The Arab myth of Western women

 
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By Khaled Diab

Unflattering as some Western stereotypes are of Arab men, Western women also get a bad press in conservative Arab circles.

16 November 2010

My previous article explored unflattering Western stereotypes of Arab men. As if to confirm the popularity of this archetypal image, many commenters betrayed so obvious a fondness for the Arab baddie that they could hardly bring themselves to admit that there were other alternatives.  Amid this polarised debate, a number of commenters, including WeAreTheWorld, suggested that Arab stereotypes of Western women would also be a worthwhile subject to explore.

Just as Arab men are stereotyped and pigeonholed in the west, Western women hover somewhere between myth and fantasy in the Arab world. “We’re loose, obsessed with sex, batter our men, are bad mothers, and can’t cook,” my wife joked, summing up pithily some common Arab prejudices. Then she cracked her whip as I cowered in the corner, huddled over my bowl of wood shavings.

Like the traditional orientalist image of the harem, Arab views of the contemporary Western woman are also highly sexualised. In fact, many Arab men, particularly those with little contact with the West, have this fantasy of Western women that comes straight out of Playboy magazine or the grainy images of pirate pornos.

In this view, Western women are oversexed, promiscuous and have revolving doors in their knickers. “A typical Egyptian male is a firm believer that any Western woman is an easy catch and would not mind at all having sex with complete strangers,” observes Ahmed, an old college friend.

This can lead to hassle and harassment for Western women travelling or living in Egypt and some other Arab countries, although in places like Yemen men will either just stare or the Western woman will become invisible like the local women, as my wife found while travelling alone through the country. Of course, given the potent mix of sexual repression, poverty, ignorance, the growing disappearance of the traditional model of respect for women and the failure to replace it with a modern equivalent, you don’t have to be Western to be harassed on the streets.

Some men will hit on Western women out of the conviction Ahmed described, while others who understand the West better will do so out of simple opportunism, hoping that they will “get lucky” with a woman from a society where sex does not carry the same heavy restriction for her as it does for her Arab sisters. In fact, some men want the best of both worlds: a bit of fun with Western women, then settling down with a traditional local woman.

Another form of opportunism is the allure of escape. “I think sometimes it’s not the Western woman who’s so attractive, as the lure of her passport. It sometimes seems to spell freedom,” observes Angela, a Jerusalem-based acquaintance.

Among certain men, this myth of the Western Aphrodite is complemented by another delusion: that Western women find the men in their own countries too emasculated and weak and so prefer a ‘real man’. In fact, some blokes I’ve met entertain the belief that Egyptian men have a good reputation among Western women for their virility and sexual prowess.

This misperception is reinforced in their minds by the fact that some women do come to Egypt for sexual tourism or get caught up in whirlwind relationships filled with old-fashioned romance, expressions of undying love, passion and charm. “He swept me off my feet with his sweet words, compliments, attentive gestures, romance, and warmth,” said one European woman who got drawn to a charmer with a darker side.

So, which Arabs have the most negative views of Western women? Well, probably those from the most conservative societies. “From my personal experience, the worst Arab men I found were the ones from Saudi Arabia,” a journalist with a leading Portuguese newspaper told me. “They think that all foreign women are prostitutes and they try to treat them like that.”

What is behind this belief that Western women are somehow sex-crazed? Part of it relates to the conservative Arab fixation on women’s sexuality in general. According to this outlook, women’s sexual appetites are so insatiable that, if they are left to their own devices, they turn into uncontrollable nymphomaniacs and temptresses luring men to crash into the rocks of lust.

As every woman is carrying a volatile sex bomb that will explode upon contact with freedom, in Arab societies where women have entered the workforce en masse and reached the highest academic and professional echelons, they have often done so by emphasising their ‘virtuousness’, that their independence hasn’t made them ‘bad women’.

A similar phenomenon is occurring in other modernising patriarchal societies, such as India. Even in the West, the pioneering women in academia and the professions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries often lived like nuns.

It should be pointed out that many religious Arabs, including women, do not believe that Arab women are oppressed, but that they enjoy a different, and superior, kind of liberty. In an interesting turning of the tables, conservatives are reciprocating the western interest in the position of Arab and Muslim women by examining the “oppressed” status of the western woman.

In an apparent bid to answer the charges of Western orientalism, the Saudi-based conservative Islamic thinktank, al-Medinah Centre for the Study of Orientalism, which has developed its own brand of ‘occidentalism’, has a section dedicated to Western women. Another conservative Islamic site targeted at women asks “who will end the injustice against Western women?”

“How can they [the West] demand the ending of what they see as injustice against Saudi women, when their own women are drowning in seas of injustice?” asks the author, pointing, paralleling his Western counterparts, to the prevalence of domestic violence and rape in the west – as well as pointing to questionable surveys which show that the majority of western women actually wish to return to the home.

This column appeared in the Guardian newspaper’s Comment is Free section on 10 November 2010. Read the full discussion here.

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Do no haram

 
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By Khaled Diab

A new search engine claims to filter out ‘haram’ (sinful) content for the faithful. Should non-believers now demand their own version – let’s call it Godpile – that blocks religious content?

10 September 2009

We live in tough times for the faithful, for vice has gone virtual and a worldwide web of sin has been weaved online. The fleshpods of the internet make the fleshpots of Egypt seem tame in comparison, and all the godlessness online would make the throne in heaven shake in rage.

Luckily, some good Samaritans have come to the rescue. A few months ago, a group of Orthodox rabbis launched Koogle, the kosher search engine.

Perhaps not to be outdone, a Muslim equivalent has also just been launched in time for Ramadan, a time when virtuousness is an extra-special virtue.  I’mHalal claims to filter out haram or sinful content, and may soon promote halal or virtuous content through special widgets.

“Our goal is to create a safe environment for Muslims to search the worldwide web,” said the search engine’s creator Reza Sardeha, an Iranian-Kuwaiti based in the Netherlands. In addition to blocking sexually explicit content, I’mHalal is also progressively excluding content deemed to be haram by selected Islamic scholars.

Secular and progressive Muslims are not amused. “Muslims are not children. What’s the point of free will if someone else always decides for you what’s right and what’s wrong?” believes Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian journalist based in New York.

Even some devout Muslims find it objectionable. “Two words I’m absolutely sick of: halal and shari’a – and coming from a practicing Muslim that’s saying something. One more Halal invention and I’m converting to Scientology,” said one commenter on Facebook discussion.

Despite the protests that this amounts to censorship, Sardeha insists that: “We have absolutely no intention of being a dictatorial search engine” and that I’mHalal is not intended to be a “political censor”.

But determining what is sinful is no easy feat. Halal, like its cousin kosher, is pretty straightforward when it comes to diet. The overwhelming majority of Muslims accept that eating pork and drinking alcohol is haram (sinful). Of course, many are willing to run the risk of divine retribution (“vengeance will be wine”?) to savour the joys of intoxication, but even if a flying pig landed beside them on a desert island, they might well not eat it.

However, beyond the bread-and-butter issue of food, determining what is halal is wrought with difficulty. In fact, it could spark a theological controversy and force this search engine, which is currently targeted at “moderate Muslims”, to install varying levels of virtue and vice.

For instance, like Judaism, the strictest interpretations of Islam ban “graven images”, not to mention poetry and song. Should an Islamic search engine, then, block YouTube, TV channels and all embedded images on a page?

How about non-halal views? Should a search engine like this not return results that contradict Islamic orthodoxy, are critical of Islam, or advocate atheism? Although I understand why people adhere to a faith and take a more nuanced view of religion than many other non-believers, I write plenty of stuff that would be considered haram.

Luckily for me and open-minded Muslims,  I’mHalal does not seem to have blocked my writings questioning Islam and religion, such as my guides to Ramadan for the non-believer and the drinker, or my piece on atheism in Islam.

Although I don’t like the idea of divine or worldly censorship, my belief in freedom of choice means I cannot object to self-censorship of this sort. The danger is that, once the technology is perfected, theocratic regimes, such as in Saudi Arabia or Iran, could force citizens to use it and block other alternatives.

But as the genie is now out of the bottle, at this rate we may soon have search engines designed to answer people’s spiritual questions modelled on the Ask Jeeves format, possibly named Ask Jehovah or Ask Allah. Since there seems to be a growing market for niche search engines, may be we’ll soon get one for atheists, perhaps it could be called Godpile, which blocks religious content. Personally, I wouldn’t use Godpile, just as I wouldn’t use I’mHalal, but there might be a market for it out there.

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