The legacies of Orientalism and the exoticizing of women

[content note: Discussions of Orientalism, with mentions of racism,  sexualisation, rape, violence, slavery, genocide, and colonialism]

Orientalism is a way of thinking that gives rationalization for European/Western colonialism based on the oppressive history in which “the West” constructed “the East” as “exotic”, “backward”, less “enlightened”, and in need of imperialism to be rescued. Part of it involves seeing Arab culture as exotic, uncivilized — representing a widespread socialization of which Europeans/Westerners are seen as inherently superior in comparison.

A part of Orientalism includes exoticization against the “Orient”/”Other” (East), which also involves seeing women of color as needing to be liberated via hypersexualization. In history, Orientalism hugely affects religious women of color and seeks to suppress certain religious rights. For example, historic colonialist violence relies on Orientalism to unveil religious Muslim women of color. This is found in the example of when Lord Cromer, a British leader in Egypt, accused the Egyptians of degrading women through veiling. Thus he attempted to unveil Egyptian women, which can be said to be a form of hypersexualization; and he attempted to show himself as liberating the “Orient”, whilst using the opportunity to end the pre-existing Egyptian practice of training women to be doctors and furthering colonialist interest at the expense of women. However, due to the large legacies left behind by historic colonialism, Orientalism can encompass many things globally and is not exclusively a religious issue; thus it extends to structures of institutional racism that are still alive today, which also effect non-religious women of color.

Indigenous feminist Andrea Smith has said that the logic of Orientalism is considered the third pillar of white supremacy, and thus Orientalism has been used to defend the logics of slavery and genocide. An increasingly globalized, all encompassing Orientalism further strengthens widespread violence against women of color in this world.

Thus, relating back to exoticization, the socialization of the “exotic Other” not only gets passed down through certain explicit imperialistic agendas but also gets transmitted via worldwide entertainment industries like Disney.

Just one small example can be seen from this:

Disney's Jasmine. An example of the exotic and sexualised portrayal of WoC in western media.

Disney’s Jasmine. An example of the exotic and sexualised portrayal of WoC in western media.

“Often times, white people think they’re complimenting me by saying I look ‘exotic’. They don’t realize that the word ‘exotic’ itself is bloodstained with a history of colonial rape, or what it means for me, as a WOC, to be the exotic Other in a white supremacist world. Or white women will sigh with longing over Jasmine tropes and evince a desire to embody/consume the Other: darkening their hair, wearing black eyeliner, big earrings or saris. They like to play at being what they think I am, what they think Jasmine is. For them, Jasmine is a an exciting adventure, a garment they can put on and take off at will. For me, she’s real, she’s my everyday, she walks in my skin and looks through my eyes. The degradation and violence that she endures is done to me. The brilliant Emi Koyama once said “There’s no innocent way of being in this world”, meaning that no one, not even the most enlightened among us, can exist outside of history, outside of the legacies of colonial violence that shaped the world we inhabit.” — Tassja, The Jasmine Diaries Part II: ‘Exotic’ is Not a Compliment.

Why is this relevant to feminism? This is because Orientalism is very much tied with racism, xenophobia and violence against women, especially women of color. This particularly impact women of color as Orientalism involves an imperialistic mindset which normalizes historic colonialist violence against the “Orient”.  As Tassja quotes, “This is how the First World regards the lands and people of the Third World whose resources they have gleefully plundered and monopolized, and this is how women of color are symbolically, culturally and sociopolitically situated in white colonial hegemony. Thus the politics of land theft and resource usurpation, of cultural imperialism, systematic rape and dehumanization, intersect on our bodies and shape our sexual self-awareness.”  Today, similarly imperialistic mindsets still thrive. Such oppression tend to be tied in with today’s Othering and Western privilege, as Kamali says that the legacy of Orientalism demonstrates itself in governmental and communal policies for integration of immigrant groups in host societies. The assumption is that “they” are different and culturally the opposite of “us”. ‘Knowing is to subordinate’, therefore, “we” must understand “them” in order to be able to change them and make them adjusted to our society. “We” already know that “they” are different and strange, since they come from “the Orient”. When the element of exoticization is added to the Othering, it becomes an added form of fetishizing of conquest, of which women of color experience a threefold discrimination of patriarchal rape culture, cultural discrimination in the form of xenophobia, and white colonialist supremacy. Although this disproportionately affects of women of color, this also impacts women with white privilege. This is because Orientalism supports the idea that the European/Western cis male should remain the overseer of women’s issues over centuries, even if it requires imperialism and genocide.

For further reading and references, here are a few links:

Conceptualizing the “Other”, Institutionalized Discrimination, and Cultural Racism
What is Orientalism?
Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy.
The Jasmine Diaries Part 1: Colonial Legacies and Modern Dilemmas.
The Jasmine Diaries Part 2: ‘Exotic’ is not a compliment.
The Jasmine Diaries Part 3: Beyond the ‘Exotic.’