By Appearance Alone

Youssef Yacoubi, Nottingham University, School of Critical Theory & Cultural Studies; Proctor Fellow, Department of Camparative Literature, Princeton University

Part 3 of the author's Interrogating Missionary Essentialism: The Muslim and "Evangelical" Nonsense

bookcoverMallouhi's deplorable representation of Muslim women is incarnated in the book's cover. Thirty-six veiled and speechless women, some of whose faces are cut by the title box, saturate the cover. About 21 of them are gazing, in chock, at their non-iconic Western woman, conveniently situated at the centre. By wearing a min-dress (not a mini-skirt as the title suggests), a loose hair, and by flaunting her bare arms the Western woman achieves the iconoclasm intended from her. Most significantly, She consummates her iconoclastic desires by wearing, the only made-visible icon, a cross. The facial expression in these women's faces is analogous to Kurtz's (from Conrad's Heart of Darkness) emblematic words 'the Horror, the Horror'. They are gesticulating such trepidation through their accentuated bold eyes. The cover carefully camouflages their mouths. These women can not speak, they must be spoken for. And Mallouhi does a good job for them! This is, of course, a figment of Mallouhi's imagination assuming that all Muslim women are veiled or desire to be veiled. This does not even fit in with a few examples cited, and then misconstrued by Mallouhi, of Muslim women who have chosen or refused to wear the veil. Mallouhi accuses these women of being 'worldly'. Mallouhi is happy to benefit from Queen Nour's example of modesty (p, 69), but dismisses the woman with 'no known spiritual objectives'. Mallouhi only reaches her conclusion because Queen Nour's spirituality does not coincide with hers. Queen Nour's Muslimeness does not seem to amount to some spiritual objective! Or the fact that Queen Nour has supported and led Arab and Jordanian Women's Organisations inclusively on the basis of her Islamic consciousness, which stipulates, as she has argued in an interview that:

The Prophet Mohammed, when asked about the esteem that should be accorded to parents, replied, "Your mother, your mother, your mother and then your father." The Holy Quran prescribed the basic rights of Muslim women to education, property, inheritance and paid work, centuries before Western women were accorded them. These rights enabled Muslim women to play a prominent political role, such as Aisha, the wife of the Prophet, and even economic roles like Lady Shafa' whom the Caliph Omar bin Al-Khattab appointed as "muhtasabah" and the supervisor of city's financial market. Other prominent Muslim women include the renowned poetess Zubaydah Bin Ja'far bin Al-Mansour, the wife of the Abbasid Caliph Haroun Al-Rashid, and the scientist Aisha bint Yusef Al-Ba'ouniyah Al-Dimashqiyah. The message of Islam is that of fundamental moral and spiritual equality of men and women, reinforced by the many sayings of the Prophet who once said, "All people are equal. They are as equal as the teeth on a comb.

(Transcript of Queen Noor's interview with Taghreed Sa'adeh's Al-Arab Al Yawm [The Arabs Today Newspaper] on the occasion of International Women's Day, 8 March 1998.

The cover's supercilious nature corresponds with the controlling contention of the book. It demonstrates that 'our' reading according to the 'inside of the Book' is more refined than 'their' reading based on the 'cover of the Book' (which must be repressive). Indeed, her Muslim women feature only on the cover; what is said about them inside the book is exclusively for insightful readers. By way of reasoning, she alleges that "Muslims…insist on the universal application of the principle of modesty" (p, 68) I wonder who insists here? Who designed the cover's imprint displaying surreptitious dumbfounded women ? Certainly not a Muslim woman. And if so, Mallouhi failed to give credit to her nameless self-loathing iconographer.

Moreover, these Muslim women are trapped like Muslim men in the ocular economy created by 'their' Islamic worldview. Their visible terror indicates that they are platitudinous and frivolous. The white woman at the centre has literally a blank face; she is entirely blind to difference. She is even alone in the Lion's Den, being submerged in the terrifying gaze of a herd of restrained 'two-eyed' ghosts. Mallouhi must perhaps re-examine her repressive intention in relation to how over 300 million Muslim women world-wide would like to portray themselves on book covers. The cover unmistakably speaks for itself. Having shown it to over 36 European, British, and Muslim female students studying at Nottingham University, UK, the consensus was total; that the cover of the book is not only ignorant of the diverse nature of Muslim realities, but denigrates many Muslim women who are fighting against such stereotypical images.

Never mind that Muslim Women in Turkey were constitutionally able to vote 20 years before their Western counterparts. That today there are as many women in the Iranian parliament as men. And the fact that in the early stages of Christian missionary outreach to Muslim community, women were understood not to have souls. In his essay, "Immortality in Mohammedanism" D. B. Macdonald, remarks that

There is much evidence that amongst Turks, at least, and these not only of the uneducated masses, women are regarded as not having souls, at any rate on the same footing as men. This will, probably, be more than confirmed by every missionary at the present day to the Turks.

Such a misunderstanding is neither 'Quranic' nor 'Biblical', as Western scholarship has now argued, and is certainly not supported by any Islamic community. It is unequivocally clear in the Quran itself that men and women are equal in the sight of their Creator: "And whoever does works of righteousness, male or female, and is a believer, will enter the Garden and will not be wronged in the least" (Sura, 4:124, 33:73). Instead, on p, 75 Mallouhi claims that "The Quran states that husbands can use corporal punishment to force their wives into obedience". With what thermometer (on heavens) did she measure this claim? She gives us no reference. The purpose of such intellectual laziness is to show 'the' superiority of one biblical (interpretable) view of women. The reader is unjustly denied the context of such serious allegation, and even denied other biblical examples where women are oppressed, sexualised and treated as second class citizens. To read any document in this way is a form of textual 'rape', because it violates one basic rule of any plausible rendition: to consider the context and to interpret within the entirety of the major text and other related texts. Mallouhi's aim of such conceited interpretation is to accentuate Muslim men's moral impoverishment, their 'genetic' failure to be exemplary husbands like their 'Good Christian' counterparts. Muslim men are cruel to their wives because their Islamic worldview is corrupt (pp, 75-76). Moreover, whether Muslim women like it or not, their praetorian Islamic value system of obedience "breeds contempt, hate, desire for revenge and deceitfulness" (p, 75). Judging this book by its contents it elucidates that Mallouhi's admonition of Western arrogance on p, 91 is either an illusion or mere hypocrisy.

Then, what of her historical information? When she mentions history, the word reflects not much more than what it literally does not mean, or maybe, at best, the work of a name dropping college sophomore. She hardly tells us where she gets a lot of her historical information from. When she quotes Arab feminists, for example, (and she has only mentioned two scholars) we are bombarded entirely by their anger and negativity towards patriarchy. Fair enough. But Mernissi and Saadawi problamitise and criticise Islamic patriarchy not because that's all there is to Arab culture, (and certainly not because of western Emancipationist Movement) but as an Islamic act of dissidence. Consequently, Mernissi and Saadawi have devoted a great deal of their career as academics to re-write Islamic intellectual tradition of freedom and equality between men and women. Mallouhi's ignorance of history exposes her lamentable prejudices and oversimplifications.

What's more, Mallouhi is so supercilious to assume that many Muslim women would want to believe in her spiritual modelling. I challenge Mallouhi if she could find me one educated Moroccan woman who would want to buy her modelling techniques and give up the flexibility of clothing provided by Moroccan culture. The fact that Mallouhi always uses 'we' in her imperative proposals indicates that she speaks from a position of knowledge/power/expertise that is usually not accessible to Muslims. On p, 44, she declares that "we may be the only women showing recognisable spiritual values to Muslims". Her stiff-necked complex of superiority takes her even as far as suggesting that her biblical pattern for the wife's relation to her husband is a revolutionary concept for Muslims. She assumes that Muslims are desperate for her urgent, universal and eternal 'Christian' education to run their families, because theirs is fundamentally inadequate. Muslim women, for instance, obey their husbands out of duty not respect and love (p, 74). Mallouhi's deleterious cultural imperialism is not different from the missionaries she quotes. None of them seems to believe that cultural/ religious communication is not about making the other the same, but about crossing towards the other by respecting their religious and cultural formations. It is just a lie to assume that all Muslims operate on the basis of "The typical black and white world view" (p, 74).

Mallouhi's reductionism stems from her monolithic understanding, that 'Western' emancipation movement motivated the feminist movement in the Arab world. Even though this is only obliquely true, Islamic feminism was born out of certain historical conditions of colonial and post-colonial oppression that affected all Islamic societies. Modernist men started the movement of liberation and revivalism as early as the 19th century as a reaction to colonial policies of exploiting women as well as men. Mohammed Abdou (1849-1905) and his disciple Jamal Aldin Al Afghani (1838-97) demanded and fought for women's freedom because of their Islamic consciousness not because of some 'emancipationist Western consciousness' that only existed much later, and its project of 'Progress' only existed to enslave 'the natives'. Modernist male thinkers such as Qassim Amin (1863-1908), Taha Hussein (1889-1973), Abbas Mahmoud Al a'qad (among many) have fought on behalf of women (at this specific stage of history) to be educated, to represent themselves, to have an active voice of their own, and have civil rights. They inspired and paved a way to leading feminists like Fatima Mernissi, Nawal Saadawi, Huda Shaarawi (among many). There is no reason whatsoever why Muslim modern feminists have to see themselves operating outside an Islamic tradition. With what criteria on earth does Mallouhi decide that their modern dress and appropriation of historical developments are un-Islamic? Their contestation for democracy and human rights is very much an Islamic and Arab streak dating back to Al-Mua'tazila. Mallouhi is historically misguided to concede that all "Muslim women have been influenced negatively by Western Emancipationists" (p, 33). This is because Mallouhi is well aware of the fact that modern Muslim women would bitterly reject her moralising and condescending suggestions of modelling.

Mallouhi's obsession with the importance of appearance in 'ministering' to Muslims shows that she is the one whose worldview is based on externals. She categorically rejects all forms of clothing that do not fit in with her modelling agenda. She, therefore, overgeneralises and creates the impression that all Muslim women worry about, is their appearance. Appearance is only one small fragment of a more substantial debate about freedom, democracy and human rights. The feminist movement in the Arab world is more about political substance than corporeal semblance. Mallouhi's Victorian definition of respectability of a woman who must restrict her gaze because of male glance, hardly accounts for the way ordinary Moroccan women show their affinity with the public crowd without thinking twice about who occupies it. To give them their due both Mernissi and Saadawi in their reactionary and polemical writings have certified the flexibility of Islamic tradition and reaffirmed the Mu'atazillian concept of free will and freedom of thought. Their modernism is a déja vue.


Mallouhi, Christine. Mini-Skirts Mothers and Muslims: Modelling Spiritual Values in Muslim Culture. Spear Publishers (1997), Revised Edition, 109 pages, ISBN 0-9904012-9-4

The right of Youssef Yacoubi to be identified as author of this Extended Book Review has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyrights, Designs and Patents Act 1988. Please send your comments and views to: [email protected]

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Last modified: 13 May 2001