Gender Studies

Muslim Women and the Politics of Representation

This paper examines the politics of knowledge production as it relates to Muslim women in western literary traditions and contemporary feminist writing, with a view to understanding the political, ideological, and economic mediations that have historically framed these representations. The meta-narrative of the Muslim woman has shifted from the bold queens of medieval literature to colonial images of the seraglio’s veiled, secluded, and oppressed women. Contemporary feminist writing and popular culture have reproduced the colonial motifs of Muslim women, and these have regained currency in the aftermath of 9/11.

Drawing upon the work of Mohja Kahf, this paper begins by mapping the evolution of the Muslim woman archetype in western literary traditions. The paper then examines how some contemporary feminist literature has reproduced in new ways the discursive tropes that have had historical currency in Muslim women’s textual representation. The analysis is attentive to the ways in which the cultural production of knowledge about Muslim women has been implicated historically by the relations of power between the Muslim world and the West.


Examining the production of knowledge related to Muslim women in historical and contemporary texts allows for an understanding of the sociopolitical mediations that historically have informed these discursive practices. This is particularly salient with the revival of Orientalist constructions of Islam as one of the by-products of the 9/11 tragedy. The resurgence of Orientalist tropes that label Islam and Muslims as barbaric and uncivilized terrorists have gained alarming currency. Muslim women are particularly marked, as media images of burqah-clad women have become the trademark of Islam’s repression. These images serve to justify all forms of military action under the trope of “liberation,” as was the earlier formula for colonial intervention and control in the Muslim world.1

Therefore, once again Muslim women’s bodies are being positioned upon the geopolitical stage not as actors in their own right, but as foils for modernity, civilization, and freedom. To what extent the continuing discourse of abject victimhood essentializes the representation of Muslim women and limits their agency is rarely questioned.2 Unraveling the complex ways in which the processes of global change and transformation implicate the cultural production of knowledge allows us to better understand the tacit modes through which power operates via discursive practices.3

In this paper, I examine the politics and economies of difference that historically have framed particular representations of Muslim women in two genres: western literary traditions and contemporary feminist writing. Selected examples will show how Muslim women enter the texts as objects of “Otherness.” Unmasking the discursive politics and dimensions of authority in the accounts produced of marginalized women is an important project in relation to developing an anticolonial and antiracist feminist critique. It is important for Muslim women to locate their own political and academic projects within these frameworks for the purpose of challenging academic and literary imperialism.

Following the work of Edward Said4 and Mohja Kahf,5 I argue that the politics of representing Muslim women has been tied to the material and ideological conditions characterizing the relationship between “the West” and Islamic societies. Historically, these relations were marked by shifts in the balance of power between these two societies. These shifts, in turn, engendered corresponding shifts within the archetypal paradigm of the “Muslim woman” as a literary invention and later as an object of the western feminist gaze.

In the first part, I draw upon Kahf’s work to help map the evolving Muslim woman archetype in western literary works. I examin the Muslim woman’s representation in medieval European and Rennaissance texts up to the colonial era of Orientalist writing and representation. In the second part, I focus upon how some of the discursive tropes and motifs used in these literary writings are reproduced in new ways in some contemporary feminist works and popular culture.

The texts through which Muslim women came to be represented during the medieval, Renaissance, and colonial periods are predominately products of the male gaze. The Muslim woman archetype in the western male literary imagination has undergone many transmutations during these historical periods, ranging from powerful and heroic early medieval queens to the slightly more wanton and sexually transgressive images of Muslim women during the late Middle Ages.6 The colonial era also produced more openly sexualized images of the Muslim woman as a harem concubine, as well as the victimized, veiled, and secluded image of the “oppressed Muslim woman.”7 The evolution of these archetypal images is intrinsically linked with the political, ideological, and imperial relationships and encounters between the West and the Islamic world.8

In the second part, I examine Muslim women’s representation through the feminist gaze, first through the transcultural production of knowledge during the colonial era, and then in contemporary feminist writing where the colonial archetype of the disempowered and victimized Muslim woman is reproduced and canonized. I then show how the tropes and motifs that Kahf identifies as having historical currency, such as the “oppressed Muslim woman” and the “Muslim maiden in need of rescue,” are similarly reproduced and invoked in these more contemporary works.

In contemporary feminist writing on Muslim women, I shift to examine the genres of travel writing and academic scholarship that attempt to portray “real” and non-fictionalized accounts. However, as I argue, the style of representation often uses “creative non-fiction” that borrows literary writing conventions to create a more “authentic” – and therefore more authorized – accounts. The examples selected fall within the genre of what has been called “imperialist feminism,” in that the representations of Third World women and Muslim women in particular reproduce colonial motifs of women as powerless victims who are silenced and voiceless.9 Finally, I conclude by commenting on Muslim women’s current attempts to create alternative knowledge and achieve greater discursive authority over how their identities are represented.

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