Into shivers of orientalist reverie

Nesrine Malik offers up a classic piece of warmed-over Edward Said at Comment is Free.

What happened is, a Lebanese tv presenter who is a woman told off a sheikh guest who is a man, and a video of the moment has gone viral (at least according to Malik it has). Malik’s point is big woop, because what she calls “Arab television news” is always like that. (There is such a thing? There’s generic Arab television news, about which one can generalize? Sounds dubious.) It’s always quarrelsome and noisy.

Moreover, Arabic TV news is predominantly staffed by women. The presenter in question, Rima Karaki, follows a long tradition of formidable female anchors that began at al-Jazeera Arabic and MBC, and it is nothing unusual to be interviewed by a woman on most channels.

I suspect that London-based Sheikh Hani Al-Siba’i’s sexism was ramped up in the reporting of the story, and I daresay he would have been as huffy and pompous if it had been a male presenter who had interrupted and cut him down to size. It didn’t hurt the mythologising of Karaki’s behaviour that she is attractive, and was wearing a headscarf.

But the headlines that followed in the western press are part of a now established genre that morphs the everyday behaviour of Arab and Muslim women as being something impressive and counterintuitive. The images of female Kurdish fighters in their fatigues sent the western media into shivers of orientalist reverie.

Oh please. The nature of IS is more than enough to explain interest in female Kurdish fighters without drivel about shivers of orientalist reverie.

It is however, consistent with a long heritage of the western gaze, spanning everything from misery-porn about Muslim women, to ostensibly serious journalism that shows life “behind the veil”. It is the creepiest of obsessions, hiding behind the pretence of concern, while actually being akin to the behaviour of a peeping tom, both in terms of the smug reaffirmation of the western consumer’s implied superior values, and as a general fixation on Arab women as exotic creatures whose value is derived solely from their imprisonment in a gilded cage. I don’t know how many photo essays from Iran and Saudi Arabia of women shaving their legs in sepia-toned images we need to see before we get it; Arab women are not frozen in 2D behind a burqa.

It could be argued that anything that humanises and shows Arab women not being beaten, enslaved, force married or honour-killed is a good thing. But when everything that is not that is treated as a novelty, one is effectively reinforcing the stereotypes by saying, “Look! Here is a woman NOT being beaten, enslaved, force married or honour killed. How about that?”

Yeah, that’s the thing to worry about, reporting on “Arab women” not being beaten, enslaved, force married or honour-killed. That’s much more urgent than worrying about actual women actually being beaten, enslaved, force married or honour-killed.

It is undeniable that there are many ways in which women all over the world are trapped in patriarchal societies. But the Arab woman as an emblem of only that is proving a difficult stereotype to shift. Not just because it is not accurate, but because it seems people do not want their world views challenged, only simply reinforced.

And her evidence for that is the virality of a video showing an “Arab woman” telling off a man. So her point is that there is no kind of reporting that could shift the stereotype. So I guess everybody should just ignore the whole subject, is that the solution?


  1. brucegee1962 says

    You know, different cultures are always going to have curiosity about each other. They’re going to want to explore the ways they are different, rejoice over the things they have in common, and maybe sometimes even wish to criticize each other for areas of disagreement, or support minorities in other cultures that are seeking to overturn majority practices.

    One of the most subtle and damaging aftereffects of colonialism is that it poisons that natural practice with the whole ugly power dynamic.

  2. PatrickG says

    I’m really not understanding your reading of the article. She provides a lot of other examples in that article. I chuckled when she brought up the

    The most notable one to me was the linked piece on the Kurdish female fighters, where we get such enthralling pictures as:
    * Women fighters fixing their hair!
    * Women fighters plucking their eyebrows!
    * Women fighters crying and hugging because one of their friends has NOT been sent to the front line!
    * Women fighters performing traditional song and dance!
    * A woman fighter showing up in PINK for training!

    We get told that unlike their peers these women are unmarried. We get told that unlike their peers they get to do strenuous physical activities and sports. The whole thing absolutely reeks of what she’s talking about — here! look! young attractive women doing girly girl things — Just like Westerners! Unlike other Muslim women! Let’s point at them and do lots of stories because they’re so different from Muslim women in general. And let’s not forget to sexualize them at every opportunity!

    So yeah, I don’t think that the existence of ISIS/ISIL is the reason for that type of coverage of female fighters.

    As to the interview in question, you left out the sentence immediately preceding what you first quoted:

    While her summary dispatching of him was indeed satisfying and righteous – the man was an irritating windbag – you clearly have never watched Arab television news if you think this is a unique event.

    Which, to me, indicates that she’s expressing bemusement at how this instance went viral, and is being presented as some enormously unique event — by Westerners eager to grab onto the “This Muslim woman has a spine! And did we mention she was hot?” meme.

    Finally, I think you’re misinterpreting what she said. She says (and you quote) that the exotic/abnormal stereotype is proving difficult to shift, not that people should ignore the subject. I read the entire thing as “wouldn’t it be great if media covered women as people instead of exotic sexualized foreign hotties”.

    Btw, Karaki did an interview with the guardian, linked here, if you’re interested.

  3. PatrickG says

    Sentence fragment at the beginning should refer to the photo essays of Iranian women shaving their legs in sepia-toned images, sorry. Pretty deft example illustrating her point, I would say.

  4. RJW says


    “She says (and you quote) that the exotic/abnormal stereotype is proving difficult to shift, not that people should ignore the subject.”

    Yes, that was my interpretation when I read the article yesterday. However I’d agree with Ophelia that the article also is a piece of ‘warmed-over Edward Said’.– “It is the creepiest of obsessions, hiding behind the pretence of concern, while actually being akin to the behaviour of a peeping tom, both in terms of the smug reaffirmation of the western consumer’s implied superior values, ”
    That’s a smug example of “Occidentalism” in its sweeping generalisation of Western motivations. Malik seems to have evaded the question of how representative the so-called ‘orientalist’ stereotype of Muslim women in general is, and the way they live?

  5. PatrickG says

    @ RJW:

    That’s fair, to some degree. I don’t know if I agree that that statement is necessarily false, however. It is creepy that so many Muslim women are celebrated for doing quote-unquote Western things, i.e. the stuff I listed above regarding the Kurdish women fighters.

    There is more than a strong whiff of “Good Woman”-ism going on. The good ones are of course the ones who strive for our cultural ideals (or what we think are our cultural ideals), which of course means conformation to media sexual norms.

    I guess I’m just not seeing this quite as Said-like as you are.

  6. PatrickG says

    Curse you, commenting system. Somehow I submitted without saying “But you’re right, there definitely is a Said theme going on”.

  7. Mohammad Moqtasab says

    Excellent observation Ophilia. This article by Malik summarizes the tragedy of the Muslim intellectual – as poisoned by Edward Said and Foucault.

    Malik’s concern is not about millions of Islamic women living in slave-like conditions. Her concern is about how the Orientalist west perceives these women.

    With this kind of mentality prevalent among intellectuals in the Islamic world, is it any surprise that progress has been rare and far in between, in this culture?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *