Netflix offered Sabah: A Love Story, a story about a devout Muslim Canadian woman who falls in love and has to deal with the subsequent culture clashes that result.
Arsinée Khanjian stars as Sabah, a Muslim woman in her forties who has never been married and dutifully takes care of her mother, while her controlling brother keeps everyone under his thumb. The movie is billed as a cross-cultural romantic comedy, featuring serious cultural clash moments while attempting the comedy and warmth of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. But while the movie aimed high, it fell short.
Sabah is a woman who never wanted to get married. The movie never delves into why she didn’t want to get married, or whether marriage was ever an option for her. It simply puts her into the role of “good Muslim daughter,” who cares for her mother and looks after her niece, as well as “good Muslim sister,” who puts up with her brother’s stereotypically oppressing presence. She wears a tight headscarf and dumpy, form-concealing clothing.
One day Sabah meets Stephen, a hunky white Canadian guy, while at the public pool. Her behavior is very meek (good Muslim women don’t go to the pool!) and once he enters, she slinks away, hoping he doesn’t see her swimsuit-clad body. Eventually, they make contact, and Stephen gradually pulls her out of her shell. By the way, her shell is her hijab and her dumpy clothing: the more she sees Stephen, the more her headscarf slides back on her head, and the more skin she reveals in her outfits. The movie equates romance and love with stereotypically Western clothing and customs: Sabah is so in love with Stephen, she takes a sip of wine at dinner. Gasp!
They’re in love, but of course her family can never know. Insert lots of cultural and religious clashes. Oh, and throw in some belly dancing. No, seriously. Eventually, Sabah’s douchebag brother makes her choose between her family and love, and she chooses Stephen. When Sabah gives up her family, she also seemingly gives up religion: she stops wearing the headscarf, wears red lipstick, and spends a steamy night with Stephen. If romance is wrong, then Sabah doesn’t want to be right.
Eventually, of course, everything works out and they’re one big happy blended family. But while the movie had some great, funny moments (like when Sabah’s niece pretended to be ultra-conservative to get out of a matrimonial arrangement), it relied too much on tired Muslim and Arab stereotypes (the belly dancing, the controlling male relative, the subservient, cowed daughter).
But the movie also disappointed me because it created a dichotomy between Islam and the West, as if a woman can’t have both and be happy, or be in a decent relationship. It was as if all Sabah ever needed to be free was the love of a good white (non-Muslim) man, instead of standing up for herself and making her own choices.
The film was sweet and well meaning, but just didn’t quite get where it wanted to go, in part because of the heavy-handed one-dimensionality of the characters. Sabah found her Prince Charming, but I’m still waiting on a Muslim version of My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
Muslimah Media Watch thanks Nadya for the tip!