Muneeza in the Middle explores Muslim woman’s search for identity
Documentary Muneeza in the Middle, airing on CBC’s documentary channel Jan. 21, explores a fashion-conscious, outspoken Muslim wife, mother and lawyer struggle with how to be observant on her own terms.
The voluminous black and white scarf Toronto lawyer Muneeza Sheikh wraps around her head as a hijab at the conclusion of documentary Muneeza in the Middle has a dramatic skull motif — and is from designer Alexander McQueen.
Do faith and fashion have to be at odds for a devout Muslim woman?
In Ottawa filmmaker Hoda Elatawi’s revelatory doc, premiering Wednesday Jan. 21 on CBC’s documentary channel, Sheikh, 33, struggles with defining herself and understanding how the image she projects relates to who she is as a woman, wife and particularly as a mother.
It’s a complex issue and one that will be familiar to women regardless of culture or beliefs, especially when the confident Sheikh discovers long-held opinions waver with the birth of her daughter Haniyah.
A devout Muslim, the question of what defines modesty — considered an outward expression of faith — is at the heart of Muneeza in the Middle, which was filmed over five years.
“We became a part of their lives and that was one of the things we wanted to accomplish,” said Elatawi of the time she spent filming Sheikh and her husband of 13 years, Mustafa Khaliq.
Sheikh, who has a fondness for flash and designer clothes, shared what she calls “my very personal journey” with Elatawi. And although the doc begins focused on Sheikh, it soon becomes an exploration of marriage and motherhood, along with culture and friendship, all offering an inside look at life in a Canadian Muslim household.
Muneeza in the Middle premieres at a “challenging time for Muslims around the world,” Sheikh agreed as she sat down with the Star in the boardroom of Toronto employment and labour law firm Levitt LLP, where she is a partner. A tongue stud was occasionally visible as she talked.
“I think this (documentary) is really just about my personal journey, but there’s an element of the film that represents diversity in the community right now and, if you turn on the radio or TV, respectfully, I think there’s a lot of hate proliferated toward the Muslim community right now,” Sheikh said.
“This is the time to get some dialogue going about how diverse our community really is.”
As Muneeza in the Middle opens, Sheikh is seen without makeup, wearing a hijab and at prayer. In the next scene, a tattooed man is punching a new piercing into the cartilage of her ear.
“I think it’s pretty and I really don’t care what anybody else thinks,” says Sheikh as she admires the new look in a mirror. Ditto for the $2,600 handbag (not her only one), dramatic makeup and the designer clothes she loves to wear.
Humility is a “huge” part of being a good Muslim, she admits in the film, adding, “I don’t have too much of it.”
“For me the challenge has always been (that) I do consider myself to be a devout Muslim woman,” Sheikh explained last week.
She keeps a prayer rug and hijab in her office, is conscious of not dressing to draw male attention and avoids after-work events where alcohol would be an issue.
“I do believe in the religion wholeheartedly,” she continued. “But I also relate very much to my Canadian and western identity and so for me, it was a matter of finding a liaison between the two that would make me feel comfortable. I wish I could tell you I’ve figured it all out today sitting before you, but it’s still a journey. I still struggle with it.”
The decision to participate in the documentary was prompted by the couple’s desire to “make a creative contribution,” Sheikh said, adding while, “I don’t regret the fact I was open and upfront,” she does wonder how viewers will react to “some of the contradictory things I said throughout the years.”
She now regrets saying in the doc that she represents “the majority” of Muslim women. “I wish I didn’t say that,” said Sheikh. “I don’t feel that way, but I do feel I represent the diversity.”
Added Sheikh: “I don’t want to be seen as the ambassador for Islam. I am simply the ambassador for my own personal life and my journey.”
“The thing I really liked about Muneeza is, she’s not apologetic. ‘I am who I am and I’m struggling with certain things and I admit that I cherry pick,’ ” said Elatawi of her subject. “We all cherry pick, whether it’s our culture or value system.
Onscreen, Sheikh and Khaliq are often at odds, although in gentle fashion. Khaliq, a soft-spoken former marketer who now runs a personal shopping and wardrobe consulting business, is more conservative. Their debates intensify with the births of Haniyah, now 6, and 2 1/2-year-old son, Noah.
Khaliq makes it clear he’s not crazy about the two-piece baby bikini Sheikh buys for their then-toddler daughter, to say nothing of his reaction to his wife’s use of facial fillers and fondness for bright lipstick.
“To me, a personal life is a personal life,” Khaliq said last week when asked about his reaction to the documentary.
“Neeze and I are two different people,” he added. “We’ve accepted that and God willing, we continue to make it work.”
Filmmaker Elatawi first met Sheikh in 2008 while researching a film on multiculturalism.
“I really connected with Muneeza,” said Elatawi, who is also Muslim and came to Canada from Egypt as a child.
“She was so engaging and so articulate and so self-assured and confident,” said Elatawi, who figured it would be “interesting” to examine Sheikh’s life as she had a family.
It’s not surprising to see Sheikh become more conservative in her outlook as her daughter grows up.
“I can certainly see (my story) is something that would have resonated with any young woman who is raising a young lady at home,” said Sheikh. “You do crazy things in your past and you worry that your daughter is going to say, ‘Practise what you preach.’”
To that end, she said, she wants Haniyah to marry a Muslim. If her daughter is not religious, she said, it would break her heart.
“As Haniyah is getting older I think I’ve become a lot more conservative, although Mustafa thinks I’ve got a long way to go,” Sheikh said with a smile.