Zero Dark Thirty: A Tale of Bias and Burqas

This post was written by guest contributor Emaan Majed.

The scene opens on a bustling Peshawar market. The street vendors peddle ripe oranges and bananas. Decorated rickshaws bustle through busy streets as Maya, the determined female protagonist of Zero Dark Thirty, makes her way to her destination. But in contrast to actual Peshawar markets, the only Muslim women on the movie screen are two briefly seen, unnamed extras wearing sky blue Afghan chadris.

The central narrative of Zero Dark Thirty surrounds the 2011 capture of Osama Bin Laden by a Navy Seal team. In this rendering the seal team is led to OBL by Maya, portrayed by Jessica Chastain. Maya and her colleagues go through many leads, breezily torturing each suspect until he breaks. Much has been said on the graphic torture of Muslim men the movie glorifies. But what most mainstream outlets and Westerners in general have ignored is the effect this torture has on Muslim women. The devastating effect the torture, capture, and murder of Muslim men has on their wives is overlooked by the movie and by the larger American foreign policy it emulates. The American military and government are eager to wage a war on terrorism in the name of women’s rights and show kindness to little girls whose fathers are suspects. However, their brutal treatment of Muslim men threatens the families and economic situations of many of those little girls by destroying their communities. Gayatri Spivak’s famous quote “white men saving brown women from brown men” is the framework this movie operates on, but it does not seem to realize that these white men are doing brown women more harm than good.

For a movie set in an Islamic republic, Zero Dark Thirty boasts a worryingly small number of Muslim women. In 150 minutes spent exploring Lahore, Peshawar, Rawalpindi, Abottabad, Northern Pakistan, and Kuwait, Muslim women are visible in 13 scenes, several of which take place at Osama Bin Laden’s compound as his wives protect him and are shot. The screenplay’s only acknowledgment of Muslim women’s existence is a CIA officer noting that “Observing Muslim females live with their families or with their husbands,” to explain why a third female in OBL’s compound is alarming. This brief dialogue serves only to back up the movie’s central belief that all the millions of Muslim women are one thing, and that one thing is oppressed by Islam. The few Muslim women that we do see serve to prop up Western constructs of Muslimahs. They function as background props and wives of extremists, and are used to establish a foreign, “other” setting. Nearly every Muslim woman in the movie wears some sort of head covering. This is in stark contrast to the real Pakistan, where you are as likely to see women with no head coverings on the street as you are to see hijabis, and where chadris and abayas are a rare spectacle. The sky-blue chadris seen multiple times in the movie would normally be observed only in Afghanistan, and while abayas are worn in Pakistan’s remote northern tribal areas, they are seen only sporadically in Peshawar, Rawalpindi, Islamabad, and Abbottabad. But for Zero Dark Thirty, one type of Muslim women, one understandable stereotype, is enough. It represents Muslim women not as the diverse plethora of people they are but as a monolith of suspicious, miserable, burqa-wearing abettors of terrorists.

This otherization of Muslim women as dangerous, suspicious and not to be trusted burqa-wearers is further cemented by the use of the headscarf in Zero Dark Thirty. One scene, also seen in the trailer, sees a suspected terrorist walking into a building where women in black abayas sit in the garden. Quickly, the figures in abayas pull out guns and corner the man, revealing themselves to be disguised soldiers. While these men are instruments of the CIA as opposed to al-Qaeda, they nonetheless further the idea that Muslim women’s clothing is a suspicious hiding place for violence. On a few occasions while in Pakistan, Maya herself dons a headscarf, presumably to match the standard decorum of women in Pakistan, regardless of the fact that the hijab is rarely a requirement for actual Pakistani women. One scene finds Maya coming home clothed in an abaya, which she promptly flips open when she is alone. The camera quickly pans to her beat-up Converse shoes, as if to reassure the viewers of her American-ness.

Zero Dark Thirty‘s Maya, played by Jessica Chastain. [Source].

Despite all this, Zero Dark Thirty has been hailed as a feminist landmark. Slate magazine praised its director, Katherine Bigelow, as a “feminist folk hero”. Both Jessica Chastain and Katherine Bigelow have echoed decidedly feminist themes when promoting the movie, which features a strong female lead. It is in its supposedly pro-women defense, however, that Zero Dark Thirty’s imperialist undoing can be found. Bigelow, in an interview with Slate, discussed how Osama Bin Laden is captured by Maya, a “liberated Western women,” as though liberation is a phenomenon exclusively available to Western women. Zero Dark Thirty’s brand of faux-feminism espouses the erasure and marginalization of non-Western Muslim women, whom it regards as the oppressed counterparts of terrorists. It, in a none-too-rare action for western feminism of its kind, sacrifices the voices of Muslimahs at the altar of white women doing things.

The oppressive treatment of Muslim women is not restricted to Zero Dark Thirty this awards season. Argo is another movie centered in the Muslim world, focused on Ben Affleck rallying a team to carry out a CIA rescue mission in 1979 Iran. Of three Muslim women appearing onscreen, only one, Sahar, the Canadian ambassador’s maid, is a notable character. Sahar has three lines but ensures the success of the American operation by leaking information about the hostages. Despite her refreshingly anti-terrorist leanings, Sahar is still regarded with wariness by the Americans and is initially thought to be a suspect. The suspicious over Sahar is due to her being an Iranian Muslim women, which to Argo and Zero Dark Thirty means being other, perilous, and unknown. Even in her heroism, she is portrayed as a dangerous Muslim woman “other.”

Zero Dark Thirty and Argo have twelve Oscar nods between them. There has been much heated discussion on their portrayal of Muslims and how much of it ought to be excused do to artistic message. In the end, though, their many accolades serve as one more example of anti-Muslim women dialogues in Western society being fervently rewarded.

  • K. Jamal

    Thank you for talking about this! I have not seen these movies and don’t intend to, because of their subject matter coming from an anti-Muslim perspective, but I’m glad to finally hear someone criticizing this overused trope of Western feminists “saving” Muslimahs from their terrible awful religion and their terrible awful men. I’m so sick of that crap. Thanks, MMW!

  • Amna

    Love this. You should cross publish at the Guardian or somewhere.
    Just a small note- the phrase actually goes, “white men saving brown women from brown men”.

    • Emaan Majed

      Thanks for the input and the correction! That was an oversight on my part.


    Yes thank you for posting something about ZD30 (and Argo). I also don’t intend on watching these movies, and hearing about their lack of portrayals of female Muslim characters, makes me not want to watch them even more. BTW did MMW ever do a post on Homeland? I’d be interested in reading about that too.

  • Chris

    I agree with your criticism of the utilization of “feminism” by Bigelow&Co.
    I do not want to see this movie for its glorification of torture, I did see Argo, however, and have to disagree on your feelings surrounding the portrayal of Sahar. The US embassy personnel held hostage in Iran, after escaping the besieged US embassy, find refuge in the Canadian one. The Canadian ambassador is weary of letting no one at all know he is hiding the US hostages (under the laws of many countries, he’d be subject to criminal punishment for overstepping his limits as diplomatic personnel by supporting the host country’s enemies). It is not just Sahar they mistrust, every neighbour could turn them in. When Sahar makes allusions how she knows the people may be escaped American hostages (by asking “your guests never leave the house much?”), they got worried. Sahar later proves an ally by not telling Iranian revolutionary guards the truth about the long hidden guests (she says they arrived just several days ago from Canada, just like their fake immigration papers suggest).

    I think this is no suspicious portrayal of Sahar as a woman and Iranian and Muslim. Everyone can be reasonably expected to have their loyalty with their country first; this would not be a moral reproach to make to Sahar. On the contrary, she is portrayed as someone who could have all legitimate right to be loyal to her country. The Canadian & Americans are then relieved and happy finding out she does not choose her country, but humanity for someone vulnerable on the run, who may face most serious harm when found out.
    This is actually a glorious portrayal of someone in a dilemma between national allegiance and counter-patriotic decision for humanity. All the more impressive considering Sahar most likely is not an invented character like Maya from the OBL movie, but a real person who made this choice.

  • Chris

    And to add for the sake of Argo: The movie actually provides a balanced view on US engagement in Iran. They give much voice to Iranian revolutionaries (among the intellectuals reading messages to the USA, there is an apparently Western educated Iranian woman in full chador with perfect English skills, spreading the word on imperialist crimes of the US – so Sahar is not the only woman present, and this intellectual female revolutionary, whether one agrees with her message or not, is a powerful “Eastern” representative), and in the movie itself, CIA officials at several occasions voice understanding for Iranians and criticism of their own engagement (“what do you expect of them, we toppled their freely elected representative for the sake of the decadent torturer called Shah” – along those lines).

    • Emaan Majed

      I appreciate your input! I do still disagree with Argo’s treatment of Sahar. Overall in the movie, Iranians were considered the bad guys and their suspicious associated. The CIA chief being careful about his work doesn’t excuse the movie’s automatic stereotyping of all Iranians as dangerous. In keeping with this view, Sahar is, for no reason other than racism, treated as a possible threat multiple times. Granted, Sahar breaks free of this stereotype, but it is only by cooperating with the Americans. I don’t agree with your point about Sahar choosing humanity over patriotism; the American agenda on foreign policy is not necessarily the end all be all for goodness and it is also often not what’s best for humanity. If you want to read more about Sahar, in the article I hyperlinked to a piece discussing Sahar’s portrayal specifically. As far as the other female characters, they were very minor and I don’t think the minuscule appearance of the female revolutionary, while certainly different, changed the overall anti-muslim women tone of the entire movie.

  • Ms Vanilla Rose

    Although I disagree with “Slate”‘s take on the matter, they did at least spell Kathryn Bigelow’s name correctly.

    • Emaan Majed

      My mistake! It should of course be spelled Kathryn as opposed to Katherine. I apologize.

  • Tec15

    Chris your comments get more ridiculous by the day. Supporting the Americans is supporting humanity as a whole? What utter nonsense. The Sahar character was just the latest in a long line of token “good” Muslim (i.e a good Muslim is one who supports the United States or another Western power over their own country, everyone else being evil) portrayed by Hollywood. It is one of Hollywood’s most hackneyed tropes and there was nothing interesting or novel about here and she wasn’t even a character, just an artificial method of suspense.

    The other character you mention (the female revolutionary)wasn’t anything of the sort either. She was just background scenery and scene setting establishing how fanatical, unreasonable and dangerous those evil Iranians are. Quite frankly, if you think the movie was even remotely balanced, it says far more about your own biases and views than it does anything else.

    • Emaan Majed

      You present a very astute analysis of Sahar! The ‘good’ Muslim redeeming her/himself by helping the Americans is a common and boring trope Hollywood uses to make Islamophobia less blatant as in this case.

  • Chris

    Well, thanks, Tec15. No, “supporting the Americans” is not supporting humanity. Helping a number of individuals, who may have engaged in wrong (which Ben Affleck’s character acknowledged right in the beginning), but who still may not deserve to be lynched in a public square or tortured to death in a prison. Some people would say no individual would deserve this.

    I did not feel the female revolutionary came off as unreasonable – “radical”, from a US American position, but no more less “fanatical” than anti-imperialists the world over.

    I was surprised to see the acknowledgement of US/CIA evil done in Iran to merit the attack on the embassy from the mouth of a US character that was obviously off to rescue “their own”, and this inclusion of an “Eastern”/concretly Iranian perspective in a Hollywood movie.

  • Izzie

    Eman ,very well written. The lack of Muslim female characters in Zero Dark Thrity (and to me even HomeLand season 1) was a big surprise. And you have converted that idea into a brilliant thought provoking article.

  • rumitoid

    I am not Muslim but I am not trolling. I disliked much of what I heard about the movie and part of that had to do with what I disliked about the original events; did not need a repeat. As to the portrayal of Muslim women, this article stunned me by seeing my own lack of a view: shadows behind a veil. Or the caricature often offered of violently oppressed women without a clue or opinion that is meant to serve as representative, the exceptions being killed by husbands, boy friends or male tribunals. Thank you for the peek.

    • Emaan Majed

      I’m glad you learned something! Since the American media and movies push the narrative that Muslim women are a voiceless monolith, it is important to realize that we are much more!