Friday, February 08, 2013

iOrientalism and Muslim women in comic books

by Salman Hameed

On a day of Snowmageddon in Massachusetts, here are posts from two excellent websites. One talks about images of Arab women in a video game and the other of Muslim women in comic books.

Here is Tabsir on iOrientalism - Fooling Around with Arab Princesses:
The late Edward Said lamented the biased representation of the “Oriental” in his influential Orientalism, published 35 years ago. Most of the scholarly and voyeuristic tomes he critiqued are rarely read these days, although his intellectual nemesis Bernard Lewis is well represented in your local Barnes and Noble bookstore.
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 The ugly ethnocentrism, racism and sexism that once could be found in the broad (far too broad) discourse labeled “Orientalism” is still quite evident, although moreso in the media, political punditry on the right and rantings of career Islamophobes than by serious scholars. But we are now in the digital age and iOrientalism is now propelled through Facebook, Twitter and Youtube via iphones, ipods and their technological clones. 
One Youtube video that recently appeared on a Youtube search that had nothing to do with the subject I was searching is a mock video-game fight between three hefty-bosomed and bursting-at-the-bra-straps Arab princesses and a swarthy Mike Tysonish evil guy. This appears to be a promo for Poser Pro Animation rather than a cultural statement per se. The three Arab princesses are so scantily clad that it is more the tile-glazed architecture and palm trees that orientalize than the costume or look. Of the three kung-fu trained ladies, one has red hair, one is a blond and the other is wearing what looks to me like the kind of aviator helmet worn by Amelia Earhart in the 1930s. The bully wears a leather waist band, but otherwise the shaft he was endowed with by nature is visible to the three princesses, but not to those of us viewing the video. Ironically, this parallels Said’s choice of the Gérôme’s painting that graced the cover of the original paperback of Orientalism: this features a naked boy with a snake wrapped around him and a group of grizzled Walnetto perverts staring at his organ, while we voyeuristic viewers can only see the glistening buttocks of the youth.
The “Arab princess” in the video is a makeout-makeover of the depiction of Yasmin in Disney’s Adaddin. Far from the damsel in distress, these three are damn dangerous out of dress. They not only can kick the ass who attacks them, they can knock him out cold. I suppose a preliminary look at the video could suggest that this is a feminist response to “Arab” patriarchy. As a demanding male, you should think twice before fooling around (or trying to fool around) with these three beauties. Any one of them could take you on and win. That is one message of the video. Of course, the fact that the three warrior princesses are almost naked, except for the military boots on two of them, makes this kind of “feminism” the wet dream variety of male porn addicts. As the video does not actually have a wardrobe malfunction, letting a nipple slip into view, it is pc in a formal sense. 
But let us not fool ourselves. This thoroughly sexist rendering of a so-called “Arab princess” is about the erotic manipulation of all female bodies. It is perhaps easier to accomplish this when there is also the background bias that these “Arab” women are usually veiled and compliant to male orders. But liberating women from veils, as odious as the notion of forcing a woman to cover up due to male inability to respect the natural beauty of the human body, in this video only frees them to be objects for male fantasy. 
And on the flip side, a burqa-clad super-heroine joins the world of Marvel comics. Well, it also ends up feeding many of the stereotypes of Muslim women. Here is an insightful article by Jahanzeb Dar on Islam and Science Fiction website: Female, Muslim and Mutant - Muslim Women in Comic Books:

Immediately, the gust of sand swirls into a tornado and swallows the leader’s hand and disarms him of his assault rifle. The sandstorm retracts while the Taliban leader screams and looks at his skeletal hand in horror. Finally, the Taliban rush to their jeeps and speed off from the town. The desert wind and sand transform to reveal the city’s invisible hero. 
Meet “Dust,” or Sooraya Qadir, a burqa-garbed adolescent Afghan girl who has the ability, as shown in the scene above, to shape into sandstorms and tear the skin off her enemies. She has been a member of Marvel Comic’s X-Men since her first appearance in 2002 and she currently appears regularly in the Young X-Men comic books. 
 
In the male-dominated world of comic books where female characters are depicted with large breasts and skimpy skin-tight (or lack of) clothing, it’s interesting to examine whether or not Dust and other Muslim super-heroines escape the sexual objectification and sexism that women often suffer in comic books. Are the Muslim women subjected to stereotypes? Are they doomed to the same fate of other female characters? Does the “male gaze” still apply?
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Grant Morrison, the X-Men writer who created Dust, said in an interview, “It can only happen at Marvel. As Wolverine comes closer to unlocking the dark secrets of his past, an Afghan Muslim mutant joins the X-Men. You want daring? You want different? Then meet Dust as New X-Men challenges the rules again.” Though the word “awesome” may initially spring to mind when one reads this statement, it can be strongly argued that the male gaze is still in effect. 
For those who are unfamiliar with the terminology, the “male gaze” is essentially female characters being depicted and presented in ways their heterosexual male writers, artists, and audiences would like to see them. In the case of Dust, we can make an argument for the Western male gaze: an “oppressed” Muslim girl is rescued from Afghanistan by Wolverine, a Western male mutant. Wolverine is told that the Taliban were trying to remove Dust’s burqa, obviously to molest her, and since there don’t seem to be other Muslims around to take a stand against the Taliban’s perverted behavior, who better to rescue her than Wolverine, or rather, “Western democracy?” The scenario of Dust fighting the Taliban, as admirable as it is, occurs enough times in later issues that it makes one question if this is how Western male writers, artists, and readers want to see a Muslim super-heroine, i.e. to rebel against her oppressors, the mutual enemy of the U.S. government? 
To support this argument even further, there are many factors to consider, including political context. For example, Dust makes her first appearance in New X-Men # 133 which was published in December 2002, a little over a year after September 11th, 2001. In the issue prior to her debut (issue # 132), Morrison writes a tribute to the victims of Genosha, a fictional mutant homeland, where 16 million mutants were killed. 
There were two direct references to September 11th used in Marvel’s advertising of the comic book, calling the Genosha tragedy “the X-Men’s own 9/11.” The final page of the comic book shows the X-Men team crying at their loss. Next month, in issue # 133, we open to a full page of Wolverine slaughtering Taliban militants. Even worse, we see Pakistani terrorists hijacking an Air-India plane while Professor Xavier and Jean Grey are aboard. Xavier uses his psychic abilities to convince the Pakistani hijacker, whose name happens to be Muhammad, to put down his weapon and surrender to the Indian authorities. Muhammad begins to cry and as he is arrested, he says, “It’s true, I don’t know what I’m doing with my life!” Morrison takes revenge on Muslim extremists by (1) brutally slaughtering them (via Wolverine), (2) passively using mind tricks on them (via Xavier), and (3) rescuing an “oppressed” Afghan Muslim adolescent girl and taking her home (via Wolverine again)! 
Well, almost “home.” Wolverine carries Dust back to an X-Men headquarters in India (no X-Men headquarters in Muslim countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan, I take it), where Jean Grey invites Dust to reveal herself from concealment. “It’s ok, Sooraya,” Jean says, “You can turn back into human form now.” Finally, Dust appears in her black burqa saying “Toorab! Toorab!” Wolverine remarks, “It means ‘dust.’ It’s all she says.”
Wow, the Arabic word for dust, “toorab,” is all she says? Not only does Morrison introduce us to a super-powered Muslim girl, but also to somewhat of a doll that exclaims “Toorab! Toorab!” whenever she gets excited about transforming back into human form. 
Is it possible to imagine Wolverine’s conversation with her flying to India? “So kid, what’s your story?” 
“Toorab! Toorab!” 
Dust can be easily compared to the hooded Jawa creatures from “Star Wars” who live on the desert planet of Tatooine, always bustling around and saying the same things over and over again in their alien language. 
We not only see a political bias here, which in turn justifies the Western male gaze, but we also see a female Muslim character that doesn’t have much of a personality. In other words, Dust is a token character. Morrison doesn’t even return to her character after this issue; instead he hands her over to other writers, but perhaps for the better, since they make significant improvements. 
Male dependency is another element at work here. Although one could argue that Wolverine is practically an indestructible character with his adamantium skeleton and rapid healing factor, it’s hard to believe why Dust would need any rescuing, considering her superpowers and her human enemies. If she was being recruited, the situation would be different and we wouldn’t see any sign of male dependency, but since we see a man rescue her, we assume that Dust’s superpowers are inferior: she is not nearly as powerful as male characters like Wolverine. We have seen female characters rely on their male counterparts in comic books many times before: Super Girl, Bat Girl, Spider Girl, the Huntress, She Hulk, Lois Lane, and so on. 
Importantly, there is not a single positive Muslim male character in Dust’s debut issue. There are the Taliban militants that want to molest her, and there are the Pakistani hijackers, but the Muslim women, who Morrison couldn’t possibly kill off since they are “victims” in the Muslim world, are innocent, good, and “waiting to be saved” by Western men. The racism and sexism work hand-in-hand.

If you are interested in the topic, there is a lot more in the article. It also talks about images of women in Muslim superhero series The 99 and in AK Comics, an Egyptian-based comic company considered as the first large scale super-hero genre in the Middle East.

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