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By Asma T. Uddin and Sarah Jawaid
We haven’t watched “Sex and the City 2“, as we cannot get ourselves to devote that much time to what, according to many commentaries, will insult our female Muslim sensibilities. According to these commentaries, the movie perpetuates stereotypes of Muslim women as oppressed, silent, and subdued by their apparently necessary counterpart: the violent, angry Muslim man. The four women in SATC2 flaunt their sexual openness, befuddled by the covered, seemingly asexual Muslim woman.
It appears to us, from reading these commentaries, that the movie’s portrayal of Muslim gender issues is problematic, not just because it’s stereotypical and condescending, but also because it is downright false. As one writer explains, SATC2 – which was filmed in Morocco but is supposed to take place in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – gets several things wrong about Emirati women. Included among these is that women in the UAE tend to be more educated than the men there, with women constituting 60 percent of enrollments at post-secondary educational institutions. Emirati women are also increasingly assuming positions of power, with women taking 60 percent of government positions, including 23 percent of UAE’s parliamentary seats. Admittedly, the UAE has much to do before women are fully integrated in the country’s labor market, but SATC2’s portrayal of the subordinated Emirati woman is nevertheless grossly out of touch with reality.
Another, perhaps more compelling, inaccuracy is SATC2’s assumption that the covered Muslim woman is less “free” or independent than her Western counterpart by virtue of her modest clothes. Though the movie does, in a much discussed scene, show Muslim women throwing off their burqas to reveal designer clothes underneath, the assumption remains that the public display of modesty is somehow contrary to liberation.
As one of us discussed in a recent program on National Public Radio, “Modesty and Faith Connected in Many Religions”, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Covering up often means embracing a paradigm that celebrates female sexuality. Modesty voluntarily undertaken (as it in the UAE and, incidentally, in Morocco as well) is often employed by Muslim women to wield greater sexual prowess in the private realm. The burqa can achieve for some women precisely the sort of goal SATC is all about: female sexual independence. Without giving men easy access to the female body–whether physically or even visually–women keep their sexuality mysterious and compelling, helping them take control in private interactions with the opposite sex.
Creating a safe space for women to explore sexuality creates opportunities for identity formation unfettered by societal pressures. Without this chance to develop privately, female sexuality becomes cause of emotional weakness rather than taking its place as a source of power. The male-centric approach to sexuality in the West today pushes for an environment where women tread softly around commitment conversations and give way to casual sex as the most appropriate way to keep a man.
Because female sexuality isn’t as accessible in the Muslim world, men in these parts are more likely to pursue Muslim women on the women’s terms. Understanding, and highlighting, that critical aspect of the Muslim gender dynamic would have added to SATC’s celebration of women and their sexual self-expression. Instead of being befuddled by the seemingly asexual Muslim woman, the women of SATC2 would have been better off extending their bonds of sisterhood and learning some surprising secrets.
Sarah Jawaid is Associate Editor of altmuslimah.com