• Asia Khatun

Literature is Still Catering for The Orientalist Gaze: White Saviour Complex and The Muslim Woman

If Muslim men are depicted as being inherently violent, be it due to their non-Western culture and their backwards religion, then this in turn allows for their patriarchal hold over Muslim women to be duplicated in severity. Muslim women seem to be oppressed twice over, once by colonialism and once by the patriarchy, which is similarly the nature of simply being a woman of colour, and it is particularly true for the demographic of female characters within the texts that grace the literary world.


So, what is white saviour complex? It is a mentality in which white people endeavour to save people of colour in an egocentric manner, feeding their narcissism and their feelings of superiority rather than bringing any sincere justice to the people they are trying to help. In the context of Orientalist culture, white saviour complex is deep-rooted in colonialism and this is notoriously exemplified through the case of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’


Spivak specifically addresses the dynamics of Indian women’s voices being hijacked, particularly in regards to the British abolition of sati. She assesses how in India women were already under the patriarchy of their own respective societies when empire made it so that it became about ‘white men [who] are saving brown women from brown men’.[1] This quotation epitomises a narrative that has led to a multitude of colonial enterprises, from the physical expansion of Western imperialism to the mental expansion of white Western supremacy, creating the Oriental inferiority complex. In fact, this idea has become one of the fundamental justifications for the War on Terror and the continued neo-colonial expansion into the Middle East.


For almost two decades Muslim women have been used as the West’s damsel in distress, giving reason for the presence of the millions of troops that have been deployed in the Middle East, particularly in Afghanistan and Iraq, since 9/11.[2] This has resulted in a population of people in the West who have been fooled into believing that their governments are fighting for a just cause, for the equality of women. The white women of America and Europe have been deemed as the bastions of gender equality since. What is ironic is that America poorly ranks in at 51st in the 2018 Global Gender Gap Report, being out-ranked by two Muslim-majority countries (Albania in 34th place and Bangladesh in 48th).[3] This mentality of white women being the point of reference for having absolute freedoms, or at least the same freedoms as their male counterparts, under Western democracy is greatly due to this narrative that stems from first-wave white feminism.


This culture of thought has been utmost transparent in recent Western legislature. France's decision to ban the hijab for girls under eighteen is a direct consequence of centuries worth of colonial enterprise — ironically across Muslim-majority nations — fuelled by white supremacy which inevitably off-shoots white saviour complex. What is possibly more ironic or perhaps hypocritical, if one is to look back at the treatment of Amazigh women by colonial France then that is when one would truly see the horrors of oppression — treatment that France is yet to recognise and apologise for. France accommodates very well to the narrative that Muslim women are ‘imprisoned’ by their Muslim countries and their Muslim men and, to this day, this exact caricature has been painted out across all mediums, aiding in the justification of neo-colonialist legislature.


Literature is one medium where this narrative thrives. Take Nadeem Aslam's renowned Maps for Lost Lovers, for example; it harbours such stereotypes around Muslim women, from rape culture to female infanticide and to the subject that the novel is based around: honour killing. The novel inhabits almost every misogynistic oppressive aspect of South Asian culture and the storyline of Jugnu and Chanda, the murdered lovers, exposes the nature of honour killing culture where Chanda is particularly vilified.


The mystery of who killed the lovers is unpacked in the penultimate chapter, however through the novel we see a pattern of behaviour from the men in Chanda’s life that prerequisite her death. Chanda’s father steps down from his senior position at the mosque due to people gossiping that his daughter was ‘“immoral”, “deviant”, […] nothing less than a wanton whore in most people’s eyes – as she was in Allah’s’.[4] The relationship between women’s sexuality and morality, or religion is often achieved through his comparison of Muslim women to the English Christian women in the novel, similarly, considered as ‘shameless’[5] harlots who lure Muslim men into sin. A dichotomy is then created between Muslim women and non-Muslim Western women where one has agency over her sexuality and another does not. The repercussions of a Muslim woman who does choose to explore her sexuality is met by violence as early on in the novel it is suspected that Chanda’s violent and misogynistic brothers had fled to Pakistan after murdering the couple, a country repeatedly linked with being overwhelmingly in favour with the act of honour killing. A woman’s life is painted as being easily disposable if she deviates from the ‘laws and the religion and the customs reinforced’ in this Muslim land; her autonomy is presented as non-existent.[6]


As Chinua Achebe states in Transition, certain words ‘[come] as part of a package deal which [includes] many other items of doubtful value and the positive atrocity of racial arrogance and prejudice’.[7] This male-perspective-only narrative that Aslam paints adds to the semantics of what is perceived as "Muslim" and confirms the notion that Muslim women are oppressed by violent Muslim men within this land, this hemisphere of culture and religious identity.


For that reason, Maps for Lost Lovers is a contentious piece of text as it violates the line between representing reality and perpetuating stereotype due to its abundance of generalisations. Raising awareness to such aspects of culture is paramount in defeating oppressive practices, however one cannot fall into the trap of feeding one ignorance in order to fix another. The brothers who symbolise so much cultural and religious wrongdoing are repeatedly shown support by other characters, and the Western population’s stance that the Muslim community is a completely collective body where everybody endorses such rhetoric and such heinous practices is fuelled.


A lot of the problematic issues we see in Aslam’s novel is perpetuated by men, but the character of Kaukab, Jugnu's sister-in-law, is particularly interesting because she is a woman who reinforces such backwards structures and systems that keep women subordinate, which she deems as either religious duty or part of her upholding cultural identity. Like many of the Muslim women, or ‘aunties’, that one encounters, Kaukab is the voice of internalised misogyny and has traits that align her with a postcolonial inferiority complex.


In an argument between Kaukab and her daughter, one of Kaukab’s responses summarises the nature of her internalised misogyny:

“Is this what they taught you at university […] your precious university far away in London […] If education was what you wanted you would have gone to a university within commuting distance and lived at home like decent girls [...] Freedom is what you wanted, not education; the freedom to do obscene things with white boys and lead a sin-smeared life.”[8]


The modicum of ‘freedom’ that Kaukab’s daughter was awarded through her pursuing a higher education cross-country is somehow subverted into being a gateway to indecency as the phenomena of shame appears once again through the taboo of sexual conduct. Rooted in the centuries old dynamic of patriarchy within their culture and preserved through social and legal pressure, the internalisation of misogyny becomes somewhat a form of Stockholm syndrome. But, in this case the captor is part of a system that also works against him, as well as the victim: racism.


To blissfully ignorant readers, scenes such as the ones Aslam paints scream out for a white saviour to rescue Muslim women from their backwards cultural and religious ties. Their freedoms are supposedly tangible in Western democracy to being intangible within Muslim ethos, and education is reduced down to a frivolous privilege rather than a human right.


Lila Abu-Lughod in her incredibly apt piece, ‘Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?’ reminds the Western reader, and particularly the Western woman, to:

not to fall into polarizations that place feminism on the side of the West. […] it is also strategically dangerous to accept this cultural opposition between Islam and the West, between fundamentalism and feminism, because those many people within Muslim countries who are trying to find alternatives to present injustices, those who might want to refuse the divide and take from different histories and cultures, who do not accept that being feminist means being Western.[9]


Having created this disparity between the Western and Muslim woman, it leaves a vacuum of uncertain politics around the Muslim woman who also happens to be Western — a voice that is new founded in its exposure due to lack of BAME representation. Identities are reduced down to a binary that practically does not exist. In reality, there is every combination of philosophies and ideologies that Muslim women adhere to, which one would think was obvious seeing as there are almost one billion of them.[10]


First-wave white feminism has problematised the portrayal of the Muslim woman within literature, particularly after 9/11, however Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, for example, attempts to dismantle the presence of white saviour complex in response to any preconceived ideas of how a Muslim female character would be portrayed. The novel is a rare example of a narrative that centres itself around Muslim women in the West who are able to navigate their lives with agency, and without the directing hand of their “oppressive” male counterparts. They are able to economically, socio-politically, religiously and sexually be in control and are simply allowed to go through the motions of being protagonists.


Shamsie’s characters, Aneeka and Isma Shah, are refreshing with their multi-faceted personalities and they do not perpetuate the same abused, subservient traits that we see in other novels based around Muslims in the West, like Aslam's. Their independence through their self-reliance and their self-assuredness comes across through their dominance in platonic and romantic relationships and it's something we have possibly never seen before in commercial literature. From nonchalant attitudes towards intimacy to powerful and angry demeanours, Isma and Aneeka exude the opposite of a suppressed voice.


In a dialogue between Aneeka and Isma where they say: ‘“I know anger is the way you express your concern” […] Anger is the way I express my anger’,[11] we are taught how pertinacious and unapologetic Isma is in her temperament; she does not confine herself in ‘curtailing her rage’[12]. This inclusion of such a dynamic may seem like an insignificant passing aspect of characterisation, but it is a part of a much larger story that aids in setting Home Fire apart from its cohort. The sisters combat the reductionist perception that there is only a ‘single way of being a woman in a Muslim environment’[13], as Farida Shaheed puts it.


So, what does it mean to show allyship without becoming a white saviour? The Muslim woman is not quite Spivak’s subaltern but she does inhibit the general idea that the subaltern lacks a voice and has a voice that is co-opted by ‘brown men’ and ‘white men’, and, now, white women. The action of allowing her to speak and facilitating the presence of her voice is what needs to happen rather than retelling some version of her story to fit Orientalist tropes that suit Islamophobic agendas.


At a New York University Institute for a Humanities Conference panel, Audre Lorde shared one of the most significant speeches that identifies the nature of white feminism.

For the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master's house as their only source of support. [14]


Not acknowledging the patriarchy that traps her, traps the white Western woman and ensures the entrapment of every other woman — her captor just happens to deny her different liberties. Lourde calls for intersectionality within the feminist plight and highlights the ineffectiveness of white feminism.


The patronising nature of white Western feminism in response to Muslim women’s oppression has festered in the West since the likes of Laura Bush have been pushing this image of the dishevelled and veiled woman who has no freedoms.[15] The publishing world has a big hand in enabling this as they facilitate the production of a perspective in which Muslim women are seen through the non-inclusive standards of Western feminism. It is an extension of the Oriental gaze as even the materialised depictions of Muslim women, through veiled cover illustrations and photography, stem from fetishisation and exoticisation.


As the veil becomes a fetishised and overused motif within literature, it simultaneously promotes the narrative of Muslim men’s inherent hyper-masculine and oppressive nature. They are believed to have “forced” this religious submission, equating the likes of politically volatile and destabilised nations and their stance on the burqa to those that ought to have religious freedom in Western countries that shout "liberty, equality, fraternity".


In the conciseness of Spivak’s deduction, whilst brown women were being saved overseas from brown men by white men, white women were sat at home and applying their benchmark of freedom onto brown women who they had never met.


By Asia Khatun

[1] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’, in Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader, (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester, 1993), p. 93. [2] Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, US Veterans & Military Families | Costs of War, <https://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/costs/human/veterans> [accessed 27 May 2020]. [3] World Economic Forum, The Global Gender Gap Report 2018, <http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_GGGR_2018.pdf> [accessed 27 May 2020].

[4] Aslam, p. 15. [5] Aslam, p. 57. [6] Aslam pp. 347-48. [7] Chinua Achebe, ‘English and the African Writer’ in Transition, (1965), JSTOR, <www.jstor.org/stable/2934835> [accessed 27 May 2020], p. 18. [8] Aslam, p. 340. [9] Lila Abu-Lughod, 'Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others’, <http://org.uib.no/smi/seminars/Pensum/Abu-Lughod.pdf> [accessed 28 May 2020], p. 788. [10] World Population Review, Muslim Population by Country 2020, <https://worldpopulationreview.com/countries/muslim-population-by-country/> [accessed 28 May 2020]. [11] Shamsie, p. 77.

[12] Shamsie p. 50.

[13] Farida Shaheed, ‘Constructing Identities - Culture, Women’s Agency and the Muslim World’, in Women Living Under Muslim Laws, July 2001, <http://www.wluml.org/sites/wluml.org/files/import/english/pubs/pdf/dossier23-24/D23-24.pdf#page=36> [accessed 27 May 2020], p. 45. [14] Audre Lorde, The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House, <https://www.muhlenberg.edu/media/contentassets/pdf/campuslife/SDP%20Reading%20Lorde.pdf> [accessed 30 May 2020].

[15] Laura Bush, ‘Laura Bush on Taliban Oppression of Women’, The Washington Post (17 November 2001), <https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/nation/specials/attacked/transcripts/laurabushtext_111701.html> [accessed 26 May 2020].