Muslim women: access denied?

by Racialicious special correspondent Fatemeh Fakhraie, originally published at Muslima Media Watch

This article talks about a new movie, Coffee & Allah. It tells the story of a Muslim refugee “who feels isolated in her new country until someone reaches out to her through a spontaneous game of badminton.”

Directed by Dr. Shuchi Kothari and nominated for the best short film at the Venice Film Festival, the film casts Zahara Abbawajji, an Ethiopian from Auckland, New Zealand, as the lead female role. Dr. Kothari and the director cast Ms. Abbawajji after advertising to Auckland’s Ethiopian community. “Casting is not easy…You have to make in-roads into the community and do it on their terms, otherwise you can’t moan that these stories aren’t being told,” says Dr. Kothari.

Dr. Kothari herself is not Muslim, which intrigued me. How can a non-Muslim woman make a movie about a Muslim refugee?

Here’s the thing: she didn’t make a movie about Muslim women. She made a movie with Muslim women. You can’t make movies about us; you need to include us in the process for a very important reason: to portray us accurately, checking in with us on certain aspects of the story so you don’t alienate us later. Movies that portray Muslims and Muslim women negatively (even if they mean well) alienate and anger the community, which in the end really just widens the divide instead of bridging it. I still hate Sally Field because she starred in Not Without My Daughter. They showed it in my middle school, and everyone wanted to know if I was “Iraqi or whatever.” Damn you, Sally Field and Alfred Molina!

Dr. Kothari comments that, “These [Muslim] women become quite visible on one level, but on another level they’re quite invisible because no one has any access to them.”

What is access? This got me thinking, because it struck me. How do you “gain access” to these women? I think a lot of times, especially for women who wear hejab, we are seen as Fort Knox, or some other type of stronghold that can’t be “penetrated” to those who don’t have “access.” And who has access? Does access mean that you can interact with these women? Or does access mean that you can see these women’s hair or know about their personal lives? Does “access” mean the same thing for Western, non-Muslim women as it would for Muslim women?

I think the idea of access is really just an Orientalist relic, no matter which meaning you assign it. By thinking that you need access or are being denied access to Muslim women, you’re relegating Muslim women to things. You don’t need access to people, you need access to buildings or safety deposit boxes or passwords. Similarly, I know people who refer to women who wear niqabs and chadors as “tanks” or “ninjas.” This implies that these women are not only inaccessible, but also fortified against attacks of some kind (and stealthy).

The issue of access doesn’t even come up when you think of Western, non-Muslim women, especially if you add the sexual dimension of access. We’re all caught up this silly double cliché of “Muslim women = no sexual access EVER” and “Western, non-Muslim women = sexy time!” This implies that all Western, non-Muslim women are okay with having sex any time with anyone, while all Muslim women are either never okay with sex with anyone, or only okay with sex after marriage with someone they were arranged to marry if they have to have sex. And this dichotomy really leaves out any mention of bisexual and lesbian women from both camps.

Anyway, this movie, Coffee & Allah, looks incredibly interesting, and it seems like a positive step forward. I know I’ll be watching for it on Netflix.

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Fatemeh is currently finishing her master's degree. She currently runs a website dedicated to critiquing how Muslim women are portrayed in both Eastern and Western media.