As Seen On TV Muslims

24 Feb

Did ya’ll ever watch the movie, Not Without My Daughter? I saw it in my first year of high school. It’s a Cowboys & Muslims adventure.

The Muslim is played by Alfred Molina, a British actor of Spanish/Italian descent. The cowgirl stars in that famous commercial about how Once-Monthly Boniva armed her against postmenopausal osteoporosis. I loved her collard green performance in Steel Magnolias. Did you know Sally Field is from California? Yup. I looked up her bio and saw photos of her on the beach, as a girl called Gidget, and then swathed as The Flying Nun. I assumed she really was collard green.  Maybe it’s in her bloodline. How the heck did she play Norma Rae so convincingly?  I was less shocked to learn that Vivien Leigh, who starred as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, was British. After all, Scarlett O’Hara was, essentially, a rich fuss with a southern accent and a survival instinct. A finely chiseled English actress can pull that off… but, Norma Rae? It’s tormenting.

Anyway, Not Without My Daughter is the story of an American mother who gets a genius idea to marry a Muslim immigrant who had lived in the U.S. for twenty years practicing medicine. He’s cute and cuddly in America, oh sure, but not long after the family arrives in his home-country of Iran he takes off his Care Bear mask. The husband is embraced by his extended family- all bearing allegiance to black cloaks and furry eyebrows. Then, it’s one scene after another of him beating her while they look on menacingly. Finally, the American mother smartly orchestrates a plan to smuggle herself and her daughter to an American embassy and escape the whole tribe of meanie-Muslims.

Just before the credits roll, she looks haggard and defeated. Then, suddenly, she catches sight of our Red, White and Blue, waving in the distance. That’s my cue to burst into a slobbery cry of relief. I feel safe (fortressed), warm (drowsy), and fuzzy (slightly paralyzed). The cowgirl escaped the Muslims, into the arms of Lady Liberty. The End.

Dimmers release… time to go home…bright theatre lights pop… gotta’ take the dog outside to pee…tears go stale…my breath tastes like salty, orange saturated fat…the music stops… dang, I wanna’ brush my teeth!…ushers sweep under my feet…I need some sleep. Tomorrow is a new day! Yee-haaaw!

We never find out what happens next -whether they live happily ever after. That is not the point. The point is to scare the crap out of you. It worked! I watched it in the ninth grade and renewed my solemn oath to marry Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise. I was pretty sure they were not Muslim.

Not Without My Daughter was filmed in the U.S. and Israel, and was allegedly based on a true story. Twenty years after the film’s debut, Finnish documentary makers dug up documents and eye-witness accounts which sharply contradicted the battered mother’s account. That film is called Without My Daughter. It tells the story of an Iranian father swindled out of his fortune and separated from his daughter by his sinister ex-wife.

As a woman’s woman, I just can’t wrap my mind around that version. I believe her. I hope when she made it back to the U.S. she returned to the support of an empathetic group of good girlfriends- not shallow, gossiping wenches. My motto is: It takes a village to raise a strong woman. It takes a village to keep her strong.  It takes a village to help her find a job and a pit-bull attorney, when her rodent of a husband becomes infatuated with his agile secretary – florescent fingernail polish and all! I BELIEVE ANITA HILL!!

Do ya’ll catch my drift?

I’m relieved for any woman in that position and I admire her courage. You don’t have to watch Oprah to know that abusers will become more manipulative and aggressive when the marriage is about to end, and they confront a loss of control. The abuser will try to regain control with more intimidation and violence. If he can put her in a situation where she is more vulnerable, say another country, where she doesn’t speak the language, he will.

This phenomenon, tragically, happens on U.S. soil as well, involving American jerks and foreign wives. The women, some of them mail-order brides, find themselves in violent situations out of their element, and they do not know who to trust or what resources are available. Not until relatively recently did The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) put into place aggressive legal protections to address this crisis. Now, a woman in the U.S. who would otherwise depend on an abusive spouse to obtain legal status, and access the court system, can go to a safe haven and receive help. The law will turn on the abuser, instead of on the abused. There are non-profit attorneys who work, almost exclusively, helping victims under VAWA; which illustrates how severe is the problem.

If the husband and wife are citizens of different countries, it becomes even more problematic when there is no equivalent of VAWA, and even worse, when the laws favor the husband over the wife. It is insincere to deny that some Muslim-majority countries do interpret Islamic family law to hail to the chief to the detriment of women and their children.

Now, don’t go winding your head and saying to yourself, uh-huh. I said some countries. Let’s not forget, there are Muslim-majority nations where women have been elected to serve as the head of state, whereas we have yet to reach that milestone. Yes We Can(not) Elect a Woman for President.

Sorry, ya’ll, I had to go there. It has a ring to it.

Many Muslim-majority countries, like Morocco, have initiated significant legal reforms in family law over the past decade, though it has a way to go for those reforms to gain acceptance in the hearts of people. A middle class couple I know in Morocco were married for only two years; the marriage did not produce children, yet the husband had to cough up a one-time alimony payment. His wife was self-sufficient and worked full time; however, the payment was required because she convinced the judge that her husband was el-cheapo. The Islamic family law court decided the case according to a Shari’ah principle, which applies to women, and can be roughly paraphrased as: My money is my money… and your money… is my money!

Under Islamic law, a woman is entitled to all of her earnings and inheritance, and she is entitled to support from her husband, regardless of her financial status. Anything she contributes to the household is deemed charity.

In Not Without My Daughter, the only part I have a hard time believing is that her husband was so archetypal before he reunited with his Muslim family and into the womb of his Islamic faith. You also don’t have to watch Oprah to know that all abusers are not Muslim, but some Muslims are abusers. That’s an important distinction. Sadly, abusers are ubiquitous. Evil does not confine itself to geographical borders or religious communities. Life is more complicated than that; although, the film leads us to believe that, but for, the injection of Islam and Muslims, the couple would have lived happily ever after- in a ranch house near the post office and convenient to several outlet malls.

Doesn’t it seem more plausible that the mother knew to some degree that her long-time doctor/husband was on the arrogant side with a mean temper, and harbored a skewed way of looking at the world? It seems more plausible to me that only after facing up to the complete desperation of her situation in Iran, did she find the strength to leave the marriage. Sometimes women don’t know how strong they are until they find a very good reason to dust off their long lost courage and make it work again. Not wanting to choose between living in abuse forever and giving up one’s daughter is a very good reason to dust off- no matter the risk involved.

If the story had been about a mother who willingly went to Iran with a long-time husband, in a rocky relationship, in the hope that someday he would change, then it would have been another movie entirely. Instead of good versus evil, Cowboys versus Muslims, it would have been a complex story, and it would have evoked complex feelings.

The cowgirl would not have been digested as the sterile protagonist that everyone wants to pay to watch, whilst inhaling a vat of buttered popcorn. Instead, she would have been the mama who made a really crappy decision to place herself, and worst of all her daughter, in a familiar and abusive situation, but in an unfamiliar context. She would have thrust herself into a pit in which she did not have the immediate resources to climb out. A woman smart enough to figure out how to steer her camel to Turkey, had enough sense to know that she had nothin’ from the start, except a plane ticket to Iran and a very shrewd, arrogant husband. No support system. No language skills. No grain of geo-political understanding. No contact to help her navigate the judicial process. No GPS! She’s flat broke with a kid to worry about. No one put her on that plane except her own two feet, in a pair of plastic Payless Shoes.

However, the fact is, she did pull herself and her daughter out. She screwed up big time, but she sat herself down. She rested her pounding heart. She thought real hard. She made up her mind. She put herself last and her daughter first. She looked around. She scavenged for recruits. She winked. She enlisted confidence. She won sympathy. She walked barefoot. She risked her life. She did what she had to do.

That takes intelligence, guts and self-sacrifice. It would have made her a convincing protagonist, in my view. Why didn’t they make the film about real people? Why are bad guys, too often, tied to geographic borders? Can’t the bad guy be rotten by virtue of being human? Can’t he be rotten because he never waged battle against his foul heart, or detached from a cycle of abuse; instead, he fed his parasitic traits?

If we acknowledge that abusers don’t speak a particular language or follow a common dogma, then we have a collective responsibility to solve the problem, and heal the trauma of domestic violence – we are in global partnership towards a shared goal to solve a global blight. We are engaged instead of detached.

Complexity makes sense of the world. Do ya’ll agree?

That’s how I see things now, but when I saw the movie, I had never met a Muslim in living flesh, and you wouldn’t have found me standing in line to meet one after watching all those Kung-Fu scenes. I didn’t know how someone would go about meeting a Muslim, As Seen On TV, but if the case should arise, I would keep the conversation to short, plain statements. Although I’d never talked to a real Muslim, I had met a lot of them on TV. I knew that they came in three varieties:

1) Madder than a one-legged rooster at a butt-kickin’ contest;

2) Even madder; and,

3) Ready to die mad.

 In middle school, just before arriving at Not Without My Daughter, TV treated me to other films featuring non-descript Muslims threatening to rampage and plunder. I was glued to the news for several days straight while we went to real-live war with a whole nation of Muslims. They called it Desert Storm. I didn’t see many of their faces, but I did watch a lot of flashes in a night sky airing “live.” I figured they were somewhere there, safe in their homes, waiting for the commercials to come on and the fireworks to stop.

Fast forward to my early twenties and I was packing my bags to go meet my As Seen On TV Muslim in-laws for the first time in Morocco. Folks were worried about me, but they didn’t feel like they could just come out and say: Listen, stupid, don’t go there unless you want to get the stupid knocked out of you! Instead, they would ask me nonchalantly, without looking me square in the eyes: “Did you, by chance, see that movie, Not Without My Daughter?”

Identical to the movie, my in-laws met me at the airport with a big bouquet of flowers. I’m talking big! You could have put it on the Sunday Easter alter. That’s where the similarities end. My mother-in-law had on a bright, turquoise dress and she was kissing me ten times on each cheek. My appearance fit in with some of the women my age, although most did not wear an Islamic headscarf, called a hijab. No one cared who wore what. Everyone just wanted to eat, and we ate well. My grandmother won’t appreciate me saying this, so pretty please don’t tell her, but they gave southern hospitality some stiff competition.

No one asked me if I would like to try an As Seen On TV Muslim wife-beating ceremony. Imagine that! Everyone was happy. I had such a good experience, that I returned again and again, staying months at a time- both with my in-laws and on my own. No one ever tried to make me stay against my will, least of all my husband. They were probably glad to get their spare bedroom back.

On my first trip, they sent me home with a flowing velvet, purple dress which I wore to my homecoming. I asked my daddy if he liked it, and he said I looked like a skinny, white version of Aretha Franklin. I took that as a compliment (minus the skinny, white part), because he owned every greatest hit cassette that she ever made. I’d memorized most of her songs early on, just from riding around with my him as Ms. Franklin schooled me in “R-E-S-P-E-C-T!” Even if I had married an As Seen On TV Muslim he wouldn’t have tried any of that Kung-Fu on me, unless he wanted to meet my inner-Aretha.

People looked relieved to see me and I passed around some of the homemade cookies my mother-in-law baked. Over the years, I’ve had the good fortune of sharing my experience with a lot of other ladies, Muslim and non-Muslims alike. Our stories are all paralleled by a common theme- ordinary folks in extraordinary moments, marked by lots of food and lots of love. I cherish all of my visits even if none of them would ever make it to the set of a Lifetime original movie. I had to travel far to see for myself that As Seen On TV Muslims are played by British actors. They’re not so easy to find in real life.

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5 Responses to “As Seen On TV Muslims”

  1. Anthony February 24, 2011 at 12:50 pm #

    Can’t reckon I ever saw the movie you’re referring to sis. In fact, I’ve never heard of it; but I’spose there’s really no need to see it since it bears the semblance of the typical, bigoted discourse regarding Muslim households: I had the plot figured out before you even started describing it, and, much to my LACK of surprise, I was correct almost to the placements of your punctuation marks.

    You mentioned something in your post that really burns my grits. When people discuss the ills of Muslims, they seem to forget, rather conveniently I might conspiratorially add, that the capacity for evil is very much a human problem, not one relegated to Muslims and/or Arabs and/or Immigrants. By diminishing this capacity within all peoples, by implicating only one particular group for a particular set of societal malaise, the true essence of the problem never gets the attention it deserves; instead, people attack only straw-men and phantoms while the real issue is free to roam in the background.

    I agree with you that complexities make the world go round, but the problem I see is most people aren’t willing to – or even, don’t know how to – acknowledge those complexities. Residing at the extremes is much easier and requires much less introspection and hard work then wallowing in complexities. Allahu’Alim

    As for “As Seen on TV Muslims,” well, it’s a good thing I don’t watch television. 🙂

    This is very well written, masha’Allah. You might have to give a Black Collard some writing lessons sis.

    • collardgreenmuslim February 24, 2011 at 7:17 pm #

      Umm…ya’ didn’t tell me you blog, Anthony. Not cool! I just linked it cause I liked it and I’ll be keeping my eye out for more.

  2. collardgreenmuslim February 24, 2011 at 6:42 pm #

    Give you a writing lesson?! I don’t think that is necessary. I was hung on every word you said, especially the second paragraph. I love: “the true essence of the problem never gets the attention it deserves; instead, people attack only straw-men and phantoms while the real issue is free to roam in the background.” Smack that in an op-ed and shoot it off! I enjoy reading your perspective, so don’t stop.
    Now, I’m hungry for grits.

  3. hilthethrill February 25, 2011 at 3:39 pm #

    Wow, I just wandered in here for the first time from Morocco Mama, and I am in love with your writing style. I was in a violent, manipulative marriage, and I ran with nothing but two babies under two. I decided to leave then because I knew they were young enough that the struggles would fade into an early childhood haze. It was a very rough road, and I appreciate you recognizing that it is complicated. My new mother-in-law said,”I’d never let a man beat me!” and that was the end of the conversation with her. For some the situation is tv, and black and white tv, only!

  4. collardgreenmuslim February 25, 2011 at 11:47 pm #

    I’m glad you wandered in and thank you, especially, for sharing. Running with two babies under two – that’s hard-core mama love. I can only imagine what a rough road it must have been. May you continue to grow strength and be blessed in your new life and family. And may others reap inspiration from your own journey into the light.

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