Michael Patrick King’s exquisitely tone-deaf movie is cinematic Viagra for Western cultural imperialists who still ignorantly and inaccurately paint the entire Middle East (and Iran) as a Shangri La in desperate need of liberation from ignorant, backward natives. Historian Bernard Lewis, the 93-year-old Hall of Fame Orientalist and author of such nuanced gems as “The Arabs in History” and “Islam and the West,” would probably die of priapism if he saw this movie. It’s like the cinematic progeny of “Not Without My Daughter” and “Arabian Nights” with a makeover by Valentino. Forget the oppressed women of Abu Dhabi. Let’s buy more bling for the burqa!
Our four female cultural avatars, like imperialistic Barbies, milk Abu Dhabi for leisure and hedonism without making any discernible, concrete efforts to learn about her people and their daily lives. An exception is Miranda, whose IQ drops about 100 points as she dilutes the vast complexities of a diverse culture into sound bites like this: “‘Hanh Gee’ means ‘yes’ in Arabic!”
Only it doesn’t — it’s Hindi and Punjabi, which is spoken by South Asians. [...]
If our cultural ambassadors truly cared about saving Muslim women, they surely would try to help them during the film’s interminable two and half hour running time, no? Sadly, instead, these incredibly shallow mock-feminists can’t even bother to have one decent conversation with a Muslim woman, because they’re too immersed in picnics on the desert and singing Arab disco karaoke renditions of “I Am Woman.” In fact, Abu Dhabi is just peachy when it’s a fantasy land where they ride around in limos and get comped an extravagantly vulgar $22,000 hotel suite. However, only when that materialism is taken away do they worry, in only the most superficial way, about sexual hypocrisy and women’s oppression.
I never intended to write about the scarf/veil/hijab/niqaab. Like a lot of people who write about the Middle East and North Africa (Muslim and otherwise) I roll my eyes at the Western preoccupation with the scarf, which seems to dominate the discourse. The Islamic practice of covering seems to excite the imaginations of both Judeo-Christian/nationalist/conservatives and (largely) white/western/feminists, an unlikely alliance that occurs from time to time around representations of women (as in pornography, for example). I will admit that I do not understand this preoccupation… I am not a Muslim so I have no religious or cultural investment in covering one way or the other. For me, the scarf is just clothing. This may be because many of my Muslim neighbors in Brooklyn cover to varying degrees and I see them going about their lives, just like everyone else. When you are standing behind a veiled woman in line at the supermarket and you see her trying to keep her kids quiet with one hand while she organizes coupons with the other, the whole thing seems pretty ordinary, at least in my part of the world.
As far as I can tell, I have only one neighbor who goes about fully covered, while others wear their scarves in very different styles, depending on their preferences, home countries and cultures. It is very common to see Moms with their heads covered while their little girls are bounding around in jeans and Dora the Explorer t-shirts, but there are a few little girls with their heads covered as well. Two or three summers ago I was walking down the street and a hijab-wearing 11 year old girl went whizzing past me on a Razor scooter, scarf and dress flapping, face split with a giant grin. Despite the wide range of styles, these women and girls all seem to socialize together and I have seen zero indication of the isolation and division that are often assumed to be part and parcel of the practice of covering. I know there are issues with the scarf in Islamic cultures, and it is not my intention to minimize them, none of my female Muslim friends and colleagues wear it and some have spoken against it. But my assumption is that any intra-cultural issues around the practice of covering can be addressed by the women it impacts directly, so I feel no pressing need to climb on to my white horse with my American flag clutched between my teeth.
So even when French President Sarkozy floated his wrong-headed hijab-ban I never thought I’d write about the scarf. It is annoying that so much of the conversation, not to mention the ban itself, is based on perpetuating Islamophobic and Orientalist stereotypes (even among people who should know better) but again I thought, “Not my fight.”