The repressive, corseted Victorian culture of the novel found a perfect foil in the rigid caste strictures of Indian society. (The Times, 27 April 2009)
Nesrine Malik’s scathing review of the ITV drama Compulsion got me thinking a lot more about modern day adaptations of pre-20th century literary works featuring ethnic Indian actors. She has fair enough reasons to be perturbed: it seems that when diversity is presented on British TV, what’s served up for a wider, mostly white audience are actually tired stereotypes of overbearing family members, arranged marriages, and the ever recurring theme of honour and shame. Oppressive family values have become the only representative force for British Asians in the media.
The impetus for disaster in Compulsion begins with Parminder Nagra’s character Anjika, who flatly refuses a marriage arranged by her dad, sending out all sorts of warning signals to women out there who disobey The Great Patriarch. The one person who knows of her troubles happens to be her sleazy chauffeur, Flowers (played by Ray Winstone). He offers to ‘fix’ her potential suitor in exchange for one night of sex with her, which she later, tearfully, accepts. So far very Indecent Proposal.
This leads to her discovering how great sex with Flowers is, sealing her doomed fate. But with every tryst she demands of him, we are made to feel diminishing sympathy for her, and somehow more for Flowers, as he is by now treated as a sex object(!). Murder and a spontaneous yet elaborate cover-up ends with Flowers dead, leaving Anjika happily off the hook to marry her secret White boyfriend. The end.
For a relatively high-brow TV channel, BBC4 is known for providing top quality programs and dramas. So when the BBC commemorated the 30th anniversary of Islamic Revolution in Iran, I became glued to the channel’s string of intriguing documentaries on all things Iranian, post-1979. There were plenty on Iran-US nuclear politics and the fall of the Shah, all testosterone-fueled stuff. Sticking out from the rest for bearing themes that were uniquely female was the unfortunately-titled Prostitution Behind The Veil (2004). Yes, nothing captures the definitive spirit of being a woman in modern-day Iran better than a program about sex work with groan-inducing references to the veil.
Directed by Nahid Persson, who brought us Four wives – one man (2007), the documentary follows the grim day-to-day lives of two women, Mina and Fariba, in an equally grim corner of the capital city. Making ends meet as sex workers in a country notorious for its curtailment of women’s rights, the two friends juggle their roles as single parents and negotiate their way around the prohibitive laws against prostitution. With their husbands in prison for an assortment of crimes, no relatives willing to help, and a drug habit, the clandestine flesh trade is their last and only resort.
If you think that divorce brings shame and stigma squarely upon women only in conservative societies, think again. Because according to a ”news” report published in the Malaysian tabloid, Metro Ahad, celebrity divorcees are apparently the hottest thing on the market at the moment. I usually read the stuff on local tabloids with a pinch of salt, but I take issue when the seriousness of divorce and disrespect for divorced women are glossed over for sake of entertainment gossip. The Star Online has the story:
Being a celebrity in the entertainment world attracts a lot of attention but being a divorcee it seems, will add more “aura” and “glamour,” reported Metro Ahad. Celebrities such as Abby Abadi, Rozita Che Wan, Nora Danish, Azharina and Nurul are among the divorcees being pursued by V.I.Ps*, who are often already married.
Abby said she was shocked that there was a veteran artiste who was willing to be the middle person in setting up meetings with V.I.P.s outside the country. “If the person is someone I do not know, I would not be insulted but this person is my friend. How dare this person do such things?
Friend or not, she should feel insulted because she’s basically treated like a call girl:**
“I know who the V.I.P is but there is no need to reveal his identity. The payment promised is a huge sum but I am not money crazy,” she said, adding that she was told that many celebrities entertained V.I.Ps outside the country.
Isn’t it depressing that according to Nesrine Malik the so-called ideal Muslim man is blond and looks suspiciously white? Apparently, this beautiful mythical creature can be found in the popular Turkish soap opera, Noor, where he can be seen observing Islamic customs like a good Muslim son-in-law (*half-hearted sarcasm*). She writes:
[…] the male protagonists (Muhanned in Noor’s case, above right) are fair-skinned Muslim men with blue eyes who epitomise the model man as far as Arab women reared on western media images are concerned – a man in the mould of sensitive western heartthrobs, who still observes Ramadan.
[…] This vision of the ideal man can be found among women in the Muslim world who grew up on a diet of western media and chick flicks, but also to those reared in a conservative environment in the west. Of course, in real life this “Tom Cruise in a gallabiya (or insert other ethnic dress here)” – as my sister jokingly refers to him – rarely makes an appearance on your doorstep or anywhere else. So, instead, many women caught between cultural expectations and conditioning await the perfect halfway house: a liberal Muslim who is comfortable with all the trappings of a westernised lifestyle but is also abstemious and observant, striking a perfect Arabesque ballet pose between what your friends might think, and what your parents might prefer.
Once upon a time, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella had to battle witches and overcome spells to find Prince Charming. Now, young women are discovering that the road leading to “happily-ever-after” is wider, shorter and much less of an obstacle course.
In recent years, a large number of the fairer sex have chosen to sign up with matrimonial websites to increase their chances of meeting a knight in shining armour. The mail-order bride industry has been around for ages. However, limited to print ads in monthly magazine, singles had a slim chance of finding their perfect mate.
There is something decidedly twisted about comparing mail-order brides to fairy tale princesses. But perhaps due to sheer naivety, the news report ignores the fact that mail order brides have long been an established object of racism, poverty, sexism, and comedy. Despite Malaysia’s notoriety for pompous display of first-rate infrastructure and tall buildings, it shares with a number of foreign bride exporting-nations the kind of urban and rural impoverishment that invariably affects women the worst.
So, for the many women involved, the reasons are largely economic. But there is nothing romantic about meeting and marrying someone you barely know for the sake of an improved standard of living. Except for Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella were, after all, born from affluence, not economic refugees. For the men who search through mail-order bride websites, however, it’s all about accomplishing an impossible romantic dream:
Wedlock. It’s the kind of word that ought to send chills down a modern woman’s spine. It describes with deadly aptness the prison-like qualities of that institution and evokes a cold sense of confinement and consignment. An Englishman’s home may be his castle, but an Englishman’s castle is an Englishwoman’s jail. The hermetic seal of wedlock provides the perfect cover, the immaculate veneer which conceals at worst domestic violence and emotional abuse and, as a norm, a vast well-documented housework and childcare disparity between the sexes.
And still women go for it. Indeed, according to the bizarro-world values of Hollywood, we can’t get enough of marriage – and it’s making us go bonkers. Last year the ultimate real girl, Carrie Bradshaw, turned into a couture-drenched Bridezilla in the Sex and the City film. And this week we have Anne Hathaway – another real-girl heroine after her appearance in The Devil Wears Prada, a loving tribute to the fashion industry – in two marital movies, Bride Wars and Rachel Getting Married. In all three cases the husbands-to-be might as well be shop mannequins, mutely looking bemused while the action unfolds around them. The real drama is among the women, who all seem to have been infected by a particular microscopic bug that lives in off-white silk tulle and transforms them into nitpicking obsessives who’ll scratch out each other’s eyes for their chance to be queen for a day. It says something about the paucity of women’s lives that a marriage offers them their one and only opportunity to feel significant.