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Western Representations of the Muslim Woman

Western Representations of the Muslim Woman
From Termagant to Odalisque

How the image of Muslim women changed in Western literature from medieval times to the Romantic era.

June 1999
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219 pages | 6 x 9 |

Veiled, secluded, submissive, oppressed—the "odalisque" image has held sway over Western representations of Muslim women since the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. Yet during medieval and Renaissance times, European writers portrayed Muslim women in exactly the opposite way, as forceful queens of wanton and intimidating sexuality.

In this illuminating study, Mohja Kahf traces the process through which the "termagant" became an "odalisque" in Western representations of Muslim women. Drawing examples from medieval chanson de geste and romance, Renaissance drama, Enlightenment prose, and Romantic poetry, she links the changing images of Muslim women to changes in European relations with the Islamic world, as well as to changing gender dynamics within Western societies.

  • Acknowledgments
  • One. Introduction
  • Two. The Muslim Woman in Medieval Texts. "Dame, ne parlez tant!"
  • Three. The Muslim Woman in Renaissance Texts. "Una mujer a la morisca vestida"
  • Four. The Muslim Woman from Enlightenment to Romanticism. "Je la fis entrer dans les appartements secrets"
  • Five. Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Mohja Kahf is Assistant Professor in the English Department and the MiddleEastern Studies Program at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.


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Chapter One. Introduction

A distinct narrative representing the Muslim woman abides in Western culture today. This narrative has formed a central part of Western discourse on Islam ever since the eighteenth century. The expository tenets of the narrative are "that Islam was innately and immutably oppressive to women, that the veil and segregation epitomized that oppression, and that these customs were the fundamental reasons for the general and comprehensive backwardness of Islamic societies" (Ahmed, 152). The core narrative itself, whittled to one sentence for working purposes, is this: the Muslim woman is being victimized. There are variations on the narrative: the woman may be a willing accomplice, or she may be escaping her victimization. But "the Muslim woman is being victimized" is the common axis undergirding a wide variety of Western representations.

The narrative about the Muslim woman is so diffuse as to be part of conventional wisdom in the Western world. A corporate advertiser can appeal to this received image in producing advertising copy precisely because the narrative operates at almost all levels of culture, from high to low. Not only can a television cartoon program churn out a Heathcliff the Cat-level, children's version of the stereotype, but a university professor or an article in a major metropolitan newspaper can refer to the basic elements of this narrative without finding it necessary to substantiate them. This narrative is so ubiquitous as to be invisible, except when crises cause it to be deployed in a direct fashion, as during Operation Desert Storm, when the narrative of the Muslim woman was activated to round out the story of the need for a civilizing American presence in the Gulf.

Challenges to Western representations of the Muslim woman, from feminist as well as Islamic apologist starting points, have tended to ignore the "representation" part and instead contest the realities of "the Muslim woman." Those realities are the subject of historians and other social scientists, and require methods different from those of literary research. The actual condition of Muslim women is a serious and complex topic. Its study, however, does little to explain the development of the Western narrative. This narrative has a genealogy and logic of its own, emerging from developments in Western representations of gender, of the self, and of the foreign or Other.

The genealogy of the narrative, the study of its descent, "requires patience and a knowledge of details, and it depends on a vast accumulation of source material" (Foucault 1977, 140). There is nothing essential or timeless behind Western representations of the Muslim woman; they are products of specific moments and developments in culture. Recognizing these developments depends on a broad knowledge of Western cultural history, and familiarity with texts in which nary a Muslim woman surfaces but which are haunted by her presence nevertheless. It depends on the ability to detect the absence of this dominant narrative of the Muslim woman as well as its presence.

This book is a history of Western literary representations of the Muslim woman from medieval times to the period of Romanticism in the early nineteenth century. The value of such a history is that it will open today's narratives of the Muslim woman to new interpretations, allowing us to see them not as "culminations" of a natural truth, but "merely the current episodes in a series of subjugations" (Foucault 1977,148).

Before the time that Islam appeared on the world stage, "the West" did not exist, the peoples of what is now called western Europe did not conceive of themselves as a community. Memories of the Roman Empire had left traces of some differentiation between Europe and Asia (even though that empire had included parts of both). However, large numbers of European peoples had remained outside Roman civilization and outside Christianity (by then split into Western and Eastern branches). Then the Frankish Empire, allied with the Western Christian Church, emerged dominant. After clashing with enemies to the north and the south, Christianity became the religion of the European peninsula (later with the significant exception of Spain). From these events came the wealth of legends around which a western European sense of identity coalesced and which later discourse (e.g., of the Renaissance, of Romanticism, of Modernism) bonded into a cohesive history, connected backward with Rome and Greece and forward with the modern European nation-states and their "New World" progeny.

Why then use the word "Western?" I am aware that to speak of "Western" culture, "Western" literature, a "Western narrative," and so forth, is not to speak of one stable unitary field but of a multiplicity of cultures that have been soldered together at various times in history, sometimes violently, for ideological purposes. In each chapter I refer to specific texts and literatures: British, French, Spanish, and so forth. When I review trends and patterns throughout these bodies of literature, I use "Western" as a shorthand. Arthurian romance, for example, is simultaneously a product of England, France, and Germany. And despite the enormous differences between the Italian Renaissance and the English Renaissance, one can still speak of the Renaissance as a development in "Western" cultural history. I do not intend, by this usage, to make essential or exclusive claims about what constitutes "Western."

I examine mainly canonical, male-authored texts in the Western tradition. At times, women have applied themselves to the patterns of Western representation of the Muslim woman which I describe. Even a Muslim woman writer could conceivably author such representations, since the issue is not the identity of the author but the mobilization of the core "Western" narrative.

The same objections can be raised about the term "the Muslim woman." Is it not too nebulous and ahistorical? Who is this creature whose feet never touch earth? Why not speak about representations of Arab women, Turkish women, African women? Such distinctions may be valid when it comes to social science analysis of women in Islam. However, a basic point of this book is to rip apart at the seams the apparent fit between "the Muslim woman" as the object of representation in Western texts and real Muslim women with live cells and nerves and muscle tissue, women whose feet touch earth in Hamah or Rawalpindi or Rabat.

My subject is not "women who are Muslim" but "Western representation of the Muslim woman," a category shaped by the literary conventions, linguistic tropes, and narrative processes within Western cultural traditions. Using this category makes it possible to analyze representations across racial, ethnic, and even religious lines which become artificially separated if studied within the confines of the obscuring terms used by the various texts (such as "Macon," "pagan," "Paynim," "Saracen," "Turkish," "Circassian"). This is not to belittle the independent significance of the overlapping categories. "Muslim" and "Islamic" here refer to a general civilizational heritage, in which religious minorities have played an integral part, more than to the religion for which that heritage is named. The texts themselves do not refer to these figures as "Muslim women"; I offer the term as a useful way of seeing patterns in the representations of disparate literary periods.

The image of the Muslim woman in Western culture has been a changing, evolving phenomenon. Some of the basic elements of her image congealed even before there were any real Muslim women, because the representation builds on conventions of representing alien women (pagans, foreigners, Old Testament figures already formed in Western texts before the advent of Islam. Afterward, the emphasis accorded the female image in the overall Western narrative of Islam undergoes transformations as that narrative alters.

The Muslim woman occupies a much smaller and less central place in that narrative in medieval texts than she does in the texts of the nineteenth century. Her nature, too, is different. Western concerns about Islam in medieval texts cluster around concerns other than women. The success of the world of Islam was the source of resentment in medieval outlooks which equated success with right. How could blasphemy be allowed to gain power and glory? Technological expertise, magical knowledge, and superhuman power help explain this conundrum and constitute major elements in the medieval Western narrative of Islam. The Muslim woman in medieval literature typically appears as a queen or noblewoman wielding power of harm or succor over the hero, reflecting in this the earthly might of Islamic civilization. These figures are loquacious and transgress the bounds of traditional femininity, reflecting the failure of their parent religion to inculcate proper gender roles. The rhetorical move of many medieval literary texts involving a Muslim woman is to subdue her, not to liberate her.

The basic plot of the story of the Muslim woman in medieval texts runs like this: A high-ranking noblewoman becomes attracted to a Christian man imprisoned by her father or husband and aids him in a battle between Christians and Muslims. At the end of the battle, the lady converts, transfers the father's or husband's treasures to the Christians, embraces a more passive femininity, and becomes part of the European world. Despite this obligatory transformation, the image that remains dominant is the powerful female figure that was present through most of the text. Sometimes this exuberance is manifested in the physical size of Muslim "giantesses." In other instances, it is expressed as "wanton" or intimidating sexuality of the Muslim woman, who also holds higher social rank than the Christian hero.

"The Muslim woman is being victimized" is the litany of a later age in Western discourse. There is no veil and no seclusion in her medieval representations. There is often an attempt to recuperate her as a Christian or a European, rather than an emphasis on her irreducible alienness. The notion that a (formerly) Muslim woman could enter Europe as an equal—and even more than equal—character in a story, and the desirability of her doing so, is a characteristic of medieval literature; it could never happen so easily in nineteenth-century literature.

During the centuries of early European exploration, commercial expansion, and incipient empire-building, the Western narrative of Islam expands moderately in range and sophistication. Still, interest in the Muslim woman increases only minutely in proportion to the overall discourse on Islam. Traces of the medieval legacy are detectable in some Renaissance literature, but much of the aggressive, exuberant nature of the Muslim termagants and queens in medieval stories has dissipated. The Muslim woman in European literature of the Renaissance is between myths. In some texts, the Muslim female character shows features of the "wanton" queen of old; other texts provide foretastes of the helpless damsel, a type which emerges more fully in later periods. In many texts she is constituted by rather the same gender constraints as her Western counterparts, functioning in a field of similarity and "indifference" rather than in one of "Otherness."

In the seventeenth century, the veil and the seraglio or harem enter into Western representation of the Muslim woman. The veil still appears on European women as well, and has not yet become a prop associated exclusively with Islam. The word "seraglio" surfaces in English in 1581 and "harem" in 1634 (OED). Meanwhile, across the channel, "serails" materialize on the French stage, and Muslim slave women appear in some texts. Although the Muslim woman character is still to some extent "on the loose" early in this period, the "wanton" model drops away bit by bit, and a very diminished figure emerges. Gradually, the seraglio slides into place as her setting. By the eighteenth century—but not before—it becomes the proper space of the Muslim woman in Western literary representation. The odalisque, or concubine, is the character who inhabits this new place, abject and angry or virginal and victimized, but always an oppressed creature. Though only recently confined to this cell, she is held to have always been there.

Historians, who of all folk should know better than to claim timelessness for any concept, still make such assertions as: "The harem has always pricked the imagination of Western people.... Students of exoticism and Orientalism have noted the longevity of the topos of the harem and its endurance in the face of political and cultural changes. From the earliest encounters between Christians and Muslims till the present, the harem as the locus of an exotic and abnormal sexuality fascinated Westerners" (Melman, 59-60; emphasis hers. Historians are human and may be excused for making the ubiquitous assumptions of the rest of our kind; still, it is my job here to point out mildly that none of these claims, as a matter of history, is true. Any survey of Western discourse on Islam that goes beyond the last three hundred years will not bear such statements out. The veil and the harem do not exist in medieval representations of the Muslim woman and are barely present in the Renaissance.

And yet, after the beginning of the modern era, a representation of the Muslim woman not linked to veil and harem is almost unimaginable. What causes this fascinating change of paradigm?

It is true that "the issue of women only emerged as the centerpiece of the Western narrative of Islam ... as Europeans established themselves as colonial powers in Muslim countries" (Ahmed,150). The "rise" of the subjugated Muslim woman concurred with the build-up of British and French empires in the nineteenth century, which, in subjugating whole Muslim societies, had a direct interest in viewing the Muslim woman as oppressed—even as their policies had oppressive effects on flesh-and-blood Muslim women. However, causally linking the rise of "harem discourse" to colonization proper is too specific and limiting. The question of the liberty, or lack thereof, of the Muslim woman appears as early as the seventeenth century. "I have heard that Christian ladies live with much more freedom than such as are born here," says a Muslim woman in an English drama produced in 1624 (Massinger's The Renegado). Ironically, her statement cues a misogynistic satire of English women's "liberties," and I believe the answer to the question lies in this most unexotic, homeward direction. If direct Western colonialism and administration of Muslim societies were the only factor responsible for the emergence of the narrative of the Muslim woman as victim, this narrative should not begin to emerge so early. To imagine that the first shufflings of European states to establish trading outposts in the Muslim world instituted imperialist domination overnight is to indulge in an overreaching hindsight. Because we are so familiar with the shape of Western global dominance, we may seek it as an explanatory factor in vague ways, over periods when it does not apply.

The beginning of the question of liberty for Muslim women coincides with the beginning of the whole question of liberty in Western political discourse. Before the seventeenth century, the modern vocabulary for discussing individual liberty and human rights did not exist. The dawn of the harem issue also coincides with the beginnings of a gradual but pivotal shift in Western cultural norms of femininity and gender. The position of "man" in the universe seemed to have shifted in Europe, calling everything else, including the position of woman, into question. The middle ranks of the old society were stirring into early capitalist forms of production and reorganizing the sexual division of labor; the Church was losing its grip on society; monarchies were consolidating and centralizing into the form of the modern nation-state; European commercial enterprises across hitherto unknown oceans were flourishing, bringing them into novel forms of contact with multitudes of foreign peoples and civilizations. Europe's sense of itself was changing.

An important change within the West concurrent with the earliest beginnings of its expansion into Islamic lands was the rise of the "domestic woman," the altered, specifically modern criterion for what was desirable in a female (Armstrong 1987a, 3). This new ideology of middle-class female domesticity, coming into circulation in the eighteenth century, pushed against older, aristocratic notions of the female and the family, and against working-class realities. At the same time it pushed a new Muslim woman into the field of representation as a sort of negative female ideal. This discursive tactic allowed disparate groups within changing European societies to articulate common values by giving them a single social image they could agree to disparage. The image helped create the fiction of a Western, a not-Oriental, identity—and thus to prepare a supportive culture for colonialism as it began to gather momentum.

Both the external and internal processes, both the domination of foreign lands and the remapping of gender boundaries within European societies, combine to compose the new Muslim woman in the Western imagination. I will explore how the narrative of the Muslim woman is intimately connected to dramas unfolding within "the West," as well as between the West and the Islamic Other, to try to explain this distinct breach between the older model of the exuberant and overbearing Muslim woman—the termagant—and the model of the helpless, inferior Muslim woman—the odalisque.

The explicit association of Islam with the oppression of women does not reach full fruition until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. When the Orient was Orientalized (to paraphrase Edward Said, when a vast and complex body of knowledge about the Islamic Other developed simultaneously with Western subjugation of that world, the image of the Muslim woman most familiar in the West today emerged. Relative to the growth of the discourse on Islam in general, the Muslim woman character grows all at once (as if she had eaten one of Alice in Wonderland's distending cakes into one of the overarching concerns of that discourse. Paradoxically, her figure simultaneously shrinks in subjectivity and exuberance. In the eighteenth century, the Muslim woman character turns into an abject harem slave, the quintessential victim of absolute despotism, debased to a dumb, animal existence. Then in the nineteenth century, this harem slave is rescued by the Romantic hero and recreated as the ideal of numinous femininity. The recurrent drama of incipient colonization, that of a heroic male conquest of a feminized Oriental land, is played out in literature upon the inert body of the Muslim woman. To turn to ironic use a couplet from an earlier century,

And when her city and her state was lost,
Then was her person lov'd and honor'd most.
(Tasso, 6.56)4

The Muslim woman character is "loved" and "honored" (to death) by the Romantic hero. The literature which condescends to express the most tender concern over the Muslim woman is the literature in which she is the limp shimmering object of a fetishizing male gaze and absented, if not killed outright. Romanticism inaugurates a portrayal of the Muslim woman in which these new clusters of elements are key: irredeemable difference and exoticism; intense sexuality, excessive ornamentation and association with fetish objects; and finally, powerlessness in the form of imprisonment, enslavement, seclusion, silence, or invisibility. These elements are often manifested in a kind of narrative shorthand by the veil and/or the harem. A basic plotline is the battle between the Romantic hero and a Muslim man over possession of the Muslim woman, often figured as a contest of who can penetrate the harem wall and/or her veil and be master of the gaze over her body.

From bold queens of two worlds who bully, boast, and beckon in the early texts of Western Europe, to helpless harem slaves mutely marking space for two sets of masters at the other end of history, how did the image of the Muslim woman evolve? What caused her textual presence to deteriorate so? The question requires study of the intersection between two broad swathes of Western cultural history: the discourse on Islam and the discourse on gender. At each pivotal moment, what is the contact "on the ground" between the West and the world of Islam, including the variations among differing positions within those two categories? How do these material forms of contact inform Western discourse on Islam? At the same time, what, broadly speaking, are the material conditions informing gender issues within the Western world?

These two questions touch the fundamental issue of Western self-definition, both in relation to other civilizations and in relation to "Woman," who has traditionally figured as the Other within. Against an understanding of the intersection of these two sets, I will study representations of Muslim women in Western literary texts spanning the period from the middle of the eleventh century to the middle of the nineteenth century. There are many cultural questions that may be so answered, and perhaps a personal one. Is there any way that I as a Muslim woman can deflect the debilitating impact upon me of dominant Western representations of "the Muslim woman" through a strategy of wayward readings of texts which contain her? I will suggest openings for such rereadings along the path of her history. Perhaps such a strategy may prove a means of eluding the crushing weight of this heritage while retaining its textured literary pleasures. Or perhaps it may, in the end, only resuscitate the authority of those representations. What is to be done with the history of "the Muslim woman" may emerge only after this history has been done.



“An insightful and provocative book. With an impressive knowledge of European literature from the medieval period to the mid-nineteenth century and in command of literary and feminist criticisms as well as Islamic history, Mohja Kahf unearths and revives conveniently forgotten images of Muslim women. This fascinating genealogy—relegated to oblivion, pushed in the footnotes, forced into invisibility—reveals the evolving images of the Muslim women in the West.”
Farzaneh Milani, Associate Professor of Persian and Women's Studies, University of Virginia


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