Representing 'Them'

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

Part 2 of the author's Interrogating Missionary Essentialism: The Muslim and "Evangelical" Nonsense

Mini-Skirts Mothers and Muslims starts with a story about a young 'secular' Moroccan man called Mustafa. He is perceived to be 'secular' because he violates his Muslim code of behaviour; he attempts, unlike other strict and good Muslims, to seduce a Western woman. However, Mallouhi insists that he is also 'Muslim'. We are told about his Muslimeness as the story reaches its climax and Mustafa's plan of alluring the 'Western' woman falls through; now he realises that he is 'barking up the wrong tree'. The concept 'secular' is used rigidly to mean moral deviance, as though moral deviance of the same kind does not affect 'good Christian' men, and as though secularism is always equivalent to immorality. The drama, in short, is about how Mustafa is locked up in a stereotype system that only victimises him in the end. His confusion over what is 'Christian' and what is 'Western' leads him to embarrass both himself and his Christian host. Mustafa (because of his standardised mental picture about 'Western' women) now becomes a cornerstone for Mallouhi's subsequent impeccable overgeneralizations.

No mention of the fact that sexual temptation cuts across boundaries of culture, geography or even religious commitment. What I find disturbing about this perfunctory introduction is the author's audacious manipulation of one isolated story to explicate a total network of Muslim conceptions of appearance. Her story sets interpretative 'foundations' to judge and exposit a whole complex web of cultural codes. She is happy to represent Mustafa to be a schizophrenic type: he acts according to the discourse of 'secularism' when his sexual urges are aroused (hence the author's monolithic understanding of the term 'secular'), and according to his 'Muslim upbringing' when he realises that his Muslimeness has tricked him into a serious misconduct. Is there something incredulous about the way she writes about Mustafa, or the way she thinks him to be? Mustafa who can not escape the truth and historicity of his Muslimeness associates sex with any 'Western' woman because his Muslimess (as constructed by Mallouhi) automatically informs him that certain signals flashed by any white woman indicate seduction. Here is a case of mixed and Babelian signifiers. Mustafa, on the one hand, misunderstands the white woman's act of hospitality because of the presence of whiteness. And on the other hand the white woman misunderstands Mustafa's misunderstanding because of Muslimeness . Both of them are locked up in a web of miscommunication. The only explanation for such Babelian confusion that Mallouhi provides is the fact that there is an inherent problem with Mustafa's conception of white women. His Muslim conception tells him that all white women are available for sex. This does not only obscure the meaning of what it is to be a 'human' Muslim in a fragmented modern world, but it bluntly adopts an old fashioned orientalist view of an Islam responsible for generating such 'psychotic' attitudes.

Another character in one of Mallouhi's dramatic sagas is a teenage girl who is ostensibly allowed to speak about her ferocious 'commitment' to stereotyping. On p, 17 she tells us that her 19 years old girlfriend asks a white man to sleep with her. She does so because she wants to rebel against her inelastic upbringing. The 'Good White' man, as expected, according to the order of things, refuses this offer on moral 'Christian' grounds. It is no coincidence that Moroccan women share their 'genetic' sexual psychosis in the Babelian Tower. Mallouhi's last resort to make her case is to allow 'the natives' have a voice, but who are they? And why should one have to rely on their judgements to understand a whole society? This choice stems from Mallouhi's deep-seated misapprehension of historical factors in the making of Muslim identiti(es). For her (nameless friend) hardly accounts for the many young educated Muslim women who are well aware of the difference. It is rather precarious that Mallouhi picks for her story a vulnerable teenager who is already a 'victimised' prostitute. Why does Mallouhi neglect Moroccan women's diverse sexual experience? Are all Moroccan women really willing to sleep with 'White' men to achieve emancipation? The principle problem with Mallouhi's contemptible and nefarious representation is exteriority, that is, the fact that she makes her Muslim characters speak, she describes their emotions, renders their frustrations visible, and twists their stories for and to her evangelical Western reader. Her representation is governed by the truism that if these poor characters could speak for themselves, they would; since they can not, and when 'I' (Mallouhi) even allow them to speak, they only reflect inferior notions about 'us', 'my' representation does the job for my evangelical reader, and faute de mieux for the poor Muslim.

The vast majority of Moroccan young women (especially from rural areas and small towns) is morally conservative and has a strong sense of 'femininity'. Hence, the importance of virginity for marriage, the dynamics of innocuous flirtation that one may observe in Moroccan streets. It is what has preserved a degree of romance between the two sexes. For many 'Western' women striving to be equal (and the same) even in a realm as complex as sexuality has already eliminated a considerable vigour of romance. The desire (and achievement) of sameness in many countries of the 'West' has only alienated the two sexes, and jeopardised the possibility of staring to seduce, to acknowledge the difference, to explore new territories. To know that one is already always in one's fêtes champêtres.

The maid on p, 25 is also spoken for, and with a 'domestic' consensus, she says what is expected from her; she is only allowed to speak as a Stereotype Machine. Mallouhi cunningly selects characters that suit an imagined Muslim regimented behavioural system. No mention of possible irregularities in such a system; because, whether one likes it or not, Moroccans are so rigid everything is decodable by a foreign agency. Her handful, handpicked Muslim characters (no mention of their background, origin, level of education, social class) generate views about all Moroccans. The slightest move, manoeuvre of a maid's broom or a girl's buttocks must indicate some 'profound' cultural signification that will help the poor Westerner understand 'the locals'. This fictional objectivisation is not only an act of discursive terrorism, but indicates that Westerners are themselves, willy nilly, trapped in a circle of endless probings, that become unbending, as unbending as the object of investigation itself. Stereotypes are to be addressed objectively, analysed fairly, not exploited to show somebody's 'rigidity or inferiority', because whether Mallouhi likes it or not, ALL cultures have their stereotypes. And there is a grain of truth in most of them. What's about those most durable stereotypes pervading the Western world?

Perhaps the most pitiable feature of the book is its uncanny use of 'us' and 'them' binary. I had counted over 20 of them before I was half way through the book. Mallouhi does not adopt this division alone, she quotes many missionary writers who divide the world into two large entities that have to co-exist in a state of radical contrariety. One of the most condescending quoted statements about Muslims is from Greg Livingstone, who tells us that "…a Muslim is only open if the messenger is perceived as an equal [in status not in intellect or merit] or as someone higher in social status than the receptor". How does Mallouhi validate such an erroneous and unverifiable statement? She does not. This injection of a typically imperialist description does not only indicate that Mallouhi's book functions on established doublicities like 'us', 'them', 'inferior', 'superior', but deems Muslims to be 'genetically' incapable of transcending realities of binaries themselves.

Mallouhi always speaks about two worlds that read reality differently. Whilst Muslims perceive the outside world on the basis of 'You know the Book by its cover' formula, 'Westerners', being 'rational' beings never take things for granted; they read reality through a process of rationalisation; 'The Book can not be known or read by its cover'. The privileging of the category of 'us' is conspicuous when she tells us bluntly that "the reality of a rigid class of society is very different from 'our' Western background" (p, 9). She selectively shovels even 'her' Westerners in one bag when it means that this juxtaposition shows the inferiority of 'them'. This tendency to categorise these ideologically laden terms runs across the book. She forgets that a good number of Moroccans/Muslims are well aware of the fact that the vast majority of Western Christians can not float beyond the individualism and materialism of their culture. For Mallouhi, Muslims function on the basis of class division only because 'our' West works on the basis of class harmony.

Mallouhi's monolithic view of morality deems the Muslim world as irredeemably unyielding. 'Their' concept of sexual expression is alarming; it is degrading for women! Staring and sexualising are two different concepts. Even though staring involves a degree of sexualising the 'other', the freedoms taken in the two cases are entirely different. The network of glance displayed in the public space resists Mallouhi's imposed bourgeois and Victorian concept of respectability. Urban Moroccan life is very much a display of how women are increasingly not confined to an old male ideology of private space. Moroccan women from all walks of life have claimed the public space once entirely dominated by men. Women have also explored and occupied other spaces; they go shopping, they go to schools, and they work as professional pilots, singers, writers, doctors, nurses, lecturers and teachers. Urban life offers a new opportunity to deal with the male gaze, to complicate it, to tame it and, maybe, to domesticate it. Nothing is ideal for women as yet, and what place on earth is? Mallouhi's suggestion that poor women (Moroccan or not) are victimised by the ocular male economy is naïve to say the least. Women in Moroccan public space are not passive victims of male gaze. They are participants in the ocular culture. They shape their sexual ideas and identities by participating in a territory previously dominated by men. They create new femininities alongside masculinities. Public life in Morocco resists Mallouhi's 'antiseptic' conceptions of gaze and movement. The everyday space and performance of souks, public squares, cafés, hamams, Kasbas and streets (in spite of their overbearing human agony) resist any rational, moralising disciplinary conographic mapping.

Mallouhi's ghastly shallowness and essentialist mindset are asphyxiating in her assertion on p, 26, which I think is worth quoting at length:

For Westerners the world consists of people and we relate to people a-sexually, but in the East their world is divided into male and female and they relate to each other always on a sexual basis. An Eastern woman does not speak to a person when she addresses a man, she speaks to a male-person and her behaviour alters accordingly, deliberately contained or even deliberately seductive…when we speak with a man we are mainly occupied with the subject under discussion and not usually the male/female dimension, but Eastern women are aware of these boundaries. Hence we have all the unwritten rules about how to screen sexuality: avoid lengthy eye contact, modest postures, tone of voice, general demeanour… "we all know that when we raise our sleeves men will concentrate on our hands rather than what we say" This may be an exaggeration to make a point, but it does show us that their worldview is different from ours. (my emphasis).

It is clear that she comfortably uses two different methods of 'analysis'. One deals with 'Westerners' and another deals with 'Easterners'. As far as 'we' is concerned, 'Westerners' (all of them, including Bill Clinton and Monika Lewinski) transcend sexual human restrictions. They are genetically able to compartmentalise sexual conduct. 'We' is a sophisticated category, and only concentrates on 'our' conversation. 'Easterners', being shallow, backward, unable to differentiate between different spheres of human action, operate on the basis of always (the author's word) sexualising human relationships. In fact, if we have to believe the author at all, there is nothing to stop us believing that 'Easterners' spend all their time in an endless process of sexualising each other. Americans and Europeans should have known better about supreme marketing locations of pornography. All 'Easterners' can think of is sex and its differential function to sexualise the 'other'. Mallouhi is blunt in her fetishisation of 'Eastern' men; they are all driven by sex and one has to stay away from 'them'. The depressing nature of such views indicates that Mallouhi's 20 years or so in the Middle East and North Africa was nourished by an anachronistic orientalist bias based on 'us' and 'them', 'Westerner' 'Oriental', 'saved' 'unsaved' 'spiritual' 'worldly', 'Ishmaelite', 'Issac-ites' binaries.


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