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Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

On the Representation of Middle Eastern Women in Western Film and Television

Representation Middle Eastern Women
Egyptian-Palestinian actress May Calamawy arrives for the Marvel/Disney+ original series premiere of “Moon Knight” at the El Capitan theatre in Hollywood, California, March 22, 2022. VALERIE MACON / AFP

Dana Hourany

Scarlet Scarab, Marvel’s first Egyptian hero, made her debut in the sixth episode of the Moon Knight series. Layla El-Faouly, played by Egyptian-Palestinian actress May Calamawy, is a historian with a penchant for collecting rare Egyptian artifacts.

In the final episode, Scarlet Scarab, Marvel’s first curly-haired brown Egyptian superhero, appears costumed as the Egyptian goddess Isis, complete with wings and swords.

Layla’s transformation into Scarlet occurred when filmmaker Mohamed Diab decided that Layla should play the Marvel character Taweret, the Egyptian goddess of women and children.

Sarah Goher, Moon Knight’s consulting producer, recently indicated that the production crew was looking for an authentic portrayal of the Arab superhero, down to the smallest physical aspects.

“I’m an Egyptian girl, and I have curly hair,” Goher said in an interview with Marvel. “I can’t tell you how many girls I know have spent years burning that hair with irons, using chemical processes to straighten their hair, and it’s because we don’t see enough representation of curly hair on-screen. And so down to the curl, down to her story, down to even her strength, these were all very important things that we wanted to instate in her character.”

Despite the fact that Scarlet Scarab represents a definite step forward in the portrayal of Middle Eastern women in Western media, observers point out that Western production firms are still susceptible to outdated perceptions of the Middle East influenced by socio-political factors.

Failed representation

In the recent decade, Hollywood has made a concerted effort to represent several traditionally excluded groups in a more inclusive light. However, Lebanese producer Yasmine Al Jurdi, argues that Hollywood continues to depict Middle Eastern women negatively, with superficial stereotypes and lack of diverse representation.

“Women from the Middle East are frequently shown in extremes. They are either repressed or obliged to wear veils, or they are sexualized figures, depicted as exotic belly dancers,” Al Jurdi told Fanack.

Muslim women, one of many religious groups in the MENA region, are disproportionately represented. Furthermore, women are frequently cast into victim roles, “waiting for a ‘white savior’ to intervene,” she adds.

For example, in the Netflix series, Elite, the protagonist Nadia, a hijabi with strict Palestinian parents, removes her hijab to earn the heart of a man, implying that women born into Muslim homes are almost always raised by oppressive parents.

Similarly, Al Jurdi argues that in the film industry, the phrase “Middle Eastern” is a broad umbrella term. She contends that the Middle East and North Africa region includes countries representing a diverse spectrum of faiths, civilizations, sects, cultures, and languages.

“Christian Arab women, for example, are almost never shown. Furthermore, the West fails to recognize the distinction between Levantine and Gulf cultures. As a result, a Western audience comes to assume that the Middle East is one homogenous place with one ethnic group,” Al Jurdi explained.

Orientalism and U.S. politics

Edward Said, a postcolonial scholar, coined the term “Orientalism.” The word alludes to a colonial Western image of Arabs as savages, uncivilized, exotic, and potentially dangerous.

The West is considered to be superior in terms of culture and social conventions, whilst the East is regarded as primitive and inferior. Following the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, the contrast between “savages” and “civilized” grew increasingly common in US media, according to Al Jurdi.

“Following the attacks, there was a climate of hate toward Muslim Arabs that the entertainment industry was aware of. As a result, it took advantage of anti-Muslim propaganda by making more films and television programs portraying Arabs as extremists who needed to be fought by powerful white heroes,” she said.

Clint Eastwood’s 2014 film American Sniper is one such example. Chris Kyle, the main character, is portrayed as a deadly sniper on the hunt for his enemies, Iraqi insurgents, whom he refers to as “terrorists.”

As for women, their roles can vary between terrorists, oppressed victims, and erotic seductresses. For example, in the American series, “The bodyguard,” the character of Nadia Ali, played by Anjli Mohindrais, is one of a subservient Muslim woman implicated in a terrorist bombing alongside her husband. In the 1942 film, The Arabian nights, women are mostly exotic belly dancers who exist solely for the entertainment of men and provide the only counterpoint to the image of the persecuted Muslim woman.

Psychological and social repercussions

Passive consumption by viewers, prevalent in the age of digital media and digital streaming, poses a threat to communities and individuals, according to Al Jurdi.

Although the effects vary, the producer maintains that incessant negative messaging and stereotyping may result in viewers internalizing such tropes.

“Popular Western beauty standards and cultural norms at the expense of ours could massively impact a woman’s self-esteem, for example. We start comparing our looks and behaviors to the actresses, and may be led to believe that we are in the wrong for not resembling them,” she said.

Muslim women, in particular, may start believing negative Western stereotypes, she adds, stowing away their religious beliefs, out of fear of being judged.

Although the hijab can be a symbol of empowerment, Western media remains mostly shy of showcasing Islam in a positive light, Al Jurdi adds.

The relevance of representation can extend beyond race and religion to the minutiae, such as exhibiting Middle Eastern traits that Hollywood has not previously normalized.

Mohamed Diab, the Egyptian director of Moon Knight, stated on social media that his four-year-old daughter had never seen a movie character with curly hair similar to her own. As a result, she began to prefer straight hair.

Al Jurdi emphasizes the need of including Arab women on the production teams from the start to ensure fair and truthful portrayal. As a result, independent and short films provide Middle Eastern women additional opportunities to work as producers and directors, giving them the creative freedom to portray their people accurately.

“As Arab filmmakers, it is our job to guarantee that our people’s stories are told authentically. Women, especially in a male-dominated industry, must band together to ensure that our voices are heard and our experiences are portrayed with compassion and empathy, “Al Jurdi said.

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