Three recent books, Arab & Arab American Feminisms: Gender, Violence, & Belonging; Arabs and Muslims in the Media: Race and Representation After 9/11; and Between Feminism and Islam: Human Rights and Sharia Law in Morocco challenge commonly held assumptions about gender and sexuality in the Arab and Muslim context. A collection of essays as diverse as those contained within Arab & Arab American Feminisms resists summation. The contributors are a refreshingly diverse group of Arab and Arab American women, including queer and transgender writers working against the grain of feminist approaches that favor the heteronormative. Creative writers, visual artists, scholars, and community activists offer critiques as varied as the range of their experiences, identities, and social locations would suggest. There are some commonalities, however, that define their collective approach. Throughout, the interconnectedness of homeland and diaspora is brought to the forefront as an inextricable part of the political context that shapes the authors’ identities. While several chapters feel crucial to current discussions of transnational feminist solidarity—Mohja Kahf’s “The Pity Committee and the Careful Reader” and an interview with Ella Shohat—the book’s approach and value is perhaps most visible in one of its more striking essays, Amal Amireh’s “Palestinian Women’s Disappearing Act: The Suicide Bomber Through Western Feminist Eyes.”
The essay eloquently uncovers the continuation within Western feminist discourse of the Orientalist construct that imagines Arab and Muslim women’s bodies as passive objects incapable of political action. Amireh [End Page 287] employs Uma Narayan’s “death by culture” paradigm to show how Western feminist authors have erased the political and replaced it with the cultural in their analyses of the motivations underlying the violent acts performed by these Palestinian women. Through a close reading of both mistranslations of key Arabic terms that have far-reaching consequences and Andrea Dworkin’s, Robin Morgan’s, and Barbara Victor’s work, Amireh convincingly demonstrates the privileging of sexual politics at the expense of history, class, war, and occupation. The result is that the political is privatized and women are effaced as national agents.
The consequences of the resiliency of the voyeuristic Western perspective that refuses to see Arab and Muslim women as anything other than sexual beings violated by their culture becomes clear in Evelyn Alsultany’s Arabs and Muslims in the Media. Alsultany does not focus on gender exclusively. Through an examination of the ideological work performed by post-9/11 portrayals of Arabs and Muslims in American TV dramas, films, and news media, Alsultany looks at the disjuncture between the increasing number of sympathetic images of Arabs and Muslims and the simultaneous rise of racist policies like the USA PATRIOT Act. Yet, as the subject of chapters 3 (“Evoking Sympathy for the Muslim Woman”) and 4 (“Regulating Sympathy for the Muslim Man”), gender proves critical to her conclusion that though the current proliferation of representations may initially seem positive, it, in fact, merely projects an enlightened multiculturalism while legitimizing institutionalized racism.
Essential to her thesis is the idea that a “politics of pity” are used to produce an excess of affect, as viewers are encouraged to feel outrage and sympathy for the oppressed Muslim woman, who is depicted as the victim of Islamic culture. At the same time, representations of alleged terrorist men depend on a regulation of affect, creating a hierarchy of human life regulated by the American media. In Alsultany’s reading, these representations reflect and support the government narrative that connects the oppression of Muslim women with the probability of another terrorist attack. She argues that the explanation for 9/11 based on “They hate us for our freedom” finds its support in the presentation of oppressed Muslim women, the key evidence for “their” hatred. It follows that the war on terror...