Through the key readingsaddressed in this paper, I aim to discuss how Edward Said’s publication ‘Orientalism’,has impacted feminist scholarship in the Middle East in different ways.
Said’s work isconsidered ground breaking in ways more than one, strongly pointing out to theEuropean idea of its identity as being superior over oriental backwardness. Hesays, “The relationship between the Occident and the Orient is a relationshipof power, of domination, of varying degrees of a complex hegemony” (Said1994:133). For Abu-Lughod, (2001:101) his works focus lies in the way “theorient is represented in Europe confirming western superiority and enablingtheir domination of the negatively portrayed regions known as East”.
Shebelieves that while Said’s Orientalism was not a work of feminist theory, itstill gave an impetus to feminist scholars to explore the subject of gender andchallenge the orientalist discourse on the subject (Abu-Lughod 2001:101). While some feministscholars challenge the subfield notion given to gender and sexuality and the relativeneglect by Said, most others see ‘Orientalism’ instead as “providing a strongrationale for careful and sympathetic research” (Abu-Lughod 2001:103). Said’s (1994:133)account of the Western portrayal of the oriental woman as someone who does notspeak for herself nor embody her emotions set many scholars to explore in theirwork the many voices of middle eastern women and how they represent themselves.Some scholarships succeeded in bringing out the hegemonic monolithic discoursesthat misrepresented the ‘orient’ and a call for the “indigenization of socialscience” emerged (Al-Ali 2009:23,24) A few examples cited by Abu-Lughod (2001:104)include “Home Hoodfars’ work on resourceful lower-class women in Cairo andElizabeth Ferneas’ work of publishing Middle Eastern women’s writing”, which helpedto combat stereotypical images of Middle Eastern women being passive andoppressed. However, Abu-Lughod alsoemphasizes that Said did not just talk about “representations or stereotypesbut about how these were linked and integral to projects of domination thatwere ongoing” (Abu-Lughod 2001:105). So while it was crucial to deplorestereotypical images, as long as the writing was done for the west, it did notsolve Said’s problem of knowledge production posed in Orientalism, which leftthe feminist scholars “implicated in projects that established westernauthority and cultural difference” (Ibid). At this juncture Al-Ali brings in acrucial observation about how the process of “deconstruction of the notion ofthe East has not included the west within the Middle East studies” (Al-Ali2009:23). Faced with suchdilemmas, questions of what kind of feminism is appropriate for the Middle Eastarose leading to the question of whether it is imported or indigenous.
Said’s (1994:132)outlook that “regions and geographical sectors like the ‘orient’ and the’occident’ are man-made” enabled scholars to argue that “condemning feminism asan inauthentic western import is just as inaccurate as celebrating it as alocal project” since the the first assumes “cultural purity” and the other”underestimates the formative power of colonialism”(Abu-Lughod 2001:106). It isimportant to mention here that the western discourse of women as the center forEastern backwardness resulted in feminist projects eventually coming to rely onwestern ideas of women’s role and empowerment (Ibid). The quest forauthenticity finds many feminist scholars in a tricky situation. As the Womenand Memory Forum puts it, “While identifying with the west means rejecting theArab heritage, cleaving to tradition means accepting patriarchal structures ofsubordination and inferior status”(Abu-Lughod 2001:110). The same sentiment isechoed by other Egyptian women activists who “run the risk of being stigmatizedas anti-religious and anti-nationalist” (Al-Ali 2009:47). They are accused ofimporting western ideas and proliferating them in the society, causing a dividein the unified struggle of men and women against struggles like “class andZionism” (Ibid).
This has led to the unwillingness of many women to identifywith feminism. As Al-Ali rightly points out, the mention of feminism leadspeople to draw an instant parallel to the western idea of it where women arebelieved to be against men. (Ibid) Many feminist scholarsconsider this constant obsession with the west to be an influence of Said’s’Orientalism’ that has a led them away from criticism of “local institutionsand political forces” (Abu-Lughod 2001:111).
Kandiyoti believes that thearguments of Said’s ‘Orientalism’ have had a negative impact on Middle Eastgender scholarship in ways such as enabling a binary thinking about East andWest resulting in too much focus on the west. This has taken away from thefocus on the “internal heterogeneity of Middle eastern societies.” It has alsosidetracked the attention from “cultural processes” that support genderhierarchies and subordination. (Abu-Lughod 2001:112) Hence, we see how Said’swork in various ways has had a great impact on feminist scholarship in theMiddle East. It can be seen to have ranged from positive impact to negativeones, depending on how one looks at it.
I personally believe that it has helpedto initiate various and varied thought processes among gender scholars andgiven it an impetus. In spaces where his work is examined under a criticallight, is also in my opinion, starting a conversation leading to differentbranches of thought in the world of feminist scholarship. Having said that, Middle East is acomplicated ground with varying approaches in different countries, playing outin different ways.
As Abu-Lughod (2001:112) says, feminists should be aware ofthe “complex ground they tread and criticize the multiple forms of injusticethey find.”