Cómo Orientalista: Telemundo’s El Clon, Part I
By Sister Diana
Muslimah Media Watch
April 21st, 2010
Spanish soap operas (telenovelas) are just like any other serial dramas, with all the conventional characteristics: star -crossed lovers, dramatic music, a flair for the outrageous and a seemingly never-ending plot.
This is exactly what can be expected from Telemundo’s telenovela, El Clon (The Clone). A remake of a Brazilian soap opera that aired in 2001 and 2002 titled O Clone, this Spanish-language telenovela is targeted at the U.S.’s Spanish speaking market. However, what is unexpected is the drama’s lengthy commentary on Islam (although, this seems to be a common theme in soap operas these days).
Not withholding any stereotypes, El Clon lays it on thick with the usual suspects: the controlling, abusive Muslim man (albeit without the turban and dark, hairy features); the helpless Muslim girl longing to escape oppression; the love interest, who is gasp not Muslim; men smoking shisha in tents while being entertained by belly dancers; and, of course, the hyper-sexualization of the Muslim woman.
Although El Clon has many characters with different stories, the main story of interest is that of protagonist Jade, who is played by Spanish actress Sandra Echeverria. Here is a brief summary of events so far: Jade, an Arab Muslim woman living in Miami, Florida, moves to Morocco to live with her Uncle Ali after the sudden death of her mother. Abhorred by his niece’s western ways, Ali compels Jade to read Qur’an and get married as soon as possible to Said, a man she does not know. Jade, however, is in love with a young man, named Lucas, who came to visit her Uncle’s house and who saw her, mistakenly, while exploring Ali’s home. Jade tries numerous times to escape with Lucas, but she is eventually forced to marry Said and accept her destiny.
The opening credits of the show establish a theme. Jade and other women are seen belly dancing in a harem-like setting, then all of a sudden the costumes and scene change and they are dancing with men in a crowded Miami club. The music continues as she moves between these two worlds, creating a contrast between “East” and “West,” Islam and the “Modern World.”
The characters’ speech and actions reinforce this perceived dichotomy. In a conversation between Lucas and his godfather, his godfather says, “For us love is very natural, but for Muslims it is not. Here the women are not in love, they are in the house.” They even show that two men, one from America and one from Morocco, differ in their views regarding respecting women. For example, at one point Lucas says to Ali, “You are able to take four wives at a time. Where is the respect in that?” Ali replies, “Yes, we are allowed to take four wives, but only if you are able to maintain all of them and if you know your wives and if all four have the same rights. You guys only recognize one legitimate wife, but you have as many (women) as you want in secret and you say that you respect women more than us.”
This conflict between Islamic values and the “Western world” continues throughout the show as covered Muslim women are juxtaposed against scantily clad American women. Even though Jade is an American Muslim woman, the show depicts her as an “other” in American society. She is therefore categorized simply as a Muslim woman, allowing her character to be placed in the middle of this conflict. In one scene, Jade is sitting at a bus stop wearing a loose hijab and the image directly behind her is an advertisement featuring a woman in lingerie. Almost every American woman pictured on the show has an exaggerated air of sexual liberation, assumingly to show American women in sharp contrast to Muslim women.
This is not to say that the Muslim women on the show are always covered up and devoid of sexuality. On the contrary! It seems like owning a belly dancing costume and knowing how to belly dance are criteria for Muslim women. The show portrays Muslim women as only able to act freely within woman-only spaces or when doing so in service to men their husbands or otherwise.
In the show, belly dancers come to dance at Ali’s home for Ali, Said, and Said’s uncle. The constant depiction of Jade and Latiffa (Jade’s cousin) as overtly sexual in private while maintaining a public image that is void of any sexuality lends itself to the never-ending mantra of the “exotic” and “sensual” Muslim woman and the fantasies of what’s “under the veil.”
Jade and Latiffa are the typical victim prototypes: forced into marriage, spoken for by men, and most often secluded or limited to women-only spaces, such as the home. Jade, in contrast to Latiffa, struggles to accept the rules forced upon her, and embodies the perceived struggles between what are depicted as “Islamic values” (read: cultural stereotypes) and American values. She even seeks the help of Christina, Lucas’ Western friend, who tells Jade that if Lucas makes her happy then she should leave her family for him and forget her religion and principles. The scene is overwhelmingly reminiscent of the rhetoric of American women “saving” Muslim women from oppression, with the American woman pictured as having sexual agency and autonomy.
On the other hand, Latiffa has already accepted things as they are and seems to accept them as part of her destiny at times, she even expresses happiness with her situation. She does everything to make her husband happy and does it with a smile. Even her husband’s jealousy and his sister’s rude manners do not deter her from being the quintessential demure woman. If she speaks out of turn or with too much emotion, she quickly apologizes.
Tomorrow, we’ll finish looking at El Clon’s female characters and examine how the issues regarding women and Islam are treated in the series. Stay tuned!
Cómo Orientalista: Telemundo’s El Clon, Part II
Muslimah Media Watch
April 22st, 2010
Yesterday, we introduced you to Telemundo’s El Clon, its premise, and two of its prominent female characters. Today, we’ll look at two more female characters, some of their male counterparts, and examine how the telenovela uses the Qur’an.
Zoraida is the maid in Uncle Ali’s house. She is responsible for protecting Latiffa and Jade, and in doing so she is consequently assigned the task of guarding Uncle Ali’s honor. When Jade is suspected of losing her virginity, Ali severely reprimands Zoraida, saying that she is responsible for knowing what goes on in the house and for being his “ears and eyes.” She sympathizes with Jade’s situation at times, but as Ali’s right-hand woman she constantly warns Jade that she must accept “what Allah has written” for her and that going against her Uncle is a “great sin.”
Zoraida is only empowered in the sense that she is given authority over the other women in the house. In the clip above, we see Ali berating her for not “controlling” Jade.
Zoradia’s empowerment is analogous to the way Muslim women were sometimes empowered within colonized societies: when the honor of the men or of the society is threatened (usually by the “West”), women are mobilized as cultural signifiers. Women are compelled to be reminder of what is halal (permissible) and what is haram (forbidden), and to preserve or safeguard cultural values.
However, they are not empowered outside of this role and the ability to utilize this power is regulated by the man. We are reminded of this every time Zoraida is reprimanded for not being able to control Latiffa and Jade. Ali accepts Zoraida’s authority when protecting the family honor, but she is easily put back in her place with a warning that it is ultimately Ali who “allows” her to exercise authority over the women.
Nazira, the sister of Said and Mohamed (Latiffa’s husband), is perhaps the only Muslim woman on the show who negotiates with men. She is sent to negotiate the terms of her brothers’ marriages to Jade and Latiffa. She is responsible for examining their naked bodies before allowing them to marry her brothers (to see if they are “good” enough), receiving medical statements that indicate that the women are virgins, making sure that the marriages have been consummated by examining the evidence of a blood stained sheet and making sure they fulfill their household duties. She even tells her brother Mohamed that he is the one “who disciplines in the house” and pressures her bothers constantly, against the wishes of their wives, to take more than one wife. Her character is aggressive, assertive, irrational and loud suggesting, that for a Muslim woman to be heard she must be cheeky.
In the show, the men often reference the Qur’an when deciding on how to punish the women. In one such instance, Jade sneaks out of the house to meet Lucas, causing her fidelity to be called into question. As Ali, Said, and Said’s uncle decide how to go about punishing her, Ali tells Said’s uncle that, “She committed a sin and she will receive her punishment”Ã‚but in the Holy Book it says before you can say someone is guilty you have to have four witnesses who were present when the sin took place.” The four men whom they consulted did not see anything, so Jade was spared.
However, another punishment was ordered as a consequence of her sneaking out. Said’s uncle says, “You should correct your woman with a blow. The book [Qur’an] permits that, in these cases within marriage, you hit the woman. It is not encouraged to do it out of emotion, but for correction. This is written in the book.”
Then Ali replies, “But this is an interpretation that is very strict and retracts from the writing. Prophet Muhammad said don’t hit a woman and he never did and he was wed to six women.” Then he goes on to say, “He (the Prophet) always said that whoever hits a woman is of bad faith. Did he say this or did he not?” However, Ali’s character was already seen slapping Jade earlier in the series. Maybe it is okay for a father figure to hit a woman, but not her husband?
The writers seem to have done their research in these instances and instead of targeting Islam as the reason for the sometimes-ill treatment of women, they attribute these injustices to the failure of men to accurately interpret the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet.
Despite the way the women are actually treated or depicted on the show, there is mention of some kind of concept of gender equality promoted in Islam. Ali explains that the marriage contract acts as means to protect the rights of the woman. When speaking to Latiffa just before her wedding night Uncle Ali tells her, “the Qur’an says that sex is a pleasure for the man and the woman and everything is permitted.” At the same time Mohamed’s uncle tells him, “The man should not leave the marriage bed till the woman is pleased.”
During Said’s wedding, an imam comes to talk to him about marriage. He tells Said that a good wife is one who, “listens to you when you talk” and “when you look at her you are happy” and “when you are down she looks after you.” The show also demonstrates that a woman must give verbal consent to the marriage at the time that the marriage contract is signed.
I guess it would be ludicrous to expect a soap opera not play off exaggerated stereotypes. After all, their aim is to fill homes with starry-eyed viewers who are willing to ride the twists and turns that make these dramas drag on tirelessly.
Still, I’d hope that in trying to capture an audience one would not have to go so far as to catalogue an entire group of women. El Clon reaffirms almost every stereotype regarding Muslim women, using different characters to show the spectrum of possibilities: the victim in need of saving, the hyper- sexualized, the oppressed, the rebellious, and the one about whom they say “no wonder they make their women cover up.” Yup, Muslim women are pre-packaged for your viewing pleasure and then placed side-by-side with the sexually liberated, educated, autonomous “Western” woman, reminding you that the two are always exclusive, and that there cannot be a truly American Muslim woman.
Ironically the writers seem to have done their homework when it comes to citing the Qur’an and explaining religious doctrine as it pertains to women. Perhaps they are trying show that the flaws do not exist in the religion itself, but in cultural practices and in man’s interpretation of religious texts. Nevertheless, the show blurs the lines between cultural practices, stereotypes, and Islam so much that it makes it hard to imagine that they had any clear intention but to make their audience sit for hours on end waiting to see what happens next.