Jonathan Lyons writes in a guest column for Informed Comment
Islam, Women, and the West
This essay is adapted from my latest book, Islam Through Western Eyes: From the Crusades to the War on Terrorism, newly published by Columbia University Press. For more information, please see the CUP catalogue, at the CUP catalogue or my web page.
In the mid-1840s, French novelist Gustave Flaubert presented readers with a tantalizing view from the top of the Great Pyramid after an arduous climb under the blistering Egyptian sun: “But lift your head. Look! Look! And you will see cities with domes of gold and minarets of porcelain, palaces of lava built on plinths of alabaster, marble-rimmed pools where sultanas bathe their bodies at the hour when the moon makes bluer the shadows of the groves and more limpid the silvery water of the fountains.”
Flaubert’s excitable prose – “Open your eyes! Open your eyes!” – were penned four years before he ever set foot in the Middle East and so tells us far more about the writer’s idea of the Muslim world than they do about anything he could possibly have seen from distant France. Yet, Flaubert was by no means alone.
European artists routinely created their own representations of the Muslim Orient at home and only then set out on their travels in search of confirmation. Eugène Delacroix’s earliest representations of Ottoman women, intimate portrayals of Muslim female sexuality characterized by passive repose, overt submission, and sumptuous surroundings punctuated by symbolic reminders of restraint or outright captivity, were made some five years before his first trip to the Muslim world, which took him to Algeria and Morocco and not to Ottoman Turkey.
When they did arrive in the Orient, many Europeans were deeply disappointed by what they found. Gérard de Nerval, whose Voyage en Orient became a classic, groused to a friend that the Oriental cafés back home in Paris were more authentic than those of the Orient itself. Rather than mingle with real Egyptians, he conducted much of his research in a French-run library in Cairo. Nerval was so nonplussed that he even incorporated whole sections from a pioneering English work on the subject and passed it off as his own observations. Another writer used this same text, which described Egyptian customs, and applied it wholesale to daily life in Syria.
Flaubert’s disappointment was more primal. He found the women of Egypt, in particular those of the urban middle and upper classes, commonly veiled and often secluded and thus inaccessible to his European gaze. Unable to locate the idealized Oriental woman – or man –of his erotic fantasies, Flaubert had to literally create his own; he routinely hired prostitutes to act the parts he so ardently sought.
Not even the new tecnology of photography, with its implied promise of realism, could alter the equation. Soon, an entire commercial apparatus to manufacture the eroticized imagery of the Middle East was in place. Like the writer or the painter before him, the photographer was excluded from his intended subject, and could do little more than re-imagine existing images in the new medium. Entrepreneurs set up local studios where they could gather props, hire prostitutes as models, and then stage harem scenes to create the erotic Oriental postcards their audiences back home demanded. “What the postcard proposes as the truth,” writes the scholar Malek Alloula, “is but a substitute for something that does not exist.”
What is most interesting about this seeming confusion between the imagined and the real, between reading and seeing, is the extent to which the former so often takes precedence over the latter. This, in turn, reflects the primacy in Western thought of the expert “text” – philological, anthropological, theological, etc. – over any lived experience or personal observation of the Muslim world. In fact, whenever observation or experience on the part of the travel writer, the memoirist, or the diplomat conflicts with textual evidence, the prevailing narrative dictates that the text almost certainly wins. Today, we see this in the myopia that plagues most Western news reporting and analysis from the Muslim world.
In other words, Islam cannot be what the Muslims say or do or even what they say they mean, but only what a handful of “texts” – selected and then interpreted by the Western Islam expert – tells us it is and is not. This phenomenon reflects what I call the anti-Islam discourse, a totalizing western narrative that dates back to the run-up to the First Crusade at the close of the eleventh century. Yet, its core elements – that Islam is inherently violent, sexually perverse, and anti-modern – remain as influential today as they once were in the halls of the Roman curia.
These developments have, in turn, left the West unprepared to respond in any constructive way to some of the most daunting issues of the early twenty-first century – the rise of Islamist political power, the emergence of religious terrorism, clashes between established social values and multicultural rights on the part of growing Muslim immigrant populations, and so on.
Historical trends in Western scholarship have contributed greatly to such attitudes and ideas. Nineteenth-century representation of the Orient was closely tied to the earlier Enlightenment notion of Islamic civilization as timeless, dead, and without history. Thus, the Western imagination stepped forward to fill the void that was Islam. Only then could it be properly represented and in due course conquered, subdued, and colonized.
When it comes to the women of the Muslim world, the “hidden” quality represented by the institutions of the harem, of seclusion, and of the veil struck a nerve in the Western mind that went beyond attitudes toward other non-Western women. Initially, this focused particular attention on the imperial harem – with its legions of concubines, guarded by eunuchs – presenting what was in effect an institution restricted to the highest reaches of the Ottoman court as symptomatic of Muslim family life in general.
The general seclusion of middle- and upper-class Muslim women elicited two powerful strategies aimed at revealing the previously unseen: to draw on the storehouse of the Western imagination to fill in the blanks left by this inaccessibility, and later to literally unveil the women of Islam. Both responses drew on the anti-Islam discourse to produce an enormous number of Western statements about Islam and the Muslims, first in the form of Orientalist art and literature and then, beginning with outright colonial rule, in the shape of policies, reforms, and White Papers aimed at ending the degradation.
By the early twentieth century, the institution of veiling had for the most part supplanted the more exotic harem as the focal point of Western attention. Still, the underlying logic of the discourse of Islam and women remains firmly in place today. The end result has been a “sexualization” of the Western view of Islam, one in which the totality of Muslim beliefs and practices and even the entire Islamic civilization are too often reduced to Western perceptions and assessment of the male–female dynamic.
Exhibit A may be found in our obsession with the hijab, or veil, as a barometer of social progress and overall well-being within Islamic societies, to such a degree that it has become a commonplace of Western mass-media coverage, social activism, and political discussion alike. For years, the veil has been a staple of endless news articles, books, and documentaries, and it is captured in magazine and television images – all as shorthand for a society, a civilization, or a system that is backward, alien, immobile, and inherently antithetical to human rights and dignity.
Running throughout this public discourse is the persistent binary opposition of oppression and freedom, veiled and unveiled, bad and good. Islam itself and on its own terms is once again ignored in favor of an unquestioned Western construction. And this construction dictates that the West’s approaches and policy proscriptions toward Muslim societies be seen solely through the lens of our own flawed understanding of both women and gender relations in Islam.
Nothing else can adequately explain the Western fascination with the veil and the apprehension of this institution as the root of the oppressive conditions faced by many women in Muslim societies. The prevailing idea of veiling, and of the associated degradation of women, creates the notion of an inferior Muslim world in need of rescue from itself, by force if necessary. This recalls Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s famous critique of colonialist rhetoric as largely consisting of “white men saving brown women from brown men.”
To see the immediate dangers in such a course, one must only reflect on the ways in which the U.S. government was able to mobilize public support for two doomed wars against Muslim societies by tapping directly into the overarching discourse of Islam and its important subset, Islam and women. The expropriation of the rhetoric of women’s rights under Islam in order to unleash deadly violence on Muslim nations shows just how much the struggle for women’s equality has become a discursive one rather than a material one.
Closer to home, the discourse of Islam and women recently played out in America’s living rooms, after the obscure Florida Family Association (FFA) successfully pressured advertisers to drop support for a reality TV show, All American Muslim. According to the show’s producers, the program “takes a look at life in Dearborn, Michigan … through the lens of five Muslim American families. Each episode offers an intimate look at the customs and celebrations, misconceptions and conflicts these families face outside and within their own community.”
But the FFA labeled the program “propaganda.” At the heart of the group’s critique, one apparently endorsed by Lowe’s and other departed commercial sponsors, lies the notion that “the show profiled only Muslims that appeared to be ordinary folks.” Once again, when it comes to Muslims, appearances must be set aside in favor of the more powerful – and persuasive –discursive reality of Islam. Not surprisingly, an FFA statement on its Web site directs a central part of its argument on the established narrative of Islam and women: “Many woman were shown wearing hijabs and many who were not, but the program did not show what happens if one of the hijab-wearing women decides to take it off.” Tellingly, FFA sees no need to respond to its own question – what happens? – for the group can have no doubt but that we all know the answer.
Jonathan Lyons, former Reuters Tehran bureau chief from 1998-2001, is the author of several books, most recently Islam through Western Eyes.