The feminist hijab
Due to ignorance, many people stereotype those in the Middle East as conservative Muslims who marry multiple times and lock their women away. The women of Middle Eastern society are thought to be repressed and meek individuals who worship Allah and care for their husbands all day. Naturally, the stereotypes do not represent the reality of women in the Middle East; however, this representation still remains in popular culture and western world-views. This paper aims to dismantle these stereotypes by revealing how women in the Middle East visualize themselves and the world around them. Middle Eastern women use film as a tool to create new interpretations of their personal narratives, challenging traditional stereotypes in order to present their version of the modern Middle Eastern woman.
There are three movies that we will specifically address in this article: Wadjda, Where Do We Go Now?, and Caramel. Women directed all three movies and they all starred a female or multiple female protagonists. The stories these movies tell challenge the authenticity of the conceived standard of womanhood in the Middle East. They set out to address stereotypes in Middle Eastern society and show that women in the Middle Eastern world also have a voice.
Religion as a Tool
A majority of stereotypes surrounding the Middle East are due to ignorance of Islamic practices or the Islamic faith tradition. One example of this is that westerners believe all Middle Eastern women strictly follow Islamic traditions. As these movies show, religious practice varies in the Middle East, and even within religions not all believers practice in the same way. Like the rest of the world, not every person inside an area practices one religion or even one sect of a religion. Additionally, not all Middle Eastern women wear conservative dress such as the hijab or burka. Because not all women are Muslim, not all of them dress in the wardrobe traditionally associated with Islam. In addition, not all women who are Muslim make decide to follow the dress code of Islam. Middle Eastern women vary in their clothing preferences just as people in other parts of the globe.
Another impression westerners have is that Middle Eastern women have neither voice nor any opinions to share in the public sphere. Unlike the stereotype portrays, Middle Eastern women in these movies present themselves as self-determining and outspoken in their communities. Their independence often manifests itself in their actions, especially when they defy the orders of those of a higher social status. Furthermore, some believe that Middle Eastern women cannot have individual opinions because their identities entirely revolve around men. Because of this, many also believe that Middle Eastern women cannot have individual goals in life. All of these stereotypes come from unfortunate prejudice against the Middle East and women in general. Although the West prefers to dehumanize Middle Eastern women, these movies show that their voices will not be silenced. The characters in these movies exhibit how clever, adventurous, and individualistic women can be if given a chance to express themselves.
As previously mentioned, a major stereotype of the Middle East is that everyone strictly follows Islamic practices. Wadjda highlights the reality that Middle Eastern women do not always perceive their religion or social rules the same as others. The character Wadjda reinforces that point when she claims, “I just signed up for a Koranic recitation competition. I’ll get a thousand riyals by the end of the semester. I’ll buy a bicycle and a helmet like people on TV. I will race you and win!” Despite her blustering statement, a young girl riding a bicycle completely violates the strict Sharia law in the time of the film that rules Saudi Arabia. Women are thought to lose their virginity if they ride a bike, and therefore it is taboo. However, Wadjda takes no heed of their warnings, arguing that her race against a friend on a bike is much more important than worrying about her social obligations to the social code, demonstrating that some Middle Eastern women may not strictly stick to cultural practices like portrayed in modern media. Wadjda shows that even if women are Muslim, they do not always strictly follow Islamic rules, and may bend them to achieve their goals.
In Where Do We Go Now?, the women in the village exhibit an immense amount of flexibility in their faith. One example is that, in order to stop the men in the village from starting a war, the women band together to fake a miracle and convince the village that God wills the people to remain at peace. They use their religion to achieve peace in a warring village exemplifying the ideas of Christianity while simultaneously blaspheming the religion itself. The trick ultimately doesn’t work, but the women’s shenanigans show they view religion as more of a tool for virtuous actions than ultimate good itself. The women also present this point when they, in desperation, switch religions to try to stop their loved ones from fighting. They argue that if their family members want to kill members of the opposing religion, they would be the first victims (Where Do We Go Now?, Labaki). They take the founding principles of their beliefs and use those rather than the religions themselves to achieve their goals. Both religions are seen as important, but because of the tensions between them, the structures pose a danger to their society. Instead of sticking to the strict construct of their religions, they use their mutual beliefs in peace to reassert the true purpose of the doctrine in their society. Middle Eastern religions can be seen a gateway to becoming a better human being, not a justification for violent acts like westerners may believe. The characters’ flexibility in their faith shows a greater dedication to peace and hope than radicalized, strict religious practice.
Deviance from rigid religious adherence in Caramel becomes obvious in the lives of the young women characters. A common belief in the Islamic tradition requires that women remain ‘pure’ until they are married. In the story, a character reveals that her future fiancé is unaware she had sex with another man before him. She states,
“My prince charming won’t be the first.”
“What do you mean?”
“Bassam won’t be my first man.”
“He doesn’t know?”
“No, he doesn’t.”
Unrealistically, many westerners believe all women of the Islamic faith to be totally obedient and submissive creatures. She reveals that she broke a taboo of the religious doctrine, and the reactions of the other characters show her actions are not an unusual occurrence. Religious faith may be a huge component of Middle Eastern culture, but it does not always control the actions of individuals.
Clothing as a Statement
Along with the stereotypes about strict religious practice, many westerners believe that all Middle Eastern women rigidly adhere to Islamic conservative dress. Even in a nation with Sharia law enforced, not all women follow every single rule like westerners are led to believe. For example, Wadjda witnesses some girls directly defying Islamic dress tradition in the side area behind her school. The girls were talking and pulled out nail polish from their pockets and started painting their toenails blue (Wadjda, al-Mansour). In Islamic practice, it is forbidden for women to paint their nails due to their religious obligations, especially if they actively attend religious services. By disobeying the dress uniform, the girls show that not all Middle Eastern women strictly dress to the conservative norms of their societies, and some may even actively disagree with it.
In Where Do We Go Now?, the first point that dismantles this stereotype is that not all Middle Eastern women are Muslim. If the women are not Muslim, they may not be required to wear conservative dress, and may go uncovered in public. In addition, many women depicted in the village do openly advocate the de-sanctification of their conservative dress. One example is when the village women band together and switch religions. They all switch headdresses, leaving the Muslim women in peasant dresses and the Christian women covered head to toe. The women use their clothing to make a statement about their religions, showing that they are actively aware of the cultural implication of their dress. That action also demonstrates that some Middle Eastern women may consider their conservative dress more of an obligation than a part of their religious practice.
Caramel displays another example of this divergence from cultural norms during a scene when one of the characters is uncovered, despite the rest of the women in the room being in conservative dress. Although her family wear traditional garb, the character does not display any sign of religious dress for the entirety of the movie. That scene displays that the headscarf is more of a personal decision than an obligation. Although the west believes that Middle Eastern women are all forced to wear conservative dress, this scene shows that Islamic attire has its true roots in cultural norms.
Femininity as a Form of Freedom
Another common perception of Middle Eastern women is that they have no individual freedom and always follow the orders of the men in their life. A counter example is a scene where Wadjda’s mother tells her husband she doesn’t want him taking a second wife. She mocks him, saying, “Yeah, and what about the dowry money, you handsome groom?… I don’t care! Go to your mother’s house to discuss potential brides all night” (Wadjda, al-Mansour)! Many westerners believe that Middle Eastern women would accept a husband taking another wife without question, but that view is not a realistic portrayal of Middle Eastern life. Wadjda’s mother even rejects her husband and sends him out of the house, which demonstrated that Middle Eastern women do have power within their relationships with men.
The women in the village of Where Do We Go Now? directly defy and scheme around the men’s plans for the town. From hiring prostitutes to distract them, to deliberately sabotaging the village television to prevent the men from seeing the religious war on the news, the women continue to plan behind the men’s backs to keep the town peaceful. Another example is when the women drug all the men of the village and steal their guns. They then hide all the guns in a large pit to prevent the men from finding them and starting a fight. Although the men might be ‘in charge’ of the village, these scenes show that their power is only in name. The women’s rebellion shows that they felt avoiding war far more important than obeying the men’s wishes.
Throughout the movie Caramel, the main character Layle is shown to be at the beck and call of her lover. Her affair with a married man depends on his whim and she often waits for his arrival, signaled by a honk of a car horn. Towards the end of the movie, Layle decides that she no longer wants to be at the whimsy of the man and refuses to go when he calls for her. Layle takes a stand and demonstrates that women are free to make their own individual choice, despite the men in their life, and have more agency than the West normally portrays.
Identity as Opportunity
A final conclusion westerners may come to is that Middle Eastern women don’t have individual identities or opinions. Wadjda clearly shows that although Middle Eastern women may not have clear public identities, they may hold individualistic private identities. One example of this is when Wadjda decides to add her name to the family tree, decorated with only the male names in the family. In defiance, Wadjda cuts a piece of blank paper from the Koran, writes her name on it and adds it under her Father’s name. Through her act of rebellion, Wadjda counts herself just as individualistic as the men in the family. For her, being a girl does not automatically discount her from participating in her society as an individual.
Where Do We Go Now? starkly shows that the women of the village do have original opinions and are not afraid to speak their minds. After the men in the village get in a fight, the main character Amale tells them that they shouldn’t start a war without thinking. She admonishes, “That’s enough! Have you learned nothing? Hasn’t your mom suffered enough? She’s still grieving for your brother. Her tears aren’t even dry! It’s enough to make us lose our faith! You think we’re just here to mourn you? To wear black forever? Have a little pity!” Amale’s rhetoric calms the men down and reminds them that they have an obligation to their families. Without her guidance, the men may have started a war there and then. Women in the Middle East can use their voices to reinforce their individuality and challenge their culture to better their communities.
In Caramel, Layle decides to take control of her own fate. She visits the wife of her lover and learns that the wife is throwing a party for her husband’s anniversary. The wife states, “It’s a surprise for my husband. It’s our wedding anniversary. I’ve been running since this morning to get everything ready…without him even noticing. I baked a cake. I hope it’ll be good. Normally…my cakes are tasty.” Layle finally realizes that she would never really mean anything to the man and that she should take care of herself and find someone who really loves her. Although Layle originally defined her identity through the man, she learns that she must rely on herself before she looks for support or identity in someone else.
Middle Eastern women characterize themselves as heroes of their own story: clever, wise, funny, and sometimes even smarter than the men in their community. Women who create these stories are letting their imagination slip beyond the stereotypes, creating a perception of their culture that is entirely their own. They don’t conform to the caricatures the culture confines them to. Although stereotypes can have their roots in truth, these stories show women pushing up against the barriers that confine them to traditional roles in society. In this way, they campaign for a change in the perception of the stereotypes that constrain the modern Middle Eastern woman.
Caramel. Dir. Nadine Labaki. Perf. Nadine Labaki. Les Films Des Tournelles & City Films Lebanon Roissy Films, 2007. Film.
Wadjda. Dir. Haifaa Al-Mansour. Prod. Roman Paul and Gerhard Meixner. Perf. Waad Mohammed, Reem Abdullah, Abdullrahman Al Gohani. Razor Film Produktion GmbH, 2012. Film.
Where Do We Go Now? Dir. Nadine Labaki. Perf. Nadine Labaki. Les Films Des Tournelles, 2012. Film.
They/Them Pronouns. 中文名字: 柯梅. Currently in process of Masters of International Affairs. Working in civilian military consultation, security, and intelligence.