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Narrating the East

Written by: on February 10, 2012

The forum talk entitled ‘The Middle East: Myth and Malcontent’, organised during One World Week, offered a valuable review of how Western minds view Middle-Eastern people.
The special focus of the forum was narratives of how Middle Eastern people are presented by the Western media in regards to the recent wave of revolutionary protests in both the Middle East and North Africa. So how does the narrative go?
One aspect of the narrative is the portrayal of women and the role they play, and have played, in both society and in the revolutions.
Nicola Pratt, a University of Warwick Associate Professor, highlighted how initially extensive media attention focused on the large presence of women in all the uprisings.
The attitude towards this fact was one of both disbelief and of wonder; Arabic women are able to go out on the street and participate freely in the revolutions? How wonderful!
However, this feeling soon vaporised and the Western media found itself harking back to their archaic views again. The return of the familiar narration of the suppressed Muslim woman found its way back in many articles that question if the ‘Arab Spring’ is actually beneficial or going to be beneficial to women in the Middle-East and North Africa.
One author claims that “across the region, Arab women are grumbling that overthrowing dictators is proven easier than overturning the pervasive supremacy of men.” To understand this statement, a prologue needs to be introduced.
Professor Pratt explained that “this sort of attitude has its genealogy in the history of Orientalism.” Scholars such as Edward Said and Rana Kabbani explore how, when Europe was colonising, they came across a civilization and culture that they considered to be different than their own. Instead of trying to understand the Middle-East, they branded it as exotic and termed it ‘Oriental’.
The lack of true intelligent pursuit and the consequence of terming all the lands that were East to Europe as ‘Oriental’ is incredibly significant.
Edward Said stated in his book Orientalism (1978) that when the West began labeling nations that stood at the East of them as Orient, they began to divide the world into two, with them being the Occident. In fact, the West created the East. The lines of division that were created had the aim of highlighting where the civilised and where the uncivilised people were.
The idea that the ‘Orientals’ are uncivilised led to Arabic women being portrayed as oppressed by their ‘barbaric’ men, as well as having an unnatural sexual appetite, with the Harem being key to this portrayal.
The West found that they could only understand themselves if they understood what they weren’t, and the Europeans were very certain about what they wanted to be. Whatever the East was, the West wasn’t, and whatever the West was, the East wasn’t. Some of the characteristics that were, unjustly, attributed to the ‘Orientals’ were, for example, laziness, cruelty and crudity.
Consequentially, the Europeans portrayed themselves as active, just and sophisticated. According to Pratt, Orientalisation still exists today because it allows “the West [to] project this image as being enlightened and democratic because it has the Middle-East as the mirror”.
If the Middle-East isn’t the sinner, then how can the West be the saint? The West understands itself to be superior which is why the belief that the Middle-East and North Africa aren’t able to govern themselves is still very active in the Western media. It’s the West that’s rational, after all.
Unfortunately, the West retains the archaic view with regards to gender relations in the Middle-East. Islam is often been seen as the “reason for the oppression of women”, with the veil being the “symbolic image of oppression”, suggested Pratt.
This belief is widely disregarded by scholars. Not only can it be found through the study of Islam that the encouragement of oppression is false, but also that the origins of oppression are never determined by a single factor.
Pratt highlighted how “there is a movement of women who are using Islam as a language in which to frame their concerns and their demands about justice for women”.
Many feminists such as Scholar Heba Ra’uf Ezzat advocate using Islam as a framework for justice for women. She stated how she does “believe in Islam as a world view and… that women’s liberation in [Arabic] society should rely on Islam”. Islam is seen by some as the best foundation for creating a just society, due to the history of the religion. Islam has arguably contributed to, discovered and invented the staples of our society today.
The Islamic Golden Period led to the first university and hospital in the history of the world. The Islamic period gave rise to improvements in medicine, mathematics, music, astrology, philosophy, art, travel, architecture and engineering.
Even back when Europe found itself in the Dark Ages, the Middle-East was in its enlightenment, with prominent individuals such as Ibn Arabi and Nana Asma’u, advocating women’s rights, including their right to an education.
There are many more events that strongly undermine the view the West had in relation to the gender relation in the East. In the early 20th Century when nations such as Iraq and Egypt were still under British colonial rule, “women were part of the anti-colonial struggle, even if they were wearing their veils.”
In 1952, Egypt, after freeing itself from British rule, elected its first woman in parliament. An achievement that would have not been possible if the supposed oppressive narrative was true.
In the 1970s, female students got involved in the protests against the Egyptian regime’s failure to take responsibility for their loss in the 1967 war against Israel.
It was Islamist student groups that came to the forefront of the protests thanks to their ability to offer practical solutions to some of the problems faced, such as overcrowding.
Today, it is the YouTube video posted on iyadelbaghdadi account, entitled “Meet Asmaa Mahfouz and the vlog that Helped Spark the Revolution”.
The Western media, often for the reason of wanting to look and feel superior, will create an “official narrative”. As shown by the example of the portrayal of women, the consequence of this censorship is that if they do not fit within the narrative, they will always suffer.
Their truth will be left untold and their oppression will, ironically, be sourced from the Western media.

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