By Amber Khlat
London, United Kingdom
In today’s political climate, the need for accurate and authentic representation has dominated the film industry, with emphasis on the representation of races, different genders and religions, sexual orientations, disabilities, and so on. As Hollywood attempts to catch up with the values of our current society, representation in film and television has been revolutionized by small steps towards inclusion, culminating in the release of Marvel’s first black superhero in Black Panther and Disney’s inclusion of the first major gay character in Cruella.
Middle Eastern women continue to face superficial stereotypes and insufficient representation in movies. Many in the Arab community feel as though they are being blurred into one image and one identity that does not accurately depict a population of 400 million individuals.
The term ‘Middle Eastern’ encompasses a myriad of different religions, identities, cultures, languages and customs. This means that female Middle Eastern representation should include Levantine arabs, Gulf arabs, North African arabs, Persians, Turks, Christians (of which there are 12-15 million whose existence has been completely ignored by the media), as well as Muslim women that do not wear a hijab. Hollywood’s legacy is built upon the typecasting of individuals in an archetypal manner by creating caricatures of people. Audiences may subconsciously adopt a certain image of Arab women as they internalize attitudes, beliefs and values presented on TV. Fortunately, film makers have moved on from the ‘terrorist’ stereotypes that skyrocketed post-9/11 in movies such as The Kingdom and Rendition. However, American directors have latched onto a new categorization of oppressed, ultra-modest and unhappy Middle Eastern women under authoritarian control. This image continues to dominate public discourse throughout the West. Disney Princess Jasmine is depicted as an unclear mix of South Asian and Middle Eastern stereotypes whereby her nationality is never specified; she is simply ‘Arabian’. This perpetuates and encourages the notion that there is no value in distinguishing between the different identities among Middle Eastern women. It is ignorance at best, and orientalism at worst.
A well known example of this trope is the character Nadia Shano of the Spanish Netflix show Elite. Nadia, a hijabi with strict Palestinian parents, receives a scholarship to go to an affluent upper-class private school. She eventually falls in love with a boy and takes off her hijab for him in order to win his affection. The storyline presented skews the audience’s perceptions of the average Muslim girl, and the show suggests that girls born into Muslim families are oppressed by unloving and unreasonable parents, as Nadia’s hijab becomes synonymous with the inability to fulfill her individual rights or liberties. Although there is an undeniable percentage of conservative Muslim parents, traditional individuals exist in all cultures and areas of the world and thus should not be a trait applied only to Arabs. The show also suggests that hijabis are forced into wearing their hijabs and feel trapped by them. Although there certainly are circumstances in which Muslim women are pressured into wearing a hijab, this should not be the only storyline presented. It is becoming increasingly important to redefine what the hijab symbolizes for Muslim women all over the globe.
What’s the future for the representation of Middle Eastern women? The continuous depiction of oppressed women or the seemingly enfranchised women? An immense change needs to occur—otherwise, Hollywood has fundamentally failed in attempting to bring proper representation towards all.