We are not your Exotic

“So far as the United States seems to be concerned, it is only a slight overstatement to say that Muslims and Arabs are essentially seen as either oil suppliers or potential terrorists. Very little of the detail, the human density, the passion of Arab-Moslem life has entered the awareness of even those people whose profession it is to report the Arab world. What we have instead is a series of crude, essentialized caricatures of the Islamic world presented in such a way as to make that world vulnerable to military aggression.”(1)

Recently, a friend of mine innocently asked me about the ‘role of Arab women in the revolution’. I was aware that this was an essay question for the Orientalist class I had taken last year and was therefore sure that this was less of a feminist issue and more of racial one. The class in question, ‘Le Moyen Orient’, was a Masters course in one of the top universities in France which I subscribed to in the hope of learning something new and instead learned further of  just how great the barrier is between the French and their ability to understand the Middle East. For context, the majority of what taught, was founded on strong Orientalist preconceptions and significant factual errors were made in addition to the lecturer’s clear misunderstanding of society. I frequently wondered whether the class was a conscious or unconscious attempt to highlight or widen the incompatibility of Arabs and France.

Oppressing my initial irritation, to my friend, I responded that the role of men was equal to the role of women during the revolution, be they protestors, doctors, vendors, journalists, martyrs etc. It is too often a surprise to individuals that (Arab) women are capable of significantly contributing to social movements away from the kitchen, henceforth Arab women must continuation remind and inform others that social participation is indeed an achievable feat. Neither Arab nor Non-Arab society will advance without the equality of women and a revolution will certainly fail without their support. In the words of Thomas Sankara, “The revolution and women’s liberation go together. We do not talk of women’s emancipation as an act of charity or out of a surge of human compassion. It is a basic necessity for the revolution to triumph. Women hold up the other half of the sky.” (Speech by Sankara in Ougadougou, 1987)

It is often that Middle Eastern culture/Arabs are’ exoticised’ and eroticised by Western media. Camel riders, belly dancers, shisha smokers and palm readers, still frequent the screens. Some of these archaic images are losing their tenure, gradually being replaced by terrorists and evil tribesmen. So strong is this media influence, that such images have successfully permeated the minds of University lecturers in addition to general societal opinion.

In France, I was particularly incensed that the stereotypes perpetuated by some Arabs were often utilised by individuals with racially driven motives. The Arab woman in French society, is either seen as an object to be used solely for her sexuality or as a  being covered from head to toe, unwilling to integrate into French society. Ending sensationalist media is impossible in the short term and altering the perception of Arab women in day to day life by spreading knowledge of Arab culture is the only real solution in addition to the creation of our own media as a mainstream space to channel our opinions wholeheartedly and uncut.

Arab women are the strongest women I know, it is not hard to notice considering the hardships and wars they have faced and the sons they have lost to battles and bombings. It is a shame that the Western media gladly trades this in for easy, lurid and demeaning imagery.

Suheir Hammad’s poem perfectly beings an end to this article.

Noora Ismail

(1)    Said, E, Orientalism


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