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Race Card: Oprah’s “Marriage around the World Show” Misses Mark

shalin-sneha.jpg

Egypt. India. The Ukraine. Oprah tried to show viewers what life's like for married women in these places via her "Marriage around the World" show Wednesday. Unfortunately, the Queen of Talk came up short, delving into tired subjects such as Muslim women and the head scarf, mail order brides from Eastern Europe and why anyone would choose arranged marriage. What's more is that while profiling women from around the globe, Oprah not only reinforces stereotypes about women of color but also argues that women from Denmark are the ones to be emulated. The not-so-subtle message? White Western women have it best, while others continue to lead pitiable, backwards lives.

The show kicks off with an Egyptian Muslim divorcée named Heba. Nanna, a Danish woman Oprah featured on a previous show, interviews Heba about what life's like for women in Egypt. The interview is an exercise in comparison and contrast. While Nanna has lived with her male companion for 14 years, unmarried Egyptian women typically live with their parents. It's taboo for couples in her country to live together before marriage, says Heba, who moved in with her mother after divorcing.

By the way, Heba's no anomaly as a divorcée in Egypt. According to the 33-year-old, one out of three marriages in the predominantly Muslim country ends in divorce. When Oprah interviews Nanna, Heba and another Egyptian Muslim woman named Injy, we learn that women must go to court to initiate divorce proceedings while all men have to do is verbally ask for a divorce. If true—commenters on Oprah's Web site dispute that such a disparity exists—Egyptian women are clearly being paid an injustice, but I can't help but wonder why the segment focused on issues such as divorce, cohabitation and premarital sex rather than on what marriage is actually like between Egyptian men and women.

Then, there's the issue of the head scarf.

Injy chooses to wear a veil, while Heba does not. Injy says that she does so out of respect for Islam and because she doesn't want to deliberately be sexually appealing to men.

"Do you feel a bit repressed?" Oprah asks both women.

While Heba answers yes, Injy says that pressure to wear the veil doesn't make her feel repressed. No fruitful discussion on the subject follows. No Egyptian men are interviewed, and no men who also cover their heads for religious reasons appear in the segment. The viewers likely would've had a better understanding of married life in Egypt if we'd heard from both sexes and been given a peek into a married couple's home life. Instead, the purpose of the segment seemed to be to highlight the injustices women in predominantly Muslim countries face—and in an unenlightening way, to boot. While injustices should be pointed out, a more complex exploration of life in Egypt may have explained why a woman such as Injy didn't view herself as oppressed in the least. Surely, some positives for women exist there. But Oprah seemed bent on fulfilling her Western viewers' expectations about how tough Arab women have it.

All the while, Oprah plays up how great Denmark is for women, explaining how impressed she was by the "extreme sense of equality between men and women" there during a recent trip. Yet, she provides no facts or figures to support this. Do women and men in Denmark earn the same pay for the same work? If a Danish couple divorces, how are assets divided? How are rape victims treated in Denmark? It seems we're to take Oprah at her word that life in Denmark is great for women simply because she visited Nanna's home and a few other people's and liked what she saw.

Oprah continues to hold Denmark as the gold standard when she interviews a mail order bride from the Ukraine. The young woman, Lera, tells Oprah that many women in her country begin looking for husbands in their late teens but that men there don't feel the same pressure to marry young.

Oprah responds to this by saying, "Women in Denmark grow up really independent. They don't grow up with the idea somebody is going to take care of me."

The problem here is that Oprah completely overlooks the economic situations in both countries. Maybe Ukrainian women feel pressured to marry because work is hard to come by for men there and even harder for women to come by. Marriage, therefore, is likely a financial necessity for women in the country rather than merely a way for the Ukraine to infantilize its women.

And, oddly enough, although Oprah strove to pinpoint gender inequities in Muslim Egypt, she ultimately gives a pass to the New York man who made Lera his wife after finding her on a mail-order bride Web site. Steve explains that he wanted a wife because 9/11 traumatized him, but Oprah never presses him about why he didn't find a fellow New Yorker to date and marry instead of a disadvantaged Ukrainian woman less than half his age. The age, gender and class dynamics in the relationship are entirely overlooked.

Oprah also fails to explain why she chose to profile a mail-order bride rather than a Ukrainian woman in a marriage with a Ukrainian man. A mail order bride seems a sensationalistic choice as well as one that fits Western stereotypes of poor Eastern European women.

During the final segment of the show, Oprah makes up for the underwhelming first two when profiling an Indian couple who had an arranged marriage. She devotes the least amount of time in the program to this couple, but it's the first time in the show she's actually shown a man and woman from another country in a relationship, which is curious given the show's title: "Marriage around the World."

The couple, a 27-year-old woman named Sneha, and her husband, Shalin, 31, explain what having an arranged marriage is like—from the awkwardness of being on a date with their parents present to Sneha finding out the first night of their marriage that Shalin smokes. The couple also points out that, while their parents played a role in setting them up, they chose to get married based on the chemistry they felt with each other. The goal of arranged marriage isn't to force two incompatible people into a union, Shalin insists.

The couple, now together for more than five years, looks genuinely happy together. And Oprah, in her first moment of real open-mindedness on the show, grudgingly admitted, "The fact that over half the world is in arranged marriages—there must be something to it."

Although the issue of love is only briefly addressed in the segment, Sneha and Shalin's ideas of romantic love challenge Western views of it, marking arguably the first time in the program Western ways are truly questioned. It was the high point in a show where Oprah had earlier declared when faced with cultural differences between women, "Thank God, we live in the USA."

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Comments

14 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Down with Oprahization

Anyone still watching Oprah and paying attention to ANYTHING she has to say is an idiot, plain and simple. Her little World Tour 2010 trying to convince us that life is so wonderful everywhere but here--- is phony, misguided and borders on brainwashing.

....that's your opinion but

...to me Oprah's an incredible pop culture force and I think it's definitely worthwhile pay attention to the messages she, her show, and franchise export about women, relationships, and consumerism because of her enormous influence on women and marketing. Nadra did a great job on breaking down why these messages are problematic, which is way more informative and useful than an easy and insulting "This is idiotic and brainwashing."

____________
Kjerstin Johnson, editor-in-chief
Did someone say "Comments Policy"?

Since I live in Denmark...

...I'll take a crack at this one too, though I think Nadra is way on point with her analysis and really appreciate the ways she points out the flaws here. I'm one of those people inclined to just hate on Oprah, but hey, a little deconstructing never hurt anyone.

First of all, I'm glad Oprah enjoyed her time in her expensive Copenhagen hotel and saw some tourist sights downtown, but she was here for a few days max, and Copenhagen is simply not representative of Denmark as a whole nation. It may be the capital city, but like any major urban area, things change pretty quickly the moment you leave town (and they aren't all that monolithic in the city either, if she'd bothered to look for more than what she intended to find).

That isn't to say that women in Denmark aren't respected in society in ways that they might not be in other countries. I'm not from Denmark. My experience as an immigrant has been far from desirable, and I can't speak for Danish women. On the other hand, why generalize ANY country or its people based on a few token urbanites? Since I've lived in Copenhagen (the last year and a half), I've run into approximately the same number of people who thought my self-identified feminism, for example, was quaint as they did in the U.S. Is that progress because salaries are more equal here, so my ideas really are outdated? There might not be social pressure to get married, but to me, that makes more of a statement about cultural history and evolution than it does about women's rights.

If Oprah really wanted to get into issues like veiling, she could try looking at Denmark's attitude towards Muslims, which isn't a pretty picture. There is a prominent Muslim population in Copenhagen, and those women (and men) face terrible discrimination here. I've witnessed some pretty hardcore discrimination firsthand, both directed at me and also directed at others, the moment anyone figures out (or decides) that you're an "other." I realize I'm not focusing on Danish marriage, but Oprah failed to consider that not all Danes marry Danes, and that everyone in Denmark is not what locals would offensively call an "ethnic Dane," meaning a tall white person. Just because there are unmarried cohabiting Danish couples in Copenhagen doesn't mean the country doesn't have issues when it comes to underpaid migrant workers, pseudo-mail-order brides from southeast Asia, or immigrants in general.

As an American black woman,

As an American black woman, I've basically been raised to look at Oprah as the pinnacle of black success. Unfortunately, I have such a lack of respect for that woman. She is horrid when it comes to interviewing: The woman asks questions that lack any insight, and she's self-absorbed to boot!

I hate the fact that she's such a powerhouse because she is not the type of person (black, white, or otherwise) that I would want to represent me; and, she is definitely not the type of person I would want to look up to, as a minority.

Most discouraging

I often have high hopes for Oprah, and am very often let down. There was great potential here to shed some light on different perspectives of marriage. Oprah is such a force - many people believe whatever she says just because she says it. She had a wonderful opportunity to break down some very negative stereotypes that so many here in the states have about women from various other cultures, but particulary Muslim cultures. It is impossible to really understand and relate to another culture when you do so through the thick veil of your own cultural stereotypes and value systems.

Divorce in Muslim Countries

While I'm not sure about Egypt specifically, I know that in Muslim countries that follow Muslim law, such as Saudi Arabia, women do have to go to court while men do not have to to get a divorce. Sometimes women are not granted a divorce at all. But this is hardly the worst part of Muslim laws about women, since I know that women can, have, and are killed for having sex with a man who is not her husband. If a woman lives at home with her parents, then sometimes it is her father who orders her to be killed for that (or really any) reason.
Don't even get me started on female "circumcision", aka female genital mutilation.

Thanks for hate mongering

To the post above - thanks for the insiteful hate mongering. You do a very good job of portraying Muslim law as unfair towards women, even though you provide no basis nor proof. I'm sure Oprah would be proud.

Muslim law applies *both* ways - men are punishable for extramarital sex the same way women are. Infact, according to scripture and tradition it is considered far worse to even accuse a woman without proof of such thing. Even then the proof is a minimum of 4 eye witnesses clearly seeing faces and penetration (that the guy actually has his thing inside the girl, they're not just griding) to apply... so unless the guy and girl are staring in an xxx film it is very difficult to get a conviction.

The women must go to court for divorce thing - it's because typically women jump to the "divorce solution", especially during their time of the month, then when they calm down they're fine... is that "biased"? Maybe, but it is true and I've seen many cases. I've even been told by other women that they would jump to verbal divorce, if they could, when really upset... and that they feel devastated later on. Again, blame differences in physiology, the X vs Y chromosome, or whatever... it may seem biased or unfair, but it's reality. When a woman goes to court for a divorce in muslim law, their claim is heard, and if she seems to be very upset and frustrated at the moment the judge may decide to ask the woman to wait and have time to reconsider, but if she insists even after reconsidering, even if the judge thinks the woman is being irrational, the judge *must* grant her the divorce. So this doesn't stop muslim women from getting a divorce, it only helps give them a chance to reconsider whether or not it's really what they want, and if they still want it they get it.

The female circumcision thing - where do people come up with this? It's no where in Muslim law, and I don't know any Muslim ladies who've undergone it. This is nonsense based on a few localized cases where people have done this for *cultural* reasons, not *religious* reasons. This isn't from Muslim law, it is foolishness and pollution from local cultures.

So please, try getting a proper understanding of a subject before jumping to conclusions. And please check your source of information, it seems like you're being fed info that is very biased and one sided.

Really?

I find it a bit ironic that, in response to a comment about Muslim law that you found to be biased and one-sided, you are blaming a divorce law (which sounds to me like it does adhere to a double standard) on WOMEN BEING ON THEIR PERIODS. Really? Can't we get past the notion that when women are menstruating they can't make rational decisions? And what is this "divorce solution" of which you speak?

Thank you for adding some more information about Muslim law to this conversation (though you cite no sources) but please refrain from making gross generalizations about women and their bodies in this space.

____________
Kelsey Wallace, contributor

Ask me about our Comments Policy!

Yes, really

Double standard or a safeguard against a decision made when one's hormones are raging. I don't know about you, but hormones really affect how agitated I am, and I know many others who feel the same way.

This concept being unfair or a double standard is as much so as men not being the ones who have to get pregnant, nurse or go through menopause. It is also as unfair or a double standard as men not having multiple orgasms, being susceptible to impotence and prostate cancer research receiving only a fraction of the funds that breast cancer research receives.

Men and women are different, there is no point crying about those differences, we should focus on how they may be practically reconciled.

really... PMS?

I'm sorry, but you sound extremely unenlightened. Let me see if I can get the gist of your logic:

Women on their periods are irrational, ergo, they must go through a legal proceeding in order to be granted a divorce. When they get to court, if the MALE judge thinks that she is "emotional" (read: irrational and incapable of forming an independent thought because of all that estrogen) he gets to tell her to, "take a breather honey, come back when Aunt Flo is gone for the month and I'll think about it." Really? Really? That makes sense to you? I'm sorry, but this logic that women are incapable of thinking rationally because of their cycles was used to deny women legal status as persons in North America. Female "fragility", "sensitivity", and flair for the emotional was cited in arguments used to deny women the vote, deny women's entry to politics and the law, and to lock women up in mental institutions when their husbands wanted to trade up for something younger.

Besdies the fact you have implied that men are always more rational than us flighty tampon toting ladies and as such are entitled to request divorce verbally, the basis of your argument (female hormonal cycles) fails to take into account MALE hormonal cycles:

"...researchers recently discovered that many men suffer from a condition similar to PMS called irritable male syndrome (IMS). Men with IMS often experience mood swings, stomach cramps and even hot flashes. These symptoms and others are caused by a drop in the male hormone testosterone.

IMS can manifest at any time because, unlike women who experience monthly hormone cycles, men experience a daily hormone cycle. Males' levels of testosterone are highest after waking and fall throughout the day.

A variety of symptoms are linked to irritable male syndrome. A man experiencing IMS may experience the following symptoms:
- anger
- anxiety
- hypersensitivity
- irritability." http://www.healthtree.com/articles/pms/basics/male-pms.php

Maybe you should do YOUR research before you make such sweeping and dangerous statements.

hmmmm!

I find it strange that you make comments about not knowing any women that have been circumcized... is this usual conversation that men have with women? are you cut or uncut?
The fact that you say it is not a religious matter many many religious people in egpt still carry out this brutal practice in the excuse of religion.
I think that you also show your lack of understanding for saying that women divorce due to "time of the month" what a load of rubbish!
These backward views are what women are complaining about.....

Sometimes you have to.

Well, as a Cherokee woman, I have to say I DO find the idea of arranged marriage abhorrent, and the same goes for mail order brides. We're matriarchal, so that's why. But that said, there would have to be some on here who would agree that some cultures just get it right when it comes to equality, while others fail miserably. They can't all be equal--it doesn't follow logically. Some cultures nurture innovation and abilities in women more than others, and those are the ones we should emulate.

(since I know that women can,

(since I know that women can, have, and are killed for having sex with a man who is not her husband. If a woman lives at home with her parents, then sometimes it is her father who orders her to be killed for that (or really any) reason)؟؟؟؟؟..well..., i'm Egyptian Muslim that doesn't happen in my country and not in Islam ...yes in Islam adultery is a crime but for both the man and the woman..and not anyone can judge or order them to be killed as you say ...there is a punishment after they (the court) judge them...(that's not easy too)...in Islam if some man said that some woman did the adultery but he couldn't bring 4 witnesses that's a crime too (قذف المحصنات) he got 80 slashes and his word won't be taken in any case again so not every one can miss with her reputation...sorry my English is bad

Divorce in Islam

[quote]While I'm not sure about Egypt specifically, I know that in Muslim countries that follow Muslim law, such as Saudi Arabia, women do have to go to court while men do not have to to get a divorce.[/quote]

Dearest Anonymous, what do you know about Islamic Laws can be understood by your comments here.

Don't you think that before we make statements/comments in public against some culture/ideology/religion/individual etc, it is always wise and REQUIRED that we have our facts cleared?

Islam discourages divorce but, unlike some religions, does make provisions for divorce by either party.

Allaah provides general guidelines for the process of divorce with emphasis on both parties upholding the values of justice and kindness in formalising the end to their marriage (see [Quran 2: 224-237] for general guidelines regarding divorce).

Allaah encourages the husband and wife to appoint arbitrators as the first step to aid in reconciliation in the process of divorce. If the reconciliation step fails, both the man and woman are guaranteed the right to divorce as established in the Quran, but the difference lies in the procedure for each one.

When a divorce is initiated by the man, it is known as Talaaq. The pronouncement by the husband may be verbal or written, but once made, there is to be a waiting period of three months ('Iddah) during which there can be no sexual relations, even though the two are living under the same roof.

The waiting period helps to prevent hasty terminations due to anger and allows both parties time to reconsider as well as to see if the wife is pregnant. If the wife is pregnant, the waiting period is lengthened until she delivers. AT ANY POINT DURING THIS TIME, THE HUSBAND AND WIFE ARE FREE TO RESUME THEIR CONJUGAL RELATIONSHIP, THEREBY ENDING THE DIVORCE PROCESS. During this waiting period, the husband remains financially responsible for the support of his wife.

The divorce initiated by the wife is known as Khul' (if the husband is not at fault) and requires that the wife return her dowry to end the marriage because she is the 'contract-breaker'. In the instance of Talaaq, where the husband is the 'contract-breaker', he must pay the dowry in full in cases where all or part of it was deferred, or allow the wife to keep all of it if she has already been given it in full.

A Khul' can be intiated by the women if she does not want to continue with the marriage even if her husband is good but not to her liking.

In the case when the husband is at fault and the woman is interested in divorce, she can petition a judge for divorce, with cause. She would be required to offer proof that her husband had not fulfilled his marital responsibilities. If the woman had specified certain conditions that are Islamically accepted in her marriage contract, which were not met by the husband, she could obtain a conditional divorce.

:

[quote]Sometimes women are not granted a divorce at all.[/quote]

This is a plain lie from your end. I have told you that there are two kinds of divorces a women can go thru. One type is when the women has no complains against the man but still wants to separate and the other is when the man is at fault. Divorce is granted in both conditions. But a process needs to be followed.

Divorce is never a hasty process in Islam, irrespective of if it is given by a man or a woman. It takes months to get completed. Iddah period needs to be completed before divorce is complete.

And Talaq is never like saying 3 times "I give you Talaq" in one go/day/month. NO. When you give the first talaq, you need to wait the iddah period. Then comes second talaq and iddah period. And then third talaq which is the final talaq!

Now during the iddah period, a man and woman can always give up on their decision to get a divorce and get back together :)

:

[quote]But this is hardly the worst part of Muslim laws about women, since I know that women can, have, and are killed for having sex with a man who is not her husband.[/quote]

Even a man is killed for having sex outside Marriage.

:

[quote]If a woman lives at home with her parents, then sometimes it is her father who orders her to be killed for that (or realy any) reason. Don't even get me started on female "circumcision", aka female genital mutilation.[/quote]

LOL!! Now what is this? :D

Speaking without knowledge is not good maa'm/sir :)