Muslim Women and the Politics of Representation (2002)*

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Jasmin Zine



This paper examines the politics of knowledge production as it relates to Muslim women in western literary traditions and contemporary feminist writing, with a view to understanding the political, ideological, and economic mediations that have historically framed these representations. The meta-narrative of the Muslim woman has shifted from the bold queens of medieval literature to colonial images of the seraglio’s veiled, secluded, and oppressed women. Contemporary feminist writing and popular culture have reproduced the colonial motifs of Muslim women, and these have regained currency in the aftermath of 9/11.
Drawing upon the work of Mohja Kahf, this paper begins by mapping the evolution of the Muslim woman archetype in western literary traditions. The paper then examines how some contemporary feminist literature has reproduced in new ways the discursive tropes that have had historical currency in Muslim women’s textual representation. The analysis is attentive to the ways in which the cultural production of knowledge about Muslim women has been implicated historically by the relations of power between the Muslim world and the West.

*This article was first published in the American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences 19, no. 4 (2002): 1-22

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1 See also Leila Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam: The Historical Roots of a Modern
Debate (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992) and Katherine Bullock, “The
Gaze and the Colonial Plans for the Unveiling of Muslim Women,” Studies in
Contemporary Islam 2, no. 2 (2000): 1-20.
2 Chandra Mohanty, “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial
Discourses,” in Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism, eds. C. T. Mohanty,
A. Russo, and L. Torres (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), 51-80.
3 See also Michel Foucault, “Subject and Power,” in Michel Foucault: Beyond
Structuralism and Hermeneutics, eds. H. Dreyfus and P. Rabinow (Chicago: University
of Chicago Press, 1982), 208-26, for a discussion of how subjectivities are constructed
through relations of power.
4 Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1979).
5 Mohja Kahf, Western Representations of the Muslim Woman (Texas: University of
Texas Press, 1999).
6 Ibid.
7 See Katherine Bullock. “Challenging Media Representations of the Veil:
Contemporary Muslim Women’s Re-Veiling Movement.” American Journal of Islamic
Social Sciences 17, no. 3 (Summer 2000): 22-53; Kahf, Western Representations, Homa
Hoodfar, “The Veil in Their Minds and on Our Heads: The Persistence of Colonial
Images of Muslim Women,” Resources for Feminist Research 22, nos. 3-4 (1993); Malek
Alloula, The Colonial Harem (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1986); Said,
8 See Kahf, Western Representations; Timothy Mitchell, Colonising Egypt (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1988); Said, Orientalism.
9 See also Mohanty, “Under Western Eyes”; Annelies Moors, “Women and the Orient:
A Note on Difference,” in Constructing Knowledge: Authority and Critique in Social
Science, eds. L. Nencel and P. Pels (London: Sage Pubs., 1991), 114-42; Marnia Lazreg,
“Feminism and Difference: The Perils of Writing as a Muslim Woman on Women in
Algeria,” Feminist Studies 14, no. 1 (1988): 81-107; Valerie Amos and Pratibha Parmar,
“Challenging Imperial Feminism,” Feminist Review 17 (July 1984): 3-19.
10 Kahf, Western Representations, 18.
11 Ibid.
12 Ibid., 33.
13 Ibid., 18.
14 Ibid., 21.
15 Ibid., 19.
16 Warren (1914) cited in ibid., 33.
17 Kahf, Western Representations, 30.
18 Ibid., 63.
19 Ibid.
20 Ibid., 64.
21 Rodinson (1987), cited in ibid., 65.
22 Ibid.
23 Ibid.
24 Ibid., 65.
25 Ibid., 60.
26 Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark (New York: Vintage Books, 1992), 68.
27 Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather (New York: Routledge, l 995), 185-86.
28 Chejne (1983), cited in Kahf, Western Representations, 81.
29 Ibid.
30 Ibid., 58.
31 Ibid., 86.
32 Ibid., 84.
33 Fatima Mernissi, Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society
(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987).
34 Haideh Moghissi, Feminism and Islamic Fundamentalism: The Limits of PostModern
Analysis (London: Zed Books, 1999).
35 Kahf, Western Representations, 92. See also Partha Mitter, “The Hottentot Venus
and Western Man: Reflections on the Constructions of Beauty in the West,” in
Cultural Encounters: Representing Otherness, eds. Elizabeth Hallam and Brian V.
Street (London: Routledge, 2000) for a discussion on similar Victorian attitudes to
blackness as it related to notions of beauty and white superiority, and McClintock,
Imperial Leather, 41 for a discussion of the black female body as the Victorian
invention of “primitive atavism.”
36 Kahf, Western Representations, 105.
37 Mitchell, Colonising Egypt.
38 Bullock, “The Gaze and the Colonial Plans.”
39 Cited in ibid., 3.
40 Ibid., 5.
41 Mitchell, Colonising Egypt.
42 Bullock, “The Gaze and the Colonial Plans.”
43 Cited in ibid., 3.
44 Ibid., 5.
45 Ibid., 6.
46 Rey Chow, “Writing Diaspora,” in Writing Diaspora: Tactics of Intervention in
Contemporary Cultural Studies (Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1993), 57.
47 Malek Alloula, The Colonial Harem (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1986).
48 Cited in Judy Mabro, Veiled Half-Truths (London: I. B. Taurus, 1991), 4.
49 Caplan distinguishes the notion of looking relations from that of the gaze. While look
is related to a process or relation, gaze is defined as a one-way subjective vision. E.
Anne Caplan, Looking for the Other: Feminism, Film, and the Imperial Gaze (London:
Routledge, 1997), xvi.
50 [Text missing from original publication.]
51 Ella Shohat, “Gender and the Culture of Empire: Toward a Feminist Ethnography of
the Cinema,” in Otherness and the Media, eds. Hamid Naficy and Teshome H. Gabriel
(Chur, Switzerland: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1993), 57.
52 Katherine Bullock, The Politics of the Veil (Ph.D. diss., University of Toronto, 1999),
53 Mohanty, “Under Western Eyes.”
54 Billie Melman, Women’s Orients: English Women and the Middle East, 1718- 1918:
Sexuality, Religion, and Work. 2d ed. (London: Macmillan, 1992).
55 Reina Lewis, Gendering Orientalism (London: Routledge, 1996).
56 Ibid., 4.
57 Melman, Women’s Orients, 310.
58 Shohat, “Gender and the Culture of Empire,” 73.
59 Mabro, Veiled Half-Truths, 2.
60 Julie Stephens, “Feminist Fictions: A Critique of the Category ‘Non-Western Woman’
in Feminist Writings on India,” Subaltern Studies VI (London: Oxford University
Press, 1990), 93.
61 Ibid., 93.
62 Ibid., 98.
63 Ibid., 98.
64 Ibid., 98.
65 Geraldine Brooks, Nine Parts of Desire (New York: Anchor Books, 1995).
66 Stephens, “Feminist Fictions,” 115.
67 Ibid., 99.
68 Ibid., 93.
69 Ibid.
70 Ibid., 98.
71 Ibid.
72 Ibid.
73 Brooks, Nine Parts of Desire.
74 Stephens, “Feminist Fictions,” I 15.
75 Ibid., 99.
76 Brooks, Nine Parts of Desire, 7.
77 See also Mohanty, “Under Western Eyes”; Moors, “Women and the Orient”; Lazreg
““Feminism and Difference”; Marnia Lazreg, The Eloquence of Silence: Algerian
Women in Question (London: Routledge, 1994).
78 Lazreg, “Feminism and Difference,” 10.
79 Amos and Parmar, “Challenging Imperial Feminism,” 3-19.
80 Ibid.
81 Patricia Jeffrey, Frogs in a Well: Indian Women in Purdah (London: Zed Press, 1979).
82 Juliette Minces, The House of Obedience: Women in Arab Society (London: Zed Press,
83 Katherine Govier, “Shrouded in Black, Women Rendered Invisible, Voiceless,”
Toronto Star (25 Sept. 1995): B-12.
84 Jeffrey, Frogs in a Well, 4.
85 Mernissi, Beyond the Veil, 101.
86 McClintock, Imperial Leather, 40.
87 Ibid., 40.
88 Said, Orientalism, 208.
89 Samir Amin, Eurocentrism (New York: Monthly Review Press 1989), 108.
90 Ibid., l 11.
91 Ibid., 107.
92 See, for example, Ahmed 1992, for a discussion on the relationship between the veil
and the modernization of elite women.
93 Brooks, Nine Parts of Desire, 25.
94 Ibid., 6.
95 Said, Orientalism, 203.
96 Ibid., 22.
97 See for example, Gisella Webb, ed., Windows of Faith (New York: Syracuse University
Press, 2000).
98 Homa Hoodfar, “The Veil In Their Minds,” 5.
99 Mohanty, “Under Western Eyes,” 73.
100 Lazreg, “Feminism and Difference, 97.
101 See, for example, Shahnaz Khan, Muslim Women: Crafting a North American Identity
(Florida: University of Florida Press, 1999).
102 Said, Orientalism, 3.
103 See, for example, Linda Tuhiwai-Smith, De-Colonizing Methodologies (London: Zed
Books 1999).
104 See, for example, miriam cooke, Women Claim Islam (London: Routledge, 2001) and
Elizabeth Warnock Fernea, In Search of Islamic Feminism (New York: Anchor Books,
105 Ibid.