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Outlines Review: Women in Black, Episode 3

Monday, May 26, 2008 


This was written by Safiya, and originally published at Outlines. You can see earlier reviews of this show here.


This week’s episode is in Cairo. Presenter Amani Zain is quick to paint it as a party town from her experiences there as a student.

Zain gives a good insight into dress in Cairo, explaining that while wearing the hijab is becoming increasingly common, many women do not wear the hijab. Those that do wear it, often experiment with many different styles and colours, so there aren’t that many ‘women in black’.

Further on the hijab tip, we meet a female factory owner who makes hijabs. She happily explains that as a Muslim women she feels her religion doesn’t just permit her work, it helps her to work and make her own money, by viewing it as a form of worship.

Zain mentions that the veil has become popular in Egypt, not just as a religious act, but as a political statement against the avowedly secular government (Hmm). Egypt’s increasing religiosity is again mentioned in regards to it’s film industry. Egypt’s films were once as raunchy as their western counterparts, but Zain laments that increased censorship has made them ‘bland’. Any viewers vaguely paying attention at this point may have noticed a not very well hidden agenda begin to emerge. More about this later.

Zain says that she herself would have liked to have become an actress, but that her culture and family would not allow. She speaks to two different women outside of a cinema. The first states that there should be more hijab-wearing women in Egyptian films, as many Egyptian women wear the hijab. The other women disagrees, stating she doesn’t like the hijab and most people who wear it are forced to do so by male relatives. This is a rarely expressed view, narrates Zain.

Now for the issue of plastic surgery, with the frankly ludicrous claim that up to 20% of Cairenes have had some form of cosmetic surgery. Not even in any U.S city would such a figure be accurate. The plastic surgeon interviewed is female. She makes the rather dubious statement that cosmetic surgery is a gift from God and to not use this gift would be sinful.

More statistics with the statement that most married Egyptian women have had FGM. Zain does point out that there have been fatwas and campaigns against this practice.

Next, we saw Zain watching Heba Kotb’s show, in which the sexologist dispenses Islamically orientated advice in a frank manner. Zain is displeased when Kotb advises against masturbation, describing this as “reactionary”, not mentioning that masturbation is indeed considered to be widely disliked under Islamic rulings (opinions vary considering the circumstances).

Meeting with Kotb however, Zain describes her as the first person to realise that there are references sexual etiquette in the Qur’an and Sunnah. This isn’t actually true, at all. Zain asks if Kotb feels such blunt discussion of sexual matters in compatible with Islam? Kotb explains that to be sexually considerate is in the Qur’an and Sunnah that she hopes to strengthen marriages through her advice.

Next, Cairo’s party scene complete with alcohol is shown as the norm for many Egyptian women and Khaleji’s who want to ‘let their hair down’. This is not Islamic behaviour and while I know there are women who are Muslim that do this, a lot of us don’t and would consider it sinful and resent the idea that we’re all longing to ‘party western style’.

As seems to be obligatory for this series, there is some hair removal. A minor fuss occurs as the woman are unhappy to show their faces due to Zain showing her legs on film. Zain seems genuinely astounded that the women would react like this, stating that it’s an example of the tightrope Muslim women walk. Again, I have problems with this idea that Muslim women are perpetually conflicted souls, especially in this programme which has just interviewed three women who feel completely at ease with their lives and their religion.

An Egyptian wedding is shown, which while typical, is actually about as Islamic as a pork chop (alcohol, belly dancing, lavish expenditure).

We are told that Egyptian women are not as free as their western counterparts (remember that hidden agenda I mentioned before) and that this desire for freedom coupled with a rise in religious observance not only creates hypocrisy, but a future clash of ideals.

Yes, "clash," that quintessential verb that must be used whenever Islam and Muslims are discussed in a modern context.

Let’s look at things from a different perspective. People have been being Muslim for quite some time now, over 1400 years. They have neither faded into obsolescence, nor remained frozen in time. Empires have risen and fallen, wars have been fought, natural disasters endured and Muslims have remained.

As for Egypt, why is assumed that the modernity they seek is the right to ape western social habits? What was glossed over by the programme and it’s relentless focus on the upper class, is that a lot of Egyptians live in poverty. Illiteracy is high, poor housing widespread and the government manages to be both corrupt and draconian. Rising food prices have even lead to national strikes.

By repeating the lie that “They just hate/envy our freedom”, this programme isn’t unveiling anything. Instead it is just reinforcing familiar prejudices.

Posted by Zeynab at 12:15 PM 

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