Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

Writings on colonialism and post-colonial portrayals of the Third World are rife with constructions of the Other as feminine, or as subject, like women, to the passionate irrationality, weakness, cowardice, traditionalism and superstition that mark the feminine as subordinate in Western discourse. In the image of the Arabs, however, masculinity is foregrounded. The Western construction of Arab masculinity serves, like the ascription of femininity it displaces, to mark the subordination of the Other.

Time and Newsweek, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, television news and the tabloids have provided Arab heads of state with a distinctive set of titles: “madman dictator” and “strongman.” These titles refer to a redoubled masculinity, marked out from the norm by an exaggeration of masculine traits: strength, willfulness and domestic power.

The particular form of masculinity ascribed to Arab men in general, and to the holders of Arab power in particular, emphasizes violence. Arab “strongmen” and “madmen” are identified with the making of war and the sponsorship of terrorism, with military rule, and with the violent repression of dissent. This is confounded, in academic and political discourse and in popular culture, with reiterations of Arab masculinity. Representations of the Arab-Israeli conflict counterpose an Israeli army composed of men and women to the entirely male Arab armies. Representations of terrorism focus on female victims and (more recently) on innocent (or duped) female collaborators. The Arab terrorist is made, in Robin Morgan’s phrase, “the demon lover,” from whom the woman must be protected or rescued. John Le Carre’s The Little Drummer Girl contrasted the hazards of female innocence, the guile of Arab males and the virtue of (at least some) Western men. Journalistic accounts of a young Irish woman unwittingly enlisted to carry a bomb on her own flight, emphasized not only her credulity (and hence her innocence), but the fact that she was pregnant with her “demon lover’s” child. She had been doubly “taken advantage of.” Attention to this detail enhanced the construction of Arabs as the enemy of women and children, even — perhaps especially — their own. More importantly, it conflated an act of violence with an act of sexuality, for the woman carried both her lover’s child and his bomb. The outcome of Arab masculine sexuality, the story implied, was destruction.

This conflation of sexuality with violence in constructions of the Arabs has an informative genealogy. Images of the harem and the veil have been central to Western constructions of Arab sexuality. The image of the harem in nineteenth-century Orientalist art and literature was one of sensual pleasure and a catholic sexuality. These portraits commonly assumed male readers, male viewers, but they offered images of sensual pleasure to women as well as men. The women were portrayed bathing, caressing each other, playing cards, listening to music, telling stories, eating sweets, in settings of architectural and decorative beauty. In mid- to late twentieth-century portrayals, the women are commonly occupied only with the pleasure of men. The harem is pictured as a prison for women held captive by male violence. Sensuality is associated, in these revised representations, with male domination, male violence, male transgression.

Contemporary portrayals of the harem have an international dimension as well. It is along this dimension that the colonial genealogy of gender metaphors in the Middle East is most evident. Movies and soap opera episodes portray the harem as a place of subjection not only for women in general, but for Western women in particular. The release of the feature film “Not Without My Daughter” during the Gulf crisis reiterated the construction of Muslims as those who confine and oppress women and children, and introduced this fictional occasion for condemnation into the debates surrounding the war with Iraq. [1]

Arab hyper-masculinity is, in every sense, a domestic matter. Academic and popular accounts of Hafiz al-Asad, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi emphasize their dictatorial domestic rule, their unrestrained use of domestic violence. The double reference in “domestic” to internal politics and to the home operates constantly in these accounts, oscillating between references to the male tyranny of the imagined harem and references to contemporary national politics. This association acknowledges in sexuality a political character still commonly deprecated in the West, as it imputes to Arab politics a sexual significance purportedly absent in the West.

The conflation of politics and sexuality in discussions of Saddam Hussein found its visual locus in the Western preoccupation with the Victory Arch. The image of the upraised, sword-wielding forearms served the West as it served Saddam Hussein, metonymically. This all-too-phallic monument called up, however, not Salah al-Din or a resistant Islam, but the construction of masculinity as violence that the West ascribes to the Arabs. [2] The almost embarrassingly Freudian imagery of news coverage of Saddam Hussein reached its apex in speculations on “the big gun,” a weapon with more semiotic than strategic significance.

The identification of Saddam Hussein as a figure of phallic danger was furthered by videos of Saddam Hussein with women and children held as hostages. The videos, furnished by Iraq, were invested with meaning at odds with their origin. Hussein wore civilian clothes, and appeared to converse cordially with the women and children. The video was, however, as carefully edited as it was carefully staged. The most widely circulated image to emerge gave an impression not of reassurance, but of menace. The still photo captured a child glancing up at Hussein with an expression of fear. It was a “moment of truth,” a residue of veracity remaining unnoticed within an otherwise entirely deceptive, fully staged, event. Saddam Hussein had inadvertently revealed himself as patriarchal and menacing.

The figure of the bad father has acquired almost archetypal status in contemporary American cinematic representations of “the enemy.” The fullest expression of the type is the dark father, Darth Vader, armed with an almost (but not quite) invincible war machine that must be stopped. Saddam Hussein, dark and menacing, building “the big gun,” arming Scud warheads with nerve gas, on the verge of nuclear capability or the destruction of Israel or regional hegemony, called up this image of imminent technological invincibility. The reiterated image of Saddam Hussein with hostage women and children called up the image of the dark father, the patriarchal threat.

With gender hierarchies still a primary form of power in the United States, it would be surprising indeed if Arabs in general, and Saddam Hussein in particular, were left to an uncontested enjoyment of even a metaphoric masculinity. A fuller condemnation required the imputation of that masculinity in a manner which identified it as “perverse” and “unnatural.”

Fears of Iraq combined Orientalism with homophobia. Jokes circulating after the invasion held that Kuwait had been “Saddamized.” [3] President Bush reinforced the message by frequently mispronouncing “Saddam” as “Sodom.” Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait was an act counter to international law, an illicit penetration. The US invasion of Panama was, by contrast, consensual, and therefore licit. The joke is a telling one, for it constructs Iraqi penetration of Kuwait as not only illicit but “unnatural.” The absence of consent, of an invitation to invade, is not sufficient to establish the relation as unnatural. That depends, in the joke as in American political discourse, on the status of the parties involved. The ascription of masculinity to Kuwait makes the invasion unnatural as well as illicit, and ascribes to both Kuwait and Iraq a “perverse” masculinity. [4]

Designation of Iraqi violence as perverse and unnatural took visual form in the March 12, 1991 edition of the tabloid National Examiner, which depicts Saddam Hussein in drag and headlines his “Bizarre Sex Life.” Arab masculinity, these constructions argue, is not only perverse, but deceptive. Threats of violence conceal a desire for domination. One Examiner “source” says of Saddam Hussein, “Oddly, for a man who could be viciously cruel, he preferred the submissive role in homosexual encounters.” In post-colonial as well as in colonial culture, in popular culture as in more formal political discourse, gender metaphors serve to reaffirm the Arab world’s openness to invasion and domination. They also reaffirm traditional conceptions of gender, marking women’s bodies as open and penetrable.

The veil has multiple uses and meanings within the cultures that employ it. It has several uses and multiple meanings in the West as well, where the veil marks division and difference. The veil separates East and West. One is within the veil, the other without. The veil is said to be the means, among the Arabs, of erasing individual identity among women, and marking them as simply sexual beings. The veil draws attention to that aspect of women which it nominally disguises. When the veil is cited in the West, it serves to mark the Arabs as peculiarly engaged in the domination of women.

The use of the veil to identify Muslim culture with the confinement and exploitation of women is belied by the use of the veil in Western culture. The veil figures as a signifier of feminine inequality as well as feminine sexuality. Removing the veil, however, is not associated with liberation, but appropriation. In Western fictional constructs, removing the veil is a gesture of possession, a preliminary to the sexual act — not a restoration of dignity to a newly independent woman. As in Delacroix’s painting, “The Liberation of Algiers,” the name of liberation is assigned to a picture not of the liberation of women, but of their removal from Eastern to Western domination.

The veil serves, in the West as in the East, both to attract and to repel the gaze. It attracts our gaze to Arab domination of women, it distracts it from an examination of the domination of women in the West. During the Gulf war, the image of veiled Arab women was countered by that of Western women in uniform. The uniform was presented as erasing not individuality but gender differences, affirming equality. What is really veiled here is the persistence of gender inequality in America, and veiled inequalities among male and female soldiers. As the war went on, the media increasingly chose to forgo images of women at war for images of men at war, with women waiting at home. There was little or no coverage of the husbands of women soldiers, of men waiting at home. Coverage of male and female soldiers thus reproduced the very asymmetries and inequalities it nominally denied.

Coverage of the Gulf war imposed on the Iraq of our imagination our fears of homosexuality as violent and invasive and our fears of domestic violence, in both senses. Our fears of violence directed against women and children, and of the limits on the use of violence by our own state, are enlisted as instruments of foreign policy, directed onto an external object. Political and journalistic discourse set up an imaginary Iraq — a state of unhindered and perverse domestic violence — against an equally imaginary America, where men and women are equal, and their relations marked not by conflict and domination, but by amity and cooperation.

The imagery of gender and sexuality in the coverage of Iraq links two systems of domination: relations between the United States and the Third World, and gender hierarchies. The series of metaphors deployed reaffirms not only traditional conceptions of the relations of the West and the Arab East, but traditional conceptions of gender roles as well.


[1] “Not Without My Daughter” is set not in Iraq, or indeed, in the Arab world, but in Iran. The ascription of a threatening masculinity extends, however, to Muslim Persians as well as Arabs.
[2] Hussein’s efforts to call up the image of Salah al-Din seem to be most evident in his release of the hostages, an act which figures in the memoirs of the leader who defeated the Third Crusade. Salah al-Din’s personal aversion to war may well have been read out of contemporary myth, but his religiosity would be virtually impossible to excise. If Saddam Hussein were successful in his efforts to present himself as Salah al-Din’s successor it would raise interesting questions about the conflation of opposition to the West with Islamic religiosity.
[3] I heard this dubious witticism first from a colleague. Robert I. Friedman quotes it from Rabbi Yechiel Lieter in “Making Way for Messiah” in the New York Review of Books, October 11, 1990.
[4] The designation of sodomy as a distinctive feature of the cultures of the Middle East also has an interesting genealogy. Perhaps its most elaborate and interesting expression is Richard Burton’s designation of the region as “the Sotadic Zone” in the “Terminal Essay” to his translation of the Arabian Nights. Elaine Showalter provides an interesting discussion of this in her Sexual Anarchy (New York: Viking, 1990), pp. 81-82, and passim.

How to cite this article:

Anne Norton "Gender, Sexuality and the Iraq of Our Imagination," Middle East Report 173 (November/December 1991).