They are athletes, doctors, lawyers, scientists, models , fashion designers…name the profession and see their prowess. They are over two million Arab women hailing from 22 countries and diverse territories. Most of them are Muslim, but many aren’t. Some wear “hijab”, “abaya” and “burqa”, while some don’t. Yet in our popular imagination Arab women, drawing from nondescript desert landscapes, are horribly repressed and long to escape to a whole new world.
From 18th century colonialism to 21st century war on terror, veils, the westernized symbol of female oppression, has both justified and incentivized warfare, occupation and bigotry. On silver screen and even media, we often come across silenced portrayals of Arab women whose clothing speaks for them. The dichotomy of the life of these harem girls, the veiled victims first emerged in European art and photography following Napoleon’s 1798 invasion of Egypt. In oriental images of fantasy, Arab women took centre stage amidst scenes of violence. Similar scenes also took place during the Algerian war when French women ceremonially removed Algerian women’s veils to symbolize their loyalty to France. Across the Atlantic, this imported stereotype was one of the most popular attractions at the 1893 Chicago World Fair. The Columbia exposition featured a mock Cairo street where more than two million visitors gawked at the women’s unsightly guises, i.e., “hijabs’. But the real scene stealer was the sensational Syrian performer “Little Egypt” whose belly dancing was the first open display of Arab female sexuality in the United States.
From 1896 till date, American films have continually recast two-dimensional Arab women — either exotic eye candy or faceless masses in black. In 2003, media analyst Jack Shaheen analyzed a thousand films throughout Hollywood history and found just 12 positive depictions of Arab characters. Even Disney’s Aladdin was not a positive depiction of Arab culture which has resulted in the negative perceptions in the younger generations since the very beginning.
Yes, gender-based discrimination and violence is an order within certain pockets of Arab and Muslim cultures. Saudi women are not allowed to drive, those hailing from other West Asian countries are prohibited from taking education , while horrifying instances of genital mutilation of girls are often reported from Sudan and Egypt . Moreover, a recent survey found that 69 per cent of “hijabi” women in as evolved a social system as United States reported discrimination or outright harassment in public. Such cases have been on the rise in the wake of the Paris attack.
It is time that we take a step back and identify the perpetrators of these inhuman acts against a respectable chunk of women folk. We have been conditioned to stereotype a large population of women who choose to adhere to their culture as an oppressed mass of untalented and subdued faces hiding behind veils. We need to reserve judgment and give these women their due.