Bismillah ir Rahman ir Raheem
Assalam alaikum wr wb, odd corner of the Internet.
Recently I saw a little excerpt on MuslimahMediaWatch of a play called ‘Headscarf and the Angry Bitch’ by Indian-American performer Zera Fazal.
I was pretty offended. That little excerpt (admittedly taken out of context) piggybacks on the cultural political social baggage of the headscarf and Islam, layers on some obvious subversion and sells it for cheap thrills to a Western audience. Not cool. Not helping.
But then I remembered my own first stand-up or rather sit-down comedy monologue, a good chunk of which was about sex (or rather, the lack of it). Part 2 here.
I was 19 when I wrote that material. I was sick of being de-feminised and spoken down to because of my hijab. I wanted to tell my story and tell it the way I chose. In my Writing for Performance class, we were required to choose a core value that our performance represented and instill that value in our bones before we performed. My core value was “truth”. It still is.
What I am wondering now, five years later and many stand-up performances later, why was my ‘truth’ about sex? And consequently, why was Zera Afzal’s?
Sexuality seems to define a woman’s identity. Her femininity is graded according to whether or not she’s having sex, how much of it she’s having and who’s she having it with (now we know why they’re called ‘nuns’). Her independence is also graded according to her sexual availability.
Power relations between genders often boil down to sex at its nub. My parents get upset when I stay out late – why? Because I might be having sex (as if sex is only physically possible after 10 pm). Some proposals don’t like the idea that I work. Why? Because this means I am financially independent and I don’t need a husband for money and if I don’t like him, I might have sex with someone else.
The same power system pervades our cultural products.
In film noir, the femme fatale disrupts the structures of male power through wielding her sexuality as a weapon. She has sex with the hero and the hero literally disintegrates, and society with him, because society is predicated on the moral fibre of the male hero.
She exists ONLY to have sex with the hero, and in so doing, ruin him.
One of my many pet peeves with mainstream cinema is the jaw-aching heart-breaking lack of real women on celluloid, ones who are vulnerable, kind, shallow, fierce, weird, twisted, women with histories and futures and wounds. It is with eye-rolling monotony that in every single movie, the hot actor of a suitable race and age hooks with the hot actress of a suitable size, race and age. That middle-aged woman who lives in his building? Not even in the frame and if she is, she’s a “sister” figure. That cute Latina whom he meets at the bus stop? Probably somewhere close to the frame, maybe below it, but certainly not in it. Not for the females is the job of being funny, clever or interesting. Not for the female characters is it to provide true disruption, not because of sex, but because when two people meet (male or female), their energies collide and create thunderstorms and that’s what true interaction is about. No, we should let the men handle all that complexity crap at the movies.
TV generally seems to be much better at female complexity. Olivia Dunham on Fringe is a seriously kick-butt FBI agent who is not at all hotsy-totsy. But she’s also capable of great love and risking her life to save love. Sounds like the beginnings of a rounded character to me.
But I come back to my previous question. Why was my ‘truth’ about sex? Was I, like the film noir femme fatale, trying to take power back?
But I know now that I am so much more than just that.
I resent sex invading every single aspect of our lives. It’s on TV, on the radio, in every conversation, innocent or otherwise. Please give me a break. I have work to do. Men don’t run the world. Neither do women. Hormones do.
Sex, to my mind, is a bodily function like pooping, sleeping and peeing. One keeps it private, one shares it with very few people as one could catch some very nasty diseases and one always keeps appropriate levels of hygience.
“But!” I hear you say. “It’s different! It is earth-shatteringly bone-shakingly teeth-chatteringly different.”
Sure. I totally agree.
Still doesn’t negate the first part. It is a bodily function.
So why did Zera Afzal enhance the sexual aspects of her experience? And why did she adopt the headscarf and all its political baggage when it’s not part of her ‘truth’?
Or maybe it is. I don’t know. I’m for listening and finding out what it is exactly that she is trying to say. Because there’s more to this woman than how she lost her virginity.
Wassalam and Fee Amanillah.