One of the first confronting and invasive questions that I was asked by a tutor during my first year at university was whether or not my parents would marry me off at a young age. This stereotype is one of many ridiculous and negative perceptions associated with the Arab woman.
Indeed, the Arab woman is constantly and consistently perceived as a mystery hidden by a tantalising veil. She is shrouded from head to toe in black. She is a desirable, buxom and passionate creature. She is a wife trailing behind her husband. She is a mother who is overburdened by too many children. She is the woman who “stole” George Clooney’s heart. She is a woman wailing on television at her loss. But most importantly, she is undeniably absent from the discussion taking place, the world over, about Arab women.
The Sydney Morning Herald recently published a story about the Miss Lebanon Australia Beauty Pageant with the headline “Miss Lebanon Australia shows off new Arab woman“. The article quoted the pageant’s beauty and art director, Monie Gabriel, as saying that the contestants were an example of “the new Arab woman”.
”It has been the perception that Lebanese women often married young and concentrated on having children, but these days as you can see, the women are doing everything,” she said.
Ms Gabriel’s reference to the existing stereotypes about Arab women is pertinent. The Arab woman is often used as a canvass for Western ideas about the Orient, or the East. She exists as a backdrop, as an ornament, and as an object that is, all at once, desired, pitied, and objectified. The Arab woman has no inherent depth, complexity or independence, or so we are led to believe by the mass media. She is merely a beautiful conquest, a creature of desire and a means to procreation.
Hibah Aburwein, from the European Forum on Muslim women, puts it perfectly.
“The Arab woman is used only as a sexual symbol and is observed as manifestation without deep recognition of her actual character. Arab women were always victims of the stereotyping process. There is little understanding of either their status as women or the total context of Arab woman lives. There is also very little understanding about the Arab woman’s role in the social, political, academic, and practical life.”
According to its art director, the purpose of the Miss Lebanon Australia contest is to obliterate these well-established stereotypes about (Arab) culture and religion by enlisting contestants that are both intelligent and sexy. The contest can, therefore, showcase to the West the “new Arab woman” whose value is no longer dependent on the men that surround her because she is now a high achiever “studying a range of subjects from mechanical engineering to law and medical science”.
But when was a beauty contest ever imbued with strong messages about power, religion and race? How can a contest that focuses on the image and perception of beauty be heralded as a platform to showcase the might of the new Arab woman? This new Arab woman engages in society by showcasing her beauty to a panel of judges. She is breaking down stereotypes by embracing the stereotype of an Arab woman as exotic. Arab women are no longer just getting married young and being baby-making machines; “they are doing everything”. Arab women are willingly competing to be the object of the voyeur. Orientalism has triumphed.
Arab women are already represented in Western popular culture primarily as harem girls, belly dancers, and oppressed women who are veiled. According to Amira Jarmakani, an associate professor of women’s studies at Georgia State University, the veil, the harem, and the belly dancer are cultural mythologies that purport to represent the realities of Arab and Muslim women through sweeping generalisations that rob these women’s experiences of their diversity and historical context. She claims that these images masquerade as accurate portrayals of Arab and Muslim women’s lives.
The beauty contest is an extension of this masquerade of Arab women’s lives.
It sheds no light on the personality or complexity of its contestants. Indeed the contestants are not interviewed; they are merely discussed by a third party. They are pictured above the article itself preparing for the pageant, but we know nothing of them except that they are young, smart and attractive. Surely, women who are doing everything can speak for themselves? In sidelining the contestants, Arab women are again absent from discussions on Arab women.
So, then, what does Miss Lebanon Australia achieve, and what does she represent?
This article merely reinforces the stereotype of the Arab woman as exotic by promoting a tokenistic and meaningless contest, and by heralding it as the place to “show off” the “new Arab woman.”
By Rayann Bekdache
Rayann Bekdache is a journalism graduate from the University of Technology, Sydney and currently works as an Australian public servant. She is passionate about good food, prose, politics and dark chocolate, and is known as the “fun aunty” among her nieces and nephews. Rayann prides herself on being honest at all times even if it is to her detriment and regularly enjoys random, but meaningful conversations with strangers.