Speaking of Women's Rights: Tromping around Abu Dhabi in stilettos?

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Tromping around Abu Dhabi in stilettos?

It might be cringe-inducing, but I don’t think it’s particularly surprising that the new Sex and the City (SATC) movie is set partially in Abu Dhabi.

Passing countless hours watching (often terrible) American blockbusters tells me this: Hollywood is fascinated by places with which the U.S. is engaged in some kind of conflict. Three Kings, Jarhead, The Kite Runner and War Games all draw their plots from political & military conflicts. Even movies that aren’t about war in Iraq or Afghanistan tend to reference those conflicts obliquely - films like Iron Man and Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay .

So why wouldn’t the SATC characters tromp around Abu Dhabi in stilettos? It makes a certain amount of sense. It also provides an opportunity to talk about how women dress in Middle Eastern cultures, and why.

One critic recaps a critical fashion moment in the movie this way. (The whole review is worth reading if you’re in the mood for a dose of hysterically funny and profane bitterness.)

When the locals complain … Samantha removes most of her clothes in the middle of the spice bazaar, throws condoms in the faces of the angry and bewildered crowd, and screams, "I AM A WOMAN! I HAVE SEX!" Thus, traditional Middle Eastern sexual mores are upended and sexism is stoned to death in the town square.

At sexism's funeral (which takes place in a mysterious, incense-shrouded chamber of international sisterhood), the women of Abu Dhabi remove their black robes and veils to reveal—this is not a joke—the same hideous, disposable, criminally expensive shreds of cloth and feathers that hang from Carrie et al.'s emaciated goblin shoulders. Muslim women: Under those craaaaaaay-zy robes, they're just as vapid and obsessed with physical beauty and meaningless material concerns as us!

Compare this to a post on In the Hot Shade of Islam, whose author actually resides in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). She describes Sharjah, where she lives, as “an extremely conservative area.”

Prior to moving to the UAE, most of my knowledge of Islamic women’s dress came from magazine articles and from talking to American Muslim women. Both stressed that the covering is about maintaining modesty. The Qur’an dictates that men and women “preserve their modesty,” but does not specify what that means. Therefore, veils and scarves of any kind are, technically, optional.

Though I see a lot of abayas and other types of coverings, I don’t see quite as much modesty. Rather, sequins, Swarovski crystals, and gilded embroidery sparkle on thousand dollar, hand-sewn abayas. The beadwork is more intricate than most of my Western friends’ wedding dresses. Looking at them is sometimes disconcerting. Even my nicest skirt seems quite underdressed when a trip to the grocery store requires a gown like a disco ball.

I tend to think and write about women’s issues in light of pop culture because it acts like a mirror, reflecting back the opinions and assumptions of the people who create and consume it. In the case of the SATC movie, the mirror is showing me fear, disgust and frustration (with a culture that has other-than-American expectations about women’s dress) alongside a sneaky assertion of superiority. When the previously modestly-robed women reveal their fashionable garb, I think the audience is meant to laugh and feel relieved: they are just like us. But assigning Western values to the fictional women in Abu Dhabi denies what is obviously a much more complex reality.

I don’t expect a Sex and the City film to be able to explain it all. But I do wonder what a culturally accurate version of the film would look like – especially since women’s abayas themselves can be designer icons, rather than what’s concealed beneath them. To me, that’s more interesting than the version of American fashion that the SATC franchise has been trumpeting for the past decade. In the Hot Shade of Islam offers an antidote, exploring pop culture topics like fashion without denying any of their many layers of meaning - the tagline is “Culture clash is terrific drama.”