Orientalism and Middle East Feminist Studies

  • Citation: Abu-Lughod, Lila. “Orientalism and Middle East Feminist Studies.” Feminist Studies 27, no. 1 (2001): 101–13.
    • Topics:
    • Country and Regional Studies
    • Keywords:
    • orientalism
    • feminist studies
    • Middle East
    • Edward Said
    • women
    • gender

The events marking the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Edward Said’s 1978 Orientalism provide an excellent occasion to reflect on the book’s impact on Middle East gender and women’s studies. In some ways Orientalism and feminist studies have, in Marilyn Strathern’s memorable phrase, an awkward relationship. [1] Despite the fact that the book is attuned, perhaps surprising for its time, to issues of gender and sexuality, its main focus lies elsewhere: the way in which the Orient has been represented in Europe through an imaginative geography that divides East and West, confirming Western superiority and enabling, if not actually constituting, European domination of those negatively portrayed regions known as “East.” [2] Orientalism was not meant to be a work of feminist scholarship or theory. Yet it has engendered feminist scholarship and debate in Middle East studies as well as far beyond the field.
In this essay I consider four ways in which Said’s work has had an impact. First, Orientalism opened up the possibility for others to go further than Said had in exploring the gender and sexuality of Orientalist discourse itself. Second, the book provided a strong rationale for the burgeoning historical and anthropological research that claimed to be going beyond stereotypes of the Muslim or Middle Eastern woman and gender relations in general. Third, the historical recovery of feminism in the Middle East, emerging from this new abundance of research has, in turn, stimulated a reexamination of that central issue in Orientalism: East/West politics. Finally, Said’s stance, that one cannot divorce political engagement from scholarship, has presented Middle East gender studies and debates about feminism with some especially knotty problems, highlighting the peculiar ways that feminist critique is situated in a global context.

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