The assumption that western culture is inherently superior to all other cultures is the vantage point from which all social and religious philosophies are judged by the west. Muslim societies are, thus, regarded with special interest, fear and ignorance. Hostility, however, is the west’s most prevalent attitude towards Muslims, due to Islam’s great political and military challenge to Christian Europe during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. When, in the nineteenth century, the roles were reversed and the major European nations began making inroads into the Middle East, they came armed not only with technology and a belief in racial superiority, but with a predetermined set of ideas and prejudices about Islamic society and Muslims. The Middle East is perceived as the west’s cultural and spiritual opposite.
Due to hijab (in its various forms) and ‘seclusion’, Muslim women are ironically held as exotic sexual objects by the west, more so than other women in the world. This idea of the exotic has two dimensions: the lure of distant lands and people and the pursuit of the ‘other’. The fascination of the ‘untouchable’ Muslim woman reached its peak in the nineteenth century and has continued to this day.
The fantasy created by western man of the Middle Eastern woman is one of a forbidden world of women, of sexuality caged and inaccessible to him, surrounded by the barriers of the veil and seclusion. Yet behind this cage, men reign supreme, living in a sexual paradise "off our wives" and unlimited concubines. The notion that women wait in the harem only to serve men, imprisoned with a black eunuch guarding the door, has further intensified the desire to penetrate what is defended and forbidden to outsiders.
The word harem in Arabic means a sacred, inviolable place and its root, haram, means forbidden or sacred and protected. Haram and hurma are a respectful form of address to a married woman. In Turkey and Iran, the equivalent term is hanum or khanum. But the most common usage of the word harem (haremlik in Turkish) is to denote the space in the family home reserved for women’s privacy. Instead, the reason for the segregation of women and the control over their visibility was fabricated by the west due to what they perceived as Muslim women’s uncontrollable, powerful sexual passions. Christian Europe held (and still holds) the notion that women’s sexuality was dangerous (nuns who were celibate complemented the image of the Virgin Mary) and since Muslim women are on a lower rung in mankind’s hierarchy (according to the west) they are even more in need of control. Muslim women are seen as hbel al-shaitan (the devil’s leash), implying their capability of dragging men away from virtue and also of making them impotent. Muslim men, in the west’s disturbed understanding, were given many socially acceptable means to control their women - the harem, polygamy, child marriage and repudiation.
Only a small proportion of families - almost all urban upper-class - practised strict seclusion and few do so today. Most homes are much too small to allow true seclusion and many Muslim women have to travel outside the home for food or work. Patterns of sexual segregation vary greatly from one community and region to another. Such defiling of the word harem by the west is only one example of its stereotypical hatred of Islam.
Muslim women’s lives are viewed by the west in several ways: the life of the upper-class harem is indolent, boring, idle and without occupation; the rest are ignorant, enslaving and degrading. Either way, Muslim women are seen as passive victims. What is interesting is that upper-class western women, too, have little to do except relax, attend social functions and administer the running of their home, including the servants - much like upper-class women worldwide. The remaining women are overworked and underpaid often uneducated.
Another western view of Middle Eastern women is the proverbial ‘dancing girl’, an indispensable part of orientalist art, photography and Hollywood movies. As late as the 1950s, the French tourist office marketed pictures of the Ouled Nail women of Algeria, loaded with jewellery and cigarette, as the star attraction in the country. Dominated by the danse du ventre (belly dancer), this vision of the Middle Eastern woman conjures up notions of lasciviousness and sensuality, signalling their sexual availability.
Western feminists, from the 1920s onwards, began delving into the Middle East, seeing their fellow sisters as oppressed like themselves. Although they face inequality in their own countries, few feminists see western culture or the imperialistic attitudes of their countries as wrong. They use their own culture as a yardstick by which to judge other women.
Muslimedia - April 1996-August 1996