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  • Hypervisibility and Middle Eastern Women’s Studies
  • Mohja Kahf (bio) and Banah Ghadbian (bio)

With hypervisibility comes responsibility. Scholarship, creativity, and activism about Middle Eastern women have had hypervisibility since 9/11. Or since the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Or since the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979. Whichever it is, this hypervisibility is not new under the latest US administration, but it is intensifying. This may mean increased opportunities for scholars, artists, and activists working on Middle Eastern gender issues. It also means that scholars, artists, and activists need to navigate these landscapes with as much attention to our purposes as ever, alert to the risk of being co-opted for one ideological agenda or another.

As scholars, we are equipped with critical tools to enable multiple critiques of structural oppression. We are equipped (a) to historicize our analyses and (b) to conduct dual critique, of external and internal structural injustice regarding gender, including all its entanglements with ethnicity, class, and power. It may seem futile to point out that there is no need for the term Islamophobia when this phenomenon is a form of Orientalism, but to point it out is to historicize. Even while Orientalism takes more combative shapes in Islamophobia, internal gendered critique of Islamic discourses and Middle Eastern practices is as necessary as ever. As misogyny, homophobia, racism, and xenophobia increase their structural and discursive nakedness in the United States under the current administration and worldwide in extremist ideologies, it should become easier to point out their parallels in Muslim-majority societies both historically and in the present day. [End Page 476]

The February 2017 executive order bans travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States with language that draws on Orientalism, noting that “the U.S. should not admit those who engage in ‘honor’ killings.” Meanwhile the United States normalizes rape culture in the executive office and at the 2017 Academy Awards. Honor killing is part of a different society’s manifestation of rape culture. This is an example of how dual critique can make connections between different but parallel and connected processes of gender struggle. Another example is recent conversations that confront Southwest Asian antiblackness. Lacking a dual critique means excusing people of color from perpetuating abusive notions of power, an instinct that stems from a need to defend racialized Southwest Asian categories from being understood as inherently sexist, barbaric, and homophobic. Attention to how these power dynamics intersect and affect those who live daily in their crosshairs needs to take the forefront of our analytic schema.

Often, liberal feminist responses to the February 2017 US executive order recirculate Orientalist constructs of the Muslim woman as an object to be saved. The Shepard Fairey rendition of a Muslim woman in an American flag headscarf projects anxieties about US colonial-settler national identity onto Muslim women’s bodies. Liberal gazes desire an image of Muslim women as settler-citizen. The related, increased visibility of headscarf-wearing Muslim women in Nike and H&M ads reveals a desire to represent the active “Muslim woman” in the West, in contrast to the backdrop of the suffering “Muslim woman” she is rescued from becoming “over there.” Subconscious hatred/desire for “Muslim women” in the colonial imaginary is key to understanding the contradictory dynamic of hypervisibility. Following this logic, the nation-state considers “Muslim women” threatening to its borders and national identity while justifying imperial wars in Iraq and Afghanistan by constructing itself as a savior of Muslim women.

Muslim woman is proliferating as a category term; it is a remarkably uninformative, abstract term that floats in ether, as “Muslim women” have specific ethnicities, cultures, and geographic origins with vastly different histories. Scholars, artists, and activists understand that we cannot separate the flattening of women into this homogenized category from the colonial policies, in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, that conflate liberation with rape, resulting in sexual terrorism.

The epistemic violence behind the drive to know and unveil the Muslim woman structures the dominant frameworks in which Muslim women are expected to tell their stories. It claims to shape how we understand the contours of our bodies and how we navigate the world. Women...


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pp. 476-478
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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