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New Left Review I/170, July-August 1988

Reza Hammami and Martina Rieker

Feminist Orientalism and Orientalist Marxism

Mai Ghoussoub’s ‘Feminism—or the Eternal Masculine—in the Arab World’ (nlr 161) is indicative of two fundamental problems plaguing radical analysis of the Middle East: the extent to which it is legitimate for Marxists to throw out their analytical categories and resort to Weberian notions of a ‘collective consciousness’ called Islam as the main determinant of Middle Eastern history; and the extent to which bourgeois feminism has hidden Middle Eastern women’s struggles from history. Although Ghoussoub’s critique of recent apologist work on Middle Eastern women is an important contribution, it ultimately suffers from the same limitations in theory and conceptualization that have stunted radical analysis of women in the region. Ghoussoub’s solution is a simple negation of existing claims—the notion that Islam is good for women becomes Islam is not good for women. Middle Eastern feminism then becomes mired in debates that were formed in nineteenthcentury travel literature. [1] Two issues have dominated Western discourse about Middle Eastern women since the 19th century: the veil and the harem. The harem continues to be treated as a contemporary reality in popular mythology. Thus, Gloria Steinem cites freeing Saudi women from harems as one of her fantasies in her autobiography—we wish her luck in finding a harem in Saudi Arabia. However, it is above all veil which remains a central preoccupation. For an excellent deconstruction of Western fascination with the veil see: Malek Alloula’s, The Colonial Harem, Minneapolis 1986, and Rana Kabbani, Europe’s Myth of the Orient, Bloomington 1986. The veil like all forms of clothing is a signifier; what it signifies is determined by the social and political context in which it is used. Further, the veil is not always imposed; in many contemporary instances women have been instrumental in assuming it. This is not a matter of relativist interpretations but of power. In Iran, the recent imposition of the ‘invented tradition’ of the full chador on all women (a form historically worn only by upper-class women to express their difference from peasant women) signifies authority and control of women by the state. In the case of women in Egypt since Sadat’s Open Door Policy, large numbers of working-class women have themselves mobilized the veil to signify their opposition to the regime. Finally in other contexts, the veil continues to signify its most historically constant meaning—class. For an example of its class signification see: Cynthia Myntti, ‘Yemeni Workers Abroad: The Impact of Women’, MERIP Reports, no. 124, June 1984, pp. 11–17. Instead of reconstituting the same discourse it is time to question the very categories which have been used to study Middle Eastern women. It is surprising in this period of post-Orientalist deconstruction that an unproblematized monolithic ‘Islam’ remains at the centre of the analysis of Middle Eastern women—especially a would-be radical one. There are four aspects of Ghoussoub’s argument that demand rebuttal: the first is the Orientalist conceptualization of Islam at the centre of her argument; the second is her selective use of history in order to buttress this conceptualization; the third problem is the absence of a notion of class in her work, which in turn results in the fourth problem: a narrow definition of feminism specific to the lives of bourgeois women.

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Reza Hammami, Martina Rieker, ‘Feminist Orientalism and Orientalist Marxism’, NLR I/170: £3

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