Orientalism in the Middle East Cultural Studies Essay

April 25, 2022 by Essay Writer


Orientalism is an academic concept that is frequently used in different cultural studies, art history, and even politics to introduce and explain the peculiarities of life in the Middle East, known as the Orient, from Western perspectives. Said defines the Orient not as adjacent to Europe, but as a place where the greatest and richest European colonies are located and become the root of the oldest civilizations and cultures (1). The examination of the historical and political views supported by Eastern representatives is not an easy task, especially when it is necessary to consider the cultural aspects of the case. Besides, it is hard for people to comprehend the importance of Orientalism in cases where they know only a little or even nothing about the Arab culture and the world, full of contradictions and beliefs. Said explains his intentions to investigate Orientalism as a necessity in comparing his attitudes on and knowledge of the Arab world with the ideas and thoughts developed by famous people, artists, publishers, and philosophers and find the approval of such immediate development of the discussions on the Middle East in the media (“Edward Said on Orientalism”). To succeed in his achievements and explanations, Said introduces several qualifications proving that the Orient, in comparison to Orientalism, is not only an idea but a reality that makes people think and act (5). The development of the Orient as a region with its cultures, ideas, and histories is based on power and domination inherent to its neighbors (Said 5). Finally, Said issues a call to accept Orientalism as a reality with its own weak and strong points to eliminate all myths and lies that could bother people.

Orientalism Is Not a Reality but an Idea

Many current Orientalism debates are based on Said’s book, whose main idea is the representation of the East by the West in terms of domination, power, and rules that have to be followed. The peculiar feature of this book is its author’s fearlessness and ability to identify the weaknesses of the East and the delusions of the West. The author does not want to take one position and support it on every page of his book. His interest in Middle Eastern culture and history is caused by the necessity to comprehend an unexpected power of the East and its possibility to influence events in the whole world (“Edward Said on Orientalism”). It is not enough to learn the history of the Middle East or have direct personal experience with such countries as India, Egypt, or Syria. It is necessary to compare what people think about the Middle East and clarify the reasons why such approaches and understandings are chosen. However, even the opinions and attitudes of Western representatives on the Orient and its development can vary considerably. Therefore, it is suggested to consider Orientalism not as a reality that has a beginning and an ending, but as an idea that could be spread throughout all parts of the world and combine the attitudes and knowledge of the region under discussion.

The Middle East is complicated due to its beliefs, attitudes toward life, the relations between men and women, and rights that people can or cannot use. It is easy to find several attitudes regarding the same idea and prove the importance of each of them. For example, the majority of Eastern society supports the idea that women cannot perform main roles and have to obey their men about any question or demand. At the same time, the power of men could not be recognized without women. Therefore, women play a crucial role in understanding and recognizing the power of men in society.

Orientalism is a chance to comprehend these relationships and challenges because it is interpreted as a dynamic exchange of knowledge between individual authors and three great empires, including France, Britain, and America (Said 15). However, in many countries, the Middle East is introduced as a homogeneous region with several limitations and concerns. The West uses its powers and confirms its superiority regarding the citizens of the Middle East. Orientalism is a guide and an explanation of how the life of the people in the Middle East can be recognized by the citizens of other regions.

The Orient as a Region with Its Rules and Cultural Norms

It is necessary to say that if Orientalism cannot be defined as a reality that determines the quality of human life, the concept known as the Orient is more than a real idea. It is a region with certain rules and cultural norms. It is the place that helps to define Europe, also known as the West, and the relations that could be developed between the nations (Said 1). However, even if the role of the Orient remains the same in different countries, it does not mean that all countries have the same attitude to this region.

For example, Said explains that American Orientalism and European Orientalism vary considerably because of the experiences the countries have regarding the Middle East (“Edward Said on Orientalism”). Such countries as Britain and France have had colonies in India and other parts of the Middle East. Therefore, the citizens of these countries participated in the development of the region directly and knew what to expect from the representatives of the Middle East. Americans have less direct experience with the Middle East. Their indirect experiences and opinions are based on abstractions obtained from different literary sources, works of art, and the opinions of different researchers and philosophers.

Also, Said discusses the differences that exist between American and European Orientalism regarding the power of politics and political relations. The point is that American Orientalism is more politicized (“Edward Said on Orientalism”). Though America was ready to accept the fact that such countries as Israel became free and independent, it was hard for America to understand the true price of such achievement. Americans developed their opinions about the people of the Middle East from information offered via different media sources. The Arabs had to use weapons and employ violence to protect their rights and make other countries accept their independence (“Edward Said on Orientalism”). Therefore, such concepts as terrorism, terror, power, and cruelty were associated with the Arab world. With time, in modern media, the demonization of Islam occurred (“Edward Said on Orientalism”). Said recognizes the presence of terrorism in the Middle East and explains it as a result of numerous political and economic challenges the Islamic people had to face. Orientalism offers the possibility to comprehend the nature of such challenges and opportunities in the Orient (the Middle East). The development of the Orient is the development of a whole nation with its problems, needs, and expectations.

The Orient vs. the East

The Orientalism debates also include the explanation of the difference between such terms as “the orient” and “the east.” The East is used to introduce the region from a geographical point of view. The Orient is the same as the East; still, the cultural aspects are taken into consideration. In Said’s Orientalism, the Orient was compared to a feminized East that depended on the virile power of the West. Also, it is the West that obtains all necessary techniques and representations to make the Orient visible, clear, and worthy of recognition in the world arena (Said 22).

Each century, the representation of the region was changed dramatically. For example, before Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition, the Orient was a territory with its people and rules. After the expedition and the impact of William Jones and Anquetil-Duperron, the Orient was studied from a scientific point of view when new opportunities and authorities were discovered (Said 22). Only after the Orient was recognized in the political arena, the East could be introduced as an example of how people could develop traditions, share their experiences, and prove their rights for their existence. Even though much time was spent in investigating the Middle East, there were still many things and aspects that were misunderstood or not seen by the people of the West (“Edward Said on Orientalism”). As soon as the Orient was recognized as one of the most aggressive regions full of terror and inequality, the people of the West started using the same negative attitude and criteria to judge other actions and attempts of the East to become respected worldwide. One wrong judgment and one inappropriate action were enough to create an image of the Middle East as full of rage and anger (“Edward Said on Orientalism”). Still, it is correct to define the orient as a set of references to “its origin in a quotation, or a fragment of a text, or a citation from someone’s work… or some bit of the previous imagining” (Said 177). This definition proves that it is easy for a region to gain popularity relying not on personal experiences but the opinions of other people and different outside sources.

The West defined itself as a region that was more powerful and capable of taking a leading position in comparison with the East because of its ability to control its rage. Therefore, in Said’s work, the Orient is depicted as an irrational and weak Other. Arabs are usually shown as gullible and devoid of energy and any kind of initiative (Said 38). They are said to be cruel to animals, and they are liars who always look suspicious and unfair to other people around them. Unfortunately, such attitudes and opinions could hardly be changed or improved with time because the already offered ideas have been approved for ages.

The Orientalism Debates on Knowledge and Power

In the middle of the 18th century, it became popular to share knowledge of the Middle East and introduce its customs and lifestyles through a variety of means. Additionally, it was necessary to underline the power of men in a certain society. Nevertheless, American and European Orientalists shared different opinions. The colonial experience of France and Britain about Egypt and its traditions was hard to compare with the visions developed by the Americans. In America, people did not have a chance to develop direct relations with the Arabs. Therefore, they built their opinions and attitudes to a new culture based on the information they could gather from different sources.

It was hard for people from different countries to build trustful and effective relations with the Arabs because of being afraid of their violence and power (Said 287). Men obtained an impressive volume of powers that could not be comprehended. Women were afraid of their men. They could initiate their actions, but be obliged to have permission from their men. The picture that people had of the Arab world was rather ambiguous for a long time. It was hard to come to conclusions or to build new plans concerned with the Arab world.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to promote effective comparisons and explanations of the Arab world by relying on the opinions of other people, as well as observations that could be made from movies or Hollywood cartoons like Aladdin (“Edward Said on Orientalism”). Said maintains that Orientalism offers the possibility to answer such questions as to why people try to use their preconceived notions about people’s identity and motives instead of formulating their own opinions and knowledge. Orientalism is a guide that describes the process of how people come to certain conclusions. There is no need to agree or disagree with the facts. The only thing that has to be done is to accept the facts and develop personal attitudes and knowledge. Said uses Orientalism as a possibility to consider the historical and institutional contexts of the Middle East such as the British imperial presence in the Middle Eastern colonies (213) and the European imperial powers that influenced American attitudes (294). Nowadays, the Middle East is still present as a region where such things as barbarism, violence, and some kind of charm are combined. Such a variety of emotions and attitudes could be explained by the presence of European and American Orientalism and the necessity to combine different types of knowledge regarding the power of the Middle East.

The Middle Eastern Sins

Said, as well as other writers who investigate the Middle East, its history, and development, admit that it is not an easy task to comprehend the Orient. The politics of the Middle East could easily be misunderstood because of existing judgments or misinterpretations, which can also be called sins (Davis). One of the main challenges that many analysts and researchers face is the inability to take history seriously (Davis). In other words, the historical context is not considered as opinions and knowledge of the Middle East are being formed. People are ready to use the information that they have “at hand” and neglect the actual reasons or explanations that could be given only if the past of the country is observed. Davis calls this sin as presentism that pays certain attention to the present details and current achievements instead of a thorough evaluation of past decisions and actions.

Another important aspect of understanding the Middle East is the attention to the elites and their power over ordinary people. The investigations show that public opinion does not play as crucial a role as it might. The focus on elites promotes the development of a rigid understanding of the Middle East because of the necessity to accept all political changes regarding the leaders’ needs without considering the needs of ordinary people. In such a situation, it is hard to comprehend all peculiarities of the Middle Eastern world, but use only the perspectives developed by rich and powerful people.

There is also a myth, called fundamentalism, in Islam and the Middle Eastern world (Davis). It is about the necessity to pursue causing radical Islamic politics to pay less attention to Islamic theology or Islamic law, but to focus on the basics that have been known for ages. Davis offers an analogy of this requirement in the form of members of the Ku Klux Klan, radicals who were ready to spread terror among people just to support their Christian beliefs and ideals.

Finally, one of the main mistakes made by many Americans and other people while analyzing the world of the Middle East is a binary attitude toward politics. Americans, as well as other Western analysts, view all political events in the region as either black or white. There are no other colors under consideration. It is impossible to analyze the mistakes and clarify neutral aspects. All actions and thoughts could be either good or bad. This attitude is also applicable to Middle Eastern education, health care, and different social services (Davis).

Importance of Orientalism in the Middle East

In general, there are many ways to comprehend the Middle East, learn its history, and take the lessons its powerful nation introduces. However, Orientalism remains one of the most powerful approaches for the citizens of different countries to study the Middle East, which is also known as the Orient. For a long period, the Orient has been introduced as a crucial part of European civilization and culture (Said 2). Orientalism teaches the Western civilizations how to comprehend the Middle East socially, ideologically, politically, scientifically, and even imaginatively (Said 3). While discussing the nature of the Middle East, it is also necessary to consider the impact of three forces on the understanding of the Orient. These are the Orient, the place where Arabs live; Orientalism, the method chosen for studying the nation; and Western Orientalism, the way of how Western civilizations can investigate the Middle East, its development, and relations with the world.

Said is an author who examined the world of the Middle East from different perspectives and proved that the Middle East is a complicated term that cannot be judged from one particular aspect only. There are many attitudes people could develop about Arabs. There is much knowledge people could use to investigate Arab lifestyles. Also, people should remember the mistakes that could be made in understanding the Orient (Davis). The Middle East has many sides and many colors. It is hard to consider the power and impact of all of them. Still, Orientalism is the first step that has to be taken in understanding the essence.

Works Cited

Davis, Eric. “10 Conceptual Sins in Analyzing Middle East Politics.” The New Middle East, Web.

“Edward Said on Orientalism.” YouTube, uploaded by Palestine Diary, Web.

Said, Edward, W. Orientalism. Penguin, 2003.

Literature Review #2: The Politics of Gender


Nowadays, as well as several decades ago, the politics of gender remains a crucial aspect of consideration in the Middle East. Arab women have to deal with several barriers that exist in the political, social, and cultural worlds of the region. Until the middle of the 19th century, Eastern women did not have an opportunity to write about themselves, and the understanding of women’s history was based on the materials and thoughts developed by men or the representatives of other nations (Ze’ev 157).

It is hard for people to comprehend the true essence of the women’s world without clear examples and explanations. The politics of gender is usually defined as an unfair or incomplete concept from a Western point of view. However, the male representatives of the Middle East do not find it necessary to provide their women with certain rights and develop laws and reforms to promote gender equality and power (Suad 113). The outcomes of such uncertainties or unwillingness to discuss the role of women in the modern world include the increased number of uprisings, like the Arab Spring, where the rights, freedoms, and security of women were discussed (Mounira and Zarrugh). Several years ago, women just wanted to be recognized as a group of people with rights and benefits. Still, men did not accept the challenge and made women forget and neglect their demands. Within a short period, women were ready to protect their rights and ask for personal freedoms to promote democratization and equality in the Middle Eastern society in which they have to live (Moghadam 137). Social justice, political freedoms, and the possibility of avoiding sexual terrorism—these are the main aspects of female protests that occur in the Middle East (Hafez 174).

Historical Evaluation of Women’s Rights in the Middle East

Many modern authors raise the question of the quality and appropriateness of historical sources and the choices that writers made several decades ago. It is not enough to prove that past approaches can have certain limitations. It is necessary to investigate the situation relying on a certain topic. For example, Ze’evi offers to investigate the history of women in Jerusalem during the 17th century (157). The role of women was frequently discussed several centuries ago and remains a crucial topic for discussions nowadays. However, one of the main mistakes made by Western Orientalists is the belief that the status of women is the same in all parts of the Middle East.

The history of women’s rights in the Middle East is complicated. Many representatives of the West cannot agree with the attitudes developed regarding Arab women. In the majority of cases, Orient women are treated as chattel that men can buy and sell to meet their own needs and demands (Ze’evi 159). Eugene Roger was a famous French writer who focused on the relations between genders in Lebanon. In his writing, much attention was paid to the conditions under which women were sold and the situations in which widowed women could buy men. In any event, the idea that men could buy women merely to make their desires come true should be defined as wrong and unethical. Still, Roger describes eight-year-old girls and their satisfaction with the possibility of getting married at such a young age and being under the protection of their men (Ze’evi 159).

In the 17th century, communication between men and women was not properly developed. Brides did not have the chance to know something about their future husbands, and grooms relied on information about their future wives that other people could give. The main difference between this unawareness was that men did not even care for their wives. The only thing that mattered for the Arab men was their reputation and the possibility to develop a family business, work and earn money for living and entertaining, and follow the traditions. Women did not have any particular obligations except being loyal to their husbands, keeping silence unless a man asked to break it, and taking responsibility for all household work (Ze’evi 160). There were also examples of women who had to wear bells in their hair to warn men or other visitors or inhabitants of the house about their arrival (Ze’evi 160). Women did not have the right to leave home without their husbands, to speak to different people without the permission of their husbands, or to draw conclusions or share thoughts without their husbands’ approval. Women were not able to learn how to write or read. As a rule, such orders and restrictions were explained by Arab men’s jealousy. Also, there were cases where Arab women were ready to betray their husbands for personal, religious, or political reasons. Therefore, men needed to keep a strict hold on their women, stay calm, remain safe.

However, even though women were under the control of their husbands or fathers, they were not completely deprived of all rules. For example, women could ask for a divorce based on such reasons as mistreatment, the husband’s impotence or disappearance for a long period, or attempts to befit the woman’s status in society (Ze’evi 165). It was also important for a woman to have legal approval of the reasons for a divorce because divorced women had fewer opportunities to find a good husband again unless good recommendations and explanations could be given.

After a divorce or their husbands’ deaths, many women received money and property from the family. Therefore, such thoughts as complete dependence on husbands or the inability of a woman to exist alone should be disproved. Even in the 17th century, there were rights that Arab men could not disregard.

Citizenship Laws regarding Women in the Middle East

Citizenship status in the Middle East is a serious question for discussion. To be a citizen in the Orient means to be a person who can take into consideration a set of practices, including cultural, political, judicial, and economic aspects, and become a competent member of society (Joseph 107). However, each region needs to have a criterion according to which political, economic, and other aspects may be identified. Therefore, Joseph offers to promote the development of citizenship laws to define the political purpose, distributing powers, and various assigning statuses based on civic myths and obligations (Joseph 107).

For example, in Lebanon, civic myths are used to prove regional economic liberalism, social conservatism, religious freedoms, and gender equality (Joseph 108). Kinship is one of such myths that are recognized and respected by the citizens. It is based on an imagined biological system of recruitment with the help of which it is possible to create birth groups, further creating frames that make it possible to develop different attitudes to certain groups of people and introduce the rules which have to be followed. Kin relations predetermine the attitudes to women considerably.

The investigations of Joseph show that, in Lebanon, women are usually involved in discussions regarding sectarian pluralism and its ability to define the quality of life in the Middle East and the role of the government. The creation of sects was explained as a possibility for introducing numerous attitudes to the same question, prove the emergence of each of them, and identify what has already been done, what can be done, and what has to be done at any cost. Sectarian pluralism is used to explain the development of gender inequality in the Middle East. A high priority is usually given to a unified civil family code (Joseph 113). Therefore, many feminists and supporters of women’s rights fail to prove their positions but focus on weakening the sectarian pluralism that defines the standard of living. Family law is misunderstood by the representatives of the Middle East because of the presence of numerous sects with their own rules and expectations. Therefore, it is hard for the representatives of Western civilizations to judge and comprehend life in the Middle East because the Middle Eastern citizens themselves could not define one group of standards that has to be followed.

Regarding the instability of citizenship laws in the Middle East, the status of women in society remains unstable as well. Men want to protect their freedoms and promote safety and order in their lives. Women are used by men to meet their cultural, social, and personal needs, and the law is used to cover these needs. Though women are deprived of freedoms and choices, they know what disobedience means and how to begin protecting their rights (Joseph 123). Still, to become confident and able to protect her interests and demands, any woman has to learn how to distinguish myths from reality and how to solve urgent problems and protest against hegemonic oppressive forces that are spread throughout society (Hafez 176).

Importance of Distinguishing Myths from Reality

There are three main aspects to be taken into consideration when the inequality between men and women in the Middle East is discussed. First, people believe that Arab men have better opportunities and freedoms in society in comparison to Arab women (Hafez 179). Second, the development of marriage relations differs among men and women because men enjoy life security promoted in families, and women have to obey the rules determined by other family representatives (Hafez 179). Finally, women remain culturally and socially marginalized (Hafez 179). These are three main reasons why women need changes and re-organization of the society in which they have to live every day. With time, it becomes harder to control women and their desires than it was several decades ago. Women can weigh their opportunities and choose what is appropriate to them. Women use media to gather information and develop comparisons. Besides, men are so involved in the socio-economic development and the promotion of small and large businesses in their countries (Hafez 179) that they neglect the experience and knowledge their women may get.

There is a myth regarding the modernization of women in the Middle East. Western people believe that Arab women were not ready and eager to protest until the 2000s. However, this view has two sides. On the one hand, it is true, Arab women were not ready to demonstrate their rights and demands openly before the 2000s. On the other hand, it is wrong to believe that women were not ready for protests. The first steps of female modernization were taken in the middle of the 1900s when Muslim women strove to get an education and obtain recognition as a certain social group (Hafez 180). Women prepared themselves to speak freely and learned how to use their bodies as one of the main communicative means in case they could not use their mouths.

Female Bodies and Female Virtue

Female marginalization from existing political and democratic life is possible nowadays due to the possibility to target on the female body and rely on its power (Hafez 173). There were many cases in Middle Eastern history when women had to use their bodies to protect themselves, to prove their positions, and to provide themselves with a safe future. The case of Samira Ibrahim proved that society could use female bodies to make them regret every incorrect step is taken (Hafez 173). A body is defined as an instrument to humiliate women in such a case. The same cases addressed to men could be hardly observed in history. Therefore, much attention was paid to such a case to gather enough grounds for further uprisings. However, even unsuccessful past experiences did not help to stave off judgments and maltreatment of modern women. Several years ago, the case of an unknown woman in a blue bra shocked millions of people. Men proved that they could use their power and strength against women who did not want to recognize their actual place in society. Women, in turn, we’re ready to use any possible means to be heard and be supported. Female bodies are symbols of female virtue and identity that may be regarded as the only form of protest that could be available to women (Hafez 176). Though it is not always easy for women to learn how to use body language, they are ready to make the attempt and to change the world they have to live in.

Only one question remains. If women can use their bodies as the vehicle to speak freely, why were they not able to take the same steps several centuries ago and avoid misjudgments and humiliations? The point is that not many historical sources were written by women. Men were the authors of the sources that modern people can use nowadays (Ze’evi 157). The cases of protests could have occurred in past centuries. Still, they may be not enlightened properly because of the gender issue in authorship. Therefore, the concept of the female body as the means of protests against gender inequality in political, social, and cultural aspects may have a long history with several branches.

The Arab Spring as a Result of Gender Inequality

The Arab Spring is still considered one of the most effective and unforgettable events in the Middle East. It was a cultural breakthrough that touched upon the political life of the region regarding the existing gender inequality issues and concerns (Charrad and Zarrugh). In 2011, women took their chances and protected their rights in the region of Tunisia. Women were ready to perform the roles of bright politicians, policymakers, activists, journalists, and photographers to testify to their concerns and the necessity of living in a world full of prejudices and inequalities (Charrad and Zarrugh). It is necessary to admit that all events and activities demonstrated by women during the Arab Spring had legal explanations and grounds.

Family law and the rules women have to follow concerning their marriage, divorce, child-rearing, and family heritage play an important role in the Middle East. The latest changes were crucial for women because they obtained many benefits and opportunities. For example, the abolition of polygamy was achieved (Charrad and Zarrugh). Not many men’s privileges were observed in family relations because women became able to choose husbands, to ask for a divorce, and promote their rights over children. Women could study and use their knowledge to protect their rights. However, it is necessary to admit that, in some families, the power of traditions remained integral, and women were not ready to change everything in their lives. In other words, some women still like the idea of being dependent on their men, and it is wrong to believe that all women in the Middle East, as well as in other countries, try to avoid the necessity of dependence on their men.

Therefore, it is necessary to consider the events of the Arab Spring in the context of family law and personal status codes that are developed by families (Charrad and Zarrugh). It can happen that a woman may not need her independence and many rights to be used to improve her life. Still, it is necessary to introduce such guarantees and explanations as support women, their rights, and the possibility of avoiding sexual or other forms of harassment in the Middle East (Moghadam 140).

Future Female Modernization and Democratization

Nowadays, democratic and modernizing movements of women to support their rights and freedoms have become a frequent event with several unpredictable outcomes. In some regions of the Middle East, female movements are supported and bring certain results. In some regions, like the case with the woman in a blue bra, women’s attempts to change something and demonstrate their abilities could be misunderstood and punished. Democratization and modernization of women’s rights turn out to be a question of time. Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia are some countries where considerable changes in gender politics have already taken place (Moghadam 141). However, all authors mentioned in this literature review support the idea that new changes could be observed because Arab women do not want to stop as they have already recognized the power of education, Orientalism, and the relations they may develop in their families and society. In the 17th century, the marginality of women and men was a burning question because of the impossibility to gather credible sources and develop a specific system (Ze’evi 171). In the 18th–19th centuries, women did not find it necessary to change something because of the. In the 20th century, family law and citizenship law were promoted (Joseph 107) and resulted in numerous uprisings and movements known as the Arab Spring (Charrad and Zarrugh; Hafez 172).

Works Cited

Charrad, Mounira M., and Amina Zarrugh. “The Arab Spring and Women’s Rights in Tunisia.” e-International Relations, Web.

Hafez, Sherine. “The Revolution Shall Not Pass-through Women’s Bodies: Egypt, Uprising, and Gender Politics.” Journal of North African Studies, vol. 19, no. 2, 2014, pp. 172-185.

Joseph, Suad. “Civic Myths, Citizenship, and Gender in Lebanon.” Gender and Citizenship in the Middle East, edited by Suad Joseph, SUP, 2000, pp. 107-136.

Moghadam, Valentine M. “Modernising Women and Democratisation after the Arab Spring.” Journal of North African Studies, vol. 19, no. 2, 2014, pp. 137-142.

Ze’evi, Dror. “Women in 17th-Century Jerusalem: Western and Indigenous Perspectives.” International Journal of Middle East Studies, vol. 27, 1995, pp. 157-173.

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