I ring the bell to Rayda Jacobs’s modest suburban home. Stationed on the verandah is Jacobs’s mastiff. He is twice as big as I am so I am certain I will be eaten before I get to the front door, but the giant puppy tries to hide behind a thin pillar and peeps shyly out at me. They say dogs are like their owners and Jacobs turns out to be a blend of kindly humanitarian and plucky street fighter.
Jacobs returned to South Africa after a 27-year sojourn in Canada. “I was disturbed to find a number of Muslim writers claiming that Islam oppresses women, with husbands forcing their wives into the veil,” she says.
She saw this as misrepresentation that feeds into the broad perception of Muslim women as subjugated and pliant. Her anger at this strengthened her resolve to change the media image of Muslim women.
“This is my job,” she says — a candid statement encapsulating the blend of humility and steely conviction that seems to characterise Jacobs. She seems amused by those who believe that Muslim women toil under the dictates of men: “I cover up by choice, not because I am repressed by a man. The Muslim women I know are like me. We have big mouths, man.”
So too does Abeeda (played by Jacobs), lead character of Confessions of a Gambler, Jacobs’s remarkable debut feature. She is a practising Muslim, observant of Islamic rituals and traditions and respected as ringleader of her group of doekie-wearing friends.
Yet Abeeda is a compulsive gambler, smokes like a dragon, swears like a sailor, is in love with her sister’s husband, runs her own successful pie-making business and does not flinch at caring for her gay son, who is dying of Aids. In recent years it has become a cinematic trend to depict Muslim women as veiled, enigmatic and silent, straining under the tyranny of bearded patriarchs. Confessions of a Gambler sweeps these clichés aside, showing the reality of what it is to be a Muslim woman in Cape Town.
Jacobs is adamant that Islam stands apart from those who have misused its teachings and created the misperception that it is misogynistic. “Islam is the only religion that grants women rights,” she argues. It is this pragmatic and empowering Islam that Jacobs aims to usher into the spotlight. She maintains: “The Qur’an is a guide, not doctrine … Islam encourages you to challenge its teachings.” But Jacobs refutes my suggestion that the film is a critique of patriarchal Muslim orthodoxy. She does not seek to engage in a tussle over the voice of the Muslim community, a surprising claim considering the potential this film has to cause a stir.
For Jacobs Islam is less about cultural politics than a private search for spiritual fulfilment. As Jacobs insists: “I am not interested in changing the ideology of other people, even the verkramptes [conservatives].”
Indeed, the film does temper the critique of Muslim conservatism inherent to the narrative, making oblique references to the power of a patriarchal and oppressive Muslim orthodoxy rather than taking it on directly. The sly charm of the film is in the demonstration of how the doctrinaire can be sidestepped by women who enjoy a nurturing Islam.
For all the pragmatism of Jacobs’s approach to Islam, the notion of sin remains very real. But then so too does absolution. As Jacobs quips, twinkle-eyed but with a defiant thrust of the jaw: “I want to show that Muslim women have fun. I’m a little bit naughty, then I’m back on the prayer mat.” So too with the despairing Abeeda, who turns to gambling all the while seeking absolution from God.
Abeeda’s redemption could be seen as a retreat back into the fold of tradition and piety, except that Jacobs does not set up Islam as a repressive force in the first place. Rather she shows how Muslim women are in a continually evolving, empowered engagement with their faith.