Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Soap Opera “Ameera” Sings Off-Key about Iraqi Women

MMW thanks Anne for the tip!

The soap opera As the World Turns has recently introduced a Muslim character: Ameera Ali Aziz, an Iraqi woman. Played by the Iranian-American Tala Ashe, Ameera appears one day and becomes entangled in the other characters’ lives.

Here’s the basic summary: Following the death of her mother, who was in a relationship with an American soldier, Ameera is shunned by every single member of her community and must flee to the United States. There she finds Noah, son of the American colonel (somehow she already knows what he looks like and where his favorite hang-outs are). Noah, who has recently come out about his relationship with his boyfriend, Luke, decides to marry Ameera after Homeland Security officers threaten to send her back to Iraq because of an expired visa. The most recent episode featuring the characters showed the wedding.

Ameera’s religion is never explicitly stated, but she wears a hijab and there are vague references to Islam. The show exudes great ignorance about both Islam and foreign cultures. When a little girl points to a bowl and asks, “What are those?” Luke’s mother proudly proclaims, “These are dates. It’s a Muslim tradition. It’s amazing how much you can find out online.” I didn’t realize it took meeting a Muslim for an Americans to hear of dates. (All non-Muslim American readers, click here immediately. We can’t let you proceed without knowing about the first requirement of Islam.)

The show gives several indications of gender inequality in Iraq. When walking together, Noah asks Ameera if he needs to slow down. She responds that she’s “accustomed to always walk a few steps behind the men.” (As though a woman who just made her way from Iraq to an obscure small town of Illinois, with no one and nothing to guide her, would follow this stereotype of Islamic culture.) She also tells the two gay characters, “In my culture, men and women don’t sleep in the same room unless they’re married.” Or ride in a car together. Noah and Luke accept all this information at face value, because Ameera is clearly the first Iraqi or Muslim they’ve met. While they make adjustments for Ameera’s comfort, Noah and Luke ease her into “American culture.” She agrees to sleep in the same room, ride in the car, and lets them take her to a college dance (the hallmark of the university experience, apparently). They encourage her to dance with the first boy who asks her — and obedient girl that she is, she does so until he puts his arms around her and and she runs away. There’s no explanation of her behavior, only the conclusion that she’s “not ready.” (After all, just not being comfortable with dancing with boys you’ve never met is not an option.) There’s a strong feeling of condescension. Everyone is very polite to Ameera, but it’s clear that the (stereotypical) Iraqi culture she speaks of needs the improvement known as Americanization. (As though American culture, too, is a monolith.)

I’m also not a fan of how the United States is painted as a flawless beacon of freedom. When Ameera notices a bookshelf, she exclaims, “So many books! And people can read whatever they want without censorship.”

Her American host replies, “I thought there was more freedom in Iraq.”

Ameera says, “There is, but change takes time.”

When Ameera mentions suicide bombings in Iraq, it only serves to contrast the safety of the United States. Ever wonder why Iraq is so unstable right now? It has something to do with an American invasion. But not according to the show. It seems, instead, to be an inherently messed-up country. And based on Ameera’s “my culture” claims, you could never imagine that strong, independent Iraqi women exist — that is, without adopting American ways.

After all, Ameera exemplifies the Victorian archetype of a demure woman. Wide-eyed and naive, she smiles sweetly, she offers to wash the dishes, and she does her best to do all that’s instructed of her. She comes off as helpless and constantly in need of a man’s guidance. When Noah tells her of his plan to marry her so that she can stay in the country, he doesn’t ask. Even a marriage of convenience that assumes she’ll agree could have a kneeling scene — come on, this is a soap. Instead, Noah states directly, “You and I are getting married.” A bit ironic, considering Western attitudes on arranged marriages. And has he ever considered that she may not want the tangle of lies that their fake marriage would ensue? Or the awkwardness of “marrying” a man she hardly knows? Nevertheless, she responds as though it had been done properly: “Yes, Noah, I will marry you.” I hope Noah got the hint.

I’m not used to how much suspension of disbelief watching a soap opera (and the painful stereotypes) requires, but it seemed odd to me that Ameera speaks flawless English (except for not understanding a few slangy expressions), when this is her first interaction with American culture. It’s obvious the actor doesn’t speak Arabic, based on how she pronounces “Ameera Ali Aziz” and the word “Muslim.” Despite this and all that’s been mentioned, she believes herself to be portraying Middle Eastern culture both accurately and positively. (Which Middle Eastern culture is this, by the way? There do happen to be a lot.)

Islam is rarely mentioned specifically. Ameera says at one point, “In Islam, men and women dine separately.” (Why didn’t she refer to the vague Middle Eastern culture here? I don’t remember that passage of the Qur’an. It looks like CAIR doesn’t either.) But like the dance, this is something Ameera begins to abandon as she slips into an American identity. In another scene, Ameera tells her new family that she is “not comfortable” having the wedding in a church and instead requests a ceremony in the backyard, with a person “neither Christian or Muslim” officiating. As I understood it, if it’s going to be a fake marriage, she doesn’t want to bring religion into it. It would be interesting to see the show go into greater depth about the religious implications of this “marriage in name only.” Noah, after all, is still involved with Luke, their relationship back in the closet. Another factor is Noah’s religion. The writers don’t seem aware that their version of Islam, in which men and women eat separately, certainly wouldn’t allow a Muslim woman to marry a Christian man. Then again, the big question is: Do they know anything about Islam?

But the show could be worse. After all, Ameera is a likable character (as victims usually are). She clearly states that she has no connections to terrorism. She’s even sympathetic about the negative reactions to Noah and Luke’s relationship (after she meets the first gay people she’s ever known, since of course Iraq is just another Iran). Islam is part of her identity, but not consumed by it. It’s tragic that what should be taken for granted is lacking in most portrayals of Muslims on American TV.

Maybe I have exaggerated hopes for a soap opera, where drama rules and reality takes a back seat, but it would be nice to see a more complex Muslim character. Besides confirming every stereotype about gender issues in the Middle East, Ameera comes off as a one-dimensional nice girl who just needs some American training before she can become the perfect submissive (American) wife. She learns about the United States from her hosts, but she never teaches them anything about Iraqi culture. Perhaps it’s because the writers, satisfying themselves with putting dates on a table, haven’t done any research into what Iraqi culture actually is.

You can watch the episodes on CBS’s website. See episodes airing February 22 through March 12 for Ameera’s appearances. If you’d rather not suffer the pain of full-length episodes, check out clips on YouTube.