Veils, Harems and Belly Dancers

Stereotypes of Arab women in U.S. popular culture and common conversation are the most pervasive and striking – a backdrop to almost any political, religious or social discourse.

Today, I took a taxi home, after about two minutes in, the cab driver asks, “Where are you.. eh… what are you? Like, what are you from exactly? You look different.” He seemed utterly confused.

“I am Jordanian.” I smile, calmly, and look out the window.

“Oh.” The cab driver pauses, as though he wasn’t sure exactly what I said or how to respond. “So what are they like over there? Are women treated like property?” He decides to persevere in the conversation with me.

“Can you tell me one place on earth, where women are not treated as property?” I ask.

“Well, I mean, like Iran. Women can’t go anywhere without their husbands and they can’t even drive. Like Saudi Arabia or Mecca or whatever”, he elaborates.

“No, Jordan is pretty westernized.” I didn’t know what to say at that point. So I tried to end the conversation as politely as possible.

“Well why are you so tall? I mean, you need to find some lover that’s taller than you so you can dance for him with those bells in your hands.” His laugh bellows and leaves me somewhat confounded, thankfully only a few blocks away from my destination.

Through casual conversation in a DC taxi cab, I am understood through one of two lenses – that of an oppressed woman, covered up and hidden away, or an exotic belly dancer, for the pleasure of my lover. And so my pursuit to understand the cultural mythologies of Arab womanhood continues, in particular, through Amira Jarmakani’s book titled “Imagining Arab Womanhood – The Cultural Mythology of Veils, Harems, and Belly Dancers in the U.S.” Jarmakani identifies myths that surround the definition, meaning and identity associated with being an Arab woman, suggesting that “the predominant images of Arab women in U.S. popular culture lie at two opposite poles: Arab women are either represented as erotic, romanticized, magical, and sexualized, as with most images of belly dancers or harem girls, or they are portrayed as helpless, silent, and utterly dominated by an excessive Arab patriarchy, as in representations of the veiled woman, or harem slave” (Jarmakani 4). These polar opposites are necessary and benefit the propagation of these images, because the variation in itself implies that it is an accurate observation, or that they cannot be stereotypes because there is some historical evidence that supports them. Despite history, diverse cultures of over 20 different countries in the region, and expression of strong Arab female activists during the Arab spring, the veiled woman and the belly dancer still reign in the American mind.

“Herein lies a key productive paradox in the cultural mythology of veils, harems and belly dancers in the United States: the idea that they are historically accurate and authentic representations of Arab womanhood is the lie that makes their fabrication possible” (Jarmakani 4). No matter how many times we correct these misrepresentations, and when it seems that there are different images of Arab women presenting themselves on the big screen or in mainstream news media, the stereotypes maintain a cultural authority in U.S. society and are rendered accurate by American women themselves.

For instance, I have encountered American converted Muslims in the mosque wearing the niqab (face veil), with their outfit and make up reiterating that of an exotic, sultry bedouin in the desert. The way they discuss the femininity of Arab women is in a romanticized, mysterious way, as though this myth is a fashion that can be embodied within their own religious practice. Another strong cultural myth that has captured western audiences is the culture of belly dance in the Middle East, “the bells”, risqué outfits and sexual fantasy of the harem slave. It is worth exploring this cultural phenomenon in-depth at a later time, but my point for now is that even the most progressive western women have bought into the exotic belly dancer image. Have you noticed that in Arabic restaurants in the United States, most of the women that are employed as belly dancers are actually American women? I remember attending belly dancing class when I was 21 years old, listening to my American belly dancing teacher attempt to give us a history lesson on the Middle East and the significance of this dance to Arab female identity.

It is of importance to become aware of these images, how they have effected your perspective on the need for “liberating women” through “democracy building” in the Middle East, as well as the types of representations of Arab women in mainstream media, the news and popular culture. Just take note for a moment, so that in my next blog we can break those cultural mythologies down and grow into fullness, into what it means to be an Arab woman in this country.