The Madonna/Whore Complex, Islamic-Style!

by Racialicious special correspondent Fatemeh Fakhraie, originally published at Muslima Media Watch

Talking about access in my post awhile ago, I touched on sexuality. Since this is one of my favorite topics, it got me thinking about sexuality in the Muslim world, and the binaries that Orientalism creates for Muslim women’s sexuality.

When you think of a Muslim woman in the context of sexuality, which images come up? If you watch movies, Muslim women are usually seen in one of two lights, sort of like a Madonna/whore complex. Except it’s with bellydancers and niqabs: the exotic, hypersexual belly dancer, or the forbidding, stern niqabi whose eyes say “No way are you getting under these robes.” Instead of the Madonna/Whore Complex, we have the Belly Dancer/Burqa complex.

The belly dancer half of this dichotomy is always hypersexual and hypersexy. Scantily-clad, of course; jewelry with coins, armbands with snakes, and usually really thick eyeliner are her trademarks. She’s there to please, please, please (sexually, of course). Usually, the belly dancer is featured by herself (when she’s not with the rest of the harem girls) and she’s aiming to entertain/seduce/serve the main man: movies like Lawrence of Arabia and From Russia With Love are excellent examples. I even found a list of all of the western movies that have bellydancers in them. Even on TV we see this crap: I Dream of Jeannie wasn’t a belly dancer, but she was a genie in Orientalist garb with an intent to please her master. (shudder)

The burqa half is sightly more fluid (it includes burqas, niqabs, and hejabs, oh my), but they all have the same attitude: no sex. Purity is paramount, and purity means virginity. Usually, the burqa half will also exhibit very Madonna-like (or in our case, Fatima-like) characteristics: selfless, she is always a “good” mother and wife (meaning never thinking about herself, only thinking about her family).

However, the ladies in scarves are never the main female role. They’re usually featured in groups, erasing any individuality, and always in black, erasing their humanity. They’re really just scenery…scary, asexual, “native” scenery: Not Without My Daughter is a perfect example here.

Both of these images are just tired (especially considering that Orientalism has been churning out these images for centuries). I think it’s time we shelved this make-believe binary. Besides, I’m really tired of seeing genie and belly dancer “costumes” every Halloween.

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Fatemeh is currently finishing her master's degree. She currently runs a website dedicated to critiquing how Muslim women are portrayed in both Eastern and Western media.