Girls on the verge of something more powerful than they know how to control

I watched Cuties (Original title in French “Mignonnes”), the debut film by French-Senegalese director Maïmouna Doucouré, which has been causing controversy for its depiction of very young girls in France who form a dance team and perform an overtly sexualized routine at a contest. There have been calls for Netflix to ban the movie, US lawmakers have taken notice of the film, and in a horrible social media led-backlash, Doucouré herself has received death threats for having made this movie.

Let me say at the outset that nobody should die for the art they make. It is reprehensible that anyone should threaten anyone else with violence for making a film, writing a book, drawing a picture, composing a poem. It is an unacceptable response; the appropriate one is to simply not consume the art in question. And if you watch Cuties merely so that you can perform shock and horror at how exploitative it is, rather than actually trying to understand the message of the movie, then this film is not for you.

The director explains her motivation for making the movie eloquently and convincingly in this clip. She portrays the 11 year old protagonist, Amy, a French girl of Senegalese origin, as caught between two models of femininity, the femininity of her Senegalese background and the femininity of the French girls at her school, the “Cuties” of the title; and three cultures: the culture of her parents’ homeland, conservative and traditional; the culture of France, Western and European; and the dangerous culture of social media, which objectifies women and teaches them that the more sexy they are, the more validation and monetary reward they receive.

Does the movie accomplish what Doucouré sets out to do? The answer is yes, but it’s a very difficult thing to watch. This is because Doucouré’s style as a familiar is to portray Amy and the rest of the cast with such intimacy and intensity that you become totally immersed in Amy’s world. And Amy’s world is one where the girl is pulled in so many different directions, between childhood and adulthood, between innocence and worldliness, between purity and sensuality, that you can literally see her torn in two by all the pressure.

Amy lives in a small flat with her mother and two younger brothers. She goes with her mother to women’s religious gatherings, where they are lectured about how women must comport themselves in orthodox Islam. Mariam, Amy’s mother, is navigating a personal tragedy: her husband has gone back to Senegal and married another woman. Soon they’ll be returning to France and living in the same apartment as his first family. As his first wife, Mariam is expected to welcome the new bride and even prepare the bridal chamber and the wedding feast. Amy is silent witness to her mother’s pain, and Doucouré’s camera focuses on Amy’s beautiful face, streaked with tears, perplexed and hurt, as she realizes the immensity of this rejection of her mother by her father.

Enter the Cuties: four girls at Amy’s middle school who are fierce, aggressive, and beginning to realize the power they have as girls on the cusp of adolescence. They swear, fight, shout, and dance: Amy wants to be like them. Escaping the confines of the traditional culture she comes from, she needs a place that’s less suffocating, and these girls, with their audacity and their inappropriate clothes and their ambitions to be the best dancers in the city competition, attract Amy like nothing else can. Soon she’s enduring their abuse as an initiation rite into their group, and when she proves that she’s willing to cast aside her shyness and inhibition to be one of them, they accept her.

Doucouré shifts between scenes of complete girlish innocence, as when Amy and Angelique, the Cutie in Amy’s building, lie on Amy’s father’s decorated bridal bed and have a gummi bear eating contest; and alarming sexual precocity, as in a scene where the girls crowd over a laptop and pretend to be older, chatting with a teenage boy. They watch porn clips in the bathroom at school, curious about all things sexual, they swear and smack each other around, they disobey and hide secrets from their mothers (fathers are completely invisible in this movie, which I suspect is a purposeful choice on the director’s part). These are girls in all their rawness and energy, a female Lord of the Flies set in Paris.

The girls know full well that they are in possession of something powerful — their bodies, their sensuality, their burgeoning sexuality — but they don’t know how to control it. They are learning how to drive a car with massive horsepower, and there’s nobody to teach them how. Social media is their only teacher; their mothers haven’t got a clue what they’re exposed to. This is reality; do you know what your tweens and teens are looking at and experimenting with? Probably not. But in today’s world, where sexualized imagery of women is ubiquitous and the line between a minor girl and an adult woman becomes very thin at a certain age, these girls are walking that line like a tightrope. It’s no wonder Amy falls off it in the end.

One of the most disturbing scenes in the movie is after Amy’s mother realizes that her daughter has already cracked under the pressure; Mariam has traditional Islamic prayers performed on Amy in a sort of Islamic exorcism. Amy’s made to strip down to her underwear, has cold water thrown on her, and shivers in a way that is part epileptic fit, part dance.

This scene is perhaps more upsetting to watch than the later, more talked-about dance contest, as Amy is flesh-and-bone exposed to the viewer’s eye. But what’s fascinating is a scene that follows, where an Imam comes to meet Amy, prays over her, then tells Mariam that the child is not possessed by spirits or by Satan. Instead, he points to the family situation with the second wife as the root cause of Amy’s troubles. “If you find this too much to bear, you have every right to end your marriage,” he tells Mariam. “In Islam, women have these rights.” Doucouré was very purposeful about inserting this into the narrative, showing the difference between the belief that Islam oppresses women and the truth that women’s rights are enshrined in the Quran.

This and other important messages are embedded in the film, but get overshadowed by the impending dance contest, which takes place on the same day as Amy’s father’s wedding feast. As Amy is forced to chop mounds of vegetables for the feast, and then carry them on her head like a village woman, it becomes apparent that neither culture — not her Senegalese one, not her French one — wants Amy to enjoy her childhood. Both are in a hurry to rush her into adulthood before she’s ready for it. Where does Amy have the freedom and permission to simply be what she is: a young girl?

The dance contest scene is overly-long; the girls perform a routine that is deemed inappropriate for their age but would be considered completely fine if it were performed by 18 year olds. This is one of the blatant hypocrisies that Doucouré intends to point out with the camera work that lingers too long over their bodies, closes in on their stripper-like moves and their skimpy costumes. The merits of the scene, whether it could have been done differently, focused on their faces or of the faces of the audience, can be discussed, but it isn’t really the point.

But this is a product of what we’ve encouraged in society, she seems to be saying, and if we don’t like the results, it’s neither the fault of the girls nor of the woman who wields the camera. Cuties forces us to look at the bodies of young girls in an “exploitative” way so that we understand what it’s like to be an eleven year old girl in today’s hyper-sexualized world. More importantly, it forces us to look at ourselves as the consumers of those bodies, as the arbiters of what is “sexy”, and as the unintended role models of millions of girls (and boys) who are simply trying to understand how to grow up. Look or don’t look, watch or don’t watch, but it’s the message that really matters, and Doucouré has created a work of flawed genius to make it heard.

Are there Arabs on Arakkis?

The new Dune directed by Denis Villeneuve released its trailer yesterday, and I watched it with great interest. I loved the novel, written by Frank Herbert in 1965. Herbert was inspired in part by Islam, by the life and principles of the Prophet Mohammed, and by the Bedouin and Berber tribes of Arabia and North Africa. The novel is littered with references to those cultures, Paul has an Arabic word, “Usul”, which means base or foundation, as his Messianic name. He’s also known as the “Mahdi” which signifies the Messiah in Islam. There is mention of jihad; the Fremen are tribal, dark-skinned people whose planet is filled with spice (oil); Paul’s sister is called Alia, and on and on.

This article in Syfy explains the Arab and Muslim references, then makes the argument that because Herbert borrowed so heavily from MENA culture and religion that there should be Arab and Muslim representation in the new and updated Dune movie. It’s a well-written article, and other Arab/MENA people have been making the argument that since Dune is about colonialism and exploitation, the movie should not erase the indigenous people of the region from which it takes so much inspiration.

Dune being a commentary on the evils of colonialism/imperialism loses a lot if the film erases indigenous North Africans and Muslims, cultures that the books borrow from heavily.


I watched the 1985 David Lynch movie, which was deemed a colossal failure (I had a huge crush on Kyle MacLachlan at the time so it was a win for me). And I watched the trailer for the reboot, with Timothee Chalamet, Zendaya, Charlotte Rampling. And I’m not sure I agree with the Syfy article that the Fremen should all be very obviously Berbers, or that there needs to be more obvious inference to the MENA region as we know it, or to Islam. Because in the future, will MENA, Arabs, or Islam even exist as we know it? Will there be Arabs on Arrakis?

Would I have liked to see Arab or North African actors in the movie? Of course. It seems almost regressive in 2020 to not include the massive talent that comes from that part of the world. But when we’re writing science fiction or speculative fiction, do we need to replicate exactly what we’re living through at the time on the page (or the screen), or does it need to go through some sort of transformation in our minds in order to work as an effective story of the future, rather than the present?

As a girl I grew up in Pakistan, a Muslim country and also a tribal and feudal society trying to modernize, dealing with a colonial past and the exploitation of our land and people by many foreign powers, although the book’s references to deserts, oil, and monarchy fit the Middle East more than Pakistan, a struggling democracy. Reading this tour de force about feudalism and oppression in future worlds while living under an Islamic dictatorship resonated on so many levels for me.

When I was writing Before She Sleeps, a feminist dystopia set in an unnamed Middle Eastern country, I went back and read Dune to help give me with world building and atmosphere. I liked that the world(s) of Dune seemed familiar, but were still strange and alien at the same time. It linked past to present to future through a story that was as much Greek tragedy as it was the story of a Chosen One leading a people to freedom. Yet it felt timeless. And that’s what I wanted to do in my novel, too, although mine is only seventy years in the future, Dune’s tens of thousands of years ahead.

Although the novel is set in what is today’s Oman, I needed the artistic freedom to be able to play fast and loose with characters’ race and ethnicity. I needed to write in a post-religious world, where religion had disappeared from the earth and only its traces remained. I needed to dissolve borders and destroy countries (I merrily destroyed India and Pakistan, glad to be rid of them both at last). I could not write the book I wrote if I’d been forced to tie it directly and literally to real place and people. I was inspired by the Middle East but it is not the real Middle East in my book; it is a place that I have made up in my head.

If I’d tied everything down and made it obvious who was what ethnicity, it would have seemed clunky and obvious. I stuck to names and hints of past cultures, played around with borders, and tried to avoid too much ethnicity beyond the color of someone’s hair or eyes.

So going back to the original contention that Islamic and Arab representation matters in the movie Dune. Yes, on one level it does: definitely, cast Arab/North African actors in the movie. It’s a shame there seems to be not even one. There’s so much talent from that region; why isn’t it included? In 2020, a lily-white cast is an anomaly, and given that Arrakis is a desert planet, you could put people in who have some melanin in their skin.

However, if Herbert had intended to be that literal, rather than taking inspiration (cultural appropriation? who can say?) from the Berbers/Bedouin/Islamic history, I think the book would have suffered. Will there even be distinctions between race/color/tribe in future worlds, on different planets? Do Arabs really live on Arrakis?

I read that it wasn’t just the Arab world that inspired Herbert, but also the dunes of coastal Oregon (the book is as much a shout to ecology and conservation as it is to the political ramifications of Middle Eastern oil). And as was pointed out helpfully to me, Herbert also borrowed from the Hebrew language with the phrase “kwisatz haderach” (Kefitzat Haderech is a Jewish phrase that means “contracting the path”). This is what writers do: they travel worlds and pick up pieces and synthesize them into something grander, stranger, bigger. Weigh down art with exact formulas of representation, and you diminish it for good.

As a Muslim, I don’t need to see myself on the screen to enjoy Dune. And by the way, there will only ever be one Paul Atredes on film for me.

This is One Way to Dance – Essays by Sejal Shah

I first met the American poet and essayist Sejal Shah when we were both students at Wellesley College; a mailbox mixup had us introducing ourselves to each other formally, although I’d been seeing Sejal perform classical Indian dance at Slater House’s annual Divali dinner. In the years that have passed since our college days, both Sejal and I have become writers, and I loved to read her essays over the years, published in places like the Kenyon Review, LitHub, The Rumpus. 

The Internet made it possible for me to read her while she was in the United States and I was in Pakistan, so when I read her first book  – a memoir published in linked essays called This is One Way To Dance – I felt familiarity and warmth as I read essays that had been published and reworked for this edition and other essays that were previously unpublished. Reading in print is entirely different from reading online. On paper, Sejal comes across as irrepressible: her soul burns with curiosity, courage, the willingness to experiment with life and the boundaries that she and others have drawn for herself. 

My favorite essay in the collection remains “The World is Full of Paper. Write To Me”, Sejal’s essay about being taught by the famed Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali. Another, “Your Wilderness is not Permanent,” about Sejal’s experience at the Burning Man festival in Nevada, had me agog: I’d expect that sort of memoir from Allan Ginsberg, not the daughter of Gujarati immigrants, raised in upstate New York and actively connected to her South Asian community, working as a writer and academic (And yet it’s not too far a stretch to imagine her as the spiritual goddaughter of Ginsberg through this piece). “Saris and Sorrows” captures what it’s like to enact a Hindu wedding 20200409_151913across communities in 21st century America, a perspective you’ll hear from no one else but Sejal. 

This book is full of poetry, of heartache, of belonging, of loss. Sejal’s Indian/Gujarati/South Asian identity and heritage frame but never limit the scope of the writing, or the breadth of the vision. To paraphrase Agha Shahid Ali, the world is full of books. Read this one.

What is Feminism? Uks Research Center Campaign

I was asked to take part in a campaign produced by Uks Reasearch Center on women’s rights and the feminist movement in Pakistan. There are many misconceptions and somewhat of a backlash against feminism in Pakistan: the project, called “Understanding Feminism in Pakistan: Dispelling Misconceptions, bringing forward Realties,” will run from February 12 to March 8.

Here are the questions I was posed, as well as my answers, reproduced below:

1. What is feminism?

Very simply put, feminism is the concept that women are not inferior to men, and men are not inferior to women. Your gender should not define your status in the world.

2. Is feminism a Western and hence borrowed concept?

Feminism is a timeless concept. Thousands of years ago humans organized themselves along matriarchal societies. History is replete with women leaders and rulers. In our households today, we revere our mothers, grandmothers, aunts and look to them for strength, guidance, wisdom and inspiration. However, the upending of gender roles began in the West and has spread around the world in the last century. Much of the academic language, phrases, and concepts surrounding this modern revolution originated in English. Therefore feminism can feel like a borrowed movement, but its universal appeal is why Pakistani women feel emboldened enough to seek out empowerment and improve their lives.

3. How would you define feminism in a Pakistani context?

Pakistani women want balance in their lives, not extremism. This means that they want to participate in traditional family life and also pursue personal ambitions, whether educational, career-related, or something unrelated to either. They want space and time to do both things and they usually do it very well, when given the chance. They don’t really want to break apart and create radical female-only communes, or turn men into slaves, or any of the other wild (and often vulgar) things that are alleged against them.

Our society is deeply patriarchal but this is no different than any other society in the past. The Pakistani context has an added complication of religion: the religious right bring their cultural and social biases and prejudices against women to their interpretations of Islam. They claim that rigid gender roles and the segregation and disempowerment of women are part and parcel of the religion. Because they have been given so much public space, their message dominates and is what gets absorbed by the majority of Pakistanis. The voices of feminists are fewer by comparison.

4. What’s the best way to introduce and familiarise our youth with the concept of feminism?

I am challenged on feminism all the time by young people in Pakistan, especially through social media. Only this morning a young Pakistani man asked me to help him understand feminism “logically.” It made me understand that there are so many misconceptions about what feminism is, and so much backlash against Pakistani women’s attempts to empower themselves, that we have to tread very carefully and sometimes go back to the basics when it comes to understanding feminism as a whole and the different issues and aspects related to it. Young women are starving to hear that their ambitions, desires and hopes for their lives are legitimate, that there is nothing wrong with wanting to be empowered.

At this point in the 21st century, where our youth seeks answers to everything on the Internet, it would be best to harness the power of social media and spread the message about feminism. One of the best mediums I have seen so far is Sabahat Zakariya’s video series on feminism, as The Feminustani(I’m the Feministani on my blog, not to be confused!). And Tahira Abdullah’s clip speaking about feminism while Khalil ur Rehman was staring down angrily from a screen, unable to interrupt her, went viral with good reason. These soundbites and short clips that break down challenging concepts into the language of Pakistanis helps to take away some of the apprehension about feminism and make it relatable for our young people.

Death in the Afternoon

I was leaving the doctor’s office at DHA Clinic (a medical center, not a hospital) when I saw a commotion just inside the boundary gates. A police van had drawn up and people, including policemen with guns, were milling around as two ambulances lined up behind it. I passed by the police van and heard a long sad moaning. I feared the worst, a shooting victim or someone hurt in a car accident.

I saw a man being taken out of the back of the van in a white sheet — his face hidden from my view, but his belly exposed, his shirt ridden up. A doctor was holding up an IV drip while he was being lifted into the ambulance. In the other ambulance, already a corpse had been put on the stretcher inside.

It turned out these were two electricity workers who had been electrocuted while on the job. They’d been brought to the DHA Clinic because it was the closest medical center, but they needed to go to the hospital, one for lifesaving treatment and the other to the morgue.

What haunts me is that I still don’t know who was moaning: the victim or perhaps his wife, still inside the van.

Some thoughts on “Anti-Israel but not anti-Semitic”

I often hear this phrase among people in Pakistan (or Pakistanis in America) who have had experiences living in other countries, where they live and work among Jewish people and have Jewish friends. “I’m against Israel’s genocidal policies/occupation of Palestine/the existence of Israel as an apartheid state but I’m not anti-Semitic.” It is a way of establishing one’s position vis-a-vis the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while still assuring our Jewish friends that we are not against their religion or them as Jews.

Does it work? Is it believable or credible? Or is Israel so indivisible from Jewishness that this is an impossible position to take?

I don’t have all the answers. I do feel, though, that we need to tread carefully when we talk about being “anti-Israel but not anti-Semitic” as Muslims, Pakistanis, or anyone else who is not Jewish and feels an affinity with Arabs and Palestinians because we imagine Islam compels us to do so.

Imagine this: that a friend comes up to you and says, “I’m against Pakistan/its oppressive policies against the Pashtuns/the genocide in Baluchistan but I’m not against Islam.”

Would that make sense to you?

Pakistan is so deeply identified with Islam that it would be a Herculean task to separate one from the other. If an outsider were to make the statement “I’m against Pakistan but I’m not against Islam” you would immediately feel alienated and on the defensive, as if your identity as a Pakistani Muslim was being threatened or called into question. However, if a Pakistani talked about opposing policies espoused by the Pakistani government, you would know they were speaking with an insider’s view, with an understanding of context, and with a deep love for the country despite its mistakes and missteps.

So too it is with Israel: when we speak of being “against” Israel but not against Judaism, we are not realizing what we are saying and how it is perceived (Please note that I am not saying a pro-Palestinian stance is undesirable or that we must not call out nations that engage in occupation and oppression). But trying to hedge your bets, as someone who is not Jewish, may strike someone as insincere at best, dishonest at worst, and agenda-driven regardless.

It is probably best to give the space to those Jews and those Israelis who understand the system and religion to lead the movement and protest against its oppressions and injustices. And there are many Jews and many Israelis of conscience who do understand and who do oppose those policies and who do lead the protests. We as Pakistanis, Muslims, and non-Jews, can support those Israeli voices and amplify their message, while remaining pro-Palestinian in a political sense.

But we must always bear in mind that Jews around the world still hold the idea of Israel, a homeland for their people, dear to their hearts.

Tread carefully, because you tread on their dreams, to paraphrase Yeats.

Because I Watched Delhi Crime

“Because I Watched” is a Netflix podcast that looks at how people and communities are positively impacted by Netflix series.

“Because I Watched Delhi Crime” is the story of how I watched the show on the Delhi bus gang rape, then wrote a column in the Dawn which was noticed by the President of Pakistan. The essay is by Rabia Chaudry of Serial fame and narrated by Indian actress Shefali Shah. You can hear it on Spotify, Apple Music, and across other streaming services.

Screenshot 2019-12-05 at 8.19.05 AM.


Mera jism meri marzi

Following on from my post about Aurat March 2020, it might be helpful to talk about the slogan “Mera jism meri marzi” (My body, my choice).

This slogan was first used in its original English by women who advocate for reproductive rights and autonomy over their bodies. That is, the right to decide whether or not they will carry a pregnancy, not leaving this decision to others — individual men or the state.

The organizers of the Aurat March in Pakistan translated this slogan into Urdu and it became Mera Jism Meri Marzi.

Immediately, men, mullahs, misogynists seized upon this slogan and twisted it beyond any logic. Pontificating on what Mera Jism Meri Marzi means, I have heard these responses to the slogan coming from men and boys:

  • You want to have sex with your father
  • You want to walk naked down the street
  • You want to be a prostitute
  • You want to have sex with anyone you want

What a low opinion Pakistani men must have of Pakistani women if this is what’s going through their minds! No wonder they feel they must control every action, police every movement, otherwise Pakistani women would break free and run around uncontrollably, destroying what’s left of society.

What’s especially sad is how men and boys say, “Fine, if you want mera jism meri marzi, tau phir I have the right to rape you. My body, my choice.”

Alhamdullillah! Brain stunting is a real phenomenon in Pakistan, but its real cause is not malnutrition, it’s patriarchy.

The real meaning of Mera Jism Meri Marzi boils down to a single word: consent. Giving permission for something to happen. The women who talk about this slogan are referring to women having control over their own bodies. Not being pushed or forced into:

  • Sexual harassment
  • Rape
  • Forced marriage
  • Sexual trafficking
  • Prostitution
  • Pregnancy
  • Abortion

And so much more. In Pakistan, the understanding of consent has been limited to a silent bride at her own wedding, while men speak for her, agree to her marriage, and sign away her rights on a piece of paper. The women of Pakistan deserve so much more than this. Islam promises Muslim women consent over every aspect of their lives, but we in Pakistan like to only listen to Islam when it promises men four wives, unlimited concubines, and 72 hoors in Heaven. When it comes to women and their rights, we suddenly develop amnesia.

It is always a woman’s decision to get married, to have sexual intercourse, to have a baby or not, to allow a man to touch her. It is also always a woman’s decision to get an education, leave the house, come back to the house, take care of her children, go to work, not work. Somehow, in our deeply controlling and misogynistic society, we have decided women are to have no control over any of these things: she is little better than a child whose life must be ordered and decided by her husband, father, in-laws, older brothers, uncles, grandfathers. If a woman is to do anything her heart desires, it is only because she has been given “permission” to do so by the men in her life, the guardians of Islam, and the state.

Mera Jism Meri Marzi may not be the most subtle of slogans. It may not even translate very well to Pakistani culture and society. But it is direct and honest. A woman has the right to decide, to have autonomy over her life and her body. A man does not have the right to tell her what to do. A man does not represent Islam, God, or the angels: he is a man, with rights and responsibilities, but those rights and responsibilities do not extend to every woman in society, only the ones he is bound to through marriage and blood ties.