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Excavating Orientalist Images Of Arab Womanhood

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Abstract

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.”

Keywords

Middle East Popular Culture Muslim Womanhood Ancient Civilization Arab Womanhood 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    Dojc, “How to Start a Harem,” 48.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Ahmed, “Western Ethnocentrism”; Shohat and Stam, Unthinking Eurocentrism. Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Croutier, Harem. Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Said, Orientalism. Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Barthes, Mythologies, 142.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Grosrichard, The Sultans Court, 25.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Ahmed, “Western Ethnocentrism”; Shohat and Stam, Unthinking Eurocentrism; Hoodfar, “The Veil in Their Minds”; Kahf, Western Representations; Mernissi, Scheherezade Goes West. Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Barthes, Mythologies, 118.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Peirce, The Imperial Harem. Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    See Sandoval, Methodology of the Oppressed, 106–112, for more discussion about technologies of demythologizing as a strategy for resistance.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Williams, Marxism and Literature, 129.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    Gramsci, The Prison Notebooks. Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    Williams, Marxism and Literature, 133.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    Ibid., 134.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    I will employ the category “Middle East” as a descriptive category for the geographical region that might be more usefully designated as South and West Asia and North Africa (SWANA) because of the geopolitical considerations of my project. Because I am concerned with U.S. perceptions and imaginative representations of Arab and Muslim women, and because of the way in which the categories of Arab ethnic and Muslim religious identities are often conflated in a U.S. context, SWANA seems to be the more appropriate term, especially considering the ways in which U.S. Military intervention in both Afghanistan and Iraq have been paired in mainstream discourse. However, because the term “Middle East” has much more resonance as an interpretive category in an American orientalist context, I will use it when referring to the geopolitical region encompassing Arab, Persian, and Turkish nation-states, including North Africa.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    Hobsbawm, The Invention of Tradition. Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    Said, Orientalism. Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?”Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    Ibid., 31.Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    Ibid., 24.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    Ibid., 25.Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    I put “Islamic fundamentalism” in quotes here to signal the way in which it has slipped into popular discourse as a catchall term for Muslims, terrorists, and Islam, thereby perpetuating a gross misunderstanding of Islam in a U.S. context.Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    See Said, “The Clash of Ignorance”; Mamdani, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, 20–23, for a critique of Huntington’s thesis.Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    Saliba, Gender, Politics, and Islam, 1; Moallem, Veiled Sister, 23.Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    Moallem, Veiled Sister, 2.Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    Ibid., 163.Google Scholar
  27. 27.
    See Amin’s Liberation of Women as an example of the former and see Chatterjee, The Nation and Its Fragments, for an excellent critique of the latter in the Indian context.Google Scholar
  28. 28.
    Conklin, A Mission to Civilize, 14; Schaebler, “Civilizing Others,” 8.Google Scholar
  29. 29.
    Williams, Keywords, 57–60; Conklin, A Mission to Civilize, 15.Google Scholar
  30. 30.
    See Shohat and Stam, Unthinking Eurocentrism, for their critique of Eurocentrism vis-à-vis the metanarrative of modernity. See also Deeb’s explanation of the way the concept of civilization operates as a register of the modern in Shi’i Lebanon in An Enchanted Modern. Google Scholar
  31. 31.
    Abu-Lughod, “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?”; Saliba, Gender, Politics, and Islam, 1; Hesford and Kozol, Just Advocacy, 3.Google Scholar
  32. 32.
    CNN.com, “Transcript of President Bush’s Address.”Google Scholar
  33. 33.
    See Fernandes, “The Boundaries of Terror,” for more analysis of the U.S. discourse about the “war on terror.”Google Scholar
  34. 34.
    U.S. Government, “Radio Address of the President.”Google Scholar
  35. 35.
    U.S. Government, “Radio Address by Laura Bush.”Google Scholar
  36. 36.
  37. 37.
    First Lady Bush does offer this disclaimer: “The poverty, poor health, and illiteracy that the terrorists and the Taliban have imposed on women in Afghanistan do not conform with the treatment of women in most of the Islamic world, where women make important contributions in their societies.” Nevertheless, this disclaimer does not withstand the power of her rhetoric.Google Scholar
  38. 38.
    Farrell and McDermott, “Claiming Afghan Women,” 37; Hirschkind and Mahmood, “Politics of Counter-Insurgency.”Google Scholar
  39. 39.
    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
  40. 40.
    Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” 256.Google Scholar
  41. 41.
    There is much debate as to the precise number of stolen or destroyed artifacts. In fact, two of the main sources I will use in my discussion of the artifacts from the Iraq museum, both published in 2005, are at odds regarding these data. Bogdanos, U.S. Marine cum investigator who claims to specialize in the classic world, has written a memoir entitled Thieves of Baghdad, in which he argues that media reports misrepresent and exaggerate both the museum’s losses and corresponding U.S. culpability. He directly argues against many of the authors whose arguments are collected in the other source I reference, The Looting of the Iraq Museum, Baghdad: The Lost Legacy of Ancient Mesopotamia. Google Scholar
  42. 42.
    The devastation brought to the coasts of Louisiana and Mississippi by Hurricane Katrina and the faulty levee system in the summer of 2005 highlighted, again through media representation, the constellation of racialized and pejorative connotations associated with the word looting. Though the term is widely used in media reports and scholarship about the theft of antiquities in Iraq, I have resisted and minimized its use here because of the connotations it carries. As in the Hurricane Katrina context, in which the word looting was used to describe the survival strategies of African Americans while the passive verb form of “to find” was used to describe the survival strategies of white victims of the levee breaches, the use of the word “looters” in the context of Iraqi antiquities can conveniently and too easily elide the conditions and circumstances of survival that undergird the act of “looting.”Google Scholar
  43. 43.
    This is not to say that the practice of torture by U.S. Military is a onetime event, as reports out of the detention center at Guantánamo Bay clearly demonstrate, but rather to point to the striking way in which those photos underscore the dehumanization of prisoner and soldier alike.Google Scholar
  44. 44.
    Bahrani notes that U.S. Forces constructed a helipad in the middle of the city, which required the removal of several layers of earth at this archaeological site, thereby destroying the artifacts and historical evidence contained therein. In addition, she reports that “between May and August 2004, the wall of the Temple of Nabu and the roof of the Temple of Ninmah, both of the sixth century B.C., collapsed as a result of the movement of helicopters.” Bahrani, “The Fall of Babylon,” 214. See also BBC News, “Army Base ‘Has Damaged Babylon” and Charles, “US Marines Offer Babylon Apology.”Google Scholar
  45. 45.
    See also Mirzoeff’s discussion in Watching Babylon, 5–6.Google Scholar
  46. 46.
    McCarthy and Kennedy “Babylon Wrecked by War.”Google Scholar
  47. 47.
    Gettleman, “Magic Back in Babylon.”Google Scholar
  48. 48.
  49. 49.
    Polk and Schuster, The Looting, 13.Google Scholar
  50. 50.
    Ibid., 10.Google Scholar
  51. 51.
    Moallem also notes the way in which the notion of civilization (constructed in opposition to that of barbarism) is “essential in the historical construction of colonialist racism.” See Veiled Sister, 21.Google Scholar
  52. 52.
    See, among others, McClintock Imperial Leather; Kaplan, Alarcón, and Moallem, Between Woman and Nation. Google Scholar
  53. 53.
    Bogdanos, Thieves of Baghdad, 141.Google Scholar
  54. 54.
    Polk and Schuster, The Looting, xii.Google Scholar
  55. 55.
  56. 56.
    Bogdanos, Thieves of Baghdad, 139.Google Scholar
  57. 57.
    Hammurabi is the 18th century (BCE) ruler whose famous law code contained the “eye for an eye” form of punishment still perceived to be common in the modern Middle East.Google Scholar
  58. 58.
    Bogdanos, Thieves of Baghdad, 150.Google Scholar
  59. 59.
    Both hijab and khimar can technically be used as general terms to refer to a variety of dress styles covering the head and hair that women might wear as a gesture of modesty within Islam. However, they are mostly used to refer to specific styles of what, in English, might be called a “veil.” A khimar typically refers to a garment that covers head and hair as well as neck and shoulders, and extends to mid-chest. This more conservative style of dress is not what the director of the museum wears, according to the photos Bogdanos has included in his book. Instead, she wears a simple headscarf (commonly referred to as a hijab), which covers her head, but not all of her hair.Google Scholar
  60. 60.
    Bogdanos, The Thieves of Baghdad, 6.Google Scholar
  61. 61.
  62. 62.
    See Chatterjee’s The Nation and Its Fragments for a compelling discussion of the way in which patriarchal nationalist movements have utilized the category of women as symbols of the purity and authenticity of the nation.Google Scholar
  63. 63.
    Amireh, “Palestinian Women’s Disappearing Act,” 230, also makes the argument that Arab and Muslim women’s oppression serves as a justification for U.S. Military action.Google Scholar
  64. 64.
    Particularly in the past few years, as Afghanistan has continued to be lumped into the category of the Middle East in the United States, the limitations and perspectival biases of the term become even more evident. The qualifier “Middle” refers to the distance of the region from Europe in relation to the “Far” East of Asian countries like Japan, Korea, and China. Iraq, Kuwait, and Afghanistan might more appropriately be referred to as West and Central Asia.Google Scholar
  65. 65.
    Haraway, Primate Visions; Lazreg, The Eloquence of Silence; McClintock, Imperial Leather; Mohanty, Feminism Without Borders; Narayan, Dislocating Cultures; Ong, “Colonialism and Modernity”; Saliba, Arab Feminism; Shohat, Talking Visions. Google Scholar
  66. 66.
    Grewal and Kaplan, Scattered Hegemonies; Lorde, “Women Redefining Difference: Age, Race, Class, Sex” in Sister Outsider; Shohat, “Area Studies”; Sandoval, Methodology of the Oppressed; Kaplan, Alarcón, and Moallem, Between Woman and Nation. Google Scholar
  67. 67.
    Eisenstein, Against Empire. Google Scholar
  68. 68.
    Hall, “Encoding, Decoding.”Google Scholar
  69. 69.
    Said, Orientalism. Google Scholar
  70. 70.
    Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, 192.Google Scholar
  71. 71.
    Ibid., 193.Google Scholar
  72. 72.
    Ibid., 140.Google Scholar
  73. 73.
    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
  74. 74.
    Ibid., 109.Google Scholar
  75. 75.
    See Nochlin, “The Imaginary Orient”; Yeazell, Harems of the Mind; Ahmed, “Western Ethnocentrism.”Google Scholar
  76. 76.
    Said, Beginnings, 55.Google Scholar

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© Amira Jarmakani 2008

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