Excavating Orientalist Images Of Arab Womanhood



In the January 2001 issue of Maxim magazine, one can find a short, presumably lighthearted column entitled “How to Start a Harem: When It’s Time to Sheik Your Booty and Chase Some Veil.”1 Predictably, the images and text in this trite “how to” guide employ stock orientalist and sexist tropes, sometimes combining them in crude and seemingly unrelated ways, as in the caption underneath an image of a man riding a camel that reads: “The worst case of camel toe we’ve ever seen.” What is perhaps most striking about the column, however, is its ability to incorporate such a wide range of orientalist caricatures in just a few brief paragraphs. It invokes the categories of the harem, the sheik, and the veil while simultaneously deploying the image of the Middle East as a space of erotic, sexualized fantasy. Further, it reaffirms the grossest misperceptions of the harem as a space of pure sexual fantasy, where a man can have “a few dozen ladies on the side” and a space of absolute male power, where the master of the harem surrounds himself with eunuchs so he’ll “never have to worry about [other men] dipping their pens in company ink.”


Middle East Popular Culture Muslim Womanhood Ancient Civilization Arab Womanhood 
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    Because of the way in which Arab ethnic identities and Muslim religious identities are conflated in U.S. popular imagination, I address both here. Although Arab women may be Christian or Jewish as well as Muslim, the categories of interpretation by which they are largely understood in the United States—the harem, the veil, and the belly dancer, are either tied to, or associated with, Islam. Conversely, though not all Muslims are Arab, some are interpreted as such in the United States, as is the case with Afghan women who are said to be liberated from their burqas by U.S. Forces. As “Muslim” is a relatively recent identity category used in U.S. vernacular, I will use both “Arab” (in chapters 1–3) and “Arab and Muslim” (in chapter 4) as qualifiers for “womanhood.”Google Scholar
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    Foucault is careful to steer clear of the very connection I am making here; he states that the archaeology of knowledge does not “relate analysis to geological excavation” (Ibid., 131). However, he denies the connection insofar as geological excavation is embedded in a project of “the search for a beginning,” which is not how I am using the metaphor.Google Scholar
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© Amira Jarmakani 2008

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