Sex & The Middle East: True Or False?
Like many other women across the country, my girls and I hit the movies at midnight late last week to catch the first screening of Sex & The City 2. I was super excited to see the mouth-watering fashion, the developing storylines of Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda and the glittering locations of New York City and Abu Dhabi. However, I was most interested to see if critics’ rumors of a prejudiced portrayal of Middle Eastern culture (women in particular) were true.
The first telling scene occurs early in the movie, when the Arab hotelier who offers Samantha and her girlfriends an all-expenses paid trip to his resort dramatically announces “Dubai is over. Abu Dhabi is the NEW Middle East.” Not so new, it seems—the actual film had to be made in Morocco instead of Abu Dhabi because the government would not allow it, and theaters across the emirate have actually been banned from showing the movie.
When the ladies arrive in “Abu Dhabi” and are lazing by the resort pool, they observe women in full niqabs (complete face coverings) lounging, as well. “The veil across the mouth freaks me out,” Carrie quietly comments. “It’s like they don’t want them to have a voice.” The group then comically observe one woman in full niqab eating the most American of foods—french fries—and marvel over how she does it. Carrie’s honest observation of the niqab, which is commonly worn in Arab countries of the Persian Gulf, does not reek of ignorance to me. It’s an interesting take on the prevalent rationale based on the Quran and Hadith, where the many wives of the Prophet Muhammad were made to cover themselves in the company of other men. However, the verses do not clearly refer to covering the face itself, and many have argued that full-face veiling is a custom that has nothing to do with the Islamic faith.
As they witness less-covered women in “burkinis” swimming in the hotel pool and belly dancers in revealing costume in the hotel nightclub, Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda—and probably most of their audience—gradually learn more about the varying standards of acceptable dress for Muslim women today. In perhaps the film’s strongest statement of female empowerment, the ladies do a group rendition of Helen Reddy‘s classic “I Am Woman” during a night of karaoke. The number gets the entire club on its feet, with women of all backgrounds (predominately Muslim women) emphatically singing, “Oh yes, I am wise/But it’s wisdom born of pain/Yes, I’ve paid the price/But look how much I gained.”
While the ladies—all highly educated and successful career women—come across as a little too naive throughout their trip to Abu Dhabi, their honest (and common) questions are refreshing. That’s until we’re given by far the most ridiculous scene of the film (and actually, the entire series). Samantha, suffering from the combined effects of menopause (hot flashes), being arrested for indecent exposure on the beach and the stifling heat of the desert country, gets into a tug of war with a crooked merchant who believes she’s stolen a bag from him (when in fact it’s her own, very expensive, Birkin bag). As they pull the bag back and forth the strap breaks, and to everyone’s horror, Samantha—already dressed provocatively in a tank top and mini-shorts—goes wild like a banshee. “Condoms! Condoms! See them?!?!” she yells to the shocked crowd as the bag’s contents spill onto the street. “I have sex! I love sex!” While the vignette is meant to be comical, the disrespect of the entire scene is almost too overwhelming to watch. Samantha, Carrie Charlotte and Miranda are then led by women dressed in abaya (cultural dress) into a private room. The women have come together for their American-themed “book club,” where they’re reading the latest self-help guide from American actress Suzanne Somers. To show solidarity with the girls from New York, they pull their all-black robes off to display similar high-fashion designer clothes. This entire scene is born of stereotypes. While the intention of the message may have been “we are all the same,” unfortunately, it comes across as a condescending statement devoid of any cultural awareness.
Cynthia Nixon, who plays cynical lawyer Miranda Hobbs in the series, was asked about some critics’ negative response to the portrayal of Middle Eastern women in the film on the Today show last week. She replied, “I think it’s crazy. There’s a lot of love for the Middle East [in the film]. I think there’s a lot of looking at the similarities between us and the women of the Middle East and also the differences.”
That may be true. However, a storyline focusing on one of their Abu Dhabi counterparts might have done the trick a little better, instead of viewing the complex female experience in the Islamic world through the eyes of privileged Western women.