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Orientalism in “Not Without My Daughter” Film Essay

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Updated: Aug 15th, 2020

Introduction

Orientalism is a common concept in international studies. It is used by academicians in reference to the culture of societies in some parts of the world. The regions include Asia and the Middle East. Parties responsible for making the representations include writers, artists, and designers from western countries. Orientalism is common in movies, films, songs, and other artistic expressions. For decades, Hollywood has produced a number of popular movies, series, and children cartoons that depict the stereotypes held by western countries in relation to Muslims and their culture.1 Some of the films portray a positive picture of inhabitants in the Middle East. However, others illustrate negative, crude, and exaggerated images of the Arab community. In spite of the wide range of depictions, some elements showed in the movies tend to be true. Such aspects include ill treatment of women in the society and the proliferation of terrorism acts that involve kidnapping and killing of individuals from western nations.

Since the 9/11 bombing of the United States, majority of films produced in the western world portray Arab communities as terrorists full of ill motives.2 Some of the most popular blockbusters propagating these themes are based on plots involving attacking and bombing installations in the United States. In addition, some of the scripts are based on kidnapping and rescue missions of citizens from this country. The villains are more often than not militants from the Middle East.

The current paper is written against this background of stereotypes propagated about societies in the Middle East by films and other artistic expressions in the west. To this end, the author will use the film “Not Without My Daughter” to examine the various aspects of orientalism promoted by the creators. The movie is a true story that depicts the plight of women in the Middle East. In particular, it portrays the harsh treatment of this group in Iran.

Representation of Societies in the Middle East through the Film “Not Without My Daughter”

“Not Without My Daughter”: A Brief Synopsis

“Not Without my Daughter” is a 1991drama film about the true story of Betty Mahmoody. Betty is an American citizen married to an Iranian husband. The couple has a daughter named Mahtob who is aged four. The movie begins with Betty and Moody at their home in the United States. Life in this western nation is characterised by freedom, beauty, and peace.3 The home is built near a lake with an evergreen surrounding. The setting is meant to create a good picture of America and the good life of people in society.

After staying for some time in the United States, Moody, an Iranian physician, decides to take his American family to Iran. He claims that his relatives wish to meet his wife and daughter. Upon hearing the news, Betty becomes reluctant.4 The reason behind this is because Iran is considered to be an unpleasant nation, particularly for women of American origin. The negative notion about the country brings out the differences between peaceful America and an Iranian society that is in turmoil.

To persuade them to accompany him, Moody claims it will be a two weeks visit. As a result, Betty agrees to go with her husband. Upon arrival in the new country, Betty’s fears are confirmed. Her husband had other plans. He declares that Iran will be their new home. Moody deceives his wife in spite of the fact that he had taken an oath using the Quran. He had assured his wife that the family will return to America.5 Betty tries to object. However, Moody gets violent and smacks her. None of the family members who witness the incident sympathise with her. In addition, none tries to question her husband’s action. Due to this ill treatment, Betty plans to escape and return home.

Depiction of Iran and the Middle East in the Film

After their arrival in Iran, Betty forms the opinion that the country is different from the United States. Detailed descriptions of their previous home depict the United States as the best place to stay in the world. The reason for this is because the environment is serene, beautiful, and clean. On the contrary, Iran is described as a dirty place. In addition, it is a colourless and dull society. Betty considers the nation to be ‘backward’, uncivilised, and old-fashioned.6

The country is an archaic land full of violence and other vices. The situation is different in America, where people are calm, civilised, and advanced. In the film, Iranian citizens are portrayed as aggressive individuals. The aggression starts from their mode of communication to how they resolve issues. They tend to converse in high pitched voices using fearful and violent gestures. However, it is important to note that only men are expected to show such emotions. Women are not supposed to shout or scream in dialogues.

The creators of the movie portray Iranian men as abusive and oppressive towards their wives. Once in Iran, Moody changes and becomes hostile. He seems to touch base with the Iranian in his DNA. He goes ahead and hits his wife in front of the family members.7 In addition, each time he is angry with his wife’s actions, he makes no efforts to correct her or share his opinion in the right manner, as was the case in America. Instead, he engages in animalistic and brutal actions, including abusing his wife physically.

The movie reveals the violence experienced by women in the Middle East. Female members of the society are considered to be inferior to their male counterparts.8 Due to this, they are required to submit to their husbands at all times. In the movie, Betty decides to put up with her husband’s abusive behaviour just to gain trust. She sees the move as an option that will facilitate her escape. However, not all men in Iran are evil and mean. For example, in spite of their violence and negative attitudes towards women, Betty is helped to escape by an Iranian man.

To some extent, the picture portrayed in the film is true. The reason behind this is because women in the Middle East are known to be victims of ill treatment and inequality. The inequality tends to be influenced by the peoples’ culture and beliefs. It is also influenced by legislations put in place in the country.9 One such law is Tamkin. The decree requires women to submit to their husbands. Under Article 1105 of the country’s Civil Codes, the position of the head of the family belongs to the man. However, as already indicated, some men are nice towards the womenfolk. An example is the man who assisted Betty in her escape plans.

The film “Not without My Daughter” depicts nations in the Middle East as places where the freedoms of women are curtailed or nonexistent. For example, once in Iran, Moody prevents his wife from leaving the house.10 In addition, she is restricted from using the telephone. At one time, Betty manages to visit the Swiss Embassy. After reporting her case, she is told that as long as she resides in Iran, she cannot leave the country without her husband’s permission. She is also informed that the case applies to all women married to Iranian men. Freedom is a major concern in countries in the Middle East. For example, in Saudi Arabia, like in Iran, women are not allowed to leave the house without permission from their husbands or male relatives.11 In addition, they are not required to drive cars or cycle.

The film considers Islamic religion to be a major determinant of the behaviour of residents in the Middle East. For example, in the movie, Iranians are portrayed as individuals who pray ‘excessively’. They do so both at night and during the day. In addition, religion dictates women’s dress code. At one time, Betty is attacked by strangers because some of her hair was not covered with a headscarf.12

The angry mob claimed she had violated the dressing code stipulated in Islamic religious scriptures. Women in the Middle East are not required to take part in prayers. In addition, as seen in the film, they are not allowed to show any happy emotions. The picture shows that Islamic nations are different from the American society where people can be playful and share fun moments. In different scenes, Betty is met with a fearful look from other women when she plays and laughs with her daughter.13

The film depicts the hardships experienced by mothers when securing child custody. In Middle Eastern nations, husbands can seek divorce without any clear reasons. However, the man must pay the wife mahr upon separation.14 In addition, a man is allowed to remarry immediately. The case does not apply to women. Betty wishes to escape and separate with her abusive husband. In Iran, this will be difficult. The reason is that the American laws are different from those in Iran. Once they divorce, Betty would lose custody of her daughter.

After the Islamic revolution, Iranian laws changed. As a result, men were granted custody of boys when they turn two years and girls when they attain the age of seven.15 However, the laws changed again in 2003. In this case, mothers were allowed to retain the custody of sons until they turned seven. Betty’s daughter is aged 4. As a result, Betty risks losing her if she opts to stay. In addition, if she leaves without her, the child will suffer in the hands of her father.

Perpetuation of Positive and Negative Stereotypes by Producers of “Not Without My Daughter”

A stereotype is a notion adopted by a group of people in relation to a certain aspect of life. Producers of “Not Without My Daughter” are mainly perpetuating negative stereotypes about societies in the Middle East. Positive aspects of the Iranian culture are revealed in very few scenes. One noticeable part is when Betty and her daughter are helped to escape from Iran by a man. Some of the elements portrayed in the film are true. However, there are considerable levels of exaggeration. People from the Arab nations are depicted as wealthy and uncultured. They are also described as terrorists and religious extremists.16

In spite of the fact that the film is based on a true story, the producers try to insinuate that all people in Iran and the whole Middle East are violent and oppressors. The notion results in misinterpretation of Muslims and Arabs. In addition, Iranian culture is considered as rigid.

In most modern and traditional societies, men are considered to be superior to women. The latter are given less opportunities in the community, even in developed countries. Differences between the two genders arise due to the fact that in some nations, the cases of mistreatment are rampant.17 In America, divorced couples also face the problem of settling custody issues. In addition, there are cases of gender based violence where women are the main victims. However, in the film, countries in the Middle East are portrayed as the only places where these problems occur. Producers of the movie ignore the fact that some women in Arab nations lead successful and inspiring lives.18 As such, American producers should expand the scope of their work and focus on the positive side of their themes.

Conclusion

Since the late nineteenth century, Hollywood and American directors and producers have majored in the creation of films about other nations. The themes in the movies range from the antics of political leaders to weird behaviour of people in foreign nations. A case in point is the film “Not Without My Daughter”. An analysis of most of these artistic expressions reveals that most producers focus on the negative attributes of their target nations. For a long time, nations in the Arab world have been on the receiving end of this skewed representation of the global culture. People in these nations are considered to be barbaric, cruel, and terrifying.19

In addition, the movies portray Arabs as people who focus on the restoration of women subordination. Only few films, such as ‘Kingdom of Heaven’, show positive aspects of the Muslim world.

Bibliography

Hamamsy, WE & M Soliman, Popular culture in the Middle East and North Africa: a postcolonial outlook, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, New York, 2012.

Haugen, DM, The Middle East: opposing viewpoints, Greenhaven Press, Detroit, 2009.

Kamalipour, YR, The U.S. media and the Middle East: image and perception, Greenwood Publishing Group, Westport, Connecticut, 1997.

Luyendijk, J, People like us: misrepresenting the Middle East, Soft Skull Press, New York, 2009.

Not without my daughter, video recording, Gilbert B., Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, New York, 1991.

Seib, PM, New media and the new Middle East: the Palgrave Macmillan series in international political communication, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2009.

Footnotes

  1. PM Seib, New media and the new Middle East: the Palgrave Macmillan series in international political communication, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2009, p. 51.
  2. J Luyendijk, People like us: misrepresenting the Middle East, Soft Skull Press, New York, 2009, p. 63.
  3. Not without my daughter, video recording, Gilbert B., Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, New York, 1991.
  4. ibid.
  5. YR Kamalipour, The U.S media and the Middle East: image and perception, Greenwood Publishing Group, Westport, Connecticut, 1997, p. 180.
  6. Not without my daughter, loc. cit.
  7. Kamalipour, op. cit., p. 181.
  8. W Hamamsy & M Soliman, Popular culture in the Middle East and North Africa: a postcolonial outlook, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, New York, 2013, p. 62.
  9. DM Haugen, The Middle East: opposing viewpoints, Greenhaven Press, Detroit, 2009, p. 73.
  10. Not without my daughter, loc. cit.
  11. Haugen, loc. cit.
  12. Not without my daughter, loc. cit.
  13. Kamalipour, op. cit., p. 185.
  14. Seib, op. cit., p. 67.
  15. Haugen, op. cit., p. 83.
  16. Seiba, op. cit., p. 77.
  17. ibid., p. 79.
  18. Hamamsy & Soliman, op. cit., p. 64.
  19. Luyendijk, op. cit., p. 85.
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