Last night I went to see a movie from Iran called “When Fish Fall in Love.” Atiya opened a restaurant in her former suitor’s house in order to support her family of four women after he, Aziz, was disappeared by the government during the Iranian revolution. Aziz returns after many years’ absence; Atiya believes he is there to assert his claim on the house and her daughter Touka decides to save them by cooking Aziz delicious meals so he won’t want to kick them all out.
Great film, see it if you get a chance. The thing that resonated with me, though, was the film discussion held afterwards. One of my least favorite things about studying gender in the Middle East is hearing comments like: “But they don’t have gender in the Middle East,” or “They don’t care about that kind of stuff over there, do they?” or in this case from one intrepid filmgoer: “The biggest surprise for me in this film was that the Iranian women didn’t seem that oppressed.”
I’m not denying that women in many Middle Eastern countries do have serious problems and setbacks, legally and culturally. But I find the attitude that every woman wearing a headscarf is oppressed stereotypical and condescending. These women are not monotonous mountains of cloth, they are individuals. Just wearing a headscarf doesn’t mean they share the same opinions, attitudes, or difficulties. Many people that I speak to assume that women in the Middle East are incapable of speaking for themselves, organizing politically, or even on some level attaining independence and success as a person. Why is it so surprising that these women ran a successful business? In countries where the men are expected to engage in war, secret security forces, or get locked up for being dissidents, who’s left to run the businesses and processes of daily life? Women!
I hear those kinds of blanket, monochrome, lacking in depth or nuance of any kind attitudes often. It makes me irrational with rage, the kind of stupid, cartoon anger that makes Daffy Duck start jumping around the room. (I decided not to participate in the post-film discussion.)
Every time I hear these kinds of statements, I need to remind myself that the way to combat ignorance, stereotyping and intolerance is not through scorn and condescension. It’s the ignorance that needs fighting, not the people who are ignorant. The way to pull people around to a broader perspective is by making that viewpoint attractive and compelling, not through bulldozing the rampant illogic and lack of awareness of the other party (though that may be the case.)
It’s impossible to know everything. There is far too much stuff to keep track of in the world for everyone to really be an enlightened citizen on all issues. I am keenly aware that the people making those comments I listed above (all of which I’ve actually heard..the first one is my favorite, showing a basic lack of understanding of what the term “gender” even means) have expertise and competence in ways I can never hope to master. I don’t know what those skills are in every person I encounter, but I do know that my knowing a little bit about this one subject doesn’t somehow outweigh their expertise in something else.
Ultimately I appreciate watching people who maybe don’t know a whole lot about something (like the fact that Iranian women, though they are legally required to wear headscarves outside the home, can competently maintain a restaurant), become curious and willing to learn about it. The people who showed up for that film and especially the ones who participated in the discussion were eager to see a glimpse of life in a different culture, and from what I could tell found the similarities between there and here surprisingly numerous. The only difference between them and me, then, is that through my studies I no longer find similarities, the common ground, surprising.