My girlfriends and I watched every episode of Sex and the City, and the first movie, together. We knew its limits, but still loved its interesting and outrageous women and their amazing (and sometimes disastrous) wardrobes. The show celebrated how one group of American women lives, loves, works, and plays, and refused to judge the four friends. It was therefore shocking to see Sex and the City 2 work overtime to stereotype women in Muslim countries as subjugated and ignorant.
Sex and the City 2 turns truly ugly when it fixates on the wardrobe of veiled Muslim women in Abu Dhabi, UAE -- the holiday destination of the film's four main characters. The film is unsubtle in its disapproval of women who wear the veil: the characters crack jokes about burqinis and Carrie -- in the film's lowest point -- openly mocks a local woman for eating French fries under her veil. When the gals stumble across a women's book club and discover bright clothes (designer of course) lurk beneath the burqa, it is unclear whether they're more shocked that veiled women eat, read, swim, and gossip or that they too like fashion. What is clear is the message that we can, and should, judge women and their entire religion or culture based solely on what they wear.
These caricatures would be laughable if they weren't so dangerous. History has shown the repeated failures of strategies to "save" women from what outsiders perceive as the constraints of their religion, race, or culture, without consulting or understanding them. We need just think of the Bush administration's talk about saving Afghani women from the Taliban. Instead of supporting Afghani women, the rhetoric silenced the voices of Afghani women human rights defenders. It also allowed fundamentalists to portray human rights and gender equality as Western imports, undermining those within the society who argue that the concepts are endemic and natural.
Sex and the City 2 also perpetuates another dangerous myth -- that gender inequality only exists abroad and American women have all the human rights they need. There is, of course, much to applaud in the U.S. record on women's human rights. But much still remains to be done. The United States is among only six countries that have refused to ratify CEDAW, the international women's rights treaty. Basic reproductive rights remain contested here, maternal mortality has doubled in the last 20 years, and there still is not equal pay for equal work. Under these circumstances, watching the four Sex and the City friends leading the world's women in a rousing rendition of "I Am Woman" at an Abu Dhabi nightclub at best rings hollow and at worst neo-colonial.
The film's obsession with women's wardrobes as the only indicator of gender equality is, unfortunately, not unique. From Islamist armed groups' attacks on women and girls in Iraq for not wearing the veil, to proposed burqa bans in Europe, the world has become obsessed with controlling what women wear. Of course, imposed veiling and gender discrimination violates women's human rights, but a blanket ban on what women can wear also strips them of their agency and jeopardizes other rights, including the rights to freedom of religion and movement.
All the talk of the veil sidelines a broader and more important conversation about ways to fortify all of women's civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights against attacks by both governments and fundamentalists. As it increasingly puts women and women's rights at the center of its policies to combat extremism or terrorism, the Obama administration has a real opportunity to move this discussion forward and take the debate from women's clothes to women's rights.
Jayne Huckerby is Adjunct Assistant Professor of Clinical Law and Research Director of the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at New York University School of Law where she directs the Center's project on Gender, National Security and Counter-Terrorism.