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From Costumes To Locations, Cultural Stereotypes In ‘Wonder Woman 1984’

The initial reviews of Wonder Woman 1984 or WW84 (which, director Patty Jenkins said, was set in that Orwellian year because it was “the height of Western civilization [and] our current modern belief system”) spoke gloriously of its optimistic script, Gal Gadot’s magnetism and the zaniness of supporting work from Pedro Pascal as Trumpian villain Maxwell Lord and Kristen Wiig as archaeologist-turned-apex predator Barbara Minerva.

Writing for Vulture in an early dissenting opinion, Angelica Jade Bastién mentioned the film’s “genuinely weird accounting of Middle East politics,” but barely any other initial reviews mentioned the Egypt storyline that drives the film’s second major action sequence. It was only when viewers started streaming the film on Christmas and started posting their reactions to social media that a different consensus began to emerge.

Many elements of WW84 feel like deliberate homages to both the ’80s and its movies. The opening obstacle course during which the young Diana learns the importance of truth has elements of Chariots of Fire; the mall where Diana saves two girls from jewellery store robbers evokes the pleasant capitalist buzz of Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. The body possession storyline that allows Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor to reunite with Diana was a common feature of ’80s comedies including All of Me.

The decade’s tropes have become so commonplace in the ensuing decades of pop culture — Stranger Things did the mall thing; Freaky did the body swap thing — that viewers are able to spot them, nod in polite recognition and move on.

The same tolerance shouldn’t be extended to the film’s derivative approach to the Middle East, an ugly blast from the past that could have stayed in the ’80s alongside Indy shooting that Arab swordsman in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Doc Brown fleeing Libyan terrorists in Back to the Future, and Chuck Norris saving hostages from Lebanese kidnappers in The Delta Force.

Jenkins and her co-writers Geoff Johns and David Callaham craft their version of Egypt and the grander MENA region out of the same oversimplifications we’ve heard about this part of the world for years. It’s a strange about-face for the franchise given how 2017’s Wonder Woman acknowledged prejudice against MENA people with the character of Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui), a soldier who had to give up his acting dreams because “I’m the wrong colour.” WW84’s clichés might feel as integral to the period as fanny packs and leg warmers, but breathing new life into orientalism and Islamophobia is a little more unforgivable than a fashion faux pas.

In his quest for world domination, Pascal’s Maxwell Lord visits Emir Said Bin Abydos (Amr Waked), an Egyptian oil magnate whose holdings Lord plans to seize in exchange for granting a wish with the ancient magic stone he now controls. But apart from a magazine cover identifying the emir as the “King of Crude,” it’s not really clear who the character is supposed to be. The movie presents him as a monarch, and he is referred to as “your highness”, but Egypt was a democracy in the 1980s. What’s more, emir is a Muslim term that hasn’t been used to describe Egyptian leadership in a thousand years; emir is almost exclusively a descriptor used in countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

His character’s costume, like his identity, is confused, with a headscarf and a three-piece gray pinstriped suit underneath an open blue robe with gold trim. Although traditional Egyptian male dress includes garments binish, a long, dark overcoat, the emir’s look is more in line with the styles of Saudi Arabia or the UAE, where it is customary to pair a head wrap (shemagh) with long robes or thobes (at the time, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak often appeared in tailored suits).

The women of WW84’s Cairo, including a young girl whom Diana saves from a speeding truck, all wear hijabs and niqābs, but during that period in Egyptian history, wearing those items was actually a topic of widespread debate as the country struggled to determine how much of a role the Islamic faith was to take in public life.

None of this is to say that showing characters in a binish, a shemagh and thobe, or a hijab and niqāb is inherently wrong. But in too many American films, these costume choices are tied to regressive characterisations that serve to elevate Western ideologies above those of MENA countries, leaving WW84’s retrograde portrait of Egypt more in line with Temple of Doom’s Thuggees than with actual Egyptians.

Add to this how the emir tricks Lord by selling the Saudis oil the American businessman had hoped to acquire for himself and his one true wish being the expulsion of all “heathens” from his country, a desire that causes the creation of a ‘Divine Wall’ that keeps Egypt’s poorest citizens from clean water.

Theories popped up on Twitter over the weekend suggesting that it’s the emir, and not Lord, who is the film’s Donald Trump stand-in, because his ‘Divine Wall is an analogue for the Mexican border wall, but having the emir use ‘heathens’ as a descriptor is a deliberate evocation of Middle Eastern leaders as Islamic zealots. That isn’t even touching upon the tone-deaf scene in which Gadot, an Israeli actress who served in the Israel Defense Forces, saves two Egyptian children playing soccer from an incoming truck.

The film doesn’t want you to remember Gadot’s July 2014 Facebook post in support of the IDF a week after an Israeli strike on Gaza killed four Palestinian boys who were, in an uncomfortable alignment with WW84, playing soccer at the time of their deaths (Lebanon responded to Gadot’s comments by banning the first Wonder Woman, which one group referred to as “the Israeli soldier film”.)

WW84 continues this strange rearranging of historical fact when the narrative leaves Egypt. When an Iraqi man tells Lord, “The Soviets have sided with Iran. Iraq is preparing to defend ourselves, as unrest spreads,” Lord grants his wish by giving him weapons to defend his country. No matter that 1984 was the middle of the Iran-Iraq War, during which both the US and the USSR backed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who didn’t need the assistance of a magic stone to purchase fighter jets, combat helicopters, mortars, tanks, guns, missiles and thousands of other arms from the Soviet Union. Why even include this throwaway character?

Or another scene later on, when a well-to-do white woman in DC ushers her husband inside their apartment, telling him, “There’s a riot at the Saudi Embassy.” The entire world seems to be descending into chaos, but the only specific place that gets a mention to hammer home how bad everything has gotten is a location populated by brown people.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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