“Gender is not the study of what is evident, it is an analysis of how what is evident came to be,” said Maya Mikdashi at her recent 10-point reminder on studying gender in the Middle East. Unfortunately, an influential strand of observers remains steadfastly deaf to her admonition, peddling Orientalist stereotypes as insight instead. Orientalism, the academic and literary depiction of Arabs and Muslims that sustains the West’s stereotypes of this region and its people, provides a ready framework to confer both heroism and blame to the Muslim world.
Looking through this lens, these analysts identify valiant, often female, protagonists who battle oppressive institutions and figures, the latter typically male and bearded. They place the blame for misogyny in Muslim-majority countries on patriarchal and conservative religious dogma that curtails individual choice to the detriment of vulnerable communities, particularly women. The media and academia together serve the critical task of establishing a moral veneer, even imperative, for Western intervention. These interventions, or missions to civilize the Muslim man and rescue the Muslim woman, are tragically evocative of the words of feminist literary critic, Gayatri Spivak, “White men saving brown women from brown men.”