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Posted: May 12th, 2023

Asian American feminist critique of “Born into Brothels”

In her own critique of Zana Briski’s documentary, Svati Shah, writes, “this film raises concerns about the ethics of documentary filmmaking, and recalls Gayatri Spivak’s and Chandra Mohanty’s arguments against orientalizing Indian women as helpless, exotic, and ‘other’ in relation to normative, empowered, white Western women.”
Write up your own 2 paragraph “Asian American feminist critique” of Born into Brothels. *Given what you’ve learned so far in the course, define what this means to you What features and concerns must this type of feminist critique hold? What authors are you in conversation with?* How does the film raise concerns about the ethics of documentary filmmaking? Support your argument by analyzing one of the scenes of the film Born into Brothels: https://www.youtube.com/watch? kyXFr2g1x8
Make a case for how this specific scene expands on Shah’s statement. What visual or aural evidence is there to back up your claims? Carefully choose, intentionally draw on, and explain 1-2 quotes from at least one reading assigned between weeks 4- 6 to help make your case about the broader political significance of your feminist critique.

Define the term “Islamophobia.” In your definition, explain the political and historical context of the term. As part of your answer, also describe either a historical or contemporary example of a social movement that attempts to combat Islamophobia using queer and/or feminist language in their approach(es). Provide details of “who, what, when where, why, and how” in your example. It should be clear how Islamophobia functions/ is challenged in the example that you have chosen. Cite evidence from at least one reading.

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Asian American feminist critique of “Born into Brothels” would examine the film’s portrayal of Indian women and the ethical implications of the documentary filmmaking process. It would aim to challenge any orientalizing or exoticizing representations of Indian women, while highlighting the intersecting power dynamics of race, gender, and nationality. This critique would be in conversation with authors like Gayatri Spivak, Chandra Mohanty, and other feminist scholars who have critiqued Western representations of non-Western women.

In the selected scene from “Born into Brothels” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kyXFr2g1x8), the filmmaker, Zana Briski, enters the red-light district and starts filming the residents without obtaining their consent or establishing a clear ethical framework. This raises concerns about the ethics of documentary filmmaking, particularly in relation to the power dynamics between the filmmaker and the subjects being filmed. The scene visually depicts the intrusion of the camera into the intimate spaces of the women and children, further highlighting the power imbalance. The aural evidence, including the background noise of the bustling red-light district and the lack of explicit communication between Briski and the subjects, reinforces the exploitative nature of the situation.

To support this critique, one can draw on the work of Gayatri Spivak, specifically her essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” where she interrogates the power dynamics and ethical considerations of representing marginalized communities. Spivak argues that the act of speaking for others can easily perpetuate dominant discourses and suppress the voices of the subaltern. In the case of “Born into Brothels,” the scene analyzed exemplifies the potential erasure and exploitation of the voices of the women and children being filmed, as they are not actively engaged in the filmmaking process and their perspectives are not foregrounded.

The term “Islamophobia” refers to prejudice, discrimination, or hostility towards Islam and Muslims. It stems from historical and political contexts, such as the Western imperialist and colonial projects that created a binary between “civilized” Western societies and the perceived “otherness” of Islamic cultures. Islamophobia gained significant traction following the events of September 11, 2001, as Muslims became targets of suspicion and prejudice, often conflated with acts of terrorism.

An example of a social movement combatting Islamophobia using queer and feminist language is the “Muslims for Progressive Values” (MPV) organization. MPV is a grassroots, progressive Muslim organization founded in Los Angeles in 2007. They advocate for social justice, human rights, gender equality, and LGBTQ+ inclusion within the context of Islam. By challenging traditional interpretations of Islam that perpetuate discrimination, MPV aims to create an inclusive and egalitarian space for Muslims.

This example aligns with the readings on Islamophobia and feminism, such as the work of Suhraiya Jivraj in “Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire” where she highlights the need for intersectional feminist approaches to combat Islamophobia. Jivraj argues that acknowledging and challenging the heteronormative and patriarchal structures within Muslim communities is crucial in dismantling Islamophobia. The work of MPV exemplifies this intersectional approach, as they combine feminist and queer perspectives with their activism to challenge Islamophobic discourses and promote inclusivity within Islam.

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