Recently as I switched on my television, I had to pause for a while on Fox's "The Street", a new drama about the decadent lives of Wall Street's upper class white men and their torrid love affairs with anorexic-looking women. In this particular episode, one love affair involved a Muslim woman, daughter of a wealthy Saudi patriarch who was investing some of his money in an American financial institution. His daughter was veiled in traditional Saudi dress, with black abayya and niqab; she excited the audience by asking one of her father's American business partners to "make her a woman" though she was "not yet ready for marriage".
What was particularly alarming was that despite the American man's assumptions of a Muslim virgin, and the Saudi woman's supposedly shy and submissive demeanor, the Saudi female character is the one who is sexually aggressive--as though she had been waiting all her life for that very moment. When her lover asks, "Why me?" the Saudi woman replies, "Your beard--it reminds me of my brother".
To be honest, I watched the episode in disgust--as a Muslim woman, I felt violated somehow, as the show exploited stereotypes about incest, veils, sexual promiscuity, and gender inequity in the Muslim world. Why a woman? If the show were to exploit stereotypes about Muslims, I wondered why they didn't have a representation of a decadent Saudi prince? That is because the plight of Muslim women is far more titillating for an American audience who very whole-heartedly believes in that portrayal as truthful. Besides, women's bodies are often sites of desire and sexual exploitation in corporate media--especially when those bodies are foreign imports.
I felt a little relieved that the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) has sought to combat this portrayal by urging Muslim-Americans to write to the FOX network. On December 15th, only two days of the episode, CAIR issued a statement criticizing the new show for defaming Muslim women.
Unfortunately, the problems that accompany American representations of Muslim women, however vexing, are so deeply embedded within public American discourse, that to counter it successfully will take a very long time. This is a result of several factors: the historical links between the West and the Muslim world; the politics between the U.S. and the Middle East; and existing power relations that play out on the global arena. Then, of course, we have the plethora of false representations that have already been established, thanks to European imperialists, and American champions of globalization.
The truth is, it seems as though the "bold" and the "helpless" in Kahf's words, have conflated to provide a picture of Muslim women as sexually repressed individuals seeking only the "freedoms" of Western culture to release them from an "oppressive Muslim culture". These representations say far more about the fears, fantasies, and frustrations that accompany those raised in a Western culture, than they do about Muslims themselves. In fact, what is exposed is a fear of the "hidden", the "veiled", a fantasy, emanating from a post-colonial world-view of having a woman (conquest), and the frustration involved in being prevented from achieving that goal (by the other's patriarchy). Eventually, what is truly revealed is the American xenophobic imagination of Arabs and Muslims and the collective anxiety xenophobia creates.
It is true that gender inequity, oppression of women, and misogyny do occupy modes of the Muslim social and political worlds, just as they do in the Western world. It is also true that there are complicated intersections involved in appropriating an Islamic world-view that is also compatible with Western concepts of democracy, women's rights, and so on--given the tumultuous histories of colonization and subjugation of the Muslim worlds by the Western empires. To take this as proof of Muslims as pre-modern people is truly contemptible, because it is simply not true that Muslims are medieval, primitive, or culturally less evolved from their Western counterparts. However, these are the only narratives and representations that American television seems capable of demonstrating.
A few weeks ago, ABC's "The Practice", devoted a lengthy portion of its episode to the case of a Pakistani-American man who stood accused of being an accomplice to the murder of his White-American wife in an honor killing committed by his brother. The lawyer who prosecuted the Pakistani man accused him of murdering his wife because his culture promulgated violence against women. In fact, in her closing lines to the jury, she says, "This is a man who comes from a culture that kills disobedient wives. That may be permissible in Pakistan, but it certainly is considered wrong here." Interestingly enough, there was no Pakistani woman available to dispute or uphold any of these claims, and so the Muslim woman was totally omitted.
Though "The Practice" dealt with the issue in an interesting way, pointing to the bigotry involved in using "culture" as evidence to convict someone, I was still left very uneasy--and not alone in my sentiments. I was curious as to why the case couldn't have been about a Muslim woman denied a job because she wore hijab. Or why the case couldn't have been about a Palestinian man who was convicted for terrorism without charge as a result of secret evidence laws that almost exclusively target Arab and Muslims, in violation of their civil rights?
Western representations of Muslims, and Muslim women have a long and complicated history, one definitely worth examining. Muslim women are simultaneously sites of desire and entrapment, the hidden and the hyper-sexualized, the submissive and the sexually aggressive. In the end, the responsibility of countering myths about Muslim women may lie in the hands of Muslim women themselves. It is we, not those who speak on our behalf, who must seek to provide the worlds in which we live with the resonance and strength of our own voices in order to create balance and empowerment.