On Wednesday evening the all-female Lebanese dance troupe Mayyas was crowned the winner of NBC’s “America’s Got Talent.” On Monday, Cherien Dabis walked the red carpet in Los Angeles as the first Palestinian female director to be nominated for an Emmy Award, for Hulu’s “Only Murders in the Building.” On Saturday, Our Jabbeur became the first Arab woman reaches US Open final.
While Arab women don’t seek confirmation from the West, seeing the stereotypes that have plagued them finally recognized on a global scale is an inspiring and much-needed correction. For too long stories have fixed either by their appearance and body shape or their alleged role as submissive women to overbearing husbands (unless they are portrayed as terrorists).
The judges of “America’s Got Talent” celebrated the beauty of the Mayyas’ standout routine with all the words fit for a seamlessly choreographed dance routine using feathered props, hand lamps, and complicated synchronization to wow the audience.
But it was judge Response from Howie Mandel that best reflected the group’s triumph: “It’s great for women, women’s empowerment, your culture.” He is right. It is significant to see Arab women flourish on the small screen, showcasing their talents and breaking the assumption that they are oppressed.
For too long, stories have focused on their appearance and body shape or their alleged role as submissive wives to controlling husbands (unless they are portrayed as terrorists).
At the same time, it is unfortunate that it has taken so long for the western world to become aware of this reality. From Fatima al-Fihri who founded the the world’s first university in 859 until Zekra Alwach became Iraq’s first female mayor in 2015. Arab women have long proven that they deserve more than objectification.
That is not to say that Arab women live in a utopia in the Middle East. Last month, a Saudi woman was sentenced to 34 years in prison for using Twitter. Nadim Cherfan, the choreographer of Mayyas, opted for an all-female crew because he wanted “to convey a message about female empowerment…as Arab women are still mentioned for being dancers.” With that ethos, the Mayyas have shown that Arab women can take their destiny into their own hands – but such feats are often overlooked in the West.
The author of ‘Reel Bad Arabs’, Jack Shaheen highlights how Hollywood sidelines Arab women. Shaheen refers to them as “bundles in black” because their roles are usually “in the background, in the shade – submissive”. While there seems to be no statistical data on Arab women in Hollywood, data on Muslim women may be indicative of their representation, as the media often (wrongly) Arabic with being Muslim.
One Study on Muslim Representation by University of Southern California Annenberg found that only 23.6% percent of all Muslim characters in film and television between 2017 and 2019 were women. The roles they did get, according to the Geena Davis Institutewere those of wives or mothers who were often overpowered.
Such stories have reinforced the idea that Arab women need to be rescuedwith interventions ranging from the army until the tailor. Productions such as Netflix’s “Elite” and Apple TV’s “Hala” demonstrate this “saving” by portraying oppressed Arab women as identity crises that culminate in a fight with their headscarves. The shows climax in dramatic hijab-removing scenes presented as momentous acts of liberation. The implication is that these Arab women have no character other than their clothes.
Although some women do struggle with wearing headscarvesfor others it’s a choice. Not only is it inaccurate to reflexively use Arab women’s clothing as a sign of lack of choice, such a sweeping image has had real-life implications as countries like France try to control how women dress.
At the other extreme, Western filmmakers have cast scantily clad Arab women as controlled by men. In James Bond’s “The Spy Who Loved Me” the objectification of the characters was so extreme that they were credited unnamed as Arabian beauty 1, 2, 3 and so on. Disney’s “Aladdin” Meanwhile Has Princess Jasmine using her physical beauty to seduce the bad guy as a distraction. Such depictions of Arab women have led to their hypersexualization, with many reporting how common they are fetishized as part of an exotic jasmine-esque fantasy.
Not only is it inaccurate to reflexively use Arab women’s clothing as a sign of lack of choice, such a sweeping depiction has had real-life implications as well.
Just as common are depictions of Arab women living as concubines in harems, waiting to please men. Elvis’ “Harum Scarum” famously portrayed this misogynistic stereotype. Reality, as Moroccan author Fatima Mernissi writes in Scheherazade goes west,is that the harems were a display of power for women. Mernissi clarifies that a harem in arabic culture is a “private space”, but has been misinterpreted by western men as a place of sexual fantasy. The way Scheherazade, the most famous harem resident in literature, disarms her husband is by bewitching him with her magical language – not her body.
A gradual shift in the way the West portrays Arab women has begun, with nuanced Arab female characters battling the complexities of life through career choices, health issues, relationships, and more. What’s important is that they don’t just respond to the beckoning of their husbands. This year May Calamawy became the first arabic superhero in a Marvel series, while the release of the Hulu Dramedy “Ramy” respectfully navigates the complexities of life as an Arab American.
It goes without saying that much progress remains to be made for Arab women in the Middle East and in their representation in the Western media. But last week’s achievements should help break the stereotypes surrounding Arab women and inspire them to dream big.