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Another Discussion on Misrepresentation in Literature

March 10, 2014

After my post the other day, and completing Alberto Manguel’s The Traveler, The Tower, and the Worm: The Reader as Metaphor (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), I wanted to talk ramble a bit more about the quote I highlighted:

But if we are gregarious animals who must follow the dictates of society, we are nevertheless individuals who learn about the world by reimagining it, by putting words to it, by reenacting through those words our experience.

As I commented last post: what does it mean that we ignore the experiences of so many? What do we learn, or not learn, by not putting those experiences to words? 

Previously I was talking specifically about rape in literature, but there are implications much more broadly. There is no such thing as true representation in literature. It isn’t just sexual assault that gets stereotyped and misrepresented in literature, when it is discussed at all. We also see a lack of true diversity around race, sexuality, gender, nationality, religion, and more in our popular literature.

Along the same vein, another book I read recently asks us to consider more carefully what does get published. In Do Muslim Women Need Saving? (Harvard University Press, 2013), Lila Abu-Lughod talks about the international human rights regime and the ways in which it interacts with Muslim women. Among other themes and discussions, she spends one chapter picking apart the popular literature that exists around Muslim women. This literature, she contends, falls mainly into two categories:

  1. The human rights approach that gives us examples and numbers and statistics about the violence that women live with.
  2. The pulp fiction novels telling sensationalized (and often fairly pornographic) tales of escape from forced marriages, attempted honor killings, and other extreme situations.

All of these books, Abu-Lughod contends, allow the reader – who is necessarily assumed to be ‘Western’ and non-Muslim – to feel good about their own situation and countries and imagine that they are superior and enlightened. By donating time or money, these books tell us, we can fix these “other” cultures which are so backwards and bring them to modernity. We don’t have to think critically about the same issues of violence and murder that happen in our own Western countries because they are individual cases, not cases stemming from cultural reasons. And we don’t have to think critically about factors causing the violence in these Muslim countries, because we can be assured they stem solely from the ‘backwards’ culture and religion.

(Note: This is not to say, the author makes clear, that these instances of abuse and violence aren’t true or that we shouldn’t care about them and work to end them. What she is saying is that we need to think critically about all of the causes of the injustice and violence instead of simply placing the blame with religion or culture.)

The language of women’s rights and Muslim-women-needing-saving-from-Islam simplify and exaggerate. The language also ignores all the other factors that lead to situations of violence and lack of autonomy. Politics, economics, religion, histories of colonialism, class inequality, developmental agency and government policies, violence and oppression especially state or war related, and more all work together to cause women’s oppression. Some of these issues were caused or are still caused in part by our own consumption habits and foreign policies.

As she says: 

 […] honest self-reflection about how the privileges of elites or middle-class people might be connected to the persistence of devastating inequalities – whether on distant shores or in our backyards – is essential to any ethical stance toward women’s human rights. (page 225)

What she points out in the section on the literature, which I thought was especially interesting, was that we need to think critically about why certain types of books are published and become popular. The Muslim pulp novels about women who escaped from brutal situations became especially prevalent and popular around the same time as the justifications were being made for the war on terror. These books and ideas often go hand in hand with the religious Right, Christianity, and justifications for going to war. They all let us think that the only place left to improve the rights of women is in other countries, and that war and occupation is the way towards that.

(Random side note: due to the fact that I recently alphabetized my non-fiction shelf, Abu-Lughod’s book now has to sit shelved unhappily next to Ayan Hirsi Ali…)

Stereotypes and prejudices exist in literature, sometimes purposely and sometimes not. What gets published is determined in large part by a handful of large companies. What gets media attention is determined by the same groups as control the regular news media in most cases. When the argument in a book is too easy and is simply telling us to export our culture and ideals onto other peoples, we should stop and question whether we are truly getting the full picture.

Basically these two rambling rant-posts are my reminders to keep thinking critically about what I read, what is and is not included in each book or article that I read, and what I’m not able to read because it’s not been considered worth publishing.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. trish422 permalink
    March 10, 2014 8:59 pm

    I think the problem – one of the problems – is stated perfectly here when you talk about believing rape/domestic abuse/etc. are isolated incidents unrelated to culture in Western society whereas they are cultural norms in Muslim society. Both societies suffer from a cultural bias towards male superiority, aggression, and ownership (of land, money, women). While I personally appreciate those stories of women “escaping”, I don’t think specific instances should be taken as representative of an entire group of people. We are created by our culture, but we are also individuals who make our own choices. We cannot condemn an entire culture based on the actions of individuals within it, nor can we completely ignore the cultural influences.

  2. March 11, 2014 7:29 am

    Ohh: you should read Words Not Swords, Love in a Headscarf, Leila Ahmed’s stuff (all nonfiction) and Leila Aboulela’s novels for thoughts on how Islam can also empower women! I haven’t read any of the ‘women escape Islam’ bestsellers (except Reading Lolita in Tehran ages ago), because their premise makes me very uncomfortable. But then, all sensationalist nonfiction makes me uncomfortable.

    I’ve loved these last two posts of you, they reminded me of why I go to so much effort (and it *is* an effort) to ensure I’m reading more diversely. I am such a different person than I would have been if I hadn’t started seeking out books beyond the mainstream.

Please share your thoughts, discussion always welcome!

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