Uncovering the Harem in the Classroom: Tania Kamal-Eldin's Covered: The Hejab in Cairo, Egypt and Hollywood Harems within the Context of a Course on Arab Women Writers

By Abdo, Diya | Women's Studies Quarterly, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Uncovering the Harem in the Classroom: Tania Kamal-Eldin's Covered: The Hejab in Cairo, Egypt and Hollywood Harems within the Context of a Course on Arab Women Writers


Abdo, Diya, Women's Studies Quarterly


In an effort to promote understanding in the wake of September 11, Women Make Movies undertook a special "Response to Hate" campaign. Under this initiative, the organization lent their videos relating to Arabs and Muslims free of charge to organizations and institutions wishing to educate on the experiences of Arabs and Muslims, especially women. The offer came to my attention as I was constructing a course on Arab women writers. From the Women Make Movies catalog, I selected two films by Tania Kamal-Eldin, an Egyptian-born scholar and filmmaker currently residing in the United States: Covered: The Hejab in Cairo, Egypt was included in the "Response to Hate" offer, and Hollywood Harems was a regular feature. In the following essay I examine these films and the ways in which I hope to utilize them in the classroom. In adopting them for my course, I accept the generous offer, and the challenge, presented by the "Response to Hate" campaign. The films, supplementing the literary selections that are the core of my course, will no doubt help to educate my students about Arab and Muslim women and counter the gross misunderstandings perpetuated by consistent misrepresentation of Arab and Muslim culture.

The Teacher, the Students, the Course

In the spring of 2002, 1 will teach a course, Arab Women Writers in English, at Drew University, a small liberal arts college in Madison, New Jersey. The course will focus on the ways in which Arab women writers negotiate their, as one writer so aptly put it, "feminist longings and post-colonial conditions" (Abu-Lughod). The course has emerged from my own location and experience and reflects the area that is increasingly my central academic focus. The course will be a first for myself as well as the university. Born, raised, and educated in Amman, Jordan, I am completing a Ph.D. in English literature at Drew. Since my arrival in the United States, my self-imposed exile and perpetual homesickness have honed my cultural and national identity. Regularly exposed to women's issues and discourses on feminism, I began to think of myself in terms of multiple identities: Arab/Palestinian and woman. As a result, my literary interests shifted toward twentieth-century Arab women's writing.

The syllabus I have devised includes seven novels by Lebanese, Jordanian, Palestinian, Syrian, Egyptian, Algerian, and Moroccan women writers, as well as an anthology of essays, short stories, and poems by women from these and other countries. The texts deal with historical, political, social, religious, and cultural aspects of Arab society. Our discussion will focus on, among other things, women and war, religion, patriarchy, colonialism and the colonial legacy, and sexuality. I hope that the students will come to formulate a vision of Arab feminism within the specific religious and political history of the region.

After September 11, however, it became clear that my course at Drew would need to encompass much more. Particularly in need of examination would be the politics of representation of Arab women, whether it be by the West or by Arab women themselves. Because the class meets a general education requirement, the nature of the audience becomes extremely relevant. My students may be male or female; Arab, Muslim, or neither; freshmen or seniors; women's studies or English majors; or anything else. Some of these students I know personally from previous courses or as residents in the Islamic Culture Theme House in which I serve as advisor. Others I will be meeting for the first time. Some students will have enrolled to learn more about their culture, about their religion, or about women in a culture. No doubt some students' interest will have been sparked by recent events and the now ubiquitous images of Muslims and Muslim women in the media. Many will enter with preconceived notions of Arab women and Arab culture, falsehoods that the media has largely reinforced since September 11. However, I maintain the hope that my students will be intelligent critical thinkers with open minds to learn about "other" women and other feminisms. …

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