Reference Guide to African Women in Cinema
Film/Media Analysis and Scholarship
 


African Women, Cinema and Islamic Cultures by Beti Ellerson

Originally published in The Encyclopedia of Women and Islamic Cultures.

Entry title: Women, Gender and Women Film Directors and Film Stars: Sub-Saharan Africa, 2007.


Background

The notion of African women in cinema in Islamic cultures takes into account the social, political, and cultural structures and histories of Africa south of the Sahara.  In so doing it is viewed within the particular conventions of cinematic practices emerging in Africa since the start of an African cinema tradition. In reading African women in cinema through a lens of Islamic culture the most important factor to consider is that in the same way that there are diverse African cinemas, there is a plurality of African Islamic cultures that reflects the specificities of the African societies in which Islam is practiced. This includes most significantly, pre-Islamic customs, traditions and beliefs and the manner in which Islam has been integrated.

        As elaborated in the book Sisters of the Screen: Women of Africa on Film, Video and Television (Ellerson), as a concept, "African women in cinema" incorporates the mediums of television, video, and film, consisting of fiction, documentary, and reportage.  In whatever form, the films largely focus on the social, political, and cultural realities of African societies. Lack of infrastructure and funding often drive many African women filmmakers to work and live outside of the continent, thus broadening their scope to include issues that relate to their current realities, such as immigration and other specific situations that they encounter in their host country.  Nonetheless, the themes and issues are drawn from an African imaginary.

        The common idea of cinema with the feature film as the main focus, projected on the big screen and viewed by large audiences in cinema houses is not the reality of cinema in Africa—where alternative exhibition networks are required—and even less so regarding African women. Thus the title, “African women of the image”, more appropriately delineates the diverse means and processes that comprehend their filmmaking practices. While African women have achieved considerable visibility in the area of cinema, their evolution as film/video practitioners has been gradual and sporadic. Nonetheless, the emergence of African women in cinema corresponds to the beginning of African cinema in the 1960s as a corpus of African films emerged and an African cinematic practice took shape.


Cinema and Islam: Haram or Halal?

Amadou Hampâté Bâ (1967) recalls the first film screening in his native village Bandiagara, Mali in 1908, held by a European. The village ulemas met in order to prevent the projection of these moving images, which in their view were “satanic ghosts ready to trick the true believer.” Kadidia Paté, Hampâté Bâ’s mother, was among those who viewed these images with great suspicion. In 1934, though she remained under the 1908 interdiction of the marabouts of Bandiagara, to please her son she agreed to go to the cinema house. Her testimony is among the earliest discourses of an African Muslim woman regarding experiences of cinema. An astute cultural reader, Kadidia Paté likens the movie screen, which mediates the projection of images to guide the viewer, to the divine messenger who intercedes between God and his believers. Thus, Amadou Hampâté Bâ interprets his mother’s views through the Qur’an: “It is not a certainty that God will speak; if it must be, it is by revelation, or through a veil, or a Disciple, and with the person’s permission the Disciple may reveal the message to God (S.XLII-V.50-51). These early interpretations by Kadidia Paté are in stark contrast to those at the time, which considered cinema as haram, and even more recently where the videocassette is viewed as “a symbol of cultural defiance of Islam” (Niang, 253).

        Actresses from Muslim regions of Africa south of the Sahara confirm the apprehension of cinema within their social and cultural milieus, especially as it relates to their struggle to work and be accepted. This is particularly evident in the balance between comportment in relation to Islamic codes for women and the fictional world of cinema in which the filmmaker takes artistic license of representation. In the film Al’leesi… Rahmatou Keita from Niger reveals the tremendous odds that pioneer actress Zalika Souley had to face in the 1960s during the emergence of cinema in Niger.  The film contrasts the “bad girl” roles that Zalika Souley played to the pious, devout Muslim that she is in her personal existence. Many of the roles that women play strongly contradict the edicts of a good Muslim woman. One classic example is, Oumi, the flamboyant, spendthrift, westernized, second wife of El Haji Abdoukader Beye in Xala (Sembene, 1974), the extreme opposite of Awa, his devout and loyal first wife. Similarly, the film Al’leessi… juxtaposes the acts of a dutiful Muslim woman who shows abiding faith in God, to film excerpts of her diverse roles. As a cowgirl, she is a member of an entourage of men who commits acts of violence in the “African western” Le retour d’un aventurier (Alassane, 1966) filled with characters dressed in cowboy attire complete with horses and lassos. She kisses the male cowboy who rescues her, at a time when kissing in Niger was viewed as haram. Boubacar Souna recalls the apprehension of actor turned filmmaker Djingarey Maiga in the role that required kissing, since in his view, Islam condemned this display of public affection.   Moreover, in her private life, Zalika Souley walked about Niamey, the capital, wearing jeans, attire which Rahmatou Keita describes as a provocation for insults and admonitions, even some forty years later in the contemporary period (Barlet). During a fit of jealous rage, Zalika Souley’s character attempts to kill her co-wife in Wazzou polygame (Ganda, 1970).  In still another film by Oumarou Ganda, she plays the role of a woman gone astray (Saitane, 1973). In the conservative environment of Niger, where people associate her screen character with reality, she was severely ostracized. The character of many of the films in which she played was considered haram: a woman publicly displaying intimacy, a murderer, and a loose woman.

        Zalika Souley makes a distinction between her character on the screen and her personal life. She rejects the notion that Islam is against cinema but rather views it as straightforward and tolerant, complicated by people’s own interpretations. In fact, in her view she became an actress with God’s blessing. There is a clear distinction between religion, the Qur’an and Islam, and earning a living. (Al’leessi).

        While her acting career was less prolific, Thérèse M’Bissine Diop from Senegal highlights a similar public mistrust and suspicion towards her in the 1960s. Women would turn away from her when she passed by. While her film characters were not viewed negatively, the reaction was located in her willingness to be displayed publicly on screen. Her own mother shunned her after the release of the film La Noire de… (Sembene, 1966).


Islam, culture, and filmmaking practices

It is worth noting that documentaries, which have been the major genre of African women, focus on specific issues that directly relate to African contemporary life in general, and often on the condition of women; such as women’s roles, women and the law, health, AIDS, agriculture, women and war, and literacy. The implication of religious laws and edicts or religion as an inherent part of society is the focus in films such as Women in Niger (Folly).

        African women filmmakers from countries with majority Muslim populations such as Chad, Mali, Niger, and Senegal, have been generally secular in the treatment of themes in their works (1) as compared, for instance, to the Senegalese patriarch of African cinema, Ousmane Sembene [of blessed memory]. His films variously include representations of Islam: the mosque, the muezzin call to prayer, the actors or passersby in some form of religious practice, which may include the five prayers throughout the day or an appeal to Allah during the course of conversation. Sembene also challenges certain Muslim contradictions, strongly mocking the imam and marabout, or parodying the foibles of polygamy in his classic film Xala. In Ceddo (1976), controversial at the time of its release, Sembene raises the issue of how Islam may be used for political power and a tool of mystification to oppress the masses. In practice, women and their condition in Senegalese society hold a prominent place in his work.

        Conversely, in literature, women writers such as Mariama Bâ (So Long a Letter and Scarlet Song) stay very close to Islamic traditions within a Senegalese context, providing the specific details of marriage, baptism, death and mourning, and religious ceremonies, and the specificities of the five daily prayers.  Similarly, Aminata Sow Fall, also from Senegal, is deeply reverential to Islam in her work, La grève des battus. Nafissatou Diallo’s autobiography, A Dakar Childhood, chronicles life as a female in a Muslim family in Senegal. Also using autobiography, Senegalese Ken Bugul in The Abandoned Baobab, pseudonymously relates her experiences, which because of its controversial content could be offensive coming from a Muslim woman.

        African women in cinema generally work within a local context. As television producers and makers of short film documentaries and reportage, these works are more likely to focus on local specificities and are not generally disseminated for wide-ranging consumption. Makers from majority Muslim populations, who have continental or international recognition such as Zara Yacoub (Chad), Ouméma Mamadali (Comores), Kadiatou Konaté (Mali), Miriama Hima (Niger), Rahmatou Keita (Niger), Safi Faye (Senegal), as well as Zulfah Otto-Sallies (South Africa), or in the case of Anne-Laure Folly (Togo), though not Muslim has an interest in women’s issues spanning the continent, highlight the role of culture in the political, social, and religious spheres of African societies. As Islam has been absorbed into African cultures at different times and in different ways, existing parallel to both traditional and colonial-inherited cultural, social and political systems, film themes reflect these multivalent characteristics. Separating Africa into either Islamic or Christian religions overlooks the many traditional spiritual belief systems throughout the continent that co-exist with the two monotheistic religions that came to Africa much later. These indigenous religions, deeply ensconced in African societies are evident in the films and documentaries.

        Senegalese Safi Faye, pioneer filmmaker, and anthropologist, draws from the cultural origins, myths and traditions of Senegal, especially its rural life. With a keen interest in her ancestral roots in the Serer region, she examined the religious beliefs of the Serer as the subject of study for her advanced degree. While Islam is the dominant religion of Senegal there is a notable interreligious character, as Muslims live side by side with Catholics, and indigenous belief systems are an integral part of the culture.

        Similarly, Nigerien Mariama Hima works at the intersection of film and ethnology. While she has a visible profile, which includes the post of Ambassador of Niger in France, she recalls the difficulties of playing an active role in cinema as a woman in Nigerien society in the 1970s. In addition to the inherent constraints placed on women in a Muslim society, she observes a double colonisation, one stemming from the colonisation of Africa by Europe and the other “a masculine colonisation in relation to women” (Givanni).

        Anne-Laure Folly from Togo explored traditional practices of sorcery in her first film, Le Gardien des forces (1992), while most of her subsequent works feature women from all sectors of African societies, such as Femmes aux yeux ouverts (1994), which navigates through the countries of Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Senegal. The film examines the condition of women in diverse contexts; some confront deep-set traditional customs that may be detrimental to women; while others find their place in modern African institutions. Her film, Femmes du Niger  (1993) explores the experiences of Nigerien women under Islam as they rally for the right to vote and organize against the joint forces of fundamentalism and tradition.

        Malian animation filmmaker Kadiatou Konaté highlights the primacy of African cultures in relationship to religion, thus emphasizing that Islam is experienced in different ways, according to cultural specificities. At the same time, Kadiatou Konaté observes that as a filmmaker, there are restrictions regarding Islamic dress codes for women, which inhibit the freedom of movement that she needs in her work. On the other hand, she emphasizes that Islam does not prohibit women from being filmmakers (Carré).

        In Sidet (1991), filmmaker Ethiopian Salem Mekuria examines the experiences of both Muslim and Christian women from Eritrea and Ethiopia in a refugee camp in Sudan. The common held western view of Ethiopia as an orthodox Christian country with a long history of Christianity obscures the reality that more than thirty percent of the population is Muslim.

        Ouméma Mamadali’s debut work, Baco (1995), co-directed with Malagasy, veteran media producer Kadire Fidaali, is a fiction film that explores the quotidian experiences of the small island of Comoros—Muslim, polygamous, and matriarchal—as the men are confronted with the democratic practice of voting, especially when a woman is elected. Ouméma Mamadali emphasizes the co-existence of traditional customs and Islam, especially as it relates to women’s power under a traditional matriarchal system.

        Zara Mahamat Yacoub describes her role as a filmmaker as a duty to communicate and inform, thus to make films that probe issues that are generally not dealt with. Her reason for producing the télé-film Dilemme au féminin (1994), a multi-layer docu-drama about female excision was to debate the issue from religious, cultural and medical perspectives; though the Muslim Brotherhood of Chad ultimately condemned it and she was banished.

        Female genital cutting is not a Muslim practice, though it is often associated with Islam. Zara Yacoub emphasizes the importance of instructing the predominantly Muslim population of Chad, that female genital cutting is not sanctioned by the Qur’an and is a pre-Islamic practice. In so doing it highlights that it is not an edict of Islam, but rather a cultural construct deeply rooted in tradition. Similarly, Malian, actress, filmmaker and activist Fatoumata Coulibaly has become the symbol of resistance to the practice of female genital cutting, and militates on and off-screen for its eradication. Her forceful role in Moolaade (Sembene, 2004) catapulted her on-going advocacy to a more prominent visibility.

        Ivoirien Naky Sy Savane, also an actor in Moolaade, has also been a visible advocate for the eradication of the practice. The granddaughter of a notable imam and raised in a conservative Muslim family, she has defied all expectations of her family to work as an actress in both the theater and cinema. Her roles have been diverse, reflecting her own desire to see realistic, strong representations of African women. Her role in the award-winning film, Au nom du Christ (1993) by Roger Gnoan Mbala, which explores the rise of religious cults and like Sembene’s Ceddo, the mystification of religion, and La Jumelle (1998), by Lanciné Diabi, which is based on indigenous spiritual practices, highlights her versatility as actor as well as the diversity of religious practices of Cote d’Ivoire.


Identities

Zulfah Otto-Sallies from South Africa, draws attention to the emergence of identities as a category of focus in Africa cinema studies. As Africans traverse the frontiers through immigration, are born outside of the continent, as first generation diasporans, or as other ethnic groups born on the continent assert their African-ness, multiple identities form and definitions of African transform.

        South Africa is home to a small population of Muslims, generally located in the Cape Town area called Bo-Kaap or in or around the western Cape Town region. Moreover, the majority of the Muslim population is of South Asian descent, from India, Indonesia, Malaysia or Java, whose ancestors were brought as slaves in the 18th century by the British and Dutch, though East Africans were also part of this forced displacement. The descendants of this distinct group intermarried with peoples of the neighboring African countries of Angola, Mozambique, and Madagascar and from Europe.

         Zulfah Otto-Sallies’ short fiction film, Raya (2001) and documentary, Through the Eyes of My Daughter (2003), reveal the complexities of identities of a new South Africa that strives to represent the multi-layered society of ethnicities and cultural practices. More specifically, it explores inter-generation conflicts and attitudes as an older Muslim generation confronts the challenges of a westernized modernity in which a new generation lives.


Below are comments since the publication of the above article:


In her film, Sénégalaises et islam (Senegalese Women and Islam) Angèle Diabang Brener, a Christian among a majority Muslim population, navigates the delicate debate of fundamentalism versus modernity, providing insight on a rare instance where women themselves talk about their experiences as Muslim women and how they live their religion and culture.


Notes


1 This is reference to works that have gained a level of continental and international prominence.

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