Constructing Yemeni and Moroccan Women in Libby Turner’s BBC Documentary film Women in Black 2008

This paper is a study of the representation of Yemeni and Moroccan women in a Western documentary film Women in Black (2009), parts one and five. It attempts to analyze the discursive construction of Yemeni and Moroccan women and problematize the documentary representation of them. The claim that a documentary is a vehicle of transforming and revealing ‘reality’ will be questioned by attempting to unmask the contradictions and Orientalist ideology that are embedded in the film. These contradictions will be explored through investigating what is seen and said as well as how. The conflicts between the interviewees’ self-portrayal and the documentarist’s perception of them will be brought to view. By doing so, the paper tries to uncover the subjectivity of this documentary and expose the political and ideological agendas behind this representation. I am not completely denying the ‘authenticity’ of the documentary studied. But, if there are some facts in what the documentarist states, he just selects what conform to his purpose, and adds to them, to suits the hidden ideology and agendas.

The assumption underpinning this film is that it tries to deconstruct the stereotypical image of Eastern women. Yet, this paper argues that this film is merely a reductive ‘representation’ that aims at promoting Western life styles through constructing a distorted portrayal of both Yemeni and Moroccan women. This construction is achieved through selecting, focusing, adding or concealing scenes that do not conform to the documentarist’s purpose. Also, the sequences of shots and scenes, camera movement, sound track, cutting and other editing techniques help the fulfillment of this eroticized and orientalized image.

The theoretical frame work of this paper will be based on some insights of post colonial theorists and post colonial feminist theorists. I will use Edward Said’s theory of Orientalism to show the Orientalist messages that are embedded in the film. To trace the inconsistency, incoherence, contradictions, and slippages that fracture the documentary, I will go beyond Said to use Sara Mills, and Homi Bhabha. Also some insights of John Berger and Jennifer Craik are of significant importance in theorizing fashion and dress. To tracing the track of subjectivity and deconstruct the documentary’s construction of Arab Muslim women, the documentary film theory which is based on post modern perspective and studies film in relation to ‘objectivity’ and ‘reality’ will be helpful,

The motivation beyond analyzing the portrayal of Yemeni and Moroccan women in this documentary derives firstly from my interest in investigating the representation of Arab Muslim women in this documentary film. For being presented by a British-Yemeni Muslim woman, I want to see to what extent the portrayal of Arab women is changed or implicated in the Orientalist discourse. Secondly, the movement in this film from one nation to another also makes it significant and accordingly motivates me to work on. Thirdly, Throughout my research on Arab women, a little works have dealt with documentary representation of Arab women in comparison to other studies like literature, fiction films, and print media. The fourth reason is that the film is ambivalent in the sense that it does not have a monolithic, stereotypical vision towards oriental women as well as it is not devoid of the Orientalist stereotypes that are embedded in. Thus, analysis of how the Yemeni and Moroccan women are constructed in such film becomes an interested as well as important field of study.

I will use the deconstructive approach to deconstruct the stereotypes and prejudices through not only revealing the contradictory images and Orientalist messages that the film provides, but also through showing interviewees’ resistance to the documentarist’s Orientalist ideology. To put it another way, reading this documentary filmic text as a discourse carries within it conflicting and contradictory meanings. Despite the documentarist’s endeavor to produce a unified image that aims in stereotyping Arab Muslim women, a counter discourse emerge, undermining, and subverting the Orientalist ideology and letting us to see another image of Arab Muslim women. The Orientalist ideology is subverted by disclosing the hidden subjectivity of the documentary studied. The association of Yemeni and Moroccan women with domesticity, highlighting their segregation and centralizing their obsession with Western life is exposed through employing the technique of visuals that are mediated by narration and other sound effects.

From this point, this paper tries to unmask the process of fabrication in the sense that the documentary is never a transparent recording of ‘reality’ because it involves the same cinematic techniques which are applied to any fiction film. For example, mise en scene, shots, lightening, and camera movement are utilized to give the impression of ‘reality’ and objectivity. Yet, this technique, in fact, is structured to fabricate the facts for the sake of manipulating viewers and serving ideological purposes. Thus, it is still “representation” and fabrication of reality. In this regard, Jill Nelmes argues in An Introduction to Film Studies that:

Just like any ‘fiction’ film, the documentary is constructed and may be seen not as a recording of ‘reality’, but as another kind of representation of ‘reality’. The documentary form is rarely innocent.[1]

The title of the film, Women in Black, suggests that that those women are invisible and can be homogenized into one unified group. It seems also that the documentarist tries to promote Western norms and ideals as an alternative way that can help for Arab women’s emancipation and independence. So, the presenter’s claim of deconstructing the stereotypical images about Muslim women will be questioned. The contradictions within the documentary will be accounted for through investigating what have been said and seen as well as how.

Women have become the current topic on which many researchers are talking and analyzing, especially Arab and Muslim Women. In his book The Colonial Harem Malik Alloula states that “Women have long been at the center of the conflict between East and West.” [2] That is, due to the vital role of Arab women as partners in social, political and economic development of their countries, and due to the daily contact and encounter between the East and West, it becomes necessary to scrutinize how they are now represented in Western media. So, this paper attempts to examine the construction of Yemeni and Moroccan women in the documentary film under study that is produced recently in 2008.

This paper consists of two chapters. The first one tackles the issues of fashion, dress and beauty and how it affects the construction of identity. It deals with how adoption and adaption to Western fashion and styles of dress are promoted throughout the film as a liberating strategy and as an alternative way to Arab women’s subordination. That is, the adoption of Western dress or overlapping it with the local one is seen as a natural aspiration toward better life and a means of overcoming patriarchy. This part also examines and questions the issue of empowering Moroccan women through the images of physical appearance. It tries to reveal the ideological, political and commercial purposes behind this “in-betweennes” or “hybridity” that is approached through fashion, dress and beauty. Hybridizing Arab women through exhibitionism is not an innocent representation since fashion constitutes an effective and pervasive means through which women become objects of the gaze and of male sexual desire. It also sheds light on the caricatured images that depict women’s oppression and obsession of Western culture as a sign of liberation and a journey to freedom. It ends with discussing gender relationship in the first and fifth parts of the documentary.

The second part is concerned with the representation of Yemeni and Moroccan women: how the Eurocentric view point of the documentarist tris to deprive Yemeni women from power and agency. He tries to ‘essentialize’, stereotype, and inferiorize Yemeni women through focusing on many harem scenes and highlighting their obsession of fashion and beauty. That is, it investigates the director’s construction of these women as exotic, oppressed and obsessed with the issue of fashion and dress. It also shows how Dutch-Moroccan women are endowed with power and agency from which the film maker has failed to deprive them of. So, he moves to a very fragmented image that actually reveals the producer’s bias against Muslim women. Besides, it concerns with how the representation of the veil as an oppressive and deceptive act is undermined by a discursive position that portrays it as a sign of empowerment and freedom rather than oppression. The last issue in this part aims to trace contradictions, fragmentation and conflicts that open a space for a counter-discourse and upset the stereotypical images that are prevailed throughout the whole two parts of the film under study.

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Constructing Yemeni and Moroccan Women in Libby Turner’s BBC Documentary film Women in Black 2008

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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