Dismantling the Veils of Western Literature

Terri Deyoung

Western Representations of the Muslim Woman: From Termagant to Odalisque

By Mohja Kahf
University of Texas Press, 1999. 224 pp.

It should not surprise anyone that Mohja Kahf's new book reads extremely well, holding the reader's attention throughout with its ability to move deftly between the easy colloquialism of modern conversation and the more formal registers of academic prose without ever jarring the ear or obscuring her meaning. After all, Kahf is well known as a talented and eloquent voice in the revived movement of Arab American poetry that has emerged on the pages of Al Jadid and elsewhere within the past decade.

What is unexpected about "Western Representations of the Muslim Woman: From Termagant to Odalisque" is the depth of its scholarship, the maturity and assurance of its presentation, and its ability to generate new and provocative insights into the subject matter - all of which are seldom found in a first work by an academic at the beginning of her career. The cover photo for the book prepares the reader for both the boldness and the attention to detail with which the author tackles her subject. It is a picture that visually debunks the stereotypical Western portrayal of the "Muslim woman" that Kahf herself will challenge with so much success inside the cover of her book.

This Muslim woman insists on being seen (in contrast to the Western convention of her invisibility behind the veil or in the harem) from the moment that the reader decides to engage with the text. Yet, simultaneously, she denies us the easy intimacy often promised by the conventional pose of dust jacket photos: eyes focused straight ahead, lips poised on the verge of a welcoming smile. Instead she is ostentatiously oblivious to the reader's gaze, her eyes fixed on a book (the Muslim woman in Western writings of the post-Enlightenment period generally lacks an education and needs to seek it from her foreign patrons). She refuses to pander to the expectations of others, while at the same time forcing us to acknowledge those expectations through the content and composition of the photograph.

This choice of cover foreshadows Kahf's characterization of her book in the conclusion as a "dismantling activity" that, if it works, will leave the "veils and vestments of these fictional [Muslim] women . . . strewn across cognitive expanses from Poitiers to Ispahan, tugged and stolen and transferred from one body to another; their jacinths and scattered rubies and pearl necklaces loop[ing] from Roncesvals to Damascus; their epistles, runes, and letters trail[ing] through Western cultural space from Algiers to the Alps." Her ultimate goal, she says, is to loosen "the stranglehold of the uniform image of the Muslim woman in Western culture" and to "dissolve [it] into historical specificities, or at least into a handful of narratives more diverse than the ones now on hand" for Western consumption.

Fortunately for her readers, once inside the cover we are presented with a more conventional and less "transgressive" (to use one of her most felicitous coinages) posture. The presentation of texts proceeds along roughly chronological lines, broken down into four main sections corresponding to the major divisions of literary history followed in the West: Medieval, Renaissance, Enlightenment and Romantic.

This chronological approach highlights Kahf's two major critical insights: that the portrayal of Muslim women in Western texts undergoes considerable change over time and that there is a radical reversal beginning in the early modern period. In this period, the Muslim woman of the West is relieved of her assertive, speaking and acting role in the text (realized in figures like the "termagant" Queen Bramimonde from the "Song of Roland" or the "enamored Muslim princess" Floripas who rescues her Christian lover from her father's imprisonment in "The Sowdowne of Babylon") to the silenced yet wholly eroticized "odalisque," who can only be rescued from her plight by the Western male (as in "The Captive's Tale" from Cervantes' "Don Quixote") or by violence and death (as in the concluding scenes of Montesquieu's "Persian Letters").

In the course of describing this transformation, Kahf provides us with numerous well-documented, detailed and highly nuanced close readings of major Western literary texts where her themes are invoked. Thus she creates a topographical map for examining how Westerners have represented the Muslim woman - and why Westerners have portrayed them in those ways - that both will serve as a guide and that will have to be taken into account by anyone who wishes to follow in her footsteps.

For example, no one who reads "Don Quixote" and wishes to examine its subversive "Arabness," present from the very beginning of the novel with the naming of its narrator as the Moorish Cide Hamete Benengeli, can afford to ignore Kahf's insightful comments on how the character of the Captive's lady, Zoraida/Maria, "dressed in Moorish fashion," is artfully constructed from the intersection of her attributes of dress (the veil) and silence (her imperfect command of Spanish), and how together they form the basis for "a new version of the Muslim woman" that will have an incalculable effect on later literary works.

A similarly profound note is sounded when Kahf observes that the care and attention to ethnographic detail make the Persian characters of "The Persian Letters" more than transparent allegorical devices. Even when one realizes that Montesquieu is using them to talk about the abuses of individual liberty in his own society, the very "thickness" of the description lavished on them guarantees that they are perceived as examples of how Persians, male and female, really behave.

No scholarly work, no matter how carefully prepared, is ever completely immune to error and incompleteness. Nor should it be, for the desire to correct and supplement is one guarantor of a culture's vital and lively intellectual life. Perhaps the most conspicuous problem in Kahf's treatment of her subject is one of omission rather than commission, and should not even be charged to her, since she carefully states from the beginning that she is concerned with Western strategies for representing Muslim women rather than the more general question of how the male-dominated literary world manipulates its female characters. Nevertheless, this is not a trivial objection. When one widens the scope of inquiry to investigate how Arabic texts deploy stereotypes of Western women, or how Byzantine literature depicted both Western Latin and Arab Islamic female characters, some interesting points become salient. Most particularly, we find the preoccupation with a "transgressive," disruptive female "other," whom Kahf compares to with medieval Western social practice, to be, in fact, a common denominator of all three literatures.

Byzantine writers were quite obsessed with serving up portraits of wanton women of both Muslim and Latin backgrounds who insist on mixing inappropriately in male affairs.  These characters are in sharp contrast to, for example, the historian Anna Comnena's mother, the Empress Irene, who was lauded by her daughter for choosing "her shield, buckler and sword ... standing up bravely against the chances and vicissitudes of life, her activity in business, her stern resistance to passion and her genuine loyalty were such as Solomon lauds."  This is to contrast with the "Amazons" Anna witnessed in the barbarian Western armies marching to crusade through Constantinople, who chose to wear armor and ride with the soldiers.

Similarly, one finds in Arabic literature Byzantine Christian princesses boldly rescuing their imprisoned Arab male lovers, as is the case with Princess Ibriza, the heroine of the tale "King 'Umar ibn Nu'man" from "A Thousand and One Nights." This congruence among the three literatures suggests that the limiting nature of such portrayals for women, casting them as either good/passive or bad/transgressive, is a common problem for all cultures emerging from Hellenistic antiquity and Mediterranean patriarchy, rather than a shortcoming of Western society alone. Thus, the true significance of the phenomena Kahf observed in the texts she chose to analyze may only be realized through a wider investigation than she has undertaken.

On a more localized level, Kahf occasionally misses or elides certain aspects of her historical presentation of facts, distorting their implications. For instance, when she minimizes the imperialistic or colonial aspects of the Crusades, this ignores the fact that at least one record of Pope Urban's call to the Crusades has very obvious appeals to the colonizing instinct, describing the Holy Land as an empty territory "flowing with milk and honey," and as a woman waiting to be rescued and wedded by the Crusader knights. Even if the Crusaders themselves did not employ colonial practices - which is highly disputable - the tropes of the discourse used in the period were easily available and certainly convenient for inspiring later generations involved in the imperialist project.

Similarly, Kahf portrays Lady Mary Wortley Montague as a sort of benign, flighty 18th century tourist in the Ottoman Empire.  This assessment trivializes that lady's sympathetic treatment of Ottoman women, ignores how much her judgments were influenced by the ill treatment she herself received at her husband's hands, and omits her consequent zeal to reform British marital regulations and property laws.

Such minor considerations aside, "Western Representations of the Muslim Woman" will long remain an indispensable book for anyone who wishes to do serious research on how Islamic culture has been represented in Western literature, and more broadly, on cross-cultural gender issues. 

This review appeared in Al Jadid (Vol. 7, no. 37, Fall 2001).
Copyright (c) 2001 by Al Jadid