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Manislam: Is an Ungendered Islam Possible?

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(Opin­ion) In Man­is­lam, Turk­ish-Nor­weigian di­rec­tor Ne­fise Özkal Lorentzen takes a deeper look into what it means to be a man and a Mus­lim. An interesting take on a delicate question of our time.

In Is­lamic coun­tries, often women and ho­mo­sex­u­als have lim­ited free­dom and added hard­ship in life. Men tend to limit the free­dom of oth­ers and make them ‘suf­fer’. A pos­si­ble rea­son is that in such coun­tries the pa­tri­ar­chal sys­tem is wide­spread; un­like girls, boys are thought to be strong, dom­i­nant, de­ci­sion mak­ers and beloved – just be­cause they are men.

Well, are the men of Is­lamic coun­tries re­ally happy? How do they carry that bur­den, how do they cover every­thing they are ex­pected to be? What are the bases taken into con­sid­er­a­tion in the in­ter­pre­ta­tions of the holy book? What is the real prob­lem: the book or the in­ter­pre­ta­tions? Ne­fise Özkal Lorentzen seeks an­swers to those ques­tions in the last film episode of her Islam Tril­ogy. 

In her first film, Gen­der Me (2008), we met men who want to to be both ho­mo­sex­sual and Mus­lim. In the sec­ond episode, A Baloon for Allah (2011), she nar­rated why women in Islam are un­happy. In the final episode Man­is­lam (2014), the lead­ing roles be­long to men in Islam. The music of the doc­u­men­tary was com­posed by the well­known Turk­ish Sufi f­lute player Mer­can Dede; the film is spon­sored by the Nor­we­gian Na­tional Broad­cast­ing TV (NRK). It is the re­sult of a three year ef­fort. In Man­is­lam, Özkal Lorentzen in­tro­duces to us four Mus­lim men from In­done­sia, Ku­wait, Bangladesh and Turkey, who see the ne­ces­sity of a new un­der­stand­ing of Islam in the world, who see life in a dif­fer­ent way than their fel­low be­liev­ers and who dare to ask ques­tions.​

This doc­u­men­tary is a brief story of how they see Islam, what con­flicts they face while they at­tempt to change the dom­i­nant cul­ture in their coun­tries and how they dis­sem­i­nate their mes­sages. Ac­cord­ing to the film di­rec­tor, these four men who try to shape a de­mo­c­ra­tic and uni­ted Islam, mov­ing to­ward their own free­dom. Ne­fise Özkal Lorentzen's doc­u­men­taries are slightly dif­fer­ent then oth­ers, as it is en­r­iched by an­i­ma­tion and fairy­tale nar­ra­tion. What is also spe­cial about her is that she takes part in the movies as a mother and woman, all while being the di­rec­tor.

Men be­hind the masks

In Man­is­lam, Özkal Lorentzen makes us sym­pa­thise and feel with the men in their pain, rather than barely in­form­ing or il­lu­mi­nat­ing the is­sues. The pro­tag­o­nists share their very in­ti­mate mem­o­ries, other times they con­fess to Özkal Lorentzen's cam­era. İhsan Eliaçik is well known by Gezi Riot sup­port­ers in Turkey. He leads an ac­tivist group in Turkey called Anti-Cap­i­tal­ist Mus­lims. He is an im­por­tant fig­ure for the di­rec­tor, being from the same cul­ture; he gives her hope to get real Islam back from the fun­da­men­tal­ists in Turkey. Eliaçik is a Mus­lim the­ol­o­gian and thinks that re­li­gion should be an­chored in daily life and focus on in­jus­tices such as hunger or en­vi­ro­men­tal is­sues. Ac­cord­ing to him, the prob­lems are not re­ally rooted in Islam but wrong in­ter­pre­ta­tions and the dom­i­nant pa­tri­ar­chal sys­tem im­pose the pas­sion for power and pos­ses­sion on men.

Ban­gledeshi Im­tiaz Pavel cre­ated a quiz board game which he plays with the vil­lage kids to make them un­der­stand that men and women are equal from an early age. In the Mus­lim vil­lages Pavel vis­ited, girls play foot­ball in shorts, while boys cheer for them.  Naif Al-Mu­tawa is psy­chol­o­gist from Kuwait and the cre­ator of the 99, the first su­per­hero car­toon char­ac­ters in the Is­lamic world. His sto­ries de­pict the ad­ven­tures of 99 su­per­heros, each with one of the 99 names of Allah. He be­lieves in the power of nar­ra­tion and no­ticed that there was no su­per­hero in the Is­lamic world, un­like Su­per­man or Bat­man in the Chris­t­ian world.

Syaldi Se­hude and four other young men put on miniskirts and walked in the streets of Jakarta chant­ing slo­gans against rape.​ This small event had a na­tion­wide ef­fect and be­came a head­line in the Jakarta Post. They be­lieve that in order to eman­ci­pate women, first men should be freed. They should be al­lowed to be emo­tional and cry like women do. 

Time for an Is­lamic Rev­o­lu­tion?

Be­sides point­ing out men's pain, Ne­fise Özkal Lorentzen's film also un­veils an im­por­tant fact of to­day's world that should be con­sid­ered: peo­ple from Mus­lim coun­tries are judged ac­cord­ing to their dom­i­nant re­li­gion, but not on their in­di­vid­u­al per­son­al­ities or tal­ents. The bad rep­u­ta­tion of Islam leads to prej­u­dices and dis­crim­i­na­tion. Chris­tian­ity ex­pe­ri­enced the Re­nais­sance in the 16th cen­tury and this re­form of the re­li­gion re­sulted in a new era in his­tory. Islam has not yet had a re­form. Al-Mu­tawa, Eliaçık, Pavel and Se­hude could be con­sid­ered as pi­o­neers of an Is­lamic Re­form. Man­is­lam shows us that con­tri­bu­tions to that re­form are needed rather quickly. The Islam Tri­ol­ogy of Lorentzen should be shown in every coun­try to help peo­ple to re­al­ise that Islam, as we ex­pe­ri­ence it today, is not the real ver­sion. Fur­ther­more, stereo­typ­ing Mus­lims will not solve any of the prob­lem in the world, as the Is­lamic re­form needs to be un­der­taken by real Mus­lims.