Lyons: Islam, Women and the West

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.

17 Responses

  1. “Today, we see this in the myopia that plagues most Western news reporting and analysis from the Muslim world.”
    Plane by Taxis to Hotel and to crisis and back home to report, a’la 1840s, French novelist Gustave Flaubert from the Champs-Élysées re Cairo.
    Thirty years ago I was in Cario every month loved it and the folks I met there, pained by the current troubles and wish them good ASAP.
    I have lived in the “Muslim World” by choice for the last 30 years; all I see is the fodder from the West for rise in the power of fundamentalism.
    Islamic Women! Give me a break! Been in 50 countries women are women – all from a different planet anyway!

  2. I’m not interested in the veil. But I have a problem with honor killings and genital mutalation. These practices do not define Islam. But they should be ended. Western girls are often viewed as sexual commodities and sold as such. If we got rid of our European prejudices, we would still have to decide if we want to view the Muslim world through the eyes of Muslim girls and women or Muslim men.

    • I don’t agree with the writer of the article at all. Islam in principle limits rights of women much like Christianity does. It is only through questioning religion that real equality can be achieved.

      That being said genital mutilation predates Islam and is more about traditions in the Middle East than Islam. In Egypt it is common. In Turkey it is non-existent.

      Much in practice in the Middle East can be dated back to Babylonia or Assyria.

      • “Islam in principle limits rights of women much like Christianity does”

        Would you care to further expand on this broad statement with some facts to corroborate it?

  3. Okay, so everything we know about Islamic society is wrong. Could you write – or point us to – a followup where we can pick up some actual good information? Thanks!

  4. “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….a “sexualization” of the Western view of Islam….Islamic civilization are (sic) too often reduced to Western…assessment of the male–female dynamic.”

    What an insightful article! This is something I’ve long believed but never seen addressed in such a clear and explicit way. A young Iranian-American hairdresser I know just returned from a visit to Iran. Everyone else was lamenting that she had to wear the habib, as if that defined Iranian society. Her view: didn’t bother her at all, she wore whatever she wanted (whether pjs or party dress) under it. It’s embarrassing to even have to talk about how Americans focus on the trivial.

  5. Arab/Islamic culture has historically been exceptionally oppressive of women: that reaction is not simply an expression of prejudice.

    At the same time the current war on Islam does not have as its goal the liberation of women: it is not a feminist enterprise. When actual feminists protested the conduct of the Taliban in the 1990s, they were ignored. They are still ignored.

    The Arab/Islamic oppression of women is an excuse for the wars on Islam, not its reason. Nor is liberation of women in Arab/Islamic states a goal of those wars.

    As activists, it seems to me, we must reject both the evil of sexism and the evil of war.

    • In Europe until the mid-19th century, the principle of couverture ensured that when women married, all their property was controlled thenceforth by their husbands.

      In Islamic law, women had individual property rights throughout the medieval period and Muslim women were likely the wealthiest and most powerful women in the medieval and early modern world.

  6. In America until 1920 women did not have the right to vote. Feminists such as Susan B. Anthony, Charlotte Bronte, Kate Chopin, Susan Glaspell were routinely scorned, even by females. Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening arises ire amongst many of today’s male student college students, who consistently find her domineering husband righteous and entirely defensible. Women in many parts of Asia are dominated in a 19th century English-American manner, and risk alienation when thinking they should have equal rights. Fundamentalism is not simply a right wing Muslim tendency. In our own politics today the right wing favors an end to birth control and abortion. Idiot prejudice continues to prevail.

  7. The matters Juan raises cannot be dealt with in the little space I have here. So, a soundbite: It is clear that women were central to the Arab Spring movement in Egypt. It is also clear that the ‘revolution’ they were instrumental in creating, has already marginalized them. I don’t know how many were elected to the new parliament, but apparently one can count them on two hands, maybe one.

    I have heard before about the laws of medieval early modern Islam regarding women. I honestly doubt that those laws had much relevance for more than a handful of women (the same handful?).

    And, to say that the “Orientalist” view of women in 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” is not to say that it didn’t happen. That it only happened for those at the highest reaches — what today we call the “1 percent” — doesn’t say it didn’t happen.

    Trying to make the argument that life isn’t inherently difficult for women in Muslim society must founder on the rocks of Saudi lingerie shops.

    • “Trying to make the argument that life isn’t inherently difficult for women in Muslim society must founder on the rocks of Saudi lingerie shops.”

      No but the argument above is left wanting due to the fact that it conflates Muslim women/societies as a whole, with that of Saudi Arabia. The issues facing urban Saudi women will differ to those faced by urban Muslim women in say Senegal, Morocco or Indonesia. Even within the Gulf region, there is some variation. In none of the other Gulf states do you get the lingerie shop ‘issue’ that you refer to. I pointedly refer to Saudi urban women because Saudi bedu (rural) women have been driving for years if not decades.

      Regarding harems, eunuchs and sexually rapacious sultans: the argument being made by Jonathan Lyons is that these images (of the lives of the “Oriental one percent”) have helped influence Western perceptions of Muslim family life and gender relations as a whole. Nowhere does the writer say that harems and eunuchs “didn’t happen”. A Middle Eastern viewer of Keeping Up With The Kardashians learns next-to-nothing about the lifestyle of a typical American (or Western) family: ditto for a Westerner who reads Flaubert or gazes upon a Delacroix or Gérôme.

      • Oh *come* *on*. Tell us about the liberated women of Afghanistan, will you? Maybe of Somalia? I will grant you that things might be different in Indonesia (I don’t know), but in Africa, Western Asia, and Central Asia, the current Islamic treatment of women is overwhelmingly oppressive.

        And, yes, I am aware of exceptions, and of Islamic feminism. But these are exceptions: the norm is toxic.

        At the same time, I say again, these wars are not feminist wars. I cannot imagine how invading any of these places is going to make the lot of women better; women and their rights invariably suffer in wars.

        • if you think Afghanistan is typical of the Muslim world, you just have no idea what you are talking about.

        • So there is no difference between the social status of Muslim women in Senegal compared to Afghanistan?

          You mention Western Asia and Africa. So basically you’re lumping together the Muslim cultures (and the status of women therein) of China, South-East Asia, the Indian sub-continent, Middle East, North Africa/the Maghreb and sub-saharan Africa into one relatively homogeneous whole? Can’t you see how that’s a slightly sweeping generalisation?

          Seriously though, I’d cast your “I don’t know” net a little wider. This might shock you but sub-saharan Muslim cultures differ from those of the Gulf, Levant (Syria, Lebanon etc) or Pashtun tribal belt. There are *even* differences between the Muslim cultures of East Africa and West Africa.

          For example, FGM is an issue facing Muslim women in parts of Africa and the Midde East but not in the Indian Sub-Continent or Central Asia. In addition, there are massive differences between Bamako and Peshawar in terms of women’s participation in (and male attitudes to) the labour market.

          Somalia isn’t typical of the Muslim world either.

  8. The idea of a unified “Western view” or “Western eyes” is itself Orientalist, as is projecting post-Enlightenment concerns with liberte, egalaite, fraternite on other peoples.

    • “There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven, that does not know that slavery is wrong for him.”–Fredrick Douglass

      The concern for freedom is a human concern, not one only of the West.

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