Western Imperialism and Colonial Feminism in the Middle East

Like Qur’an and Woman, Women and Gender in Islam by Leila Ahmed challenges the dominant ideology that Islamic cultures are oppressive to women.  Ahmed outlines the “historical roots of a modern debate” in order for readers to comprehend how the status of women has changed over time.  Prior to urban development and expansion, women were not regarded as inferior to men.  To support this conclusion, she cites archaeological evidence from 6000 B.C.E.; women were buried in larger platforms than men, women’s bodies and lives were celebrated in artwork, and female goddesses were worshipped.

Many theories have been established which attempt to explain the shift in women’s positionality in society.  Gerda Lerner, a feminist theorist, “suggests that the importance of increasing the population and providing labor power in early societies led to the theft of women, whose sexuality and reproductive capacity became the first ‘property’ that tribes competed for” (12).  She goes on to discuss how female sexual purity and virginity became commodified, ultimately contributing to the perceived inferiority of women.

Over the next few chapters, Ahmed gives an in-depth analysis of the history of women in Islam and how their roles changed drastically depending on the specific setting.  Although I found all of this to be very interesting, I feel it is not necessary to discuss it in this context because it does not directly relate to the purpose of my independent project.  Instead, I would like to focus on part three of her text: new discourses.

Beginning “in the early nineteenth century[,] the societies of the Middle East began to undergo a fundamental social transformation” due to “economic enroachment by the West and entrammelment in the global economy, the emergence of ‘modern’ states in the region, and the domination, formal or informal, of much of the area by European colonial powers” (127).  Here, Ahmed outlines the key factors which played a role in the rise of gender inequality in Eastern societies.  Each point she addresses highlights the complexity and multidimensionality of this transformation, but I was especially interested in how her discussion of the role of colonialism and Western illustrates the divide between Western and Islamic cultures.  Although Ahmed speaks mostly about Egypt in these chapters, she argues that her main points apply to many other Islamic cultures because they acted in similar ways.

When European goods and businesses began competing with local, indigenous groups for business in Egypt in the 1770’s, they did not pose a major threat to the country’s economy.  It was not until the 1840’s that Egypt’s trade relations with Europe became necessary in order to ensure the nation’s financial security; this formed a serious trade imbalance and caused Egypt to become dependent on Europe for finished goods.  The consequences of this relationship were especially negative for lower and middle-class individuals who experienced an increase in competition with the European economy and a loss of work-related opportunities.  Because Egyptians did not have access to the same resources and technology, European colonizers were able to overtake their economy; they remained in this position of power for decades to come and the influence of this time period can still be felt today.

Around the same time, many individuals wrote and talked about the importance of incorporating women into the public sphere and improving their position within society.  The two main areas which they discussed were education and family law.  These individuals argued that girls needed to have equal access to primary school, alongside the opportunity to attend secondary school and university.  These criticisms were met with approval by the national governments, but the British colonizers had a different educational policy in mind.  Rather than responding to the “popular demand,” the British administration made access to education more restrictive.  They justified this by claiming that “subsidized education was not the province of government, and… that education could foster dangerous nationalist sentiments” (147).  An educated public posed a threat to the dominant social order in Egypt which favored European economic and political policies, therefore British colonizers were not interested in implementing these programs.  However, individual activists and charitable organizations felt that education was a basic human right, so they started forming schools for all children.  This on-the-ground activism seems to have been critical to this time period, particularly in response to the anti-democratic stance of the government.

Another issue which highlighted the differences between Western and Islamic understandings of gender is the veil.  The idea that veiling was oppressive to women was first theorized by Qassim Amin in Tahrir Al-Mar’a, or The Liberation of Women.  In order to fully comprehend this, it is important to understand the way in which Islamic women have been represented historically in Western discourse.  Ahmed states, “The peculiar practices of Islam with respect to women had always formed part of the Western narrative of the quintessential otherness and inferiority of Islam” (149).  Because Westerners came to understand this topic through hearsay, their narratives were often based on misunderstandings, assumptions, and false representations, which ultimately helped reinforce the dominant ideology that cultures in the East were somehow inferior to those in the West.  As the veil came to be associated with oppression, Islamic women were encouraged to unveil and adopt Western cultural and religious attitudes.

“Veiling – to Western eyes, the most visible marker of the differentness and inferiority of Islamic societies – became the symbol now of both the oppression of women (or, in the language of the day, Islam’s degradation of women) and the backwardness of Islam, and it became the open target of colonial attack and the spearhead of the assault on Muslim societies” (152).

This mindset also manifests itself is in the belief that certain cultural practices are associated with religious doctrine.  One example that is often used to justify Western imperialism is clitoridectomy, or female genital cutting.  Ahmed is quick to challenge this argument, noting that FGC “is not an Islamic custom, and in Egypt, for instance, is as common among Christians as among Muslims” (176).  I think this argument is extremely important when attempting to understand the power dynamics between Western imperialists and indigenous cultures in any country.  Because the Western elite have more power than any other group in the world, they are able to manipulate the dominant ideology to serve their own needs.  As is the case with Islam, it has led to the social construction of a belief that equates Islamic culture with oppression and inferiority.  However, this perspective on the issue is not what those controlling the world order want us to think.  Instead, they offer their own solutions to these “problems.”

The solution, according to Western imperialists and colonial feminists, was, and still is, for Islamic individuals to assimilate into European society.  The underlying assumption behind this line of thinking was that success, equality, and development were synonymous with Westernization.  As we know, this is not true.  Western women were experiencing many of the same problems as women in Islamic cultures.  Although their struggles were unique, they all experienced oppression as the result of sexism and misogyny.  As Ahmed rightfully concludes, those that sought to eradicate the veil were not genuinely interested in gender equality.  In order to advance the political agenda which favors the West in the global social order, Islamic cultures needed to be socially constructed as the other.  This only serves to justify colonialism and imperialism, whether in the form of missionaries manipulating women to convert to Christianity or Western occupation of countries in the Middle East.

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Note; 19th C Western encounters with non-Western tribes (discourse/negative empathy) « Aaron Asphar: poetry, critical theory + philosophy

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