Hijab as Ritual in Faiza Ambah’s Mariam (2015)

Joy C. Schaefer

To be presented at the Society for Cinema & Media Studies conference in Toronto on March 15, 2018.

Many scholars have used postcolonial theories to show how ‘banlieue films’ (films set in French big city suburbs) reflect the culturally plural reality of France. This paper will explore Faiza Ambah’s Mariam (France/Saudia Arabia/U.S./United Arab Emirates, 2015) using transnational feminist theories, which are careful to attend to the interrelations between colonialism, race, and gender. Mariam is set in the eastern Parisian banlieue of Bagnolet and represents a teenage Muslim-French girl’s experience during the passage of the 2004 law that banned ‘conspicuous’ religious symbols in French public schools. I argue that the film not only subverts Islamophobic stereotypes, but that it also offers us a way to think altogether differently about hijab—the Islamic practice of wearing a scarf to cover one’s hair.

Ambah, the film’s director, grew up in Saudi Arabia and was The Washington Post’s Gulf correspondent 2006 to 2009. She admits to being critical of women who wear the niqab (full face veil) until, during a trip to France in 2011, she witnessed the effects of the law banning it in public spaces. This inspired her to make Mariam. Drawing on Saba Mahmood’s study of the Islamic piety movement, I explore how Mariam’s (Oulaya Amamra) explanation of her choice to wear the hijab connects to the idea of hijab as reverent ritual and transformation of the self—a way of feeling and thinking about the world that includes the desire to be part of a community and valuing one’s attachment to God. Mid-film, after Mariam has continued to wear the hijab to school despite the law, she enters her room to find her father sitting on her bed with scissors in his hands. We cut to a close-up of her pink satin hijab cut to shreds on the floor, highlighting the extent of the symbolic violence within this action. Mariam’s careful mise-en-scene encourages us to view the hijab as more than a mere identity marker, as many white Western feminists tend to construct it. The film connects these formal elements to pivotal narrative moments, urging the non-believer to understand the ontology of religious reverence.



Dissertation Abstract

“Cruel Paris: Transnational Feminist Approaches to Banlieue Cinema”

Joy Carolann Schaefer

This dissertation explores films that represent the Parisian banlieue (suburban ‘ghettos’) as a transnational space in two distinct periods: the early 1960s, when U.S. popular culture and French colonialism in North Africa acutely affected the banlieue; and the post-9/11 period, in which Islamophobic discourses and policies proliferated in the West, rendering the banlieue an increasingly stigmatized space. “Cruel Paris” investigates how films invoke intertexts and re-inscribe genres to narrate the banlieue as a site of transnational negotiation, telling local stories that impel the spectator to envision France as a (post)colonial, transcultural community. Far from a utopian representation, this depiction critiques the exclusionary ideology of French Republican universalism—the imperative to value the citizen’s ‘abstract’ individualism and national identity over religious, ethnic, and gender identities in the public sphere. I argue that films of both time periods reveal the banlieue as a carceral space that contains and controls bodies that have been socially constructed as non-universal, i.e. marked as non-white, non-Catholic, or otherwise inadequate for universalization.

While scholars have used postcolonial theories to illustrate how banlieue films reflect the multi-ethnic reality of contemporary France, this lens does not necessarily include the analytical category of gender. In contrast, “Cruel Paris” employs transnational feminist theories to examine interrelations among (anti)racist, (anti)colonial, and (anti)feminist representations in an extended study of banlieue films. Precisely because of its postcolonial theoretical inheritance, transnational feminism warns against using ‘women’s rights’ discourses for racist ends; it maintains that sexism is prevalent in all cultures, yet manifests in different ways; and it acknowledges that the meanings and experiences of intersectional identities and oppressions shift according to context. I closely analyze key films—The Wasteland (1960), Octobre à Paris (1962), L’Esquive (2004), Caché (2005), and Skirt Day (2009)—to uncover the structural racism, Islamophobia, and sexism that the spatial marginalization of the Parisian banlieue reifies. In representing the banlieue as causally linked to the interlocking histories of French settler colonialism in Algeria and U.S. cultural imperialism, these films expose integration as a cruel promise by demonstrating that assimilation is necessary—yet often impossible—for the mobility of non-universal French citizens.

Dissertation Co-Advisors: Kadji Amin & Adrián Pérez Melgosa

Defense Chair: Liz Montegary

Outside Reader: Geneviève Sellier