M O B I L I Z I N G
T H E
P O L I T I C S
I N V I S I B I L I T Y
A few years ago, I walked into a coffee house in Atlanta, GA, ordered a drink,
and laid the book I was reading, Opening the Gates: A Century of Arab
down on the counter in order to pay for my drink.
“Arab feminism”, the coffee
barista exclaimed, “that’s just an oxymoron to me!”
Her comment, cloaked as it
was in certainty and self-assurance, solidified my understanding of the way in which
Arab American feminism is, in some ways, forced to construct itself negatively.
That is, Arab American feminists must necessarily
respond to the stereotypical
images by which they are largely understood in a U.S. context and are, therefore,
put in a position of first correcting common misconceptions before creating a
defining discourse. The barista’s comment was made to me in September of 2002
and was, therefore, undoubtedly influenced by the cultural context of U.S. attitudes
toward the Middle East that emerged after the events of September 11, 2001. Her
unquestioned certainty that
exist was framed
bolstered by a
U.S. invasion of
Afghanistan, which was cast as a
liberation meant to
save Afghan women from the oppression of the Taliban.
Indeed, the rhetoric surrounding this project of liberation has depended on the
symbol of the veil, or burqa, to pictorially reinforce U.S. assumptions about the way
in which all Muslim and Middle Eastern women have been forced to hide behind
the oppressive and silencing shroud of the veil.
critical analysis of
interpretations and deployments of the veil in U.S. and Western European cultures.
However, because the
veil has been appropriated as a powerful
metaphor to describe and interpret Arab women’s lives, and given the way in which
Arab American feminism has had to construct itself in opposition to this metaphor,
it is worth reviewing the way in which it has functioned in U.S. discourse about the
Middle East. The power and efficacy of the symbol of the veil as a cultural marker
of difference is multi-dimensional:
it serves as a useful, and accordingly prolific,
is a Visiting Assistant Professor of English at Otterbein College. Her research
focuses on representations of Arab womanhood in U.S. popular culture.