Contains spoilers for the film. Trigger warning for discussion of rape and sexual abuse.
“We need to get beyond the appeal of happy surfaces,” suggests Sara Ahmed in her 2007 article. The questions that Arab-American director Rolla Selbak’s film Three Veils is asking about the promise of happiness and what it really means for women and queer subjects within heteronormative, patriarchal and ultimately rape culture are not easy ones. The main characters of the triptych, three Middle-Eastern women living in Los Angeles, are constantly being told to be happy and the film unfolds their reactions to this bidding.
In the first part we meet Leila (Mercedes Masöhn), the young woman entering, albeit of her own volition, an arranged marriage. She is surrounded by happy surfaces: preparing for her engagement party, she is staring into a mirror (another “happy” surface) while the voiceover describes what moves beneath the surface, in particular her sexual fantasies about her future husband. “Here I was, a respectable Arab woman, about to get married, and all I could think about was sex,” she says, both animating and challenging the received reticence around female sexuality, the supposed opposition between her sexual desires and patriarchal values like respectability, female modesty, marital decorum.
Soon enough Leila’s fantasies – and the imagined future she has built upon them – begin to collapse. What little romantic interaction she has with her fiancé Ali is disappointing and unfulfilling; she begins to feel attracted to another young man; she begins to realize how submitting to marital values will mean the upheaval of her entire life, starting with the prioritizing of her husband over supposedly ‘lesser’ relationship with her best friend Nikki (Sheetal Sheth).
It is a page out of rape culture: assuming we know what will make women happy and giving it to them without caring for their feelings about the matter
At the same time, Leila is constantly being lectured about happiness. The young man she fancies asks her: “If you’re not doing something that makes you happy, then what’s the point?” Ali, after accidentally biting Leila’s lip during an awkward make-out session, says: “Leila, I know I’m not the best at this, but I promise we’ll be happy. When we’re married, we’ll be happy.” Even Leila’s father worries: “I get this feeling that Leila’s just not happy with this whole marriage thing,” to which her mother protests: “What, what do you mean by that, of course she’s happy! She’s getting married very soon, he is a great guy, he’s from a good family.”
For Leila the tragic failure of happiness’ promise culminates in a horrifying rape scene. Ali, her fiancé and attacker, says during the act: “You’re going to love this,” “We’re getting married in two weeks, haven’t you been wanting this,” “It’s not going to hurt, is that what you’re worried about, it’s not going to hurt,” “I love you.” The violence that Ali perpetrates here is multiple: the physical violation of Leila’s body, the assumption that men have permanent access to women’s bodies, especially in a relationship, along with the psychic and discursive violence of forcefully imposing his own ideas about what she will love and what will hurt. This violent rape is also a page out of rape culture: assuming we know what will make women happy and giving it to them without caring for their feelings about the matter.
The film cuts from here to the story of Amira (Angela Zahra), the devout Muslima who struggles with her lesbian desires, in particular for the vivacious but troubled Nikki. The promise of happiness haunts her narrative too, as she is told by her well-meaning and well-adjusted artist brother Jamal (Garen Boyajian): “You worry too much. Just be happy. In here,” he adds, pointing to his heart.
How many feminists, queers and people of colour have been told, when discussing and confronting social injustice, that they are oversensitive, that they need to stop worrying so much, that they should just “get over it”?
Kind though Jamal’s intentions may be, his words still come from a place of privilege as a heterosexual man speaking to a queer woman. Amira worries too much; she should just be happy, in here. But ‘here’ is not the same for Jamal as it is for Amira and it is in this failing to acknowledge diversity that alienation begins. Your ‘here’ is not my ‘here’. Your heart isn’t my heart and what breaks it isn’t the same as what breaks mine.
Who defines the “too much” in Amira’s worries? It is the privilege of dominant culture to take happiness for granted as a personal circumstance rather than a historicized and politicized (dis)alignment. For Jamal, Amira’s unhappiness and anxiety stems from the fact that she worries too much. How many feminists, queers and people of colour have been told, when discussing and confronting social injustice, that they are oversensitive, that they need to stop worrying so much, that they should just “get over it”? [Jolene blogged recently about thinking over this alleged “over-thinking” – AO.]
Amira is struggling to reconcile her sexuality with her mother’s expectations that she will marry a man as well as with her devotion to Islam. To ask her not to worry is tantamount to expecting that women like her do not feel and live deeply the complex intersectionalities of their own lives.
But it is in the character of Nikki that Three Veils offers us the most complex response to the promise of happiness. A flashback implies that Nikki’s mother, to whom the girl was very close, killed herself after discovering that her daughter had been sexually abused by the uncle who lived with them providing crucial financial support. Thereafter, Nikki’s father becomes withdrawn and brusque towards her, indirectly blaming her for the suicide and resenting her survival.
Nikki is seen by many of the film’s characters as a mess, a repository of unhappiness. Her father can barely stand to look at her, let alone live with her; she becomes a living archive of the family’s unhappy history, a history he would rather suppress than confront. Because Nikki is also an alcoholic, a ‘wild child’, Leila’s mother regards her with unabashed disgust, forbidding her from staying overnight at Leila’s house as if her very body were a source of contamination: the trope of the ‘bad girl’/best friend who endangers the purity of the ‘good girl’.
It is only in Nikki’s encounter with Amira, another supposed ‘good girl’, that both characters can finally relinquish ill-fitting labels and find some measure of solace, intimacy and mutual understanding. Their unexpected bond unfolds with fragile intensity as the two women create interstitial moments of tenderness and vulnerability with each other, while also separately battling their own demons of repression and trauma. The scene in which Amira gives a drunk Nikki shelter in the library where she works, with the latter subsequently falling asleep on Amira’s lap, is deeply moving. When at some point Nikki says: “I know it’s not easy for you to be around someone like me, so thank you for doing it,” Amira replies: “It’s nothing. I’m happy to.” Only after Amira finally defines her own happiness, she is able to kiss Nikki for the first time.
When Nikki and her father reach a breaking point in their relationship, she decides to leave town for San Francisco. At first, she refuses to allow Amira to come with her to protect her from “messing up her life”. “You’re a smart girl,” insists Nikki, “You’ve got your school. You have a family. You know you can’t come with me.”
To be “smart” is to honour and value the great institutions of school, family (and for Leila, marriage). Therefore, seeking out alternative forms of happiness that do not coincide with dominant culture’s prescriptions will always mean “messing up” one’s life. We might ask if some “messed-up” ways of living could be in fact preferable to certain “smart” ones, especially when the latter are inconsistent with our needs and desires.
Despite her reservations, after their night of lovemaking Nikki scribbles the details of her departure on Amira’s hand and the following morning Amira hastens to that location, prepared to leave with Nikki. However, due to some unclear misunderstanding, Amira discovers she is at the wrong place.
Leila becomes subsumed in the dominant heteronormative order whose gendered roles and values produced the conditions for her rape in the first place
The voiceover at the end of the film informs us of the resolution of Leila’s story. We learn that, risking the scandal, she told everyone what Ali had done which was met with surprising support of her family and community: “After all, he had performed one of the biggest and most unforgivable crimes in Islam: forcing a woman against her will”. More worryingly, the voiceover continues: “This of course meant she admitted to being damaged goods, but she didn’t care.”
Thus her story is given a startlingly neat “happy ending”, the last scene shows her with her new loving husband, whom she married a year after the assault. Together with their newborn baby boy they are the very picture of domestic bliss; the most idealized version possible of survival after trauma. Emphasizing the support of the community given to Leila against her attacker, the film rejects the racist discourse depicting Islam as uniquely misogynist or homophobic and always in contrast to the supposedly liberal and progressive Western values.
However, the line about Leila admitting to “being damaged goods” ought to give us pause. Feeling like “damaged goods” is a painful experience common to many survivors of sexual abuse. Having Leila simply “admit” it, as if she were confessing her own crime, without qualifying the terms of that admission, is disturbing and problematic. It reinforces rape culture’s production and consumption of female bodies as commodities, where the (market) value of a woman goes down when she is perceived to have been “damaged”.
Rape culture produces many dichotomies that exacerbate the precarious position of women vis-à-vis their sexuality: the dichotomy between the ‘good girl’ and the ‘bad girl’; the onus placed on women to behave in such a manner so as not to be rapeable rather than on people not to rape; the dichotomy between being the “respectable Arab woman” about to get married and thinking about sex and being “damaged goods.”
Indeed, there is a way of reading Leila’s trajectory from “secretly fantasizing good girl” to “damaged goods” as an example of narrative backlash that still persists in today’s culture: female characters who express sexual agency tend to be punished, typically through rape, marginalization or death. At the end of the film Leila becomes subsumed in the dominant heteronormative order whose gendered roles and values produced the conditions for her rape in the first place. Beginning as a sexually curious woman, she ends up in assumed marital bliss with no further mention of personal sexual exploration or repletion (we only know that her new husband is “wonderful”). This is hardly a “happy” ending.
The film does not manage to refute the widely held and painful assumption that being both queer and Muslim remains an impossibility, that queer Muslims must always choose between their various identities
The theme of certain characters being punished comes back in the conclusion of Amira’s storyline that is, in Selbak’s own words, “painful”. Amira moves away from the U.S. to Jordan to teach Islam at an all-girls school, apparently resigned to remaining alone (although she only says she thinks she will never marry, not that she will never enter into a relationship with another woman). She says: “It is easier to deal with God than to deal with love.”
In an interview for San Diego Gay and Lesbian News, Selbak says:
“I’m very aware that the majority of films with lesbian characters end up [having them] broken-hearted or killed off by the end. However I also wanted to show the truth; the painful truth of what a character like Amira would probably choose to do. It’s meant to showcase the grimness of the issue, and hopefully it will push people in the audience to do something about it, whether they know someone in a similar situation, or whether they’re going through it themselves.”
The opposition Amira constructs between “God” and “love” is one genuinely experienced by many. However, having Amira submit to its rule the film does not manage to refute the widely held and painful assumption that being both queer and Muslim remains an impossibility, that queer Muslims must always choose between their various identities and are fated to be divided.
Yet we must refute this assumption. Selbak hopes the “grimness” of the ending will act as a catalyst for discussion and change, suggesting an understanding of the movie-going public as a form of counterpublic: a place for alternative forms of political action and reaction that will resist the privileged discourse of the dominant public sphere. The hope is that audience members will not come away from the film confirming the same old essentialist binaries and inconsistencies, but instead will understand Amira’s choice as but one in many: one way among the manifold ways queer Muslims all over the world are embodying, traversing and reconciling the multiple attachments, identities and alliances that make up their lives.
Nikki becoming a writer signifies reclaiming of the lost agency women with experiences like hers have been expected to accept. By publishing-making public-her personal story, she makes the personal political
Finally, how should we read Nikki’s departure mix-up? Amira chooses to go with Nikki but the movie makes another choice for her. Is this yet another instance of narrative punishment? The film both illuminates and reinforces the same normative value systems in which heterosexual characters get their ‘happy’ endings (Leila) while the queers (Amira, Nikki) don’t, or not yet.
It’s in this ‘yet’ that Three Veils casts Nikki’s fate. At the very end of the film, after she describes her eventual reconciliation with her father after a near-fatal meth binge, she is revealed as the writer of the story we have been watching. Typing, Sex and the City-style, on her MacBook, gazing out into a picturesque view of a San Franciscan beach, she tells us: “I guess I finally did find something to write about”.
Nikki becoming a writer signifies reclaiming of the lost agency women with experiences like hers have been expected to accept. By publishing-making public-her personal story, she makes the personal political.
Throughout the film, many well-intentioned characters assume they know what the ‘happiness’ they are talking about means. Yet their preoccupation with happiness ultimately fails to engage with the sources of potential unhappiness. When happiness is the single goal and conclusion, our unhappiness becomes merely a glitch in the system, a pothole on that straight and narrow road, a temporary disruption. We end up reading our unhappiness as the problem, the obstacle rather than a valid landscape of its own, a story of its own.
Nikki as a writer goes beyond both the promise of happiness and the landscape of unhappiness: she brings the two together, exposing the ways in which they have always informed and limited each other. In this way we might be able to finally imagine a way out of such rigid binaries into different, more complex, more emotionally textured, perhaps messier, perhaps more truthful, lives.
“Unhappiness is not our end point,” writes Ahmed. “If anything, the experience of being outside the very ideals that are presumed to enable a good life still gets us somewhere. It is the resources we develop in sharing such experiences that might form the basis of alternative models of happiness.”
Elaine Castillo is a writer, filmmaker, alien, failed breakdancer and regular chickpea-soaker. She’s currently working on her first book, a queer feminist picaresque novel about the poet Sappho and the goddess Aphrodite on a road trip through contemporary Europe and on the production of otherness throughout European history.