A strict father and a rebellious teenage daughter. It's a dynamic that's existed since the beginning of time, and usually just a harmless rite of passage. But what if the family conflict is taken to an extreme, and the stakes are much higher?
What would you do if you saw a young girl berated, even threatened, by her strict fundamentalist father for the way she dressed?
To find out, "What Would You Do?" set-up hidden cameras at the American Dream Diner in Orangetown, N.Y., and hired four actors to play a Muslim-American family. We dressed the father, mother and older daughter in conservative Muslim clothing, contrasting them with the typical American teenage garb of Mira, the younger and more rebellious daughter who was running late to meet her family.
Our Muslim family immediately caught the attention of the diner's patrons. Mira arrived a few minutes later, dressed in jean shorts and a pink tank-top, listening to music while texting friends on her cell phone. She was greeted with hostility from her father, who was visibly annoyed by her tardiness and her outfit, asking, "Mira, what are you wearing?"
"Everyone dresses like this at school," she replied.
"You can't be wearing that, it's really not acceptable. Every time you leave the house, you represent this family," he said. "I find it embarrassing. I'm asking you, as your father, not to wear clothes like that."
Mira remained defiant: "Why did we come to America if we can't wear what we want? ... I want to be a normal teenager, I want to wear what I want to wear."
But before she could finish speaking, he interrupted: "You look like a whore!"
The exchange immediately caught the attention of Cynthia and Christie Candrilli, a mother and daughter, eating breakfast at an adjacent table. As they watched in stunned silence, the situation escalated.
Despite Dad's Tirade, Diners Stay Silent
Mira attempted to extricate herself from the conversation, putting on her headphones.
Despite his requests to take off her headphones, she continued to sit in silence, ignoring him. Angry, he reached over the table and ripped the headphones off her, shouting, "This comes off now!"
Most diner patrons looked up, shocked. But even though the father continued to loudly criticize Mira throughout the meal, even warning her of a punishment similar to past discipline meted out to her older sister before abruptly leaving the restaurant, no one intervened.
Afterwards, when we spoke to the Candrillis, Cynthia explained how she was torn between trying to intervene and potentially making the situation worse for Mira.
"You want to go over so bad, but something stops you because you don't want to make it worse, and you just don't know what to do in that situation," she said. "I was very torn, because I did want to go, and yet at the same time, I was afraid."
Her daughter, Christie, empathized with a girl her age put in a situation familiar to many teens. "It looked like she just wanted to be normal, like everybody else, but she couldn't be."
Despite their obvious sympathies, something kept the Candrillis from intervening in the family conflict that played out in front of them. Was it the difference in culture, or just a reluctance to involve themselves in another family's personal drama? And would we encounter the same hesitation throughout the day?