9/11 saw an influx in popularity of novels about Muslim women and, inevitably, white Western women writing a large portion of them. It’s become a trend amongst publishers to depict veiled women whose faces are further obscured by convenient shadows or coy glances.
Cherry Moteshar’s “Unveiled,” is representative of the type of narrative and attitudes undertaken in writing Muslim and/or Middle Eastern women. The tagline reads ‘One woman’s nightmare in Iran: a harrowing personal story that unmasks a woman’s enslavement…and a country’s shame.’ The alignment of a personal story with an entire country’s shame is an uncomfortable one and already outlines the approach of ‘here is a story about one woman who suffered, as all women in Iran suffer.’
Betty Madmoody (whose own novel “Not Without My Daughter” was written in a similar vein as she described her escape from an abusive husband in Iran) provides the quote for the front jacket stating, ‘I was compelled to read on…it is my hope and prayer that Cherry’s documentation will make a difference for all people of Iran.’ Even though Betty thinks Cherry is hot shit, as far as I’m aware, Cherry hasn’t brought about the liberation she so desperately craves in Iran. Iranian women as a whole are sunk in the boat Cherry sets sail upon, a tale about oppression, degradation and struggle only.
The title itself, ‘Unveiled,’ demonstrates the prevailing attitude amongst white Western women and their approach to Muslim brown women. White women are convinced there is a need to metaphorically (and I suspect sometimes literally given numerous incidents of forcible unveiling) ‘lift the veil’ on some kind of truth that aims at liberation for the Muslim women. This is a particularly insidious approach because it assumes the complete passivity and compliance of Muslim women.
These type of covers, then, use a double whammy of exoticisation and mystification to facilitate an extension of dehumanisation that incorporates numerous methods. The steady proliferation of veils in popular Western media has turned them into a symbol of Muslim women, replete with brimming oppressions and tortures. Coupled with smoky eyes and thick eyebrows, these type of images represent simultaneous exoticisation and mystification; the mystification is compounded by the same narrative of oppression being churned out time and time again, resulting in a complete obfuscation of any remnant of lived experiences.
The body as assault ground
The exoticisation is rooted in sexual fetishization of what has become, in representational terms, an unknowable object. Another facet of that fetishization is torture porn where female Muslim bodies become an assault ground. In “Afghanistan: Where God Only Comes to Weep,” Siba Shakib’s narrative involved a young girl who has her village bombed, is forced into marriage in order to pay off her brother’s debts, sells her body, becomes a beggar, attempts suicide and sees the Taliban take control in the region. Whilst written by a woman of colour, the narrative still plays into the stereotype of Muslim life outside of the West as characterised by unrelenting oppression and hardship. Characters aim for an indeterminate better future, but, women face overwhelming wave after waves of struggle. This, however, is the most popular type of narrative sold in the West about Muslim women.
There’s a reason the likes of “The Kite Runner” and “A Thousand Splendid Suns” have been bestsellers here in the West. They act as proof of the oppression of Muslims and Muslim women specifically, regardless of whether they are written by native authors. Chimanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk on how “there is no single story” is applicable here as whilst Shakib or Hosseini’s stories will likely be accurate or relevant for someone and will have positive elements of representation or criticism of Western imperialism, it is still the case that the context in which they are written (a post-9/11 world bent on the demonization of Islam) makes it the prevalent writing style and most famous type of representation.
Thus, in addition to the sexualisation and objectification of women, the fetishization and propagation of torture porn adds further dimensions to the concept of the simultaneously unknowable and constructedly knowable Muslim female body. In other words, Muslim women are not represented in these type of novels, so much as they are constructed in the eyes of Western readers who see what they have been told to see.
Speaking for, above and over Muslim women
A special mention needs to be reserved for Jean Sasson who has seen great success with her numerous novels about Muslim women. Sasson lived in Saudi Arabia for 12 years and is riding the cash cow of writing torture porn about oppressed Muslim women. Her Goodreads bio quotes one of her books in which she is described as writing ‘the first books to bring to the western world the shocking stories about life for women in Saudi Arabia.’ Sasson has Columbus-ed her way into narratives about Saudi Arabian life and, given her back catalogue, is clearly going to milk this for all it’s worth. One particular novel is entitled “American Chick in Saudi Arabia” and has a nice little spin on the traditional woman-wearing-a-veil cover by having a white, blonde haired, blue-eyed woman on the front. This woman is not mysterious and instead looks demure and hides a small part of her face coyly. She can be best characterised by what she is not – not a woman of colour, not scared, not teary eyed, not mysterious and not unknowable.
This is in contrast to the cover for Sasson’s “For the Love of a Son” where a veiled woman has half her face obscured. She looks into the distance, scared at what is to come. Both novels depict violence against women, the former details the escape of a white woman from an abusive situation, whilst the latter depicts the violence and abuse carried out by a husband and leaves a forlorn wife searching for her son as the Taliban come to power. The figure of the white woman continually escapes the torture whilst Muslim, brown women are stiflingly trapped in their countries lurching from abuse to abuse.
“Love in a Torn Land” details ‘the true story of a freedom fighter’s escape from Iraqi vengeance’ and the veiled woman’s face isn’t shadowy, likely because she escapes the other brutish brown people. Her most famous novel is “Princess,” the first in a trilogy which carries the tagline of “A True Story of Life Behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia” and the descriptor “My life inside one of the richest, most conservative kingdoms in the world.” My guess is that she doesn’t mean the United States of America.
Sasson has built a career out of writing tales of oppression brown Muslim women face in Middle Eastern countries, with the occasional novel about white women visiting and then escaping that same oppression. The narrative of oppression is one used to further demonise brown Muslim men and prolong the status of Muslim women as empty vessels who bear abuses and hardships as part of their nature.
I don’t understand all the reasons behind why writers like Sasson are so obsessed with what is behind the veil and attempt to engage in a process of unveiling. I suspect it’s because they can’t bring themselves to see Muslim women as autonomous human beings who don’t always face untold oppression in Muslim countries. I suspect it’s because they can smugly reinforce their own sense of superiority whilst maintaining their concern for the downtrodden Muslim woman, claiming to speak ‘for’ Muslim women and actually shouting over them.
The sexual fetishization, torture porn and relentless oppression narratives rife in these books are barriers constructed by largely Western writers against Muslim women of colour. Instead, white women are digging away at some sort of hidden ‘truth’ or deeper meaning which manifests in a metaphorical unveiling that reveals more about the reader than it does about the subject or people it purports to represent.
Even ‘represent’ appears to be too strong a word; this trend of writing about Muslim women is barely even representation but a frenzied, grossly insensitive and crude attempt at ripping off self-constructed layers of depiction. The figure of the Muslim woman as represented in these type of novels is less of an object and more of a palimpsest, with oppression and torture repeatedly written on the body by those who are far removed from actually being a Muslim woman.