Orient and Occident: The Veiled Woman as Essentialist Rhetoric

In the Said interview, our host explains that the Middle East itself is a preconceived notion.  We have never been there or met anyone from there, so why does the U.S. and Europe use such a disfiguring and dehumanizing lens?  This is Orientalism, and I think a lot of this stems from post-9/11 panic and stereotyping (which is focused on in the slideshow).  I traveled on a bus with my mom exactly one month after 9/11 to see a concert.  We visited ground zero, and it smelled like decaying, rancid meat.  I remember staring nervously at a man wearing a turban on the bus.  Even though I was a naive teenager, what does this say about me?  Was I just another product of post-9/11 indoctrination and propaganda?

The East is depicted as mystical yet dangerous, filled with otherworldly monsters and tantalizingly sensuous women.  Said himself describes “the Orient” as “a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences” (71).  We learn from our reading that this is a prime example of essentialism–but how does this practice differ from stereotyping?

“The creation of an ideal other” is one of the more memorable ideas Said speaks of in his interview.  His pointing out that artwork serves this purpose because they are “placid” and “eternal” really resonates with me because it brings to mind pieces of my thesis.  Cliche as it may be, art forms serve as a stepping stone to compassion and enlightenment…if we allow them to.  Otherwise, these stereotypical images of those who are “Oriental” which run rampant through our minds and egos every day will never slow down enough for us to truly examine, interrogate, or confront them.  On the same note, this “creation of an ideal other” manifests itself through the anglicization and whitewashing of black culture–while their skin is still dark (and hence, exotic and mysterious), black women are only considered beautiful if they share the same traits as white women; flat noses, wide hips, large bums, and kinky hair all challenge this beauty ideal.  While thick, full lips are a signature attribute of African  and African American appearance, fuller lips are still seen as more attractive when they are part of a white woman’s facial structure (look at Angelina Jolie!).

This mysteriousness associated with the Orient, in particular with its women.  We all recognize the image of the veiled belly dancer as she writhes and moves seductively to the enchanting music.  This sexualization of the Arabic woman is parallel to Dr. Morris’s concerns regarding the sexualization of American Indian woman (which is also seen in Halloween costumes for adolescent females)  I remember that I tried emulating this woman for Halloween when I was in second grade.  I wanted to be veiled, exotic, sexy…whatever that meant in my nine-year-old brain; I wanted a secret.  The veiled woman appears this way to us because it would seem that she has a secret; she knows something we don’t, and if we’re unable to discover this, we’re also afraid of what that may mean.  She somehow has one over on us, so to speak.  We cannot consume or master her; hence, it’s easier to assign her a derogatory label or simply to dismiss her as “other.”  She has gained the upper-hand by way of her silence and averted gaze.  We are unable to read her body language very deeply if she sports a burqa, and we cannot detect the gentle or drastic nuances of her facial expression because all we’re given are the eyes; although these are said to be “the window to the soul,” her soul is not here with us, it’s safely underneath the cultural layers of her clothing.  The veiled woman is not oppressed; she simply represents the Western world’s most deeply-seated fears regarding the treatment and voices of women everywhere.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Said (whose name I didn’t pronounce properly until I spoke to Cait–I had not yet listened to Dr. C.’s presentation) writes, “(the world is made up of two unequal halves, Orient and Occident) but also of a whore series of ‘interests’ . . . philological reconstruction, psychological analysis, landscape and sociological description” (80); this is where we come in.  These “two unequal halves” (really, an oxymoron) are embraced by scholars because, although tragic, they represent the opportunity to dissect the identities of Orient and Occident.

If the Orient is situated as other, how is it “characterized as ‘other’ through discourses such as primitivism and cannibalism” (Po-Co Studies 155)?  We’ve established that the Orient is a stereotyped location of mystery and exoticism, but what discourse, in particular, establishes “the binary separation of the colonizer and colonized” (Po-Co Studies 155)?

Dr. C., in your keynote presentation, I love that you point out the veiled female gaze on these book covers, works which I assume include the woman’s story; however, she can’t look at us, seemingly unable to confront her own feelings from behind her veil, where the world can appear much darker.  The one cover pictured where we do in fact receive the woman’s gaze downsizes her image in order to avoid her captivating the onlooker with her attention or focus.  Now I realize why that one edition of Nervous Conditions which features a cover with the young black female’s direct, challenging gaze is so significant.

When I visited Cairo, I remember the Egyptian women as seeming so much like me–they wore makeup, chatted, gossiped and shopped at the dusty markets, and were infatuated with outsiders.  They smiled, asked me questions, and touched my arms as they spoke.  They were happy, bubbly, lovely women who seemed to enjoy not only their head scarves but all items of fashion, even my more “westernized” attire.

I may have mentioned this before, and these thoughts are products our own many burqa-related conversations, Cait.  I’d totally wear a headscarf if I was certain I wouldn’t offend anyone.  I’m personally a fan of covering up because it helps me to feel safe and secure, and I can easily avoid the male gaze (along with some of the hazardous results of it), and when I speak with strangers, they can listen to my voice and recognize that I’m an articulate woman with valid concerns and raging passions rather than a tattooed feminazi (Fuck you, Rush; but goodness, I love this word you’ve coined) out to claim the dead, cold hearts of American men.  Bam!  Of course, this is debatable.  You can certainly point the finger and claim that I place too much concern over what others think of me; actually, my life is just easier if I can go to the grocery store without being hassled, hit on, or stared at.  In any case, it sounds strange anymore to label all scarved or veiled women as “oppressed,” when really, we’re simply eurocentrizing our understanding of these women.  When we encounter what we interpret as a culture class, such as a veiled woman who teaches or has strong convictions, or a man wearing a turban and a business suit, we absorb their “cultural hybridity” as foreign, other, contradictory–our essentialist nature tells us that such individuals are a better fit enduring abuse and silencing at the hands of men or constructing suicide bombs.  It’s not the Orient’s burden to prove that these stereotypes are in fact myths.  Said writes, “that Orientalism makes sense at all depends more on the West than on the Orient” (88).  Truly, people everywhere will forever maintain the tendency to essentialize and other those who are not familiar–I think it’s how we choose to maneuver around these inevitable occurrences which reflects our humanist capabilities.

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. clutzclemens says:

    Great reading. Boy, is the juxtaposition of those two images powerful. I find it interesting that you would wear a scarf to feel safer. I think many women have voiced that desire in attempting to protect the right to veil.
    It is funny–your post makes me think of when I was in India with students and several of them bought saris. The saris were gorgeous, but I cringed when they wore them to dinner. I felt like they were “playing” at being Indian women (kind of like when kids in my very white, middle class neighborhood pretend like they are living the “thug” life complete with fake gunshot stickers on their cars when in reality they would shite their pants if someone ever shot at them) without any of the challenges Indian women might face. I think your concern about wearing a scarf means that you would do it out of respect and solidarity, that you have thought about all of the meanings might shield you from this danger of playing at being the other. But who am I to say, right?

  2. It’s wonderful to read your critique of the sensuous, secretive woman. I’ve never really read much about this particular trope (forgive my imprecise use of literary terms here) but its obviously common in Oriental works, and its obviously problematic.

    I’m really interested in your concept of the purpose of art: “Cliche as it may be, art forms serve as a stepping stone to compassion and enlightenment…if we allow them to. Otherwise, these stereotypical images of those who are “Oriental” which run rampant through our minds and egos every day will never slow down enough for us to truly examine, interrogate, or confront them.” What is especially useful about your explanation here is the idea that Oriental works or works that draw from Orientalism for their inspiration, though problematic, slow us down enough to allow us to think. Scholarship is one way to contribute works concerned with subverting Orientalism, and I guess these works would be characterized as postcolonial.

  3. Sean Weaver says:

    I love this comment “I’d totally wear a headscarf if I was certain I wouldn’t offend anyone. I’m personally a fan of covering up because it helps me to feel safe and secure, and I can easily avoid the male gaze (along with some of the hazardous results of it), and when I speak with strangers, they can listen to my voice and recognize that I’m an articulate woman with valid concerns and raging passions rather than a tattooed feminazi.”

    So much going on in this little thought blerp. Who gets to decide what is offensive, considering we all adapt certain aspects of other cultures and people that truly mean something to us.

    First your explanation, as to why you want to wear a headscarf sometimes, promotes the idea that you are not “mimicking” or “mocking” another culture. Instead you understand the ideology that goes along with wearing a headscarf, and you understand the benefits of such an act. In essence you would be promoting cultural dialogue, something in which our entire world, as well as humanity, is clearly lacking.

    P.s.n You can be my feminazi anyday!!! And once again I love reading your posts because they force me to think in different ways.

  4. laurentocci says:

    I am really intrigued by your thoughts on the attraction to the sexualized Arabic woman costumes that are sold. After I read this I happened to be at a Halloween store and I took notice to the costumes that represented “east” cultures. So much of what is presented as playing at being Arabic is sexualized and packaged as fun play. In stark contrast the imaged we are force fed of what it means to be a woman in the Middle East is laden with oppression. I really liked the way you positioned the veil as holding a secret and that for some that would read as danger.

    Considering your love-hate relationship with Disney (which I totally get also having a dysfunctional relationship with Walt) I couldn’t help thinking about the presentation of Jasmine in Aladdin. I desperately wanted to be Jasmine one Halloween. My parents strongly objected because my stomach would be exposed, and I would catch my death trick or treating yada yada yada. It makes me wonder at what point do we teach children to not “play” at a culture, dressing in the garments we perceive to be indicative of a people.

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