The Harem Syndrome: Moving beyond Anthropology's Discursive Colonization of Gender in the Middle East

Article excerpt

The urgent need to redirect the debate on gender in the Middle East has led one commentator to suggest that "facile assumptions about the monolithic role 'Islam' or Arab culture plays in the seclusion, disempowerment, and oppression of women no longer pass as the accepted academic discourse on the topic." (1) This valiant declaration, which sought to establish the proprieties of discourse on gender in the Arab world, may have succeeded in banishing facile assumptions in favor of a more complex sense of the relationality between Islam and the construction of gender in the Arab world. Nevertheless, historical legacies, the persistence of certain idioms and their deployment as part of the discursive currency about the Middle Eastern region, cannot be wished away by well-meaning declarations.

One such idiom is what I call "the harem syndrome," a complex ensemble of ideas and of nearly indelible images that have constituted a kind of doxology informing the discourse on gender in the Middle East as a whole. This ensemble of ideas includes the cult of domesticity of women that certain verses of the Quran seem to have sanctioned. During the era of the Islamic empire, such practices, which entailed the near incarceration of women into the elaborate gynaecea--that is, the harem--of the great houses, were commonplace. Today the cult is associated with women's relative exclusion from the public sphere and seclusion in the more modest abodes of present-day Muslim societies. This is coupled with the perception of women as the custodians of Islamic tradition, values, and cultural authenticity as well as of men's honor. The latter role seemed to have justified the elaboration of a "code of modesty" as a mean of social control aimed at preventing women from betraying men's honor. In sum, this has led to the widespread and persistent view of women in the Middle East as the quintessential victims of Arab society and Islamic culture.

Moreover, the harem syndrome is part of a continuing clash of perceptions between protagonists of the European West, looking through a (neo-) Orientalist prism, and those from the Arab East who are antagonistic toward the West, looking through an Occidentalist optic. Assertions and counterassertions about the positional superiority of women's status becomes the main refrain in a debate about the relative benevolence of the respective patriarchal systems of control under and against which women, across this "civilizational" divide, endure and/or resist. As Fedwa Malti-Douglas puts it, "The image of women languishing under the yoke of Islam titillates the Western observer and permits him [or her] to place himself [or herself] in the superior position. Women and their role become a stick with which the West can beat the East." (2) In this context, the Arab Middle East is essentialized into an Islam that is emblematic of reactive antimodernizers, purveyors of the social blight afflicting women in the forms of seclusion, veiling, and polygyny, not to mention the cult of virginity, the practice of clitoridectomy, and the availability to men of instantaneous divorce by mere repudiation.

Laura Nader explains this stereotyping by stating that "the grid through which we rank the humanity of the area is based on how we perceive their treatment of womenfolk. The way in which we construct the place of Arab women is one of the keys to the control of others.... The West is more civilized by the status and rights of its women." (3) She further suggests that this is part of the historical competition between East and West as cultural contestants: The Eastern woman is seen as the weak link or the recalcitrant obstacle to the West's pursuit of universal cultural hegemony.

In contrast, the European West is caricatured into a paternalist (maternalist?) modernizer who is in effect a mere neocolonial agent of cultural imperialism, ignorant of the egalitarian ethos of Islam and insufficiently appreciative of the multiplex ways in which women have used their seclusion and veils as means to enhance their power and freedom. …