Mending Transatlantic Ties: Rewriting Orientalism as a Catalyst for New Approaches to Arab and Muslim Feminist Theory and Solidarity
Orientalism is a multi-dimensional analysis of Western systems of creating and producing knowledge of and for both the East and the West. Said's analysis of Orientalist epistemologies is foundational to the field of post-colonial studies, and provides a substantive framework for understanding the impact of colonialism on how the Ifother" is understood in the West. Conversely, it also provides a framework for understanding how the colonized "other" understands their identity in relation to their colonized home and the Western colonizing force. Said's work provides a clear, comprehensive examination of the structural and systemic oppression of Arabs and Muslims by Orientalist systems, and is quite foundational to extrapolating and contextualizing the experiences of Arab and Muslim women in East/West feminist dialectics. The veneration of Said notwithstanding, his work poses a number of problems with respect to subjectivity, authority, and gender. Hence, he and his work have been subjected to excessively harsh and critical attacks. The issue of gender in Said's work is the one I take up and engage at length. In particular, I would like examine gender dynamics or more clearly, the relationship between Arab and Muslim men and women in the Orient as presented (or not) in Said's theoretical purview. Specifically, my aim is to explore the relationship of Edward Said's Orientalism and its affect on the reactionary oscillation of contemporary Arab and Muslim feminist discourse between nationalist agendas. I contend that contemporary Arab and Muslim feminist theory vacillates between Eastern and Western nationalist agendas, and results in the production of theory that is reactionary insofar as it is written in response to criticisms made by either of the aforementioned nationalist agendas; it reacts. It is my belief that by relying so heavily on Said's work, a work that largely writes the complexities of Arab and Muslim women's experiences out of its text, forces Middle Eastern Studies feminist scholars to expend a great deal of intellectual energy writing Arab and Muslim women back into the text. As a result, very little energy is left to move the discourse in anything but circles. My argument is built on the following analysis of Said's work: 1) Arab and Muslim women are largely written out of Said's analysis and are instead subsumed under the term "Oriental," which is always gendered male, without agency, and is a "docile body" through which systems of power flow and are replicated, 2) Said's analysis of East/West polemics presents a very antagonistic relationship between "the Occident" and "the Orient," and 3) this antagonism forces the Oriental, in efforts to the counter Orientalist systems of knowledge, to assume a nationalist agenda, videlicet, a pro-Eastern agenda in order counter these Orientalist systems. With these assumptions in mind, I argue that by virtue of their Oriental identity, Arab and Muslim feminists place Said's analysis, explicitly or implicitly, at the foundation of their theory, producing work that is reactionary as a result of an assumed East/West antagonism. Ultimately, this results in Arab and Muslim feminists adopting an either pro-Western or pro-Eastern agenda, and further entrenches them in a circular postmodernist discourse. My argument is divided into three sections: the first engages in an analysis of agency, nationalisms, and male-female gender dynamics in Orientalism; the second discusses the state of contemporary Arab and Muslim feminist discourse by analyzing the work of some of the most prominent feminists in the field to illustrate underlying nationalist agendas in their work, and the third section considers how a rewriting of Orientalism, in conjunction with the emerging field of multicultural feminism, may provide the first step to move the discourse out of circles and into a less theoretical, more practical direction. I also conclude such a rewriting will force a re-conceptualization of Arab and Muslim feminist solidarity inside and outside of the Orient. We, as Arab and Muslim feminists, must reconsider the affect and extent to which Orientalism's analyses of East/West relations may have been more detrimental to our theory than it is advantageous. It is my asseveration that in order to push the dialogue out its circularity, a rewriting of Orientalism, drawing on the strengths of Said analysis in conjunction with some of the strong feminist critiques of Orientalism, is a necessity.