TV Review: Yasmin, Channel 4
Well, I did promise something about the Channel 4 film, Yasmin, which was shown last week. However, a change in the work, weather (which meant lack of an adaquete internet connection), and my usual bout of sea sickness whenever I go offshore kept me out of action for a few days. Thankfully, the PC no longer has a cordless mouse, so there is no chance of it (along with teacups, books, pens, chairs and even survey engineers) hurtling across the room...
Back to the point of this post. The plot is simple enough, but the issues the film aims to cover are complex. Yasmin is a Muslim woman, somewhere in her 20s, of Pakistani extraction, living in a northern English town blighted by racism and poverty (it happens to be Keighley, a town at the centre of more than one racial controversy). She juggles her family life and work life by simply keeping a wall between the two. She leaves home (in her VW Golf) dressed in 'modest' attire and a headscarf, but discarding them in her backseat on a secluded road out of town to work, changing into something more 'fashionable'. At her work she flirts with her (white) work colleague who drives the minibus. On nights out with colleagues she pretends to drink alcohol in order to 'blend in' -- the glass or bottle of alcohol being emptied into the nearest plant pot.
At home, her life is dominated by her father (not untrue of most Pakistani families), who is shown to be a 'traditional' figure though essentially a good man. Her 'alienated' brother deals weed (with discounts for sexual favours), when he isn't reciting the Qur'an or performing his duties as a muezzin at the local mosque, where his father is the caretaker. Yasmin has been married to a cousin from Pakistan, Faysal, in an arranged affair, designed solely to get the husband legal status in the UK (though the father harbours a hope that the marriage will grow into more than the sham it clearly is).
But the attacks on the World Trade Centre change all this. Yasmin's colleagues begin to taunt her with various gags in the wake of the attacks. She ignores it at first, but gradually realises she is now a "them" or a "they". No longer just Yasmin who works at a child care centre, but an object of ridicule and maybe even suspicion. Then anti-terror police arrest her entire family (exclusing the husband), and even her white minibus-driving friend (and a possible love interest) in a raid looking for Faysal, the husband. The husband had made a phone call to someone in Karachi who had links to apparently unsavoury organisations. He is later arrested when he walks into police custody in his naivity (he speaks a few words of disjointed English). There have been many cases of such arrests, many of them high-profile and promoted by the the government through the help of the media as signs of success in the vacuous 'war on terror'. We, of course, do not see the otherside of these arrests, which are often conducted in a crude and vulgar manner, when those arrested are released. So much for Sky News 'being there first to witness the event'.
Her brother becomes even more angry and disillusioned after the arrest, and is courted by people recuirting for conflicts in Chechnya, Palestine or Kashmir, giving up his "Western" ways in the process (because selling weed and receiving sexual favours is the sum of "Western" ways, isn't it?). The responses of Yasmin's brother to the WTC actually highlights a problem with contemporary Islam (as in contemporary Muslims), although I doubt this is what the film-makers intended. To him the attacks were "style", and the activist trying to recruit him and others was more interested in the shock-factor by producing glossy pictures of Muslims brutalised in various parts of the world. Superficialities on a variety of levels seem to mark modern Islam. There is also a scene in the film, where one of the characters, a Muslim woman who lives in Yasmin's neighbourhood, is pelted with eggs and has milk thrown on her with the group of attackers, a gang of white boys, telling her to 'go home'. This scene is memorable for the reason that an elderly (white) lady walks up to the actors and apologises for the behaviour of the boys, a totally unscripted event in the film (i.e. the old lay didn't realise the attack was staged as a scene in a film). It was even said that an old man started to rebuke the boys for their (apparent) attack, though this was not caught on camera.
As no doubt many have remarked, Yasmin has a strong Loachian-khushbo. The veteran left-wing filmmaker Ken Loach, whose last work, Ae Fond Kiss, was about a relationship between a Muslim boy and a Catholic girl in Glasgow, covered a similary theme. One reviewer has described Yasmin it as 'didactic', and I'd agree. It has a strong moralising flavour about. The meme which the film wishes to embed in the viewer, and something which has been picked up in the review I mentioned, is that if you shun minorities from 'traditional' backgrounds you drive them into 'reactionary' traditional ("orthodox") practices, which are opposed to englightened modernity. Though the reviewer doesn't fully explain how one can be 'reactionary' and 'orthodox' at the same time; it is a fallacy to suggest that orthodox Muslims neccessarily engage in their religious practices as a 'reaction to modernity'. This whole message is embodied in the scene of Yasmin opening and reading a copy of the Qur'an that has been placed in her cell after she is arrested and detained. Later, after her release, we see her walking through a shopping mall wearing a shalwar kameez, instead of jeans and a t-shirt. It must come as a bitter blow to "upper-class" Pakistanis, who desperately aspire to be accepted as modern, to have the shalwar kameez cast as the symbol of 'reactionary orthodoxy'.
But this idea can be flipped on its head: 'modern' (i.e. Western) societies seem unable to cope with people who wish to engage with them on a different basis, on a different understanding of what it means to be human; maybe even a different 'modernity' altogether. A better and more productive way of engaging 'minorities' (in this case Muslims, traditional or otherwise) is to dump all talk of 'assimilation'. I prefer to talk of participation, which doesn't assume there is one way of being modern or that you even have to be 'modern' in order to engage in society.
Further, there seems no adaquete explanation of what it means to be 'modern'. Do the people who taunt the (undoubtedly) many other Yasmins in Britain do so on the basis that her (apparent) religious tradition is not limited by secular reason? Or is alcohol consumption, the use of drugs and pre-marital sex (all signs of 'modernity', right?) the corollory to Kant's Die Religion innerhalb der Grenzen der blossen Vernunft?