our goal is to highlight these tenacious women as they overcome every obstacle to be the first generation of women to play soccer on this island. Second, we want to rework the wording of our Kickstarter, to positively represent all football-playing women, not limiting our representations to those who remove their veils. And third, moving forward, we want to collaborate not only with the soccer players here, but with those knowledgeable on the intersection of women, Islam, and soccer. We have been in dialogue with Shireen, and we are looking forward to working together with her. We welcome additional feedback and hope to continue a productive dialogue with anyone who wants to contribute.

On a more personal note: reading on-line that people perceive us and our project to be disingenuous, exploitative, and demeaning cut me more to my core than the criticism regarding our problematic title. At one point, Shireen referred to us as "white women saviors." Traveling abroad on and off for the past five years has been an ongoing educational opportunity for me, and I cringe when I look back at my early blog posts: I was the poster child for white girls with savior complexes and misguided notions that the mainstream American way is the best/only way. It was only in immersing myself in life in India and Nepal (it took more than one trip, truthfully) that I realized that nobody needs saving, least of all from me, and that I could learn more from the people, culture, and religion in my adopted community than I could ever hope to teach. I am still learning.

This is ultimately why I stopped volunteering and starting shooting documentaries, and why my blog posts over the past few trips have been fewer and further between. I am more compelled by other people's stories than I am by my own, and I'm in a unique position--given my privilege, education, and access to resources--to provide a a lens (literally) through which the voices of underrepresented communities can be shared. I am aware of, and still struggle with, the complexities of being a white person shooting a documentary about women of color in the developing world. I moved to Oakland, California nearly two years ago, a wonderfully diverse city worlds apart from small town North Carolina where I grew up.  Since moving, I have engaged in numerous conversations with people of all backgrounds about culture, race, and privilege, and my understanding of my own privilege (as a white person in a straight relationship) has has been evolving as a result.* I grapple with how to incorporate this evolving understanding into my words, actions, and everyday life. Here and now, I'm working out how that knowledge affects/contributes to making a more ethical documentary and more positive contribution to the conversation on women, Islam, and soccer. With this in mind, we have been striving to collaborate with the New Generation Queens every step of the way. In order for this to be their story, it is critical to me that this documentary not only be about these women, but for these women and created with them.

* For a long time, words like "privilege" and "oppression" felt like buzzwords I heard bounced around the East Bay, but I never really grasped their meaning. If you're in the same boat, this short article by John Scalzi gives an excellent overview... through a video game metaphor!

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