Critique: Critical Middle Eastern Studies,
Vol. 14, No. 2, 223–237, Summer 2005
The War on Terror, Feminist Orientalism
and Orientalist Feminism: Case Studies
of Two North American Bestsellers
Simone de Beauvoir Center for Women’s Studies, Concordia University, Montreal, Canada
Since the 11 September 2001 events and US initiation of its war on terror, ‘Islamic
fundamentalism’ has attracted major attention and become the center of many political
controversies. A main focus in the debates over Islam concerns the situation of women in
Muslim countries. These debates often revolve around a major theme: Muslim women as
victims of religious dogma. While it is true that some conservative interpretations of
Islamic religious texts are misogynist, many Muslims are strong advocates of women’s
rights, both inside and outside the Muslim world. Naturally, the latter are concerned about
the simplistic and generalized ways in which criticisms of the status of women under Islam
are formulated and the context in which these issues are raised. For example, in the
aftermath of 11 September, US President George W. Bush has frequently campaigned to
save the ‘civilized’ world from ‘evil.’ In the case of Afghanistan, military action gathered
support on the basis of a ‘feminist’ cause—defending the rights of oppressed Afghan
women. It is this criticism of the position of Muslim women for the purpose of war
propaganda that is worrisome and needs to be examined. This article discusses both
feminist Orientalism and Orientalist feminism. The former refers to Orientalists who used
women’s rights as an excuse to legitimate their colonial presence and their modern version
such as the current neo-conservatives who raise support for war in defense of women’s
rights. Orientalist feminism, in contrast, is a modern project and a type of feminism that
advocates and supports particular foreign policies toward the Middle East.
In this article, two books that have become bestsellers in North America will be
reviewed to analyze the ways in which feminist Orientalism and Orientalist feminism
come together. I begin with a discussion of the ‘feminist Orientalism’ that informs both
books from a historical perspective. Then I review the post-colonial era in which
Orientalist feminism has inspired a genre of books that purport to defend women’s rights
but are steeped in classic Orientalist stereotypes. In the aftermath of 11 September,
feminist Orientalism and Orientalist feminism have come together to raise support for the
Correspondence address: Roksana Bahramitash, Simone de Beauvoir Institute, Concordia University – Annex
MU, 1455 de Maisonneuve West, MU 201-3, H3G-1M8, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
ISSN 1066-9922 Print/1473-9666 Online/05/02000223-15 q 2005 Editors of Critique
neo-conservative agenda to stir anti-Muslim sentiment in North America as well as to
promote the war on terror. These two books are Nine Parts of Desire by Geraldine Brooks
and Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Naﬁsi.1
Although both these books have earned considerable academic and media attention
because they are perceived as ‘feminist,’ their popularity is linked to the ways in which
they reinforce popular stereotypes of Muslims as backward and primitive. Furthermore,
they have helped to create and to maintain a widespread (albeit factually erroneous) notion
that Muslim women are victims of an inherent misogynism in Islamic tradition. These
books are examples of a type of feminism that is neither new nor rare. Borrowing from
Edward Said’s Orientalism,2 Parvin Paydar has given a sophisticated understanding of
Orientalist feminism. In her study of the role of Iranian women in public spaces, Women
Q1 and the Political Process in Twentieth Century Iran, she analyzes three characteristics of
feminist Orientalism.3 First, it assumes a binary opposition between the West and the
Orient: The Occident is progressive and the best place for women, while the Muslim
Orient is backward, uncivilized, and the worst place for women. The second characteristic
of feminist Orientalism is that it regards Oriental women only as victims and not as agents
of social transformation; thus it is blind to the ways in which women in the East resist and
empower themselves. Therefore, Muslim women need saviors, i.e., their Western sisters,
as in the case of Afghan women, who, always being covered, are seen as unable to become
agents of their own liberation. Even President Bush, not a man known for advocacy of
feminist causes, has spoken about the need to save Afghan women. The third aspect of
feminist Orientalism assumes that all societies in the Orient are the same and all Muslim
women there live under the same conditions.
The theoretical analysis in this article borrows from Laura Nader, whose seminal 1989
article brought together Antonio Gramsci’s concept of hegemony with Michele Foucault’s
notions of ‘true discourse’ and ‘positional superiority.’4 The negative images of Islam and
Muslims that are dominant in North America can best be understood through Gramsci’s
concept of hegemony. Gramsci argues that hegemonic knowledge is a system of thought
that is formed over time and that is representative of the interests of the dominant class that
manages to universalize its own beliefs and value systems to subordinate classes.5 Such
beliefs are formulated and reformulated by the intellectual elites, the ‘organic’
intellectuals of the dominant class, and result in controlling structures that are imposed
through ‘civil society’ rather than through the state. Negative stereotypes of Muslims as
part of the dominant ideology of North America are reinforced through institutions
independent of the state such as the mainstream mass media. More recently, the
1 Geraldine Brooks (1995) Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women (New York:
Anchor/Doubleday); and Azar Naﬁsi (2003) Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books (New York: Random
2 Edward Said (1978) Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books).
3 See Parvin Paydar (1995) Women in the Political Process in Twentieth Century Iran (Cambridge: Cambridge
4 Laura Nader (1989) ‘Orientalism, occidentalism and the control of women,’ Cultural Dynamics:
An International Journal for the Study of Processes and Temporality of Cultures, 2(3), pp. 1 – 33.
5 Antonio Gramsci (1971) Selections from the Prison Notebook, Quinton Hoare & Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (Eds)
(New York: International Publishers).
The War on Terror, Feminist Orientalism and Orientalist Feminism
neo-conservative agenda has strengthened these negative stereotypes to justify its foreign
policy in the Middle East.
Gramsci’s analysis of hegemony can be complemented by Foucault’s analysis of the
way in which the ‘truth’ about Muslims and Islam is formulated according to the social
structure of power relations. Foucault’s notion of ‘true discourse’ refers to a discourse that
is restrictive and exclusive of alternative conceptions of reality.6 Such discourse excludes
concepts that could bring understanding of how different forms of power can operate.
Thus, negative stereotypes of Muslims have become part of the dominant discourse.
Gramsci and Foucault agree that a hegemonic relationship is established ‘not
through force or coercion, nor necessarily through consent, but most effectively by
way of practices, techniques, and methods which inﬁltrate minds and bodies, tastes,
desires . . .’7 Nader, in bringing Gramscian-Foucauldian concerns together with those of
Said, argues that the hegemonic discourse dictates a realm that deﬁnes the relation
between the East and the West in such a way that the West is located as a ‘positional
superior’ to the East.8
When looking at how this theoretical conceptualization operates with respect to
feminism, it is helpful to go back to Gramsci’s idea that hegemonic knowledge is not only
successful in forming an ideological base to protect the interest of the powerful elite but
can also engage the opposition successfully in such a way as to serve hegemony. In the
case of Orientalist feminism, the very same feminism that technically is critical of
hegemony actually becomes a tool to reinforce hegemony. Consequently, in the context
of post-11 September, Orientalist feminism has complemented the current military
agenda of US foreign policy while fueling racism against Muslims, even in North
America, where immigration from the East has led to the establishment of several large
urban communities of Muslims.9 Books written by Oriental feminists essentialize Islam as
a religion and portray Muslim women only as victims; those by authors such as Brooks and
Naﬁsi became bestsellers because they reinforce the message that the political elite seeks
to convey. Simultaneously, such books make it difﬁcult for Muslim women, both in North
America and Muslim countries, to defend their rights as citizens as well as their gender
rights. Before analyzing the books by Brooks and Naﬁsi, in the dominant discourse which
has brought Orientalist feminism and feminist Orientalism together it would be helpful to
review the historical roots of feminist Orientalism.
Feminist Orientalism during the Colonial Era
Western political domination over the Muslim world and military action against it
throughout the colonial period was legitimized on the assumption that Muslim societies
were inferior to those in the West. Civilizing the Orient through whatever means was
deemed appropriate and was the pretext under which colonization of the Middle East and
6 Michel Foucault (1972) The Archaeology of Knowledge, A. M. Sheridan (Trans.) (New York: Pantheon Books).
7 B. Smart (1989) ‘The politics of truth and the problem of hegemony,’ in: David Couzenshoy (Ed.) Foucault:
A Critical Reader (New York: Basil Blackwell), pp. 157 – 174.
8 Nader, ‘Orientalism, Occidentalism and the control of women,’ pp. 1–33.
9 For an interesting analysis of how feminist Orientalism manifested itself against Muslims in the media of
Montreal, see Yasmin Jiwani (2004) ‘Gendering terror: representations of the Orientalized body in Quebec’s
post-September 11 English-language press,’ Critique, 13(3), pp. 265 – 291.
North Africa took place. Historically, the status of women was invoked as an indication of
the Muslim world’s backwardness, even though in the late nineteenth and early twentieth
centuries women in Western countries had few legal rights and were not allowed to vote.
Lord Cromer, the British colonial governor of Egypt (1883 – 1907), illustrates the double
standards inherent in early Western attitudes: On the hand, he was critical of Muslim
practices that he thought led to the mistreatment of Muslim women; on the other hand, he
opposed the suffragettes campaigning for women’s rights in England.10
Cromer’s attitudes about Egypt were derived from the general body of Western
‘knowledge’ of the Orient that Edward Said identiﬁed as Orientalism. In his path-breaking
book, Said explained how Orientalists regarded the Orient as a place of corrupt despotism,
mystical religiosity, irrationality, backwardness, and the ill-treatment of women.11 British
colonial rule in Egypt is not the only historical example of these attitudes. In Algeria,
which France invaded and conquered in 1830, civilizing the Arabs and the issue of
women’s rights became important reasons for the French colonial project. As Frantz
Fanon has demonstrated, the French attempted to ‘civilize’ Algerians by encouraging
de-veiling: ‘here and there it thus happened that a woman was “saved” and symbolically
“unveiled.”’12 Ironically, the forced de-veiling and Gallicization that were the ideological
basis of French colonial power in Algeria were being carried out while many women in
France were ﬁghting for their rights against those very men who dreamed of liberating
Muslim women. Throughout the colonial era, French ofﬁcials denounced the status of
women in Algeria and used the assumed oppression of Muslim women to deny Algerians
any political or civic rights. Because Algerian men oppressed their women, they were
‘uncivilized,’ and their behavior, argued the French, was conditioned by their religion,
Islam. Such attitudes, of course, reinforced colonialism, for the more ‘uncivilized’ were
the natives, the more necessary it was the French (or other ‘civilized’ Europeans) to
The European colonial enterprise was not an entirely male project. White middle-class
women, though still subordinate within the dominant society, could acquire inﬂuence and
power by using the discourse of Orientalism. An interesting example is that of the
nineteenth-century painter Henrietta Brown, who made a career out of depicting the lives
of Oriental women. Brown used her position as a woman to enter a world to which
European men had been denied access: the harem of the Ottoman court. According to
Yeg˘enog˘lu, ‘It is with the assistance of the Western woman (for she is the only “foreigner”
allowed to enter into the “forbidden zone”) that the mysteries of this inaccessible “inner
space” and the “essence” of the Orient secluded in it could be unconcealed; it is she who
can remedy the long-lasting lack of the Western subject.’13 Based on her visits to the
harem, Brown created two paintings that brought her considerable success and fame: ‘Une
joueuse de ﬂute’ (inte´rieur de harem: Constantinople, 1860) and ‘Une visite’ (inte´rieur de
harem: Constantinople, 1880). Both paintings are perfect examples of the way the
colonial world thought about Muslim women: as victims of the cruel patriarchal practice
10 Margot Badran (1995) Feminists, Islam and Nation (Princeton: Princeton University Press).
11 See further Said, Orientalism.
12 Frantz Fanon (1967) Black Skin White Masks (New York: Grove Press), p. 42.
13 Meda Yeg˘enog˘lu (1998) Colonial Fantasies: Towards a Feminist Reading of Orientalism (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press), p. 75.
The War on Terror, Feminist Orientalism and Orientalist Feminism
of polygyny. Brown portrayed the harem as a prison for women who had no control over
their destinies ‘to bolster the appeal of the civilizing mission.’14 As a clear example of
Orientalist depiction, the paintings presented to the public through the medium of art
essentialized the binaries between the civilized West and the uncivilized East.
Brown’s paintings inspired many similar images that collectively provided ‘evidence’
for Western critics of the Muslim world throughout the colonial period. Malek Alloula, for
example, has assembled many of these depictions, especially an extremely valuable
collection of colonial post cards that French soldiers in North Africa sent home to relatives
in France.15 As Gayatri Spivak has noted, ‘brown women saved by white men from brown
men’ is the major underlying theme of these images.16
By the early twentieth century, Orientalism even became dominant among the educated
elites in those countries in the Orient that had avoided direct European colonial rule.
In Turkey, for example, the elite views about the Middle East resembled those of the
Europeans with respect to notions of a civilized West/primitive Orient binary, particularly
in reference to the position of women. The Kemalist movement regarded the decline of the
Ottoman Empire as the result of its traditions, boasting that ‘[T]he Turkish nation has
perceived with great joy that the obstacles, which constantly for centuries had kept Turkey
from joining the civilized nations marching forward on the path of progress, have been
removed . . . [and made possible] the transformation of the nation from a backward to a
civilized identity.’17 Kemal Atatu¨rk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey in 1923,
advocated changing women’s role in order to achieve this civilized identity. Not
surprisingly, he encouraged Western clothes as a sign of civilization, and this meant the
de-veiling of women.
In Iran, Reza Shah Pahlavi, who came to power through a military coup d’e´tat in
1921 but decided in 1925 to retain the monarchy with himself as king, subscribed to
similar views with respect to the position of women in society. Like Atatu¨rk, he saw
changing the role of women as necessary for the transformation from the backwardness
of the Orient to progressive civilization. Reza Shah’s ‘feminism’ translated into a
policy of forced de-veiling in 1936, a policy imposed on Iranian women as a means to
It is worth noting that women’s ‘liberation’ under both Atatu¨rk and Reza Shah was very
much in line with the project of imposing a European way of life that replicated the
economic and political interests of the West. While Western women were ﬁghting for
equal rights, these dictators and Westernizers adopted the Western model without question
and imposed it on their women. In both cases, the idea of de-veiling and educating women
was an aspect of the overall policy to ‘modernize’ the country, and it had little do with
what women may or may not have wanted for themselves. Elite women initially, and after
World War II middle-class women, adopted European models; for the masses of peasant
and the working-class women, however, such ‘liberation’ was irrelevant, and their lives
15 Malek Alloula (1986) The Colonial Harem (Manchester: Manchester University Press).
16 Quoted in Barbara Harlow, ‘Introduction’, ibid., p. xviii.
17 Yeg˘enog˘lu, Colonial Fantasies, p. 131.
18 Paydar, Women in the Political Process.
The Post-colonial Era and Oriental Feminism
In the post-colonial world, the rise of feminism as a social movement in the Western
world has improved the status of women in Australia, Europe, and North America, but
such gains have been largely in the legal domain and have beneﬁted mainly white
middle-class women. In North America, for example, non-whites, immigrants, and the
indigenous Indians continue to suffer from poverty and discrimination, and their women
remain at the bottom of society. These realities are absent from the analysis of white
middle-class feminists who dominate the mainstream discourses on the issue of gender.
This situation is especially true with respect to discussions of Third World women.
Increasingly, white-middle class feminism, or liberal feminism, has become embedded
as part of hegemony.
Since Margaret Mead’s Sex and Temperament was published in 1926, comparing
Western women and their relationship to their men with that of women in ‘primitive’
societies has become common, especially in the United States. Nader argues that the
comparison has been more implicit than explicit but the comparison always assumes
the experience of women in Western countries as the self and that of women in the
Third World as the Other. As Said points out, Orientalism is a discourse that
Orientalizes the Orient for the purpose of Occidental consumption.19 Mohanty argues
that liberal feminism produces colonial knowledge systems when referring to the ‘third-
world,’ which is comprised of a monolithic category.20 It is through the discourse that
creates the Third World woman that the First World is brought out as privileged and
singular. But the West is dominated as much by patriarchy in ideology and government
as is the East. The dominant ideology is preserved in the West by avoiding any criticism
of the way immigrant, non-white, and economically disadvantaged women are treated;
their lack of status vis-a`-vis the sources of power and their lack of access to economic
resources strengthens the hegemony. This ‘ignorance’ is at the heart of the problem with
liberal feminist analysis, and in many respects it is a continuation of the imperial era.21
According to Trinh and Mohanty, in their critique of liberal feminist imperialism,
‘feminist opportunists seem to speak to the third world through a shared vocabulary
which insists: They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented.’22 Women
of color and other feminists have been criticizing liberal feminism for more than a
decade, and we now have a large body of literature about the problems of Oriental
The growing critique of Orientalist feminism has been prompted by its alarming
impact and its popular appeal in North America. Orientalist feminism is popularized
19 Leela Gandhi (1998) ‘Postcolonialism and feminism’, in: Postcolonial Theory: A Critical Introduction
(New York: Columbia University Press).
20 Chandra Mohanty (2003) Feminism without Borders (Durham, NC: Duke University Press).
21 See further Gandhi, Postcolonial Theory.
23 See, for example, Uma Narayan & Sandra Harding (Eds) (2000) Philosophy for a Multicultural, Postcolonial
and Feminist World (Bloomington: Indiana University Press); Floya Anthias & Nira Yuval (1992) Radicalized
Boundaries (New York: Routledge); Partha Chatterjee (1986) Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World:
A Derivative Discourse (London: Zed Books); and Lila Abu-Lughod (2001) ‘Orientalism and Middle East
feminist studies,’ Feminist Studies, 27(1), pp. 101 – 113.
The War on Terror, Feminist Orientalism and Orientalist Feminism
through novels and ﬁlms, and it has become a ‘boom industry’ that has created huge
problems for Muslims. ‘True’ accounts, such as the book and movie Not without My
Daughter, helped to incite racist, anti-Muslim and anti-Iranian feelings across Europe
and North America;24 in the aftermath of 11 September, this genre has gathered a
During the colonial period, the colonizers believed they were bringing civilization to the
Orient. Now President Bush wants to bring democracy to the same region, and with the
same methods of the past: war and occupation. Of course, Bush also wants to protect
civilization from barbaric terrorists, so there is a war on terror in tandem with a drive to
export democracy. And what better way to earn the necessary public support for these
colonial campaigns than by going back to the proven colonial strategy of focusing on the
Muslim world’s treatment of women? The most effective propagandists for this effort,
however, are not government employees but rather ‘independent’, self-proclaimed
feminists whose personal experiences with the situation of women under Islam impart an
aura of authenticity to their portrayals of the primitive and misogynist nature of the
religion. It is in this sense that we need to examine the books by Brooks and Naﬁsi, both of
which have reached large audiences.
The Quran as the Root of Women’s Treatment
Brooks’ Nine Parts of Desire is based on her work as a journalist in the Middle East and
North Africa. Originally published in 1994, it has since been reprinted several times and
continues to remain popular. Like her predecessors during the colonial era, her position as
a woman gave her access to the private world of Muslim women, a sphere that Western
men cannot enter. Her work is the result of her observations turning Muslim women into
subjects of study. Her ‘conclusions’ derive not only from observations but also from her
own background as a white, middle-class woman from Australia who was raised as a
Catholic and converted to Judaism as an adult.
Nine Parts of Desire, which was on the New York Times and/or the New York Review of
Books bestseller list for several weeks, is aimed at the North American market.
Interestingly, its cover is a modern version of a colonial post card: At the center there is a
picture of a woman covered in a black head-to-toe veil and seen from behind moving away
from the reader while against the backdrop of a mosque a clergyman is coming toward the
viewer. Below this picture there are two miniature paintings of a harem from the Mogul
era in India. Although the Middle East has been transformed in multiple ways since the
colonial era—as has India, it is surprising how little the Occidental image has changed and
the extent to which the harem continues to be at the center of much discussion about
women in the Orient. Brooks’ objective is to dis/uncover the hidden world of practicing
Muslim women, but in this journey the book overlooks millions of secular Muslim
women, as well as non-Muslim women who live in Muslim countries. Consequently,
for readers who are uninformed about the Muslim world, Brooks’ encounters with
24 Not Without My Daughter, by Betty Mahmoody, with William Hoffer (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987), is
basically an account of the breakdown of a marriage between an American woman and her Iranian husband but
presented in a sensational narrative that portrays Iran of the mid-1980s and Islam as brutal, frightening, and
exceptionally misogynist; it became a bestseller and was made into a movie.
an unrepresentative sample of the devoutly religious become the entire story of women in
Brooks introduces each chapter with a few Quranic versus, verses that can be construed
to disparage women. This is intended to reinforce the underlying theme that the Quran and
the religion of Islam are the roots of a very grim life for Muslim women. She implies
strongly that the situation of women is the same in all Muslim countries, and she
frequently uses Saudi Arabia—where the situation of women is problematic—as an
example of various kinds of repression based on gender. There is no recognition of the vast
differences among Muslim countries in terms of social, political, economic, and cultural
systems in general, and the great variety in the position of women in particular. If her goal
was to inform readers about these differences, then she would have mentioned the active
participation of Muslim women in politics in such Muslim countries as Bangladesh,
Indonesia, Pakistan, and Turkey, all countries in which women have been elected to the
highest political ofﬁces, but are countries that merit virtually no references in the book.
But the heavy emphasis on Saudi Arabia and certain Muslim countries rather than all
Muslim countries does serve a purpose. It provides evidence for Orientalist
feminism’s misconceptions, including: (a) an essentialist view of Islam; (b) a belief
Islam is the root cause of the adverse situation of women; and (c) a homogeneous picture
of the lives of women in the Muslim world. These views, unfortunately, have helped to
make the book a bestseller because they reinforce the popular image of a monolithic
Islam in which Muslim women, like those who live in Saudi Arabia, are victims of
The book is full of examples where Brooks as an Orientalist feminist takes the
experience of Muslim women as the Other. One such example is when she discusses the
problems that work outside the home poses for women in Cairo as though this is a problem
speciﬁc to Egyptian women. Another example is her discussion of the role of the extended
family in the lives of Muslim women, which she treats as an oddity and peculiarity of
Muslims. These examples show Brooks’ ‘situational superiority’ vis-a`-vis the women
about whom she is writing—or perhaps judging. She is unable to accept these Muslim
women as her equals (there are rare exceptions, such as her admiration for Jahan Sadat, the
widow of former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, who was assassinated in 1981). Yet she
is determined to reveal their hidden lives, from how they dress—she suggests that readers
can learn about the lives of Muslim women in Egypt by observing what they wear at Cairo
airport—to their alleged lack of empowerment or any gender consciousness, to their
oppression, which is related back to the Quran.
Islam and the Quran are not the only subjects about which Brooks is uninformed.
She also has scant knowledge about the history and political economy of the Middle East.
For example, her sweeping historical discussion of the region fails to record vitally
important information such as the role of the followers of the eighteenth-century
puritanical reformer Ibn Wahab in the later formation of Saudi Arabia. She also seems
unaware that other followers of Ibn Wahab went to the Indian subcontinent and established
seminaries out of which, two centuries later, would emerge the Taliban movement that
ruled most of Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001. These facts have critical links to
twentieth-century international politics: The United States, for more than 50 years,
supported the Saudi royal family—self-proclaimed guardians of Wahabi interpretations of
Islam—and initially welcomed the Taliban’s ascent to power. The Muslims who follow
the interpretations of Ibn Wahab—they never refer to themselves as Wahabis—are not
The War on Terror, Feminist Orientalism and Orientalist Feminism
a uniﬁed group but are split into extreme fundamentalist factions, such as al-Qaeda, that
perceive the United States as a threat to Islam, and moderate factions (i.e., the Saudi
political elite) that view cooperation with Washington as beneﬁcial. In fact, Saudi Arabia
and the United States have been close allies, even though it, but no other Muslim country,
enforces the discriminatory policies against women that Brooks describes as being
common throughout the Islamic world. What is obvious here is that Brooks as a feminist
who professes concern about the situation of Muslim women is ignorant of the ways US
foreign policies can impact the status of women (and overall human rights) in
Saudi Arabia and other authoritarian countries such as Egypt that are allied to the
The only Muslim country for which Brooks sees any hope for the future is Jordan, which
was ruled by King Hussein at the time she wrote her book. But she does not give him or his
government any credit for the improvements she observes. Rather, positive developments
in Jordan can be traced to King Hussein’s marriage to an enlightened, white American
woman, Queen Noor, who apparently transformed her Arab husband into a benevolent and
progressive monarch. Thus, an American woman is the real savior of Muslim women.
Brooks’ praise of Queen Noor can be understood if we examine this writer’s own
objective: to enlighten North American white, middle-class women about ways to help
their unfortunate unenlightened Muslim sisters.
Next door to Jordan, in the Palestinian territory of the West Bank, occupied by Israel,
Brooks does not see any negative experiences related to the Israeli occupation. Although
she writes about problematic treatment of women in Palestinian society, she traces such
treatment back to the Quran.25 In fact, the focus of her story about Palestine is a man
who wants to have a second wife because his ﬁrst wife does not have a son. Brooks
portrays him as a rich man who hides his gold and shows it only to her. The implicit
message here is that the occupation really has not hurt the people, and if they appear to
be living under harsh economic conditions, it may be because they have hidden away
money and valuables.
Her accounts of Egyptian Islamist groups and Iran are simplistic and uninformed. In
the case of Egypt, she sees a monolithic Islamic movement that treats issues such as
women’s rights, hijab, and women’s work outside the home the same. Apparently,
Brooks is unable to examine the different views of the various Islamic groups because
the nuanced positions would contradict the essentialist picture that she is painting of
Muslims and the Islamist movements. In the case of women’s situation in Iran, she does
not even present personal observations but relates anecdotal information provided by an
American woman who has married an Iranian man. Brooks never meets an Iranian
woman who is empowered or has any sense of gender sensitivity, an amazing feat for
a foreign woman journalist in a country where Shirin Ebadi, who eventually would
win a Noble Prize for Peace in recognition for her work promoting human and
women’s rights, was already active and many vibrant women’s magazines were
being published. But perhaps Brooks met only women with little or no feminist
consciousness because such women conﬁrmed her preconceived ideas of what Muslim
women are like.
25 See Brooks, Nine Parts of Desire, p. 155.
Nineteenth-century Occidental Literary Models in Twentieth-century Iran
Reading Lolita in Tehran has much in common with Nine Parts of Desire. While Brooks
gives an overall picture that ‘represents’ Islamic women as ‘the Other,’ Naﬁsi’s very
personal account of the lives of women in Iran as an insider is a conﬁrmation of Brooks’
outsider portrayal of Muslim women as the victims of religious dogma. Brooks starts her
book with a horror story from Saudi Arabia, while Naﬁsi’s book starts in Hitchcock style,
presenting her characters individually before she delves into the horror story of Iran.
Brooks endorses Reading Lolita in a preface to the book: ‘Naﬁsi takes us into the vivid
lives of eight women . . . a cry of outrage at the reality in which these women are trapped.
The ayatollahs don’t know it but Naﬁsi is one of the heroes of the Islamic Republic.’
Naﬁsi’s acts of heroism consist of her experience in teaching English literature in post-
revolutionary Iran and then leaving university to teach eight women at home about the
glories of English literature.
Reading Lolita in Tehran has become a major success in North America because it is
regarded as a book that supports the women’s cause. But it is infused with feminist
Orientalism. In this sense it reinforces what many North Americans want to believe about
the ‘oppression’ of Iranian women while the United States is at the height of its war on
terror and Iran has been signaled out by the US president as a member of an ‘axis of evil’
and an ‘outpost of tyranny.’ In fact, this book is highly recommended and promoted by the
neo-conservatives. Naﬁsi says of neo-conservative mentor Fouad Ajami, her boss at the
School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, that he has been among her best
supporters (the quotations appear at the back of the book in a list people who have been