May 18th, 2014
Feminist Art Theory Power
The 3rd World Gaze
As a child growing up in a world of duality, it was difficult to formulate an opinion of that world without resorting to a patriarchal mentality. Being raised by Arab parents in the United States allowed for my development into a balanced individual with an insider look into the differing societies and lifestyles of Westerners and Arabs. In her article Visual Pleasure Narrative Cinema, Laura Mulvey defines the male gaze as a scopophilia of sorts in which the manner a male is expected to gaze upon a woman as defined by societal structures that is adopted by all (59). The ways in which we view others is not limited to sex, gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, etc; and as a result there are a variety of ‘gazes’ such as the oppositional gaze proposed by bell hooks, the transgender look defined by Judith Halbestram, and many others. One method of gazing that is not often paid much attention is that which is placed upon individuals considered to be from 3rd world countries, and in this primarily women. In this essay, the main focus will be on Arab/Muslim women, but they are not the only individuals categorized as being of the 3rd world. This gaze that we shall refer to as the 3rd world gaze, is one that is politically, artistically, and socially motivated, and is utilized to control the image of these individuals.
A universal patriarchal system does not currently exist, and for that reason one must acknowledge that one method of viewing, fixing, or changing these systems is absurd. 3rd world women exist both in the west as well as in the 3rd world, and even in these situations they are living under differing circumstances. The gaze that these women encounter is unique from other gazes for a variety of reasons, and this way of seeing has a plethora of implications for those being seen.
In May of 1989, Audre Lorde read this poem she wrote at her commencement at Oberlin College in which she says, “Most people in the world are Yellow, Brown, Black, Poor, Female, Non-Christian, and do not speak english (Mohanty 1991).” Despite this being very true, we still tend to see 3rd world women as other rather than viewing them as equals. In this poem, Lorde also mentions that the most powerful countries in the world, the US & USSR, only constitute 1/8th of the worlds population. This number is the same as the population of the continent of Africa, and she is stating these facts in order to address the preposterousness of identifying those countries as universal standards for the rest of the world to follow. In order to resist the urge to victimize 3rd world women, we must understand how they become victimized in the first place.
Firstly, the media’s representation of women in these countries takes precedence over thoughtful education of these regions. To explain this more thoroughly, one may utilize real world examples in which women are compartmentalized and denoted as abused or mistreated in comparison to Western women. In 2005, Oprah Winfrey conducted interviews with multiple women from across the globe, one of which with a Saudi domestic abuse victim. She concluded that interview with a comment attacking the morality of Saudi nationals and portraying all women as powerless, battered, uneducated, and eternally homebound (Al-Ghalib A1). Most Saudi women took a problem with this as it wrongly reinforced a predominant stereotype of Muslims. When an individual with as much social influence as Oprah Winfrey engages in this sort of branding practice, it creates the 3rd world gaze aforementioned in which we are meant to take pity on these women for having to exist in such living conditions.
Despite the fact that the media can be a strong motivator of this way of seeing women, another important institution to consider is the political. The political method intertwines with the media, as it serves as the best medium to transport political information to the general public. News channels are now upping their game by engaging in more ‘popular’ news stories, which involves utilizing the same methods as does media.The way in which women are represented in the media is already quite objectified, so when women are weakened further by attacking the culture, integrity, and infrastructures of their societies, it creates a much more harmful environment. However, political institutions are not solely dependant on media, and the actions of these institutions alone can be enough to alter the image of a marginalized group. Declaring war on nations such as Iraq or Afghanistan and portraying the women as inferior further ingrains this ideology into our society.
In an effort to critique the political representation of the arab/muslim woman as weak and oppressed, Sarah Maple reappropriates the image of women in hijab. She places what seem to be contradictory items or themes in the paintings & photos of the traditional muslim woman, and thus reclaims the gaze. In her painting titled “Haram,” she portrays a woman in hijab carrying a pig like one would a pet, looking down at the audience (Maple Gallery). Just as Jenny Saville does in her own paintings, she is creating a view in which the onlooker must direct their gaze upwards, almost submissively, in order to see the painting. It is a moment in which the artist is able to award the subject power over their self image. The image is gazing into you, and in that moment you become the object and they become the onlooker.
In her article titled “Under Western Eyes, feminist theorist Chandra Talpade Mohanty questions the development of “3rd world women” as term used to refer to women existing outside of the western framework and continues to state that western feminism is not enough to remedy these areas. She examines the relationship between 1st and 3rd world countries, and explains that western feminism as a discipline must examine its role in that relationship (1984:336). Because the connection between the 1st and 3rd world countries is so profound, this ultimately influences the women of these countries greatly. Because of this, one might attribute the presence of the gaze to the nature of the relationship between the 2. Just as a patriarchy creates a system of hierarchy between sexes, so too does the association between the 1st and 3rd world between westerners and 3rd world individuals. This leads to the disempowerment of women that live in these countries, because their images are controlled by western representation and thus will only be interpreted in the way we are taught to understand them: as objectified.
Shirin Neshat, a well known Iranian-Muslim artist, has also been quite successful in altering the image of the Muslim woman. In her artwork, she challenges the conventional image of the Arab woman and presents to us a Muslim representation that seems to be empowered. In her self-photographic series, she displays herself as firm, balanced, and in some ways a beacon of strength. She bravely wore the words of the holy text on her body and flaunted them as symbols of her power (Neshat Gallery). When we examine images of Muslim and Arab women that are represented in this manner, we can begin to alter our gaze and refrain from engaging in dehumanizing practices. In one of her images from her series titled Women of Allah, she has religious text inscribed on her feet with a pistol in-between. This contradicts the common representation of the weak arab woman in countries of conflict constantly having their physical safety being threatened, and instead allows the woman to be the bearer of the power.
In the article “5 Faces of Oppression,” Iris Young states that oppression is carried out against a group to immobilize or diminish them (1990:40). The practice of oppression is a tactic utilized to target marginalized groups, and controlling their image is one method of doing so. Women are often represented on a daily basis in mass media, and we are trained to view these women as objects, compartmentalized into various parts and pieces. In our societal structures we often interpret women the way society deems acceptable, so in western society it is often assumed that women from 3rd world countries are particularly in need of saving. This is oppressive because for the women that feel empowered by making decisions about their bodies to wear, say the hijab, are being told that they can only be liberated once they embrace a western image of freedom.
Arab women are indeed just as dignified as other women throughout the globe. All women are subject to various gazes, but in order to alleviate this we must refrain from engaging in this divisive behavior and allow women to control their own images. Women are constantly the objects of desire, the ones in need of saving, and the weakest of the group. By taking hold of the gaze used to interpret women and reappropriating it to create an alternate method of seeing, it can give power to those women and give more emphasis to the issues that are important to them. Just as Western Feminism is not enough for the entire world to abide by to fix the structures that dictate our lives, denoting groups as “other” and classifying them in a different hierarchy does not allow for remedying of the situation.
We unknowingly gaze upon one another with a look that we have been taught from day one, and this look is as harmful as it is prevalent. In order to eliminate its dominance over ourselves, we must look at women as equal across the board. On top of that, we must also acknowledge that we differ globally in terms of geography, socially, and culturally, which means that there is no “one fixes all” method to reclaim these gazes. Artists give us the ability to emerge from those tv sets and magazine ads, so we must further this and take the gaze that is rightfully ours.
Mohanty, Chandra Talpade, Ann Russo, and Lourdes Torres. Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1991. Print.
Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourse. N.p.: Duke UP, 1984. Print.
Mulvey, Laura. Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. N.p.: n.p., 1999. Print.
“Oprah, Please Don’t Call Me Again.” Arab News. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 May 2014.
Young, Iris Marion. Justice and the Politics of Difference. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1990. Print.