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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  • Argentyne

    Ugh. I’m so sick of this whole cliched veiled-muslim-woman-who-needs to-be-rescued theme which is quite common in Bollywood btw, except for the veiled bit.. I can easily imagine Malika Sherawat being the Jasmine type Aladdin Middle Eastern woman, the kind who wears belly dancing type clothes and heavy makeup. Ugh.

  • http://jamericanmuslimah.wordpress.com Jamerican Muslimah

    *Yawn* I am so tired of the exotic, veiled, “other” stereotype I don’t know what to do. I feel like screaming, I feel like punching someone, I feel like praying and I feel like running to hide away on deserted island all at once.

    More than anything, it so tiring to witness the way in which all Arab, South Asian, Muslim and Middle Eastern identities have been collapsed into one. Equally as tired of the portrayal of the West as the beacon of enlightenment and the East (particularly, Middle Eastern countries) as backwards, oppressive and in need of rescue. *Yawn*

  • Sobia

    @ Argentyne:

    Yes it is common in Bollywood though for all women – not just Muslim (especially since Muslim women are so rarely presented). I’ve always said that the feminist revolution has yet to reach Bollywood. Even today the way women are portrayed in films is very sexist.

    @ Jamerican Muslimah

    It is so irritating to be conflated all in one. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen on TV or in movies:

    South Asian-ness (people, clothes, whatever) presented with Middle Eastern music in the background, or vice versa

    or Middle Eastern people with South Asian names, or vice versa

    Look at Aladdin. They had a tiger named Raja. Tigers and the name Raja are Indian, not Middle Eastern.

    And it’s odd considering that South Asian cultures and Middle Eastern cultures are not only very different from each other, but are diverse in and of themselves as well.

  • http://www.brokenmystic.wordpress.com Broken Mystic

    This movie is a disaster waiting to happen. The tagline is pathetic too. I know Hollywood is doing a good job with anti-war movies, but the Muslim characters are still so stereotypical. Even the films that show positive Muslim characters — they still speak with accents, they’re still foreign and alien to the main characters, and they usually befriend the good guys and fight against the “evil” Muslims. Uh, yeah, they show good Muslims but the bad guys are still Muslims!

    And… Mallika Sherawat is playing a Middle-Eastern Muslim girl??? What is she talking about when she says “Ultra-liberal Western environment”? There is so much Islamophobia in her statement. So is the West superior to the East?

    *bangs head against wall*

  • http://www.brokenmystic.wordpress.com Broken Mystic

    Sobia — I thought the same thing about Aladdin too, but “Raja” is actually an Arabic name.

    But yeah, I agree with you about the tiger thing. I guess they confused it with “Jungle Book.”

  • Sobia

    @ BM:

    You’re right. The bad guys are still Muslims. But I have a feeling that the Russians are going to make a resurgence soon. :P

    I don’t necessarily have a problem with Sherawat playing a Muslim or Middle Eastern girl. I don’t think she’ll be able to do it justice, but neither will the director. Perhaps if the director was a Muslim Middle Easterner I would say she would have a chance of doing a decent job. I mean, Muslim actors in India play Hindus all the time and do a good job of it. But they know Hindus.

    What I do have problem with is the assumption that we’re all the same. Can even a South Asian Muslim really know what it’s like to be Middle Eastern Muslim? I doubt it.

    Just one point about your last comment. I’m assuming you’re not conflating Islamophobia with anti-Eastern sentiment. Just needed a little segue between the statements “There is so much Islamophobia in her statement. So is the West superior to the East? ” But I do agree with what you’re saying (plus segue:) )

  • http://clouddragon.wordpress.com Aafke

    As a western Dutch woman I am really offended everytime American culture is paraded as ”western culture” .

    Ok, American films. American films always, always, get it wrong!!!!!
    Please, I think there is no part of history, no country and no ethnic group, no ancient myth, that hasn’t been highjacked by Hollywood and seriously totally mis-represented.
    This film will be another example if mis-representation.
    I will defenitely not go and watch it, because I know I wll be só irritated I’ll probably gnaw one of my legs off in despair at the cinema.

    I’ll just enjoy reading your review :D

  • cycads

    It looks like Bill Bannerman is starting his directing career with a big bang! Excuse the pun. Hollywood is already known to be culture-blind when it comes to casting choices: e.g. Chinese actresses played Japanese geishas in ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ and Rudolph Valentino played erm, an Arab in ‘The Sheikh’.

    Bannerman’s film blurb is also all forms of wrong:

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

    Putting “sexy” and “victim” together is wrong and feeds to all sorts of misogynistic fantasies. I think “dangerous” is an attempt to make the character stronger, but is most likely to use her sexuality as a weapon, rather than something deadlier, otherwise she wouldn’t be in “grave danger”. So it’ll be interesting to find out who rescues her in the film. Hollywood action films consistently project an idealised world where heroines are portrayed as sexy and strong, but not really. See:

    http://www.overthinkingit.com/2008/08/18/why-strong-female-characters-are-bad-for-women/

    And why oh why is the American love interest necessary? Because she needs to be in love with her rescuer, her liberator, because ideally, that’s what all oppressed Muslim women really want.

    Sounds like a disaster waiting to happen.

  • Rchoudh

    I seriously hope this movie flops big time. I’m most annoyed at the fact that they chose a non-Muslim to play the protagonist. What happened to giving Muslim actors that big break (most likely this movie won’t serve as any breakthrough into Hollywood but you know what I mean). And I wonder what ethnicity her lover will be ( most likely white). That’ll play into that whole white Western male savior type role the West currently wants to put itself in within the Muslim world.

    And like others have mentioned I really hate how ignorant people can be about the diversity in cultures and religions that exist between South Asia and th Middle East. Reminds me of all those times growing up when I had to constantly tell people that Hindus and Muslims are not one and the same. I’ll be sure to tell my family and friends to boycott this stupid film.

  • Rchoudh

    I just wanted to add a quick note about the reason why both Indian and Middle Eastern always get conflated by the West and this conflation goes back to the beginning of the British colonial occupation of India. Prior to the Brits’ arrival India was predominantly under Islamic rule and so alot of the culture and ways of living got transplanted over to the non-Muslims of India. When the British arrived for example they saw that many Indian women, both Muslim and non-Muslim, observed purdah and lived within zenanas ( the Indian equivalent of the harem). Hindu rajahs often practiced polygamy much like their Muslim counterparts. I think that the conflation we see today is a byproduct of India once being under Islamic rule. I think more than Muslims, alot of Indian non-Muslims today get upset over having their cultural identity confused with that of Muslims, which sometimes has fatal consequences (like the killing of Sikhs after 9/11).

    Also another interesting thing I notice is that when the British occupied India they tried to justify it by saying that they were only there to liberate the oppressed Indian woman from her brutal man. The British would often publicize the barbarity behind rituals like widow-burning and child marriages and say that if they left India the Indian woman would remain in trouble. Of course all these reasons only served as a pretext for continued British occupation of India. So I find it very interesting that America today has adopted this same method for justifying its neocolonialist ambitions within the Muslim world. They’re really not interested in alleviating the Muslim woman’s oppression as they see it; they just want to use her as a reason for their benevolent intentions for invading and occupying sovereign lands.

  • Willow

    Shoot me. Seriously.

  • http://somewebsite.com thabet

    I just wanted to add a quick note about the reason why both Indian and Middle Eastern always get conflated by the West and this conflation goes back to the beginning of the British colonial occupation of India.

    Here’s a simpler reason: Bannerman is racist cretin.

  • http://muslimahmediawatch.org/ Fatemeh

    @ Willo & Jamerican Muslimah: I know! I can’t roll my eyes any harder at this crap!

  • Rchoudh

    @thatbet

    Yeah that too LOL!

  • pizzadiavola

    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.

    Misogyny + racism! Sounds like Western freedom for women as the movie conceives of it consists of freedom to be a subordinated, exoticised sex object for Western men. In other words, not freedom at all, but subordination to different set of men. It’s all reminding me too much of the rhetoric around the invasion of Iraq – “we” (the U.S.) need to save “them” (Iraqis) from “themselves.” Paternalistic imperialism.

  • Ferial

    This is pathetic. Indian women playing a Muslim women. The story is boring as hell and insulting to all of us middle eastern women. Don’t we have enough problem explaining to west that not all Muslim women wear veil and not all are depressed.

    I’m sick of walking around L.A and people telling me that I don’t look middle eastern enough because I’m too white and dress well. Well, believe me it wasn’t your western culture that influenced me, I came here looking like this. Stop insulting my culture in front of my face by telling me that I’m not supposed to look good b/c I’m middle eastern and should look depressed, dark skinned and veiled.

    Feel free to make movies about middle eastern families that aren’t wearing veil who are educated and good looking. People here don’t even believe that in middle east, people ski, drive nice cars, look great and are educated. Stop being fools and start traveling a bit. Not all middle easterners are Arabs and not all of them Muslims and not all Muslims are religious. Stop grouping them together.

    The last group of people in the middle east to represent Muslims should be Indians b/c their culture is not a Muslim culture at all and certainly not the stereotypical middle easterners that you want to see. Believe me I’m well traveled. Hey Israel is part of middle east too, let’s not forget that folks. Middle east is a vast region with different cultures, languages and backgrounds. I know you like to group us, so that you can hate us for an excuse to bomb us to take our oil and put it in your SUV’s, but enough with the cruelty.

    So give me a break, if you can’t make movies to make life better for us living here in the west, then please don’t make anything at all. I saw the movie, The Visitor, last week and I was impressed and hopeful, but now after this article I’m feeling disappointed again.

    [This comment has been edited to fit within moderation guidelines.]

  • http://muslimahmediawatch.org/ Fatemeh

    @ Feria: There’s no problem with an Indian woman playing a Muslim woman (Muslims are the largest majority in India). The problem is with an Indian woman playing a Middle Eastern woman.

    But I agree with you on the “not looking Middle Eastern enough.” That shit is TIRED.

  • Ferial

    I just looked it up and there are 150 million Muslims in India. Out of 1 Billion something. So Muslims are not the majority. I visit India frequently b/c of my job. The majority of Indians are Hindu about 80% and their religion is Hinduisim. Only 12% are Muslims.
    I do agree that there’s no problem with an Indian women to play muslim role. And yes Indians are not middle easterners.

    I’ve also studied acting as a hobby and its unfortunate that many roles are not available to middle easterners, again b/c they’re too pretty, fair skinned and modern. Also they have to fake a middle eastern accent even if they don’t have one to get the only roles that are available to them and that is either the wife of the terrorist or a battered wife or daughter of a Muslim man.

    There are some exceptions though, like Catherine Bell from JAG and Sarah Shahi from “Life” and Nazanin Boniadi from “General Hospital” also Bahar soomekh from “Crash” or “Saw I-V”. Emmanuelle Chriqui in “Don’t mess with Zohan”. Shohreh Aghdashloo in “the house of sand and fog”

    So the situation is getting better in hollywood, its just that once in a while some moron decides to make a movie like unveiled.
    We need more female screenwriters and filmmakers in this day and age. Not only women are being discriminated against their race, but also their age as well. Women need to take charge and start their own businesses and support other women. Next time you see a female in lead role, go watch it and support it, b/c guess what the big Studios think women lead actresses are not profitable, so they’re thinking about almost eliminating them. How many movies have you seen during the past month with a lead female charachter compared to male counterparts. See what I mean? Not only man are against us, our female friends also don’t appreciate us. Support women for good.

    Besides, we middle easterners are Americans too and if they don’t want to see that, just like Italians and Greeks before us, we will make them too. That is by adapting to their culture and learning their skills and contributing our efforts to their society and if we’re good at what we do, in time they have to accept us. Money and high positioned jobs are the way to go. Also starting your own business is even better.

  • Sobia

    @Ferial:
    Being South Asian and looking Indian myself I’m extremely uncomfortable with your statement of how Indians can’t play Muslims. Why not? As Fatemeh has said Muslims are the largest majority in the world AND India has the second largest Muslim population in the world. India has lots of Muslim influences.

    As far as Indians playing Middle Easterners, that arguement makes more sense. Yes, it would be best to have had a Middle Eastern actress as even if an Indian woman could look Middle Eastern (which many can – some Lebanese people have thought I was Lebanese) she will not understand the intricacies of being a Middle Easterner.

    And I’m also getting a sense that you are painting ‘dark skinned’ as bad. I’m also getting a sense that you are implying that Indian people are not good looking. Maybe I’m reading too much into your comment.

  • laila

    @Feria

    “The last group of people in the middle east to represent Muslims should be Indians b/c their culture is not a Muslim culture at all…”

    And who’s culture is a “Muslim Culture”? Besides what is a “Muslim Culture”?

    “Stop insulting my culture in front of my face…” yet you want to be free to insult other cultures. You should check your own self-righteous baggage at the door!

    You know what shit is also tired, when some Arab Muslims and some ignorant Non-Arab Muslims believe the “Arab culture” as the only “Muslim Culture”. That Indians are not real Muslims, that Blacks are still savages etc etc.

    Get over yourself, nobody is singing your praises.

    “Stop being fools and start traveling a bit.” I suggest you take your own advice!

  • Ferial

    O.K Laila. I can tell you sound offended. If you read my second argument, you can see that I did agree with the fact that Indians do have Muslims, but they’re not middle easterners.

    Also, I don’t have anything against dark skinned people, I mentioned that it is hollywood that thinks everybody in middle east is dark skinned and they only accept actors with such skin tone. Having a darker skin is not an issue, but it doesn’t represent all of us, and we don’t want to be stereotyped into all being of a certain look.

    Finally, I do travel a lot and I’ve been to India three times and Indians are only 12% Muslim (150 million) and 80% Hindu. This is out of more than 1 billion people. You should agree with that. So I didn’t sabotage your culture, as you can read in my second argument, I mentioned that Indians should not represent middle easterners because you are not.

    I also don’t appreciate putting middle east under the umbrella of Islam. There are many religions and cultures in middle east and Islam is not a conclusive way to define it. Also who said being Muslim is believing in the religion anyway.

    I feel Iranian, not Muslim. Just b/c I was raised in a Muslim family, it doesn’t make me appreciate it and like it. It offends me to use Islam to stereotype and group everyone into one category.

    [This comment has been edited to fit within moderation guidelines.]

  • Sobia

    @Ferial:

    I can’t shake the feeling that you are being racist toward South Asians.

    You’re upset that an Indian woman is playing a Middle Eastern woman. Fair enough. I would assume this would be because she would not understand the nuances of Middle Eastern culture but also because it takes away roles from Middle Eastern actresses. All of which I agree with. But then your comment “’its unfortunate that many roles are not available to middle easterners, again b/c they’re too pretty, fair skinned and modern” makes it sound like to me you are saying that they gave this role to an Indian woman because she was not “too pretty” as Middle Eastern women are too pretty to play the stereotypical Middle Eastern woman but Indians are just unattractive enough to do so.

    And I think the main reason Laila was upset with your comment was because you said this:

    “The last group of people in the middle east to represent Muslims should be Indians b/c their culture is not a Muslim culture”

    Although you did seem to retract that later. Here you say Indians should not play Muslims, but later, I’m assuming you corrected and said it was fine for Indians to play Muslims.

    I sense that you do not intend to make any racist statements but I hope that you can see how some of your comments are coming across that way.

  • Kawthar

    Considering the fact that Hilary Swank and Penelope Cruz were both considered for the role, I think we should be thankful for the final decision.

    It’s unfortunate that Bill Bannerman doesn’t have a publicly listed email as I’d have loved to send in my thoughts about the upcoming movie. It probably wouldn’t have caused any difference, but ranting is relieving at times.

  • sadhia

    “This is pathetic. Indian women playing a Muslim women”-feria
    “The problem is with an Indian woman playing a Middle Eastern woman.” – fatemeh

    What’s wrong with an Indian lady playing a Middle Eeastern character? She is an actress, that’s what they are trained at-playing roles that are completely different from their culture and identity. I mean look at Ben Kingsley playing Gandhi (which was marvellous acting indeed) or Irene Papas in Mustapha Akkad movies..and many other examples out there. By saying that only Middle Easterns should play Middle Easterns etc. you end up discriminating in my opinion.

    I agree with the fact that this movie is again main-stream bunch of clichés……

  • Sobia

    @sadhia:

    “By saying that only Middle Easterns should play Middle Easterns etc. you end up discriminating in my opinion. ”

    Actually, in my opinion the opposite is discrimination. For a few reasons:
    1) There are so few roles for people of colour as it is that when Hollywood gets White people to play people of colour they are denying POC opportunities and exposure to mainstream society – something which POC need.

    2) Even if Hollywood gets a POC to play another POC not of their ethnicity, what they are saying is that all POC are the same – in other words Indian = Middle Eastern. “You’re all the same.” This is racist. This denies the diversity of people and dehumanizes us.

    In the end it is not how well the person plays the role but what this means to the politics of race and ethnicity.

    Btw…what Fatemeh and Ferial said were very different things.

    Btw again…Ben Kingsley is half Indian.


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