Understanding the Other Sister: The Case of Arab Feminism

Article excerpt

One evening, shortly after September 11, I was conducting a college English class when one of my students asked a question about the accumulating body of information on women and Islam. It was one of many questions about the Middle East asked of me in the days after the tragedies; this one was about the veil, and why women in the Middle East "had to wear it." I explained that not all women in the Middle East were Muslim (I myself am a Palestinian Christian), but that even many Muslim women did not veil. However, many did, and for myriad reasons: mostly for personal and religious reasons and, for some, upon compulsion.

The student shook her head sadly, her long ponytail swinging in the air, and offered a comment that made it clear she hadn't really digested what I'd said: "I feel so bad for them all. At least Christian women don't have to walk three steps behind their husbands." She added, "That's so insulting."

I understood--and not for the first time--the astounding disconnection between the lives of Arab women, and the lives of Arab women as represented by the American media and entertainment industries, thus as perceived by Americans themselves. Twenty-three years after the publication of Edward Said's seminal book, Orientalism, which clarified the historical pattern of misrepresentation and demonization of the Middle East, many Americans continue to purchase wholesale the neatly packaged image of the veiled, meek Arab woman. This pitiful creature follows her husband like a dark shadow, is forced to remain silent and obey her husband at all times, is granted a body only to deliver more children, perhaps even in competition with her husband's other wives.

At some point (like now), the stereotype spins out of control, becoming more wild and ludicrous, like Yeats' ever-widening gyre. The portrayal that persists today, however, is not much of an improvement--if at all--over the portrayal of Arab women in the late 1700s to the early part of the twentieth century.

Black Hassan from the Haram flies,

Nor bends on woman's form his eyes;

The unwonted chase each hour employs,

Yet shares he not the hunter's joys.

Not thus was Hassan wont to fly

When Leila dwelt in his Serai.

Doth Leila there no longer dwell?

That tale can only Hassan tell

wrote Byron, in his 1812 poem, "The Giaour." The Giaour is a warrior who avenges the murder of his beloved, Leila, a girl who dwells in the harem of "Black Hassan" and who is put to death by drowning when it is revealed that she has been unfaithful to the sultan with the Giaour. Pierre Loti's 1879 Aziyade and other poems and works of the time featured a similar theme, that of the Western hero breaking the impasse of the harem, to be rewarded with the passion of women who have been sexually isolated and imprisoned.

What this compilation of wildly exaggerated and self-indulgently fantastical images has resulted in is the creation of a stark contrast between modem American women and modem Arab women. The rise of U.S. feminism in the 1970s and 1980s coincided with the rise of Islam as the "new enemy" of the Western world. Images of the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran, the Mujahedin in Afghanistan, Qaddafi in Libya, and Yasser Arafat and the PLO concretized Islam's new role as the author of fear and the enemy of Western democracy, human rights, and especially civil law. And those images of Islam were strategically--almost artistically--painted with glimpses of what Islam did to its own women: it turned them into mute shadows, thus flying in the face of the gender equality and democracy that American feminism claimed as its foundation.

The statements made by my ponytailed student smacked of an underlying assumption that I have heard many times before: we American women have finally succeeded in moving the feminist movement to the top of our nation's list of priorities; now it's time to help our less fortunate sisters. …