Egypt. India. The Ukraine. Oprah tried to show viewers what life's like for married women in these places via her "Marriage around the World" show Wednesday. Unfortunately, the Queen of Talk came up short, delving into tired subjects such as Muslim women and the head scarf, mail order brides from Eastern Europe and why anyone would choose arranged marriage. What's more is that while profiling women from around the globe, Oprah not only reinforces stereotypes about women of color but also argues that women from Denmark are the ones to be emulated. The not-so-subtle message? White Western women have it best, while others continue to lead pitiable, backwards lives.
The show kicks off with an Egyptian Muslim divorcée named Heba. Nanna, a Danish woman Oprah featured on a previous show, interviews Heba about what life's like for women in Egypt. The interview is an exercise in comparison and contrast. While Nanna has lived with her male companion for 14 years, unmarried Egyptian women typically live with their parents. It's taboo for couples in her country to live together before marriage, says Heba, who moved in with her mother after divorcing.
By the way, Heba's no anomaly as a divorcée in Egypt. According to the 33-year-old, one out of three marriages in the predominantly Muslim country ends in divorce. When Oprah interviews Nanna, Heba and another Egyptian Muslim woman named Injy, we learn that women must go to court to initiate divorce proceedings while all men have to do is verbally ask for a divorce. If true—commenters on Oprah's Web site dispute that such a disparity exists—Egyptian women are clearly being paid an injustice, but I can't help but wonder why the segment focused on issues such as divorce, cohabitation and premarital sex rather than on what marriage is actually like between Egyptian men and women.
Then, there's the issue of the head scarf.
Injy chooses to wear a veil, while Heba does not. Injy says that she does so out of respect for Islam and because she doesn't want to deliberately be sexually appealing to men.
"Do you feel a bit repressed?" Oprah asks both women.
While Heba answers yes, Injy says that pressure to wear the veil doesn't make her feel repressed. No fruitful discussion on the subject follows. No Egyptian men are interviewed, and no men who also cover their heads for religious reasons appear in the segment. The viewers likely would've had a better understanding of married life in Egypt if we'd heard from both sexes and been given a peek into a married couple's home life. Instead, the purpose of the segment seemed to be to highlight the injustices women in predominantly Muslim countries face—and in an unenlightening way, to boot. While injustices should be pointed out, a more complex exploration of life in Egypt may have explained why a woman such as Injy didn't view herself as oppressed in the least. Surely, some positives for women exist there. But Oprah seemed bent on fulfilling her Western viewers' expectations about how tough Arab women have it.
All the while, Oprah plays up how great Denmark is for women, explaining how impressed she was by the "extreme sense of equality between men and women" there during a recent trip. Yet, she provides no facts or figures to support this. Do women and men in Denmark earn the same pay for the same work? If a Danish couple divorces, how are assets divided? How are rape victims treated in Denmark? It seems we're to take Oprah at her word that life in Denmark is great for women simply because she visited Nanna's home and a few other people's and liked what she saw.
Oprah continues to hold Denmark as the gold standard when she interviews a mail order bride from the Ukraine. The young woman, Lera, tells Oprah that many women in her country begin looking for husbands in their late teens but that men there don't feel the same pressure to marry young.
Oprah responds to this by saying, "Women in Denmark grow up really independent. They don't grow up with the idea somebody is going to take care of me."
The problem here is that Oprah completely overlooks the economic situations in both countries. Maybe Ukrainian women feel pressured to marry because work is hard to come by for men there and even harder for women to come by. Marriage, therefore, is likely a financial necessity for women in the country rather than merely a way for the Ukraine to infantilize its women.
And, oddly enough, although Oprah strove to pinpoint gender inequities in Muslim Egypt, she ultimately gives a pass to the New York man who made Lera his wife after finding her on a mail-order bride Web site. Steve explains that he wanted a wife because 9/11 traumatized him, but Oprah never presses him about why he didn't find a fellow New Yorker to date and marry instead of a disadvantaged Ukrainian woman less than half his age. The age, gender and class dynamics in the relationship are entirely overlooked.
Oprah also fails to explain why she chose to profile a mail-order bride rather than a Ukrainian woman in a marriage with a Ukrainian man. A mail order bride seems a sensationalistic choice as well as one that fits Western stereotypes of poor Eastern European women.
During the final segment of the show, Oprah makes up for the underwhelming first two when profiling an Indian couple who had an arranged marriage. She devotes the least amount of time in the program to this couple, but it's the first time in the show she's actually shown a man and woman from another country in a relationship, which is curious given the show's title: "Marriage around the World."
The couple, a 27-year-old woman named Sneha, and her husband, Shalin, 31, explain what having an arranged marriage is like—from the awkwardness of being on a date with their parents present to Sneha finding out the first night of their marriage that Shalin smokes. The couple also points out that, while their parents played a role in setting them up, they chose to get married based on the chemistry they felt with each other. The goal of arranged marriage isn't to force two incompatible people into a union, Shalin insists.
The couple, now together for more than five years, looks genuinely happy together. And Oprah, in her first moment of real open-mindedness on the show, grudgingly admitted, "The fact that over half the world is in arranged marriages—there must be something to it."
Although the issue of love is only briefly addressed in the segment, Sneha and Shalin's ideas of romantic love challenge Western views of it, marking arguably the first time in the program Western ways are truly questioned. It was the high point in a show where Oprah had earlier declared when faced with cultural differences between women, "Thank God, we live in the USA."