Hsu-Ming Teo notes in the Journal of Popular Romance Studies that
2009 marked the ninetieth anniversary of the publication of The Sheik. As is well-known, the publication of the novel and the release of the film starring Rudolph Valentino in the eponymous role unleashed “sheik fever” in the western world. [...] The word “sheik,” originally a term of respect referring to a Muslim religious leader or an elder of a community or family, suddenly took on new connotations of irresistible, ruthless, masterful, and over‐sexualized masculinity in the West—before ending up as a brand of condoms in America by 1931.But as the sheik was transformed into a sexual fantasy for Western women, his female counterpart seemed to have been pushed aside. Sheikh romances generally depict the relationship "between an Arabian sheik or prince and a white Western (usually British or American) woman" (Taylor). Jessica Taylor adds that "the only position for an Arabian woman available in Orientalist discourse seemed to be that of harem occupant, a passive role which is unsuitable for the heroine of the novel, especially since it is a racialized role and the heroines are only ever racialized as ‘white’." Arab women may appear in these novels, but they generally do so as secondary characters. Although they may be given only limited opportunities to speak for themselves, they are not infrequently mentioned by the white heroines, for as Evelyn Bach notes,
In the verbal battles that constitute much of the courtship in this genre, the heroine often makes pointed references to such traditions as white slavery, huge harems, unbridled lust, imprisonment, the inequality of women and the arrogant despotism of Eastern potentates in general and her abductor in particular. (22)In addition,
In a number of desert romances, usually quite early in the narrative, the heroine makes pointed comparisons between herself and native women. The observations range from the miserable, restricted lives they lead to their constant sexual availability and unquestioning subservience to the men who are their lords and masters. These comparisons serve a number of purposes. First, they add to the litany of Eastern injustice and barbarity. Second, they enable the heroine to maintain her privileged position as a special, exceptional woman. Constant reminders throughout the texts of her fair or auburn hair and pale skin ensure that her difference is more than adequately established. (22-23)Although some more recent novels do depict more feisty "native women" as secondary characters, Bach's observations probably still hold true about many others, and that's a shame because it obscures the reality of Muslim women's lives and personalities, for example
Young Egyptian women are using blogs and online radio stations to beat the censors and to fight for equality.In Iran
Despite making up only 24% of the workforce in Egypt, 30% of women use the internet.
But it is the middle and upper classes that have really taken to the internet as an alternative way to discuss topics and exchange information and air what many conservatives would consider to be radical views.
Women have been extremely politically active in the country for quite some time now, and many Iranians are amused, quite frankly, at the West's sudden revelation that neither chadors nor head scarves snuff out the fire in women's bellies. "This isn't new. This is only the first time that you've been aware of it," Hamid Dabashi, a professor of Iranian studies at Columbia University, tells me with a good-natured laugh. Women were essential political organizers as far back as the 1905 Constitutional Revolution; they also fought and died alongside men in the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which might not have happened without their help.Last year I came across an article in The Observer which begins with these words: "Habitually dressed in a long black abaya, with a veil placed firmly against her cheek, Shaikha Sabeeka bint Ibrahim Al Khalifa, the wife of the king of Bahrain, does not conform to the usual image of a political activist." She doesn't conform to the usual image of the sheikh's wife that's to be found at the end of sheikh romances either: "Mild-mannered, progressive and with an impressive command of English, the 60-year-old royal, [is] the first of King Hamad's four wives."
Since then, women have rebelled in deceptively superficial ways. Post-revolution, many began pushing the bounds of the new Islamic state's moral fabric, both literally and figuratively. The small silk scarves, bright nail polish and dramatic makeup that have become emblematic of the protests are a direct challenge to the official dress code. "It was the way for women to protest since the '80s," says Marina Nemat, author of "Prisoner of Tehran," a personal memoir about being imprisoned, tortured and nearly executed in Iran.
For her part, Queen Rania of Jordan has taken to YouTube:
In Qatar Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al-Missned is the second of the three wives of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, Emir of the State of Qatar (Wikipedia) and she
plays a highly visible role in a region where royal wives until recently were rarely seen and certainly never heard.Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al-Missned
While it is a deeply conservative society, Qatari women can vote, drive and play a full part in the workplace: headscarves are a frequent sight, but the dress code for women is not as strict as in Saudi. Dr Sheikha Abdulla al-Misnad, president of Qatar University, says about half her staff and 70% of her students are women. (Sutherland)
currently serves as Chairperson of Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development, a private non-profit organization founded in 1995 on the personal initiative of His Highness the Emir Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani. In autumn 2003, Qatar Foundation inaugurated Education City, a prototypical campus of the future, bringing branches of renowned international universities to Qatar to provide top class degree programs and to share research and community-based ventures.In sheikh romances the personal is also quite clearly the political. As Amira Jarmakani has noted,
In addition to her work at Qatar Foundation, Her Highness has long served as President of the Supreme Council for Family Affairs which aims to strengthen the role of the family in society and addresses issues of concern to women and children. Her Highness serves as well as Vice Chairperson of both the Supreme Education Council and the Supreme Health Council. In addition, she is Chairperson of the Sidra Medical and Research Center project to build a premier academic medical center in Qatar, Chairperson of the Silatech initiative to address the growing challenge of youth employment in the Middle East and North Africa region, and Chairperson of the Doha-based Arab Democracy Foundation.
Her Highness plays an important role on the international stage as well. In 2003, UNESCO appointed her Special Envoy for Basic and Higher Education. In this capacity she actively promotes various international projects to improve the quality and accessibility of education worldwide. In June 2003, she established the International Fund for Higher Education in Iraq which is dedicated to the reconstruction of institutions of advanced learning. In 2005, she was selected by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to be a Member of the High Level Group of the UN Alliance of Civilizations. (from her own website)
despite claims from romance readers and writers that these novels bear no relation to the actual Middle East, the threatening specter of the terrorist is very much present in these stories, many of which fixate on the sheikh’s efforts to modernize his country against the wishes of those characters presented as primitive and barbaric. (998)In addition, the hero often grants some of his immense political power to the heroine:
By and large, most of the Arab countries described in these books are fictional. Sometimes these lands are socially repressive, but their leaders usually strive to change them into more modern societies that treat women equally. In some cases, the skills or talent of the beautiful heroine often may help this effort along, particularly if she entered the country for the purpose of taking a temporary professional position (i.e. hospital administrator, conference planner, headhunter). (Sheiks and Desert Love website)Or, as Jarmakani puts it,
the iteration of global feminism proffered by the novels defines the white heroine’s freedom in opposition to her Arab female counterpart, thereby using an individualist model that implicitly excludes the racialized other from participating in the same freedoms. (999)Thus, despite the inevitable exceptions, there would appear to be a pattern, common in this subgenre, of feisty, liberated Western heroines nobly working to emancipate oppressed Arab women.1 This is problematic for reasons outlined by Nouha al-Hegelan in an article written in 1980 and titled "Women in the Arab World":
As a result of Western misinformation and lack of awareness, Arab women are unfortunately, victims of the stereotyping process. There is little understanding of either our status as women or the total context of our lives. Like other maligned groups, we do our best to understand these misperceptions and, in our own way, to confront them. I know of no Arab woman who underestimates the difficulty of changing Western assumptions. The stereotypes of Arab women, "imprisoned behind a veil of powerlessness," will not be eradicated in our lifetime. While we are often shocked into numbness by the depth of the misunderstanding, we know that each epoch of awareness is a new beginning and a new opportunity for us and for our daughters.Part of that history includes the fact that "one of the world's first universities was founded by a Muslim woman, Fatima al-Fihri." For her part, Shaikha Sabeeka bint Ibrahim Al Khalifa, who"has forged ahead with critical reforms in her position as head of the newly-established Supreme Council for Women" says that "The image of Arab women in the west, that we are just princesses in a golden cage, with no rights, no choice, no brains and no education, is a challenge. It's totally wrong and I really want to correct it."
Just such a shock lies in what I call the "born yesterday assumption". Westerners begin by comparing the Arab/ Moslem woman to her sisters in the West. Using Western women as a standard is only part of the insult. The injury is magnified by the added assumption that the Arab woman began her struggle yesterday-as if she was somehow born whole out of a newly tapped oil well-a veiled, uncivilized non-entity.
Like most stereotypes, this image is not merely wrong or insulting, it is ludicrous. Long before Western women even considered themselves as a group, let alone a group deprived of its rights, the Islamic woman had begun her emancipation. From the beginning of Islam, 1400 years ago, the Moslem woman was born with all the rights -cultural and spiritual - due a human being.
So have you come across any sheikh romances which correct the misperceptions of Arab women? Do you think this sub-genre has changed in recent years so that, as suggested by Emily Haddad, "where the novels that appeared before 2004 typically wallowed in the exoticism of their orientalized settings, the newer novels often minimize or even eliminate the Arab world as a setting, or diminish cross-cultural conflict by ascribing a Middle Eastern identity to the heroine" (60)?
1 Among the exceptions are the heroine of Susan Mallery's The Sheik and the Runaway Princess, a "half-Bahanian, half-American princess and art specialist [...] Bahania is a fictional country on the Arabian peninsula" (Haddad 47), the heroine of Jane Porter's The Sheikh's Virgin, "Keira Gordon [who] was born Keira al-Issidri, and the narrative returns obsessively to her confusion over her half-English, half Barakan heritage" (Haddad 58), the half American Aliyah in Olivia Gates's The Desert King and the heroines of two novels written by Alexandra Sellers, namely "Jalia, the heroine of The Ice Maiden's Sheikh [who] is a Bagestani princess raised in exile in England" (Haddad 57) and "The heroine of The Fierce and Tender Sheikh [who] is another princess, Shakira, who had been lost following the assassination of her parents, and is at the beginning of the book living as a boy in a refugee camp" (Haddad 57).
- al-Hegelan, Nouha. "Women in the Arab World." First published in Arab Perspectives 1.7 (October 1980). Republished online by Cornell University.
- Bach, Evelyn. “Sheik Fantasies: Orientalism and Feminine Desire in the Desert Romance.” Hecate 23.1 (1997): 9-40.
- Clark-Flory, Tracy. "Unveiling the Revolution." Salon. 27 June 2009.
- Haddad, Emily A. “Bound to Love: Captivity in Harlequin Sheikh Novels.” Empowerment versus Oppression: Twenty First Century Views of Popular Romance Novels. Ed. Sally Goade. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2007. 42-64.
- Jarmakani, Amira. " 'The Sheik Who Loved Me': Romancing the War on Terror." Signs 35.4 (2010): 993-1017.
- Smith, Helena. "The first ladies of the Arab world blaze a trail for women's rights." The Observer. 8 March 2009.
- Sutherland, Ruth. "Beyond oil: a Switzerland in the sands." The Observer. 7 June 2009.
- Taylor, Jessica. "'And you can be my Sheikh': Gender, Race, and Orientalism in Contemporary Romance Novels", an online essay published in 2003. [I have quoted from this version of the essay because it is available online, which makes it easy for all readers of this blog to access it. It should be noted, however, that an updated version of the essay has now been published in the Journal of Popular Culture as “And You Can Be My Sheikh: Gender, Race, and Orientalism in Contemporary Romance Novels.” Journal of Popular Culture 40.6 (2007): 1032-1051.]
- Teo, Hsu-Ming. "Historicizing The Sheik: Comparisons of the British Novel and the American Film." Journal of Popular Romance Studies 1.1 (2010). [Teo has written at slightly greater length about modern sheikh romances in "Orientalism and Mass Market Romance Novels in the Twentieth Century," in Edward Said: The Legacy of a Public Intellectual, ed. Ned Curthoys and Debjani Ganguly (Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 2007), pp. 241-262, excerpts of which are available via Google Books.]