The Orientalised Arab woman exists at the intersection of Western Imperialist assumptions of Arabia and the Arab man’s patriarchy. With the history of European colonialism paired with the ever-increasing globalisation, the distinction between Western and indigenous discourse is becoming increasingly blurred. Contemporary western discourse has framed Islamic ideals as a direct contrary to the western lifestyle, an opposite of western exceptionalism if you will
Arab culture is significantly influenced by Islam but to assume that Arab culture and Islam are synonymous with each other is problematic in more ways than one. Placing Arabs at the forefront of Islamic discourse and portraying them as the prime example of Muslim culture excludes other societies and cultures influenced by Islam. The assumption that Iraqi, Pakistani, and Malaysian women all have the same lived experiences is nothing short of fallacy. Not to mention granting Arabs full agency over Islam perpetuates already racist assumptions Arabs hold of other societies, particularly South Asian and Black Africans. The blindness of western authors who orientalise Arab women also fail to account for the Arab women who are not Muslim. An obvious instance being Christian women who are still subject to Arab patriarchy. A damnation of Islamic customs and ideals simply does nothing for their liberation.
The west's obsession with Arab patriarchy almost exclusively revolves around ideas of Arab women’s sexuality. With western celebrations of female sexuality often conveyed through “bare” clothing, the hijab can only serve as a direct contradiction to the idea of the liberated exposed female body. Manufactured negative imagery of the veil within western media serves as a symbol of the Arab woman’s repressed sexuality. Conceptions of the politically innocent, oppressed hijabi housewife serve as a direct contradiction to the western working white woman who is free to bear her skin. The condemnation of this lifestyle by western propaganda machines has concluded Arab, and by extension Muslim (through the process of othering), society to be uncivilised.
It would be untrue, and a disservice to Arab formations of feminism, to suggest that patriarchy in the Arab world is exaggerated for western media and political gain. However, the orientalised discourse of Arab women merely damns the Arab world to backwardness in defence of the western lifestyle. This problematic stance does not only justify western political domination of the Arab world, but it also completely ignores the presence of patriarchy within the western context. With the consistent sexualisation of women within western media, British paedophile culture, and the evident gender pay gap, it is unfair to suggest that the west is some sort of Utopia for women and the only way an Arab woman can free herself from the Arab man's patriarchy is by succumbing to the western way of life. Swapping out one patriarchy for another is hardly liberation.
The Orientalisation of Arab women has been a political tool for the US and its allies over the last decade to justify the invasion of Arab countries. Throughout the US invasion of Iraq, we have seen a rise in "feminist" cultural imperialism, with the US media portraying the invasion as the US "saving" Iraq from an oppressive regime and particularly saving the Arab women who were bound to a life of oppression under Islam. However, it dumfounds me, how exactly the logic of bombing cities and displacing families is considered an adequate way of saving women? Did anyone ask Iraqi women if they were willing to be subject to bombs and invasions in support of their right to remove their hijabs? Not to mention the presence of non-hijabi women in Iraq?
To damn hijabs to oppressiveness in itself is a problematic stance, as it insinuates the idea that women have no choice when it comes to their veils. Nevertheless, it is true that social coercion when it comes to dress codes exist, in the same way that it does for women in the western world. Many white feminists fail to acknowledge the fact that many Arab Muslim women who migrate to the west still make the choice to keep their hijabs on. The assumption that it is only Arab dress codes that are gendered is quite frankly a delusion that exists to promote ideals of western exceptionalism. To assume clothing associated with western culture such as bikinis and high heels do not have a patriarchal component is not only a false allegation but a failure of liberal western feminists to acknowledge the harmful impact of female dress codes within their own society.
Lastly, equating feminism to Western individualism excludes not only Arab or Islamic feminism but all other formations of indigenous feminisms. A significant motivator for many indigenous frameworks was a recognition of women’s rights but also a need to reject western colonialism. Therefore, for many "other" feminisms their birth was directly rooted in anti-imperialist ideas, a factor that is not present in any European feminism as their ethnicity, race, or culture was never made synonymous with patriarchy or conceptions of savageness. To decide that all feminisms are inspired by white women in the early 1900s is simply not true, especially considering they fought for white women, and the rights of white women only.
I’m a Libyan who splits her life between Libya and Scotland. I am currently doing a master’s in religious studies at The University of Edinburgh. My research interests include post-colonial studies, Islamic feminism and Islamic international law.