A Western Invention of Arab Womanhood: The ‘Oriental’ Female

Part of the Women’s Studies at York Series book series (WSYS)


I want to look at the traditional ‘orientalising’ invention of Arab women. I begin from the study of Orientalism, traditional and modern, made by Edward Said1 as a general frame in approaching the problem of Arab femininity. Said raises the issue of Arab females deferred;2 this is the first step towards analysing texts featuring and framing Arab women. According to Said, Orientalism is ‘a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between the Orient and the Occident’.3 Orientalism as a critical discourse offers a valuable understanding of the dynamic of power by which the Arab or ‘Oriental’ individual was constructed and ultimately appropriated by inherently authoritative modes of writing.


Black Woman Muslim Woman Arab World Bare Breast Arab Woman 
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  1. 1.
    Edward Said, Orientalism (London: Penguin, 1987).Google Scholar
  2. 6.
    See Pierre Villar, A History of Gold and Money: 1450–1920 (London: New Left Books, 1976)Google Scholar
  3. Stanley Diamond, In Search of the Primitive, (New Brunswick: Transaction Books, 1974).Google Scholar
  4. 14.
    See Alain Grosrichard, La fiction du despotisme asiatique dans l’Occident classique (Paris: Seuil, 1979).Google Scholar
  5. 16.
    However it is important to underline the peculiar aspect of the French Orientalist interest in Algeria which appears, in comparison with the Orientalist treatment of the Middle Eastern countries, as less glamorous and more derogative; one reason for this is the nature of the initial encounter between the indigenous population and the invaders, which was brutal and led to a heavy, enduring and dehumanising colonial presence of European settlers on the Algerian soil. But it remains the case that the referent to women pervades this particular instance of Orientalist tradition in an equally vivid and compulsive way. For an analytical survey of the French Orientalist experience in relation to the Maghreb, see some special articles devoted to the subject: ‘Algérie, vingt ans, que savons-nous vraiment de cette terre, de ses révolutions aujourd’hui?’ in Autrement, no. 38 (March 1982); and more particularly, another analysis by Jean Robert Henry, ‘La France au miroir de l’Algérie’. The classic Orientalist and anthropological French research on Algeria remains. Philippe Lucas and Jean-Claude Vatin, L’Algérie des anthropologues (Paris: François Maspéro, 1975).Google Scholar
  6. 17.
    In the Introduction by Barbara Harlow to Malek Alloula’s Colonial Harem (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1987), p. xxii.Google Scholar
  7. 18.
    There is also a tradition of Western photography in the Middle East. See the interesting work by Sarah Graham Brown, Images of Women: the Portrayal of Women in Photography of the Middle East, 1860–1950 (London: Quartet Books, 1988).Google Scholar
  8. 20.
    An overall view of the function and thematic of French colonial literature (an Orientalist genre) is provided by Martine Astier Loutfi, Littérature et colonialisme: l’expansion coloniale vue dans la littérature romanesque française 1871–1914 (Paris: Mouton, 1971).Google Scholar
  9. 40.
    See also the following works: Jean Alazard, U Orient et la peinture française au 19ème siècle, D’Eugène Delacroix à Auguste Renoir (Paris: Pion, 1930)Google Scholar
  10. Lynne Thornton, The Orientalists, Painter-Travellers, 1828–1908 (Paris: ACR Editions Internationale; 1983)Google Scholar
  11. Donald A. Rosenthal, Orientalism, the Near-East in French Painting, 1800–1880 (Rochester: Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, 1982)Google Scholar
  12. Philippe Jullian, European Painters of Eastern Scenes, (Oxford: Phaidon, 1977).Google Scholar
  13. 44.
    It is well known today that black women’s sexuality has been constructed into many offensive definitions throughout the nineteenth century in America through slavery, and in Africa through colonialism, in order to justify racism and the sexual abuse of black women by white men. Such production is inherent in French Orientalist literature, where traces of an even more acute antithetical conception of womanhood can be found in relation to black women; an example of it would be Gustave Flaubert’s own appreciation of Nubian women’s dance as being more ‘ferocious’ and ‘tigerish’ (see p. 29 above). The implicit animal analogy carried by qualifiers used by the novelist has a connotative value and indicates that black women are more fully integrated into the natural world which is unsophisticated and more primitive, and therefore more sexually voracious. For an exhaustive analysis of images of black women in American history, see Bell Hooks, Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism (London: Pluto Press, 1982).Google Scholar
  14. 50.
    Pierre, Martino, L’Orient dans la littérature française au XVIIème et au XVIIème siècle (New York: Burt Franklin, 1971).Google Scholar
  15. 53.
    See also Théophile Gautier, L’Orient — Tableaux à la plume in Oeuvres Complètes (Geneva: Slatkine Reprints, 1978)Google Scholar
  16. Eugène Fromentin, Un été dans le Sahara (Paris: Louis Conard, 1938).Google Scholar
  17. 55.
    See the following works: Francis Steegmuller (ed.), The Letters of Gustave Flaubert 1830–1857 (London: Harvard University Press, 1980)Google Scholar
  18. 80.
    The influence of writers, such as Chateaubriand and Montesquieu, who worked within the Orientalist vein, is certainly noticeable also in the work of Nerval (one of the most outstanding Orientalist texts of the eighteenth century and which provided the most exhaustive view of the Harem remains the work by Montesquieu, Lettres Persanes (Paris: Gamier Frères, 1960).Google Scholar
  19. 81.
    For a review of the introduction of the ‘Arabian Nights’ into Europe and their reception, see the work by Nada Tomiche, La littérature arabe traduite: de limage que se fait l’Occident du monde arabe contemporain à travers les traductions de la littérature arabe en lanques française et anglaise (Paris: Librairie Orientaliste Paul Geuthner, 1978).Google Scholar
  20. 84.
    Manifestations of intertextuality and influence are particularly interesting and numerous in European writings and paintings during the nineteenth century on the subject of the Orient. The link between Lane’s work and Nerval’s first volume of Le voyage en Orient had been already established. See particularly a poem by L. Bouillet in Festons et Astragales (Paris: Bourdilliat, 1859), pp. 45–7.Google Scholar
  21. 86.
    For example, in Daudet’s novel Le Nabab: Moeurs Parisiennes (Paris: Charpentier, 1881)Google Scholar
  22. 102.
    Edward Said, ‘Orientalism Reconsidered’, Cultural Critique, vol. 1 (1985), pp. 89–107.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. 106.
    A good case in point to illustrate the argument about ‘Orientalist feminism’ is the work by Juliette Minces, The House of Obedience (London: Zed, 1982).Google Scholar
  24. Lois Beck and Nikki Keddie, Women in the Muslim world (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1978)CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Haleh Afshar 1993

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of WarwickUK

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