Thursday, December 6, 2007

What are they trying to tell us?

Television commercials and print ads have fascinated me for some time as these messages are not there to entertain or teach, but to manipulate the people into mass consumerism. As someone who is being schooled to analyze all messages critically, I find myself hyper-aware of the messages we receive through advertisements. In order to be successful, however, the messages must resonate with the masses, reflecting what they feel, desire, and crave, bringing them into the message, as if they themselves were driving the car or eating the burger.
I realize there is a definite lack of Muslim women in advertisements in the West. Heck, there is a definite lack of Muslims in general. As the oh-so-funny Iranian-American comedian Maz Jobrani says: "You'll never see me saying 'Come fly the friendly skies'."

However, there is one venue for commercials with Muslims in them - the ethnic slots on local channels. In Canada, very often on the weekends, one can catch a variety of ethnic programs, including ones for Muslim audiences, whether those be of a religious nature or a cultural one. I remember one particular commercial which erked me long before I was conscious of the messages these images send. This particular commercial was one for halal meat products. It depicted a very happy Muslim family, at home, having a halal meal consisting mainly of products from the company for who the commercial was made. This seems fairly benign. A Muslim family, eating and enjoying each others company in the comfort and privacy of their own homes. However, one unusual thing jumped out at me about this family. Something didn't fit. It was the hijab on the mother's head! I couldn't understand why she was wearing a hijab. I mean, she was at home with her husband and children. Only her husband and children. If one believes that the hijab is obligatory one surely knows it is not needed in the presence of one’s husband and children! Why was she wearing the hijab???

The message to me was clear – a Muslim woman must cover her head even if she is playing a mother in her home alone with her children and husband. This to me was similar to the criticisms I heard of the Little Mosque on the Prairie husband and wife characters Yaser and Sarah when they were portrayed showing affection toward one another in public. “How dare she touch her husband’s ass in public? If Muslims are being depicted on television, they damn well better be behaving like ‘good,’ ‘pure,’ and ‘proper’ Muslims.” A bit preachy if you ask me – and not to mention unrealistic!

In my opinion, depicting Muslims engaging in lusty or affectionate behaviour, or depicting Muslim women, heads uncovered, in the privacy of their homes, aides in the process of ‘normalizing’ us. After all, is this not how we behave? Do Muslim couples not show affection toward each other in public? Can our heads not be left uncovered in our homes even?* Or must we portray this fa├žade of ‘virginal purity’ and display our modesty (or at least one version of it) at all times? Muslim women do show their hair with reckless abandon. Even those who wear the hijab have their hijab-less moments in the privacy of their homes. Why must we shove morality, or at least one particular version of it, in everyone’s faces?

*To clarify, I am of the belief that our heads can be left uncovered anywhere, anytime.