The Representation of Muslim Women in Eastern and Western Literature: A Comparison
Representations of women in Middle Eastern literature represent a means by which the appreciation, perspective and overall role of women and how they are viewed by society can be determined. While some argue that literature and actually lived daily life are separate, literature serves as a measuring stick by which one can ascertain a definitive viewpoint on what the experience of being a Muslim woman is, and how such women are viewed. Literature can tell one volumes about how societies work and underscore the role that women play or don’t play and how others see them. While both eastern and western literature is incredibly vast, it is possible to get a definitive sense of how Muslim women are viewed; however, it is possible to get an overall sense of certain trends that arise over and over. This paper will examine the ways in which Muslim women appear to be used as inspiration and as a vehicle by which stereotypes are expressed through the comparison of eastern versus western literature.
One finds that in Middle Eastern literature, there’s more of a range of representations of Muslim women, with more of an opportunity to view how Muslim women suffer substantial obstacles. Nazik al-Mal'aika, the poet, wrote the following world-famous poem regarding the injustice and devastating inequalities that besiege so many Muslim women in her piece, Insignificant Woman (Mikhai).
No eyes followed her coffin
to the end of the road
Only a memory of a lifeless form
passing in some lane...
A moon mourned in silence.
This poem clearly laments the way that Muslim women are treated in Middle eastern society: as essentially invisible citizens who aren’t given the same ritualistic treatments in life or in death. There’s a sense of the tragedy of this level of inequality, and how even the living natural world (via the moon) mourns this component of unfairness. An interesting aspect of Middle Eastern literature is how it represents Muslim women in the written scripts for film and television—treating the film or TV script as a form of modern literature in the middle east. This is an important assessment to make, because this form of modern literature has a more powerful impact on the local regions in perpetuating stereotypes or problematic dogmas. Consider the research article, “Selfish, vengeful, and full of spite” by Mary Lou O’Neil 2013). This article assesses the depictions of women who have abortions in four Turkish television series: Gümü?, A?k-? Memnu, Han?m?n Çiftli?i, and Öyle Bir Geçer Zaman ki, all of which appeared on TV in the last decade or so (O’Neil, 810). “O’Neil’s study reveals that women in all four series are portrayed negatively and blamed for failing to conform to family and society’s gender expectations” (Eltantawy, 766). Essentially the literature of television and film has decided to punish these women for defying all cultural expectations of womanhood as a result of their failure and refusal to put motherhood above all else. These women are given questionable moral characters within the realm of the television script: they have affairs outside of marriage and they make a point of putting their careers ahead of their husbands or the primacy they put on being a mother.
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This is a lucid example of the traditional dogma towards women and femininity as it appears in Middle eastern literature.
Most notably, in the Qur’an, Aisha who was one of the wives of the prophet Mohammad encompasses a truly powerful and independent role of much influence. Aisha was highly visible and took on a very influential role during her time in Muhammad’s life. Aisha accompanied Muhammad to the early Islamic battles, and following Muhammad’s death she opposed Ali’s rise to the caliphate” (Ujayli, 18). It’s also important to note that Aisha was instrumental when it came to interpreting Muhammad’s will and many of the teachings of Islam as a whole, after his death (Ujayli, 18). She was a consultant in all matter religious and over 2,00 hadith are given credit to her (Ahmed, 73). Aisha is someone who stands out in the literature of this culture, as she is someone who viewed as a truth teller, and a woman of great expertise in all aspects of inheritance, law, literature, history and genealogy (Ujayli, 19). This honor, importance, wisdom and reverence given to Aisha in an early and classic Middle eastern text is a far cry from how current middle Eastern literature portrays Muslim women. Current literature continues to despair the plight of the warped patriarchy that shapes so much of life within this part of the world. For example, one of the most famous Palestinian writers, Sahar Kahlifeh, does not flinch when it comes to portraying the sobering realities of the feminine life in areas where there is continuous aggressive conflict. The novel The Inheritance tells a devastating and vivid tale that is common in this part of the world and in Palestine in the past and present: Palestinian women give up everything they have and everything that matters to them for the men in their lives, only to receive zero acknowledgement or commemoration by their nation or their relatives (Khalifeh). This is a common thread in feminist middle eastern literature today: a scathing portrayal of the treatment of women and the tremendous sacrifice of Muslim women—as well as the often cruel and uncaring world around them.
Inequality continues to define the lives of women in the Middle East, something that is undeniably captured within literature. Part of this is because women’s active sexuality has always been viewed as a threat to men and to the patriarchy as a whole (Mernissi, 57). Hence part of the subjugation of women revolves around fear of their sexuality and their power. This theme is something that is commonly repeated within Middle Eastern literature. For example, the collection of short stories, Women of Algiers in Their Apartment (Djebar) is a scathing response to the severe patriarchy that surrounds Muslim women, even in modern society. These short stories attempt to demonstrate how Muslim women today have to frequently do battle with the ongoing inequality that shapes and suffocates their lives (Djebar, 2).
When it comes to representations of Muslim women….....
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