On The Jasmine And Aladdin Casting And Representations Of Arab Women

This month, it made news when Hollywood seemed to have an abundance of trouble finding someone to play Jasmine in the new depiction of ‘Aladdin’, out next year. This potentially wouldn’t jar quite so much, were it not for the fact that when it comes to finding someone to depict the veiled wife of a terrorist, there are apparently hundreds of candidates. And yet when it comes to finding someone to represent our *only* fictional character (because yes sadly Jasmine is basically that), Hollywood couldn’t really find anyone.

Arguably, it wasn’t a complete case of white-washing because the actress who was selected for the role in the end is half-brown. As in, half Indian. Not quite Arab but brown is brown, right? Except, other than the ‘we are all human argument’, (which is valid, obviously), not really, no. We’re given so little time on-screen (most of which is taken up by portrayals of us as terrorists) that we are seemingly expected to be willing to settle for lazy cultural stereotypes and caricatures that erase our differences. That the original is an ignorant mash-up of all sorts of places in the ‘Orient’ is questionable enough.

Yay for the actress that got the role, I’d never want to hate on anyone and as a brown woman, I’m sure she’s had her fair share of negative stereotypes and that she’ll do a great job etc. And yet, it would have been nice to see an Arab woman take up the mantle. Not just because she’s Arab – I’d never advocate hiring someone for something purely on the colour of their skin or where they’re from (just as much as I’d never advocate for someone to *not* get a position for the same reasons) but because there are tons of Arab actresses who would and could and DO fit into that category, and are awesome at what they do and would have ultimately been fab.

It’s not the first time Hollywood has been faced with backlash after hiring white actors to play characters that are not. Native Hawaiians flipped after Emma Stone was cast as a half-Asian woman in “Aloha,” which is based on a true story. Not to mention all the Rumi and Leonardo Dicaprio drama.

Thing is, we’re not represented in the media. Like, at all. I recently typed ‘Arab woman’ into Google and was faced with hundreds and hundreds of images of eyes staring at me from underneath their niqabs. It took me getting through like a good 10 pages of Google images before I found even ONE person who looks, thinks or lives their lives anything remotely like me.

That’s a problem. That’s a problem because not only is it wrong to be reductive, it’s also dangerous. In a time where isolationist rhetoric, radicalisation and Islamophobia is rife, it’s increasingly important to provide alternative versions and narratives of those living both within and outside the Middle East. “We” represent all sorts of diverse experiences that are neither completely conservative or liberal, but often somewhere in the middle.

It’s another example of the effects of Orientalism, a term coined by Edward Said in 1979 as: “a way of seeing that imagines, emphasizes, exaggerates and distorts differences of Arab peoples and cultures as compared to that of Europe and the U.S. It often involves seeing Arab culture as exotic, backward, uncivilised, and at times dangerous.”

So it’s a problem. It’s a problem that the *only* current representations of Arabs are as terrorists, with the occasional “oh but Steve Jobs is the son of a Syrian immigrant” thrown in. It’s a problem that the President of the United States is trying to instate a ban for people travelling to the US from Muslim majority countries. It’s a problem that attacks against people who are obviously Arab and / or Muslim are increasing pretty much the world over.

It’s a problem that the scare-mongering representations in the media are causing even me – a technically Muslim person who was born and part raised in Egypt – to get kind of scared when I board a flight with people who would fit Google’s search for “Arab” and “Muslim.” It’s a problem that the ONE time the world can be like “oh look, here’s an Arab woman – who is not this foreign, mute thing that you think she is – playing an Arab Jasmine in a Hollywood blockbuster” that opportunity wasn’t taken.

It’s also a problem because every once in a while it would actually be quite nice to see someone who looks like me playing a ‘good’ role in pop culture and / or mass media. Growing up in London, all the magazines, all the TV shows, all the depictions of beauty were blonde, white, blue-eyed. While that is changing (sloooowwllyyy), that the role of Jasmine couldn’t go to an Arab woman is kind of rubbing salt into the wounds. Okay we understand we might not be ‘white’ enough or quite the ideal of what the mainstream thinks beauty is but… REALLY? Is it to that extent that we aren’t even adequately capable of representing our *only* fictional character?

A few months back I wrote a post on how Arab models are changing perceptions; how art and TV and film and music and all the things that make us see the similarities between us as opposed to the differences, are vital for the breaking down of the negative stereotypes that are everywhere we look. And the same rings true here.

The thing is, the lack of visibility of Arab, Muslim women is also often due to the norms within the culture. Which is all the more reason to increase their visibility, in turn making it more of an accepted way of life. In my experience, a lot of the time people – in the Arab world especially – behave or perhaps more importantly don’t behave in a certain way simply for fear of what someone else might think. Meanwhile the other people are all doing the same thing, too.

Ultimately, we are all human: want the same things, cry about the same things, want good for our families and loved ones, need to eat, sleep, shit and etc. That’s amazing and wonderful and beautiful. But it’s our uniqueness and our differences that add even more magic to that. And those need to be recognised, too. So yes I’m going to fight for Jasmine, because at the moment she’s the only thing we have, and the 8-year-old me who wanted / had to be her every.single.time would want me to.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments below… 

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