On Tuesday, November 13, the Institute for Human Rights and Consulate General of Switzerland – Atlanta co-sponsored a showing Sonita, a film based on a 15-year-old girl from Afghanistan who immigrated to Iran in order to flee the Taliban. Over the course of the three years Sonita is filmed, she is able to receive assistance at a center for refugee children in Tehran, Iran where she works on her dream of becoming a rapper by performing for her classmates and pursuing a place to record her music.
What many people are unaware of is the Afghani tradition of forcing children into marriage, with Sonita’s family setting her price as $9,000. Without intervention from the filmmaker, Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghamim, who paid her family $2,000 to postpone her marriage, Sonita might have not made it to where she is now. To make matters worse, women are not allowed to sing in Iran. So, in order for Sonita to continue her dream of becoming a rapper, the shelter could no longer be affiliated with her. Maghami then managed to take Sonita to the United States, without her parent’s permission, to pursue a career in rap.
Maghami started filming this documentary to help her cousin who worked at the refugee center, while her cousin just wanted to help Sonita find some training for her music. However, these selfless acts dramatically changed a young woman’s entire life.
Sonita shares the story of one young woman’s strength, perseverance, and the ability to use music as a vehicle to confront social injustice. This film not only gives the audience an inside look to both a tradition and country many are unfamiliar with, but also provides Sonita with the voice she needs to have her story heard.
The Middle East is a transcontinental region. When people think of the term “Middle East”, a host of thoughts come to mind such as deserts, burkas and Saudi Arabia. However, whether they are accurate is a completely different story. Most countries in the Middle East are often forgotten about, ignored, or misconstrued.
One of the most interesting questions to ask people is: Where is the Middle East located? Most people don’t even know what countries consist of the Middle East. One of the reasons why is, in the United States, geography is a dying subject. In fact, about three-fourths of the eighth graders in the United States test below average in geography. Furthermore, in most schools, geography is not required in middle school or high school. Out of the fifty states, only seventeen actually require geography in middle school and only ten in high school. The Middle East consists of fourteen countries shown in the picture below. What surprised me was how I found numerous websites that differed on what countries they thought were actually in the Middle East.
Arab vs Muslim
What does it mean to be an Arab? An Arab is defined as someone who identifies as being an Arab and whose native language is Arabic. On the other hand, someone who is Muslim practices the religion of Islam. Being an Arab and being a Muslim are not synonymous. For example, you could be an Arab who is not Muslim or you could be a Muslim but not an Arab. Furthermore, about 60% of people living in the Middle East are considered Arab. There are other ethnicities such as Persians, Turks, Kurds, and Jews.
What most people don’t realize is that there are over one billion Muslims in the world, the second largest religion in the world, and the majority are not in the Middle East. In fact, the country with the largest Muslim population is Indonesia. Also, the majority of Muslims live in Asia. While the majority of the Middle East does practice Islam, there are other religions practiced such as Judaism, Christianity, Baha’i, and Zoroastrians. Furthermore, there are different sects of Islam such as Sunni and Shiite.
Another misconception is that all the countries in the Middle East are considered Arab countries. However, that is not the case. For example, Saudi Arabia is predominantly Arab. This misconception may stem from the fact that much of the Islamic faith is written in Arabic. So regardless of which country you reside in, you would have some knowledge of Arabic.
There’s a certain stereotype in regards to the Middle East called orientalism that generalizes the region as deserts with roaming camels with olive-skinned people wearing robes, turbans, and garments that completely cover women from head to toe. The fact of the matter is that the style and environment depends on the area of the Middle East. We must also consider other factors such as education, socioeconomic status, and individual preference. The veil is looked at as a form of modesty. The concept of modesty is meant to be applied to both genders and not just on women, and how each person interprets its meaning is different. Some countries such as Iran and Yemen do require veiling to go out in public; however, most people who wear a veil add their own twist to it. When considering the environment, the Middle East is geographically diverse. The Middle East seems to be defined by its deserts but there are also mountains ranges and rivers. One section of the world should not be defined as one thing. Many people see the Middle East as a backward “country” when it is, indeed, the contrary. Some of their cities rival those in the United States such as Lebanon, Iran, and Turkey. Demographic trends show that the Middle East has the “youngest population and it has the second highest urbanization rate in the world”.
A common misconception is that Middle Eastern women are oppressed and denied their basic rights because of their religion. Also, it is assumed, they must cover themselves with a veil because they are weak and passive. However, the concept of the veil actually came from Christian Byzantium, not Islam. Surprisingly, Islam gave women more rights than Western women, until the 19th century. In England, women were considered the property of their husband until 1882. However, Muslim women have always been able to keep their own assets. A more current example is when Muslim women are married they tend to keep their last name, while most Western women do not. Notably, in the Quran, Islam’s sacred book, it “states that men and women are equal in the eyes of God.” As you can see, Islam is not the determining factor behind women being oppressed. While religion can affect women’s rights, culture is the main factor driving the question of gender roles. As a result, you cannot assume all of the Middle East is the same and deem it as such. Depending on the region, women have different statuses and rights. While it is true that in Saudi Arabia women cannot drive cars, that is not true in other Middle Eastern countries. Women do have political and social rights in the Middle East, they just vary depending on the country. In fact, women have served as ministers in Iraq, Syria, and Jordan and as Vice President in Iran. That is not to say that the Middle Eastern women do not have problems, just that it is not as extreme as Western countries seem to think.
The Middle East deserves to be seen as diverse. By discussing location, religion, society, and gender people can gain a more open outlook on the Middle East. It is easy to let fear, ignorance, or the media dictate one’s perception; however, to change the cycle conversations must be created.
Crazy Rich Asians, a film adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s 2013 book, was released on August 15, 2018. This movie has generated discussion in the representation for the Asian community through gender, class, and race. However, these efforts have been deemed controversial. The point of this film is to get people talking about the topic of representation and simply there is no way to make everyone happy. However, this film will lead the way to an industry that has been recently revived by the likes of movies such as Coco, the Big Sick, and Hidden Figures.
How Crazy Rich Asians is different
The film is based on the first book of the trilogy that covers Nick and Rachel’s journey. Interestingly enough, the film is a romantic comedy. When I think back to my childhood, that was all the rage. Unfortunately, in the past couple of years, rom com’s have faded into oblivion. Thankfully, it seems over the past couple of months that a number of new rom coms, such as Set it Up, To All the Boy’s I’ve Loved Before, and Love, Simon are on the rise.
In the film, the two main characters, Nick and Rachel, fall in love, so Nick decides to introduce Rachel to his family in Singapore. What Rachel does not know is that they are one of the richest families in the country. In the beginning, the movie seemed like any other rom com with your basic love story. However, what took me by surprise was the multidimensionality of the characters. While Nick’s mom, Eleanor, can be seen as the stereotypical “villain”, this story takes a different route and adds more elements to her character. Instead of simply being portrayed as evil, the movie shows other sides to her character such as her dedication and hard work for her family. This movie provides us with the reasons behind her “evil” traits, which makes it harder to dislike her. Humans are not one-dimensional beings; we have numerous traits that come together to make us who we are. A person is not just evil, but instead has multiple traits.
Another innovative idea is how this movie portrayed stereotypes. The movie begins with Nick’s family entering a fancy hotel in London during a storm, which made the floor muddy. The manager claims they do not have any room for her. In retaliation, Eleanor convinces her husband, Philip, to buy the hotel and in doing so makes the manager clean the floor. This scene causes the audience to feel sympathy toward the protagonist. What is genius about this scene is how they made a character who is normally not seen as relatable into someone we care about and sympathize with by showing their vulnerability. Another important concept was the fact that Rachel was given the majority of power, not Nick. Usually, the male decides between his mom or his girlfriend. However, in this movie, it is Rachel who makes the decision. This movie challenged gender stereotypes about who should have power and control.
Dark reality of Singapore
This film, for the majority of time, is set in Singapore, a small island nation in Southeast Asia. While the movie does not go in depth on the struggles of Singapore, such as their strict government and criminal justice system it provides a place for conversation to occur for those who wish to learn more about the country. Intentionally or unintentionally, the world will be talking about Singapore.
Currently, in Western movies, there is a disproportionate amount of white actors and actresses compared to non-white actors and actresses, especially as the main character. The main reason why Crazy Rich Asians is groundbreaking is because it contains a cast of Eastern Asian actors and actresses. It is dismal to think that having casts of different races and cultures is not the norm. The only other movie produced in Hollywood that has an all-Asian cast is The Joy Luck Club, a 1973 film about Chinese women who meet up and play Mahjong and discuss stories about their family. Hence, it took 45 years for another all-Asian cast film to make the headlines.
A lot of the controversy with hiring different races comes with assuming what people want to see. Many people presume that Americans want to watch an American movie with actors that look like them, which means mainly “white”, so they can relate. The irony is that it is predicted in 2045 that most Americans will not be considered white, so why do producers think that most movie actors should be predominantly white? Many of the presumptions emerge with culture and what we are used to seeing. However, in the past years, there have been more films created to show the diversity of underrepresented communities such as Black Panther and Get Out. However, even with the rise of more diverse casts, 1.4 actors out of every 10 people are people of color. That is the startling reality.
The reason this story is refreshing is because of how the movie has a new take on a common story plot, although we see different people than we normally would. In fact, there are certain parts in the movie where they poke fun at Americans. In Western movies, occasionally, they throw in people of race to “diversify their movie”. However, you can usually tell they did it just to fill their quota; personally, it never quite feels real. In this movie, they rarely include white people and they do only to fill their requirement. For example, one of the scenes that stood out to me was when a man told his kids to eat his food because of all the starving kids in America. Also, when they include beauty queens in a bachelorette party, instead of looking at other countries and how different they are from the United States, we get a role reversal of how different it is from Singapore. Another unique aspect of this film is how it focuses on the second generation of immigrants. In the past, we have seen trite storylines on an immigrant coming to the United States and chasing the American Dream. This movie stands out because it is not afraid to poke fun at things we consider our “norm”, which leads to new possibilities of what the future will hold for the big screen.
No film is perfect
On the other hand, while this movie is groundbreaking, it is not without its weaknesses. One of the major shortcomings that people were quick to mention was the misrepresentation of the Singaporean population. Singapore is culturally diverse and includes people from other places such as Indonesia and Malaysia. People were looking for brown or non-Eastern Singaporeans among the cast; however, they were depicted as the working class. Based on a person’s skin color, they are treated and perceived differently. In fact, this movie plays into the stereotype that Asians are thought to have lighter complexions. The film had an all-Asian cast, but they were all East Asian. The film could have had more diversity. Especially, since one of this film’s biggest pillars is “the inversion of racial expectation”. It is paradoxical to say it is an innovative movie, when in fact it plays to some of the same stereotypes they are fighting against. To be fair, the focus of the movie is on an extremely wealthy Chinese-Singaporean family; thus, this movie is not trying to depict the entire Singaporean population. It is important to consider that regardless how great of a movie this is, there will always be some backlash. However, this may even be why it is such a great movie whereas it creates dialogue on topics that are often ignored or not noticeably addressed.
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