Unveiled: Hollywood’s Orientalist Fantasy

Guess what? Hollywood is making a film with a female Muslim protagonist! Yes, that’s right. A female Muslim protagonist. The main character in the film is a Muslim woman. For the first time. And what is the name of the film, you may ask? Guess. Just take a quick guess. What’s that? Did you say the word ‘veil’? Very close! It’s called Unveiled. Is that a surprise? Well, the fact that the film’s main character is a Muslim woman may be, but the name, not so much, considering the main character is a Muslim woman.

As the projected release date of the film is December of 2009, information on the film is scant. From what I’ve been able to gather from a few sites, it seems the main character is a Middle Eastern woman, who, after finding her life in danger, takes on the identity of a dead friend and leaves the Middle East for the U.S. That’s the most thorough synopsis I’ve been able to find. From a few other sites, I’ve also gathered that the film is part thriller, part psychological drama, part film noir, and that the reason she leaves the Middle East is to meet an American lover, who she has along with two husbands.

The film is directed by Bill Bannerman, Clint Eastwood’s assistant director on many films, but for whom Unveiled will be his directorial debut. In Bannerman’s own words, the film’s description:

“Behind the dark burqa lies a sexy, manipulative victim who is dangerous, as well as in grave danger.”

So many things wrong with that quote. Let’s break it down.

1. Burqa? I thought she was Middle Eastern. Women in the Middle East don’t wear the burqa. South Asian/Afghan women do. So culturally inappropriate.

2. A sexy woman victim behind the ‘burqa’ takes us back to the Orientalist fantasy. The ‘other’ being created first by placing her inside a foreign garment. The ‘other’ then being exoticised to titillate the Western eye (or other body parts). The ‘other’ being a helpless victim whom the Western viewer of the film will feel the need to rescue, because only he/she can.

3. Dangerous – in this world of hostility toward Muslims, do we still need to portray Muslims as dangerous?

So who is the actress who will play the Middle Eastern protagonist? Hindi film actress Mallika Sherawat, (pictured left), Hindi cinema’s sex symbol. Why did Bannerman choose her? Because he wanted someone from the Middle East or South Asia who could “understand the character of a Muslim woman from the Middle East and lend a degree of authenticity in terms of accent, body language, knowledge of customs among other features.

Middle Eastern and South Asian cultures are very different and not everyone in those cultures is Muslim. Not everyone can understand the Muslim “culture”, authentically. Especially when there is no one Muslim culture. Bannerman, by saying that he needed someone who already understood the Muslim “culture,” is conflating many issues into one. He is first assuming there is one Muslim culture. Then he is assuming that all cultures in the East are the same. Then he is saying that if someone is from the East, somewhere, they will all understand and know each other. What he seems to be saying is if you’re from “over there” you must all be the same. Middle East, South Asia, Muslim, or non, you’re all the same. You all have the same culture. After all, that is why an Indian woman would have knowledge of Middle Eastern culture.

Interestingly, Mallika was made to wear a burqa in her audition. I’m not sure how this would effect the way she performed. Also, not sure what to make of this, other than the culturally inaccurate use of the burqa in this film. Or perhaps a veil fetish, discussed below. Anyhow…

What does Mallika think of the film?

“It’s a fantastic story – part thriller, part psychological drama, part film noir… It was so fast paced and exciting and so well written, I couldn’t put it down for a second,” said Mallika.

“And the icing on the cake was that it’s a story from the point of view of a woman — a woman who has relationships with three men from different continents, and she goes from an ultra-traditional Muslim environment to an ultra-liberal Western one. This is a script I could never say no to,” she added.

Additionally, she has said

“She is not a shadow behind the burqa and she is very sexy.”

The assumption again is that a woman in a burqa is nothing but a shadow, a mere silhouette of who she really is. Additionally, all this allusion to the sexiness of the character alludes to a veil fetish of sorts, something which Asra Nomani explains well. Even more so with the choice of Mallika to play the Muslim woman. A woman known for her provocative clothing and scenes, (as her pictures attest to – not all safe-for-work) adds additional titillation as one knows that a sexy and alluring body exists under that burqa. I cannot help but wonder if this was a conscious choice on the part of Bannerman. Even though most Western audiences would not be familiar with her initially, that may not be for long.

Without having seen the film, it is honestly difficult to place this comment. We do not know how the ultra-traditional Muslim environment will be portrayed nor do we know how the ultra-liberal Western one will play out on screen. We do not know how the two will be contrasted. However, I’m still going to make some educated guesses. From this tagline“Silenced by Tradition…Deadly by Choice” – it would seem that the ultra-traditional Muslim, and might I add, Eastern, environment will be portrayed as silencing and thus oppressive. An environment in which women are not supposed to be individual people who are able to voice their opinion or choose their own life. This will be depicted as the average and normal environment for all Muslim women. It will be shown as the common situation for ALL Muslim women. All Eastern/Muslim/traditional values will be shown as oppressive and suffocating. The Muslim body will be oppressed and denied, longing for something better, something Western. The West, in contrast, will be shown as liberating; one in which people are free to choose their own life. It will be shown as a beacon of opportunities to those poor disadvantaged Eastern folk. The West will be a place to express oneself as one wishes. The Western body will be one of saviour. It is in the West that the Muslim woman will be able to unveil her oppressive Eastern identity and reveal her sexy and exotic Eastern body, for the pleasure of the Western eye. But that’s just my guess.

We’ll see when the film is released. Expect a full critique then.

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