Unexpected sexualities: the sexual limits and trangressions of Muslim women in film

A scene from Nadine Labaki's 'Caramel' (2007)
Come into my parlour: A scene from Nadine Labaki's 'Caramel' (2007)

Portrayals of liberal Muslim women in film is groundbreaking on many levels. In a time where the veil is a symbol of subjugation, films about Muslim women like ‘Caramel‘ (2007) by Nadine Labaki, with a narrative composed of universal themes like love and sex can stunningly shatter stereotypes. It is an anomaly amongst the more mainstream media imagery of women from Islamic countries; it revolves around a beauty salon in which its characters tackle issues of virginity before marriage (by way of hymen reconstruction), disappointed love, and even lesbianism. More commonly, the sexuality of Muslim women is a mystery. Often she is portrayed as sexless and submissive, covered from head to toe, even though in reality only a small proportion of Muslim women actually do so.

‘Caramel’ offers a rare glimpse into the private lives of Muslim women and that their lives can be no different from women living in more liberal societies. However, one can argue that Lebanon has a reputation of being more progressive than its regional neighbours, but their differences are often cosmetic. In ultra conservative post-revolution Iran, the subject of romantic love and even sex is carefully depicted; often symbolically and abstract– imbued with Persian philosophy, and flying white doves. Even the adoring gaze between lovers was deemed too hot for mullahs: the first love story to come after the revolution was about a pair of blind lovers! While the Muslim world constructs sex and womanhood around some well-defined limits, Western popular culture re-hashes over and over again the image of the belly dancer.

Celluloid habibis

'Look out for Zouzou', a belly dancer film from Egypt's swinging days.
Belly dancing heroine: 'Khalli balak min Zouzou!' poster

The image of the belly dancer pulsates with hypersensuality; her only raison d’être is meant for the male heterosexual senses. Originating from a land where there is pressure against expressing sexuality, she is a paradoxical icon so popular in the West. Her omnipresence in Western films and music videos is a sign of popular culture obsessed with the mystique of the Arabian woman. Religion aside, her culture represents the libidinally and emotionally unrestrained – a culture in need of moral reform – a classic  Orientalist view of the East. To be fair, the term may sound a little outdated now, but Orientalism is still alive and well. It also takes shape of the gaining appeal in belly dancing lessons among white women. No other foreign subculture is employed by European women to empower themselves through the power of dance. The question then arises – is belly dancing sexually empowering, and do Muslim women reclaim their sensuality this way? Every year at the Cairo belly dancing festival in Egypt – the birthplace place of belly dancing, European and American participants go bare midriff whilst Egyptian women cover theirs with a see-through gauze. Granted, the belly dancer is not always the one-dimensional hypersexual creature film and popular culture constructs her to be. She can be a pastische of an Orientalist’s fantasy (remember ‘I dream of Jeannie‘?), and she can use her dancing prowess to assuage the hunger and feelings of frustration towards immigrants in the recent French film, ‘Couscous‘.

Teen Flick as Social Critic

It is pretty obvious by now that popular culture is preoccupied with only two representations of the Muslim woman: the one in unsexy burka and the sexy belly dancer. What about an insider’s view of the belly dancer? Is she still sexy by Muslim standards? A fair idea of what Egyptians generally think about belly dancing can be examined in “Khalli balak min Zouzou!” (or Watch out for Zouzou!), released in 1972 starring 70’s screen princess Soad Husni. It tells the story of Zeinab, or Zouzou, a young woman who financially support her mother, a former belly dancer, by moonlighting as a dancer herself. She gains popularity in her campus with her wilfullness and short skirts. Eventually her popularity wins her the title ‘Ideal Student’, much to the disdain of religious zealots, who make up half of the student body. Rather strangely, Zouzou’s strident liberal image is further challenged when images of her belly dancing is found circulating the campus. All is resolved when she rails against her detractors with a fiery speech about committing no sin in being a belly dancer’s daughter.

“Khalli balak min Zouzou” was a by-product of the swinging and free-loving sixties. University students in Cairo were the leaders of the liberal social scene, and many had an open attitude towards sex and drug-taking. Egyptians rushed to the cinema to catch campus-inspired love stories – student-student and student-teacher relationships were de rigeur then. However under the surface of these new attitudes still lie a sense of shame; often young Egyptians hid their other (more liberal) lives from families out of both fear and respect. As in “Zouzou”, the need to express oneself has to be justified in a battleground between conservatism and liberalism.


A Malay man's wet dream. Sofea Jane as Zaleha in 'Perempuan, Isteri, dan ..."
A Malay man's wet dream: Sofea Jane as Zaleha in 'Perempuan, Isteri, dan ...'

In general, film-making in Muslim nations steered clear of overt portrayals of sexuality. Unlike the abstract imagery of love and sex in Iranian cinema, a few memorable Malaysian films preferred the raw (and quite crude) depictions of sexuality and its nasty consequences. Completely unknown outside the country, U-Wei Shaari’s “Perempuan, Isteri, dan Jalang” (Woman, Wife, and Whore, 1993) was a local commercial success, in spite of its art-house inclinations and widespread moral conservatism.

The title’s woman, wife, and whore is called Zaleha. In the beginning of the film, she is dragged into marriage to Amir who does not desire her. After taking her back to his village, he allows her to prostitute herself, and she soon becomes the object of sexual favours for men of the village. Far from feelings of guilt and shame, Zaleha relishes in her own sexuality while remaining in control of their gaze; in one scene she knowingly showers in the eyes of a voyeuristic neighbour. In this respect, Zaleha turns the table on the male gaze/female sex object model, and even challenges masculinity by choosing to have sex with the village idiot – which proved to be the last straw for Amir. Such sexual trangressions can only spell death for Zaleha; in the end of the film her husband murders her with a machete used by the village idiot earlier in the film to kill a bull – such symbolisms are aplenty in U-Wei’s films.

Intriguingly, “Perempuan, Isteri, dan Jalang” was not the only film in Malaysia to engage so explicitly in sex; a good comparison is the pre-independence (and pre-Islamic revival) Malaysian film, “Semerah Padi” (Red As Paddy), in which a woman’s sexuality brings chaos to her village; her forced subjugation to the village’s power elite being the only way to restore order in the world (and film). In a harrowing opening sequence, an adulterous couple is executed by ‘sula’ i.e. the insertion of a spear through the anus to the heart.The grisly punishments for sexually wayward behaviour are not in  themselves Islamic; instead, they are punishments fit for the crime taken to literal extremes.

Taking into consideration a feminist film theorist perspective – Conclusion

While Zaleha has the power to express her sexuality, she does not have the power to challenge the patriarchy that ultimately kills her. The victimisation of the desiring female shares a similarity with a vast majority of American horror films where female, as well as male characters who sneak off to have sex are often killed off in the early measure of the plot. American culture in general still hold puritanical values in its engagement with sexuality, and it’s translated into film-theorist language as the audience and director’s sadistic viewing pleasure. Similarly in the case of the belly dancer, she becomes an object of viewing pleasure under the male gaze. Interestingly, for women, the belly dancer becomes an object that women can identify with narcissistically; because for many, the belly dancer represents an archetype of the feminine experience. In film and even in photography (e.g. Mata Hari) heavily suggest an ideal woman whose erotic power is both celebrated and feared.

Cinematic conventions regularly use items of clothing that contribute to the fetishisation of the female body while deflecting attention from the threatening female sexuality itself – this is where the striking belly dancer costume takes the fetishisation to full effect. Conversely, a more covered-up woman can prove just as seductive. In ‘The Piano‘, period clothing serves to tantalise both the male characters in the film and the viewer. Corsets, heavy petticoats and stiff skirts enclose the leading female protagonist’s (Ada’s) body, ostensibly making it available only to her husband. However, the bargain that Ada strikes with a neighbour, Baines, includes the removal of some of her clothing. The clothing becomes a fetishistic object as Baines lifts and smells her removed jacket. The veil, like Ada’s dress, is also projected as a fetishised object by both the male and feminist gaze. Due to the lack of access to the face (and hair), the veil can encourage an irrational notion of exotic sensuality and mystery. The veil is not popular in Britain, particularly the niqab. What frustrates many is the loss of ‘reciprocity’ from the wearer. Furthermore, the veiled woman’s ability to ‘see without being seen’ upsets those who exist on the favourable end of society’s power dynamics e.g. men.

Ultimately for the viewer, the fetishisation of Muslim women’s clothing produces a constrained and dichotomous image;  one that is either hypersexual or asexual, immoral or puritanical, a lot like  the mythical women who exist in the whore/Madonna complex. Like the whore and Madonna, the belly dancer and hijabi are often two sides of the same coin: patriarchal control over women’s bodies and men’s fantasies seek to maintain a dichotomy that is expected in a woman; that she is demure in public but is a slut in the bedroom – the veil has become from an outward manifestation of inner devotion to becoming a form of disguise for the object of male fantasy.

Without doubt, what remains misunderstood is the complex relationship between women and the headscarf that exists within an intersection of politics, religion, and personal choice that hasn’t been represented enough in the cinematic world. Furthermore, the sexual expression of women, particularly outside the Western world, does not necessarily conform to mainstream feminism which is why films like ‘Caramel’ and even ‘Perempuan, Isteri, dan Jalang’ are important as they push the limits of sexual acceptability in their respective societies.

Still, Muslim women have a long way to go. In the staging of ‘Hakeh niswan‘ or ‘Women’s talk‘ in Beirut – akin to an Arab version of the Vagina Monologues – characters complain about insults that refer to women’s body parts and address such issues as sexual harrassment on the streets and buses, lack of individual privacy, and the pre-menstrual syndrome. Though profoundly progressive by the Arab world’s standards, the Arabic word for vagina was not allowed during performance, instead a politically correct euphemism was used. The discomfort with female sexuality still persists, and like with patriarchal perceptions of women generally, the emphasis on the sexual detracts from the complexity, talent and humanity of any individual.

By Angry Malay Woman

I like plants.


  1. I saw Caramel recently, and the majority of the women in the film are actually Christian. But, since Lebanon is a majority Muslim country and Islam permeates the culture, you could definitely make the argument that the women in the movie are “cultural Muslims.”

    I loooooove this post, too. Can we feature it, too? 😀

  2. Pointed taken. I wanted to see the film sooo badly, but missed it when it was playing here in the UK, but I kind of knew that some characters were Christian, but hadn’t realise the majority were! Sure, as always, you can you use my post.

  3. Caramel has just been released in Australia, and I’m hopefully going to see it soon, as well as Persepolis!

    In 2002 a Tunisian film was released about belly dancing, called “Satin Rouge”, I’ve never gotten around to watching it yet but I read a really good review of it. Have you seen it?

  4. Actually no, but I would love to watch it. In fact, I might just add it on my dvd rent list!

    If you’re going to watch ‘Persepolis’, try catching the French version as it sounds better – the dubbed voices in English are a little jarring.

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