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Let’s play a game, shall we? It will be like a drinking game, but without drinking. Okay, here are the rules: every time you read a columnist use the follow words in an article that talks about Muslim women, give five dollars to charity:
• “pushing boundaries”
• “East and West”
• a description of what a Muslim woman wears that includes “free-flowing hair” or “veiled”
If you play this game while reading this article from the Los Angeles Times, you might need to go the ATM halfway before the article is through.
The article focuses on a few Arab women who are “pushing boundaries”: creating a sexual revolution with their books, plays, and TV shows. Though the article tries to aggrandize these women’s work, it really just belittles what they do by comparing their work to Western cultural landmarks.
Lina Khoury’s play Women’s Talk is compared to The Vagina Monologues. Columnist and magazine editor Amy Mowafi (pictured here) is compared to The Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw. When describing Arab news and talk shows, the article points out that these shows “borrow heavily from Western programming.” Borrow what? Subject matter? Overly veneered hosts? Format? Or are they just copy-cats? If so, they wouldn’t be the first: American TV “borrows heavily” from British TV, but there aren’t any columns how American TV “pushes boundaries” with Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? or The Office. Pointing out that news programs “borrow” from Western programs makes it seem like the Middle East relies on the west for all of its culture and ideas.
But when the Middle East (I say “Middle East” because the article only mentions Egypt and Lebanon specifically when speaking of Mowafi, and Haifa Wehbe and Nada Abou Farhat, respectively. The article does not address which country playwright Lina Khoury lives in, and Egypt and Lebanon are stretched into an entire region) wants to talk about sex or women’s issues on TV or in books or through plays, the credit it always somehow detoured back to the U.S. Credit is given to “Oprah Winfrey, Beyonce and even Hillary Rodham Clinton,” but no Middle Eastern or Muslim female role models, as if there have never been any and aren’t any in existence. With no explanation as to what Oprah or Clinton ever did for these women.
Even these women’s western educations are given the credit for their work rather than they themselves, as if they never would have thought of some of these things themselves if they had been educated in the Middle East.
New rule: every time you see a binary, give another five dollars.
This article and its writers seem positively smitten with extreme black-and-white binaries. The third paragraph in the article starts with “They are at once liberated and repressed, devout and rebellious.” The sound of the call to prayer is contrasted with the Pussycat Dolls. Posters for martyrs are contrasted with ads featuring women who “slipped off the pages of Vanity Fair.” Haifa Wehbe and other “women who wear low-cut blouses and slit skirts” with “draped in niqabs, or face veils, and abayas.” Uh, excuse me, but furniture is draped with cloth, not people. “Tradition” is contrasted with “progressiveness.”
And what would an article about Muslim/Middle Eastern women be without a good dash of sex to arouse the reader’s…interest? “A more salacious take on women’s rights and sexual freedom is Beirut’s music-video market that beams seduction into Arab living rooms.” Khoury notes that, “it [the sexy look in Beirut] all grows out of a restricted society of sexual repression. And when this freedom finally does come out, it comes out very dramatically in a concentrated, almost pornographic look.” Frankly, I’m surprised that nobody bothered to point out the idea that less clothing = liberation is a western idea, and give credit to the U.S. for inventing music videos.
Let’s finish with some good, old-fashioned horizontal hostility, shall we? Dima Dabbous-Sensenig refers to the women in ads and music videos as “bimbos,” downplaying their part in this great big “sexual revolution” for women. While short skirts and sexy dance moves shouldn’t be the mark of freedom or modernity, it’s pretty harsh to reject these women’s existence in music videos and on billboards as totally unimportant.
Finally, Mowafi is kind enough to do the writers a favor and insert her own offensive East/West binary when she says, “I’d never want to see an Arab woman splayed on the floor of a club with her legs wide open like in the West. I don’t think that’s a sign of modernity. No, we don’t want to be answerable to men, but we don’t want to lose our sense of morality either.” Thanks, sister. I’ll remember that the next time I think about splaying my legs open in a public place, the way my western education taught me to.