I’m not really sure when or where the notion of third-world oppression (particularly in the Middle Eastern region) began. Thinking back on my post from last week, I suppose its always been there. To me though, I can only recall it becoming prevalent during the Bush-era, a time of major ignorance for America, and serious vilification of people from the Middle East.
To start this week’s post I’d like to relate a story. Ten years ago was the last time I visited my mother country, Syria. I want to preface this story with a disclaimer that my opinions, Edward Said’s opinions, Leila Ahmed’s and any other post-colonial scholar’s opinions about the Middle East can and will never encompass the entirety of those whose realities are the Middle East. To me, living outside of the “Muslim world” has a way of conflating ideas. I don’t mean to say that Said or Ahmed’s theories aren’t worthwhile (I actually thoroughly enjoy their works), but I do mean to say that once you leave the Middle East and come out with theories, the second your words hit the paper their significance shifts.
Syria was a place of happiness, acceptance, and warmth. You could go to the Souk (marketplace) and see golden-skinned Syrian women shopping wearing tank tops and shorts—Christians and Muslims living together in peace, and the most discord you’d witness were in secondary students freaking out over upcoming Baccalaureate exams. When I would go shopping (alone, mind you), I felt more safe among men there than I could ever feel here in the United States. As a woman, I was not looked at as an object, as culturally, out of respect Muslim men were to lower their gaze upon a woman’s presence (don’t worry, no one cuts off your hand if you slip up). That to me is the culture of the “Muslim world.” Things are obviously different village-to-village, let alone country-to-country—and obviously much more different now that the civil war has been going on since 2011, so my words don’t bear as much weight as I’d like them to.
I found solace in Leila Ahmed’s opinions about the Middle East, because she’s an intellectual voice not only for real Islam but for justice. Ahmed recognized that women in Egyptian society were not to be regarded as subaltern, and that much of the discourse on women’s oppression in the Middle East stems from monolithic notions of patriarchy.
I’m not saying women in the Middle East are never oppressed by the system, because all systems are imperfect. I do mean to say that no one has the right to be talking for anyone. If we really thought America would liberate our women (without attempting to economically or culturally exploit us), then we would ask.
Chandra Talpade Mohanty writes in “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses” that ethnocentric universalism exists in many analyses of the third world. And because of this, authorial subjects are seen as the “implicit referent, i.e., the yardstick by which to encode and represent cultural Others” (336). Its because of this phenomenon that ideas of the veil as being oppressive, and the need for the West to intervene began. Again, I am not inferring that there aren’t veiled women who need liberating, but rather, that those women should not be subject to someone else writing their narrative for them, let alone for all the women in their entire geographic locale.
In a way, I’m happy that more and more, I am seeing veiled women’s images being utilized for women’s causes. As Leila Ahmed put it, the veil in America is now becoming a symbol of feminism (something it has always been to me). Although sometimes I feel like we’re being tokenized, but hey, its better than being looked at as a victim—or worse, a terrorist, so I’ll take it.
Interestingly though, Mohanty looks at this trend of grouping all women of different economic standpoints, cultures, and classes into the term “women” by Western feminists as ineffectual and ethnocentric in that it results “in the colonization of the conflicts and contradictions which characterize women of different social classes and cultures” (344). Its a colonialist move that creates the binary of male and female, which alludes to the binary of domination and oppression, which then appropriates the multiplicity that is the woman of the East, meanwhile legitimizing patriarchy.
Week after week I’m noticing a common trend among postcolonial scholars, and basically it all revolves around avoiding reductive thinking, or rather, forcing oneself to acknowledge all of the contexts (and hegemonic constituents) of Western ideas about “The Other” while distancing oneself from filtering or altering the voices of the third world.
I’d like to close this week’s post with an excerpt from Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?”: