Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Decisions, Decisions...Are Middle Eastern Women "Oppressed"?

The chapter entitled "The Eternal Forough: the Voice of Our Earthly Rebellion" from Fatemeh Keshavarz's Jasmine and Stars: Reading More Than Lolita in Tehran does well to ground us in our consideration of women in the Middle East. Because both Salwa Bakr and Marjane Satrapi highlight the hardship of living female in Iran and Egypt, it is important to temper those experiences with diverse further reading and research. Keshavarz's work helps us to do that. Particularly, the author takes issue with Reading Lolita in Tehran, claiming that it "expose(s) despicable acts but...often associate(s) the root causes of these corruptions with the local religion, Islam. RLT places these incidents consistently in the familiar context of the savage, overly sexual, and duplicitous Oriental who in public projects an image of purity and piety" (Keshavarz 50). She is right when she assumes that the Western reader will readily accept this stereotype of the Muslim man. Bakr's stories that feature only oppressed or dejected women certainly affirm this notion. Satrapi, however, offers a more prismatic portrayal of the Iranian man, of Iranians in general, for that matter.

Having read a number of postcolonial works that emphasize the plight of women -- Season of Migration to the North, The God of Small Things, The Yacoubian Building, any number of texts that we have explored this semester -- I appreciate Keshavarz's perspective. Imagine, if you will, reading a cross-section of Western literature that includes only Gone with the Wind, the collected works of Morrison and Faulkner, and The Great Gatsby. If this was all you knew of American culture then you would probably think that we are also oppressive to women, and racists and classists to boot! As Said warned us in Orientalism, literature is more than an art, it's an industry, meaning that someone must decide what will be published, translated, and distributed. By his calculations, Middle Eastern texts that make it through translation and into the U.S. sometimes serve the purpose of preserving pre-existing stereotypes.

Another facet of Keshavarz's argument stems from the assumption that Iranians are not familiar with Western literature. Of course, she would notice the number of Western books available at the Iranian equivalent of Borders, but that does not mean that they are widely read by the general public. People in our own country are deprived of Western literature, for God's sake. Keshavarz is from the middle class, a cross-section of society that is deceiving in its name. The majority of people in most nations are not middle class, in fact, they are typically poor. So, when she postures herself as the average Jane going to public school, she is being disingenuous. In all fairness, though I appreciate Keshavarz's perspective, Persepolis takes care to present many sides of the Iranian story, including the historical fact of the religious regime. It is hard for me to take Keshavarz seriously in light of the information presented in Persepolis. Sure, women can defy authority and swim against the current of social propriety, but the fact that these standards of dress, behavior, and rights even exist legally is the overarching problem and the actual "elephant in the room" that Keshavarz refuses to acknowledge.


  1. Important comments. It is deliciously easy to read some of these Middle Eastern texts and decided that women are powerless. What I have noted is the amount of resilience in these women, and the models of supportive male figures who value the women in their lives. It does exist.

  2. - women (and men) in "the west" (western europe, the U.S)could be writing about being oppressed as well, but then they would be labeled "feminist" and that's (unfortunately) become taboo. If you're a feminist somewhere else, it might be seen as cool, but here the term has become rather complicated. I don't think "feminist" literature defines western women's lit. whereas maybe it does for "middle east" women's lit.

    - I'm not sure about what you mean when you say: "People in our own country are deprived of Western literature." I think I disagree with you on this one. The classics/ the canon is made up of western lit. Most everything people read in school is made up of "traditional" western lit.
    Maybe I'm misunderstanding...

  3. Also, I think you make an excellent point when you discuss how others that read U.S. American lit., and that being the only thing they know about this culture, they might think we're crazy - They'd possibly want to "save" us from savagery and oppression ;)

  4. I loved your point about others reading American literature. There are so many books in American lit. that would give a very negative connotation of what America is all about. I often wonder in this class if we are truly getting a good glimpse at the countries we read about and have opinions on simply based on the books we read. It is hard to tell if the books are simply what a single person thinks, or if this is really what the the larger groups and society feel.

  5. I really enjoyed this post! It is definitely important that we read and research many different books about and views on Iran. So far, I would pick Persepolis as my favorite; although, I have not finished Lipstick Jihad yet. But if one had just read one of these books, he might have gotten a skewed view of Iran. Reading them all helps to give perspective to each of the other writers.