“World” Keeps Turning Over Stereotypes

Last month we wrote about the introduction of a Muslim character on the popular American soap opera As the World Turns. Ameera Ali Aziz, arrived freshly from Iraq, faced deportation unless she married Noah, who was already in a relationship with boyfriend Luke. In the episodes since the wedding, the plot has thickened as the difficulty of maintaining a marriage of convenience has set in. Additionally, Ameera’s gone through a few changes.

The most immediately noticeable is her dress. Ameera arrived on the screen dressed in the standard under-chin hijab, no hair showing. Post-marriage she appeared to have started experimenting, trying out the style of hijab that tied in the back, leaving her earlobes bare. From there she went to leaving off the hijab altogether in front of her marriage-of-convenience husband, eliciting a “Your hair is so beautiful” comment. Now she’s settled into covering her in the Southwest Asian style — a scarf tossed loosely over her head, letting the front of her head (and hair!) show.

I’m not sure what the show’s writers or costume directors intended in this change. Perhaps they noticed what Noah did — that actor Tala Ashe does have pretty hair and perhaps they should capitalize on her looks. Quite possibly it’s part of an “Americanization” process the character is undergoing. Since, of course, American women don’t wear hijab. Immigrants might, but after awhile, they’ll see the American light and take it off.* Ameera provides no stated explanation, but the change reflects the idea that a fully covering hijab isn’t really compatible with being an American, as she is becoming.

At the same time, she seems more confident. That doesn’t mean the other characters abandon the patronizing comments and tones of voice, but Ameera has become less likely to put up with it. Trying to engage a discussion, Luke cajoles Ameera, “Come on. Let’s sit. Let’s talk.” She’s having none of it. “Just let me go,” she replies, irritated and uninterested in pleasing him.

Nevertheless, some of her old deference remains. “If you think that’s best, I’ll trust you,” she tells her husband obediently in another moment, her tone of voice clear that she doesn’t agree.

The writers continue to throw in stereotypes about Iraqi culture where they can. They simultaneously paint a picture of the U.S. that is completely blind to the sexism (and subsequent xenophobia) present in modern society and displayed by the show’s characters. One morning Noah wakes up to find Ameera in the kitchen, making a “real American breakfast” of eggs and orange juice — minus the bacon, one of the few (indirect) references to Ameera being Muslim. Noah tells her that being waited on makes him nervous. “But I’m your wife,” she protests. With the air of the all-knowing American, he explains, “That’s not the way it works around here.” I know plenty of American men who expect their wives to cook for them. I don’t know what world of gender equity Noah’s living in, but it’s one that nevertheless lets him get away with making comments like this:

“You’ve got to learn our customs here. Come, sit.” It’s like speaking to a toddler.

Despite Noah’s denial of gender roles, he maintains sexist stereotypes disguising them as “humor.” “After we’re done, you can practice yelling at me to do the dishes and take out the trash,” Noah says. “That was a joke,” he adds, and she laughs on cue. Hilarious.

Some more gems about this fantasy American society:

AMEERA: I cannot get used to seeing a man do the dishes.
NOAH: Well, in America the husband and wife usually share the chores.

Clearly, the implication is that in the sad, backward country of Iraq, the gender equality Americans enjoy is simply unfathomable. The one-dimensional picture paints Iraq as the distant source of Ameera’s terrible past — and nothing more. When asked, “What was your life in Iraq like?” — a question that couldn’t be more vague — Ameera can’t help but praise the U.S. in comparison. Iraq, she explains, was very different (read: bad).

“Where I lived there was no electricity, no running water, very little food,” she says. “People wouldn’t go out after dark — it was like a ghost town.”

Like statements discussed in the last post, this description isn’t put into context of the American invasion. It’s not that Iraq has never had electricity or running water — the recent lack is a result of being bombed. Instead of placing the responsibility where it belongs, these comments leave the impression that Iraq is somehow inferior to the United States. Compounding this message, Ameera’s memory includes nothing but Iraq as a war zone. She has no happy memories of her homeland, and you’d think the country didn’t exist before the war began.

Ameera’s background is constantly seen through a lens of Western superiority. When trying to explain to the immigrant officer why Noah and Ameera don’t sleep together, Luke’s grandmother falls back on Ameera’s background as an excuse. The implication is that in Iraqi culture, married couples don’t sleep together. What?! True, Luke’s grandmother was lying on the spot to keep the officer from deporting Ameera. But the officer’s silence is telling. The man who argued against all the other defenses didn’t point out the fallacy in this excuse. How does he think Iraqi couples have children?

But Ameera is doing her best to show that Iraqi women aren’t always asexual. Indeed, she falls in love with her MOC husband and tries to seduce him. Never mind that he’s gay and already in a relationship with Luke. Iraqis, remember, are supposedly new to the existence of this whole “gay thing.” Another aspect of the naive foreigner.

Ameera goes to a boutique and buys makeup and sexy clothes, ready to surprise Noah. She steps out in the low-cut halter dress, her hair down, and kisses him on the lips. Trying to turn a gay person straight through sheer sexiness has never worked, something ignorant, child-like Ameera doesn’t know (she’s a foreigner, you see*). And as far as plot twists go, it’s painfully unoriginal. But somehow I suspect there’s audience interest in seeing the conservative Muslim woman turn sexy and flirtatious. To no avail, of course: Noah’s not interested. In despair, Ameera decides to move back to Iraq. But no one wants that, so, to sol
ve everything, Luke moves in with them. (Yeah, that’ll really throw the immigrant officer off.) And here’s where the story leaves off.

With her return to Iraq canceled, it looks like Ameera’s here to stay. I don’t predict her character becoming any more complex. Especially since the writers’ idea of complexity is to throw a Muslim woman out of her element by giving her some lipstick. Oh, please.

You can watch the parts of the show featuring Ameera on YouTube (starting here and continuing through part 160) or the full-length episodes at the official website.

*Editors Note: This is sarcasm.

Mata Najwa: A Rare Glimpse of Real Journalism in Indonesia
Death, Grief and Womanhood
“Alice in Arabia” Sounds Like a New Drama That’s Going to Tell the Same Mind-Numbing Story
Happy New Year! + Taking a Break
  • Broken Mystic

    This really got my blood boiling. Anytime westerners go after Muslim women to criticize our religion, I just can’t stand it. What I can’t stand more is how non-Muslim men are depicted as these male “saviors” for the Muslim women since all the Muslim men are oppressive, long bearded, ugly, and dark-skinned perverts who exploit women. Yes, the non-Muslim white man is the one who will come to the rescue and show these beautiful Muslim women that they can treat them better than anyone else.This constant theme of “culture clash” is getting so old and cliche. Yes, let’s make a soap opera with a fresh-off-the-boat female Muslim character that learns about “freedom” in the United States. How insulting. If their criticism towards Islam is that women are oppressed or mistreated, then they really need to re-examine what this stupid soap opera is saying. How can people not see the prejudice and racist undertones here? It’s “us versus them” — our great American culture is better than any other culture in the world. We are the default. We set the standard. We are superior, everyone else is inferior. It’s just sickening. Obviously this shows how America is all about the melting pot and ASSIMILATION instead of multi-culturalism. People with this mentality want us minorities to become fully American (whatever that is) and choose nationality over our religions and cultures. They want us to assimilate because America is such a “perfect” and “flawless” country.This depiction of a Middle-Eastern Muslim woman in America also seems to reinforce the reasons WHY we NEED to “liberate” the Iraqi people from the Muslim extremists. It should all be Westernized, right? And someone tell me WHY IN THE WORLD is a homosexual guy speaking so pompously about American culture? The last time I checked, the government is AGAINST same-sex marriages.These writers are racist misogynistic pigs. They’re probably exploring some of their own fantasies of exotic looking Muslim women too. How do these so-called writers live with themselves when they’re reinforcing so many stereotypes?I wonder if Ameera enjoyed the one-day American wedding.

  • Safiya Outlines

    Salaam Alaikum,Good piece, masha Allah as it really skewers the range of prejudices on show here.As for when she talks about Iraq, I’m surprised she didn’t say “We lived in a tent and had a camel for transport”.You’re right about how underhand it is of the writers not to put her views of Iraq in a post invasion context. Viewers may think “Oh the place was already a mess, the war made no difference”.One thing though, about the attempted seduction of Luke, the programme is a soap, so technically no storyline is too implausible. ;)

  • Arima

    Well it seems quite obvious that US media is trying to legitamise its actions in Iraq by portraying Iraqi culture as backwards and underdeveloped. Media is a very strong tool and their inclusion of an Iraqi character is quite telling, why not any other Arab nation, there are plenty of political refugees from other Arab countries.On another note, it seems highly unlikely that Amira would have wound up in America on her own

  • Anonymous

    In my literature class, “educated” students admit that they don’t always make the distinction between fact and fiction. One student was recently explaining how she had told her peers that a FICTIONALIZED story was TRUE HISTORY and she thought that was very funny. The distinction obviously holds great significance to Muslims that believe that literature of our religion is literal–unlike some none-Muslims that take their own religious texts as non-literal. I would like to dismiss soap operas as an extremely lowly cultural media form, but the reality is that people will “take” from them. And A LOT of people are watching them! UFF!Love and Peace,~Brooke

  • Amirah

    aaaahhh this show irks me sooo much i saw an episode by fliping throughone day and saw a muslim …. then saw what she was doing and it made me mad for a whole day. it sucks because people are going to believe its ok for muslim women to behave like that.i am surprised some uproar hasnt been made about the incorrectness of her character.

  • Tara K.

    I haven’t seen any of the show, but based on what the picture you used in your first post, it appears that part of her transformation has indeed been the application of some Estee Lauder smoky eye makeup, and not just in the seductive scene. And I also think the use of the gay husband is degrading to gay men, implying that they don’t cherish marriage (and therefore love or any other heteronormal relationship elements), and are free and open with who they marry, have sex with, etc. It really implies the idea, “Since I’m a gay man, I have no reason to value marriage or monogamy.” As for soap operas, I think this show proves of pop culture critics WRONG when they say that soap operas, however cheesy, are progressive because they deal with new social issues first. They don’t “deal with them,” they just take anything new and media-attended and hyper-dramatize it to the point of exploitation for the sake of viewer gawking.

  • Jezebella

    Excellent critique. You really took a hit for the team, watching that mire of racism & misogyny closely enough to unpack it.

  • Ezzah

    HOW FRIGGIN CRAZY! of course, it is a soap opera, and their story lines don’t give much credit to straight, gay, female, male, or any other type of human being. They need, now, is to introduce the idea of a polygamist marriage between the three….gay rights, a naieve foreign Muslim, and multi-marriages….YES!

  • Love.Peace.Love.Peace

    It reminds me of the episode of Little Mosque where all the American women are walking outside the church/mosque carrying signs about freeing the Muslim women from their oppression and the Muslim women walk out and it’s soooo obvious that the American women are completely ignorant and also pretty arrogant for assuming the American way is the only right way to do things.

  • musicalchef

    Now I remember why I hate soaps!

  • Anonymous

    Salaam, First of all I want to say you did an excellent critique of this show and characters. The points you made about the Ameera character reminded me of what you mentioned in an earlier report about veil fetish art. Like the artwork the character Ameera is supposed to be coy, demure, subservient and virginal on the one hand while also revealing that underneath that facade she’s really a fiesty tramp just waiting to be sexually liberated from the confines of her religion and culture, most preferably by a Western male savior. It just goes to show how such Muslim women stereotypes are deeply ingrained into the Western mindset. I wonder if these stereotypes can ever be overcome!

  • Duniya

    love.peace.love.peace:They were Canadian women ;)Although they were not depicted in a flattering way, and it’s not really relevant, the Canadian in me just had to clarify :)(PS: Canadians HATE being called Americans – sorry my American sisters)

  • Khadija

    NOAH: Well, in America the husband and wife usually share the chores.NOT TRUE!!!!!I live and grew up in this country. And the studies say so. That comment is false.

  • eyes serene

    Love.Peace.Love.Peace, yup, they are Canadian women… (I love that show!)Assalamu alaikom,Thanks for giving us this rundown. I think it’s good to be aware of what’s going on… but honestly, I don’t think I could stomach watching that. Soap operas are hugely stupid. That they are managing to possibly offend Iraqis, Muslims, and gay people, all at once… why, I’m not entirely surprised at that. It’s insulting, but not surprising.

  • That Mash Guy

    Haha I’m not from the US so had no idea of this. Great post. It made me laugh more than anything to be honest.What’s really sad is that it seems you actually had to watch the show. Unlucky.