cultural studies

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Representation Of Colonial And Oriental Cultures Cultural Studies Essay

My focus will principally fall on the representation of colonial and oriental cultures through patriarchal depictions of others to be critiqued by postcolonial transitions in the work of new feminist writers. These concentrate on the effort to bring about change through feminist colonial discourse whilst also taking into account the contribution to the movement from those previously silenced, allowing the emergence of Iranian diasporic female writers, to provide a literary glimpse behind the curtain of the distorted veiled image. The deconstruction of bounded assumptions moves towards a new production of space within Western constructions of cultural mobility to provide orientalised women with the movement and agency to reconstruct and cross complex boundaries of understanding. “Far too long, for instance, it has been assumed that the stimulus behind the movement for unveiling and/or ‘the liberation’ of women’s literary voice in Iran has been either masculine or culturally exogenous (i.e. Western)” (Milani, 1992). The insight into indigenous experiences and literary representations opens pathways into transitions from tradition to modernity (McEwan 2005). This also allows the study of postcolonial thinking and our understanding of written sources and how they shape our representations, positionality, identity and relation to the orientalised female ‘other’ in modern society as the veil acts as both a symbol of oppression and resistance(Grace 2004).

The historical legacy of post colonialism and postcolonial theory is predominantly laced within contemporary studies of the Middle East and the phantasmal body of knowledge that surrounds the borderlines drawn by the mystical image of the veiled female body, for example:

“East as a land of intrigue, forbidden pleasures and sexual possibility leading to a desire to know in order to more effectively rule” (Grace 2004).

Constructions of geographical understanding are principally focused on ‘traditional’ depictions of the geographical make-up of what can be conceived as a predominantly legitimised euro - centric configuration of the colonised ‘other’. The conceptualisation of ‘otherness’ features largely in the historical authority of the definition of European civilization and of the continued consumption of romanticised representations of sublime knowledge and power (Dickinson 2007) even in its most basic form for public consumption. Much of the development of dominant European knowledge originates from the writings of Said (1991) on Orientalism, producing much of the critical and gendered theory, ambivalence, detachedness and gendered racial hierarchy of a ‘master race’ mentality of ‘men making their own history’.

“They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented” (Marx cited in Said ‘Orientalism’ 1991).

The domination of patriarchal theory has largely seen female standpoints being written out of history as colonialised assumption forces women to be bound not only geographically but also within political, social and cultural borders. However, contrary to this long standing literature, it is argued the use of critical feminist writings allows women to be made visible (Scott 1988) by challenging the traditional, allowing the deconstruction of history and moving away from what Blunt (1994) argued constituted ‘discontinuous and disconnected discourses’ through which oppressive patriarchy has forced women to forge a new reality for themselves (Grace, 2004). Women constitute ‘a muted group, the boundaries of whose culture and reality overlap, but are not wholly contained by, the dominant male group’ (Showalter, Grace, 2004) which allows the discourse of silenced voices to find new agency, where the veil is seen as a crucial index of political and social change (Mernissi, 2003).

2.1.1, The Role of Women in Revolutionary and Post Revolutionary Iran

‘Revolution is an expression for the rebellion or uprising of the people of a region or one land against the existing ruling order for the purpose of installing some desired form of rule’ (Motahari, 1985). The revolution swept aside a powerful, repressive King who had sought power and prestige by linking his country to the Industrial West, replacing him with an old breaded cleric in a turban and cloak whose answer to the King’s injustice was to wrap the country in a populist message and smother it with an intolerant version of Islam (Sciolino, 2000). When taking into account the role of women, the rejection of Westernisation (rejection of ‘the arrogance’, (BBC News, 2010)) and the over-turn of the Shah’s positionality of the modernisation of the country’s current movement away from traditionalist values to those of a populist and nationalist stance, women become the main losers of the 1979 revolution. Because of this, women became increasingly deprived of personal and social freedoms under the new clerical government (Moghissi, 1994) seeing a return to women being represented by the veil as a symbol of purity (Sciolino, 2000).

“people yearning for a better life clashed with the clerics prescription for keeping their souls intact…Battle not for territory but the soul of the nation” (Sciolino, 2000).

In rising up to claim rights to the freedom of movement through public space and access to education that had been claimed earlier, Iranian women themselves have seen a return to a continuing process of claiming national identity through traditional dogmatism and religious orthodoxy at the expense of the female citizenry (Moghissi 1994). This form of ‘progressive opposition’ through the adoption of Western modernisation movements in which many Iranian women found their voices in the deconstruction of inter and cross-cultural boundaries, became a driving force in the formulation of national apparatus to contain women’s broadening agency.

The reconstruction of traditionalist values under the revolutionary movement by Ayatollah Khomeini sees the rhetoric of Western attitudes toward understandings of oriental productions of knowledge become cemented in generalised assumption of Iranian women’s lack of identity, voice and agency where sexual equality fails to be distinguished and the representation of women as being destructive to the social order being translated through Muslim and European oriental ideology and an unshaped and fluid muddle with women as key producers of it (Najmabadi 2000) due to their support for movements forward in female participation through the liberating allowances that were provided under the Shah’s rule.

“The hegemonic influence of the Western image of the Middle Eastern woman as veiled, obedient and subservient, if nonetheless alluring and wistful, overshadows the mounting evidence of their intellectual, cultural and political reforms in the region” (Moghissi 1994).

2.2 World views, Representations and Stereotypes

Trying to overcome the traditional representation of the oriental label of the veiled, oppressed woman is difficult when studying contemporary oriental studies as byHarrison (1995). Harrison argues that manipulative images (primarily selected by the media) generate stereotypical views attracting attention to ‘evoke passion’. This in turn create a sense of superiority amongst ‘the West’ toward the other, from which this evoked passion felt by the West leads to ideological ideals, creating a long standing hierarchal scale in the process of development (Taylor 1988) and the continuation of patriarchal ideals of dominance. Ideological views tend to be formed in a simplified and stylised way creating stereotypical representations of the ‘dark continent’ of the feminine (Grace 2004). This alludes to natural weaknesses and incapacities by comparison with the European cultural ‘other’, through which the fears and restrictions placed on the sexual nature of women in Islamic society result in the need for the veiled other, as Grace (2004) concludes seeing women becoming the scapegoat and focus for man’s fear.

In the past development studies have seen a focus on what Abdallah Laroui identified as reductive repetition, ‘a practice that reduces the diversity of historical experiences and trajectories, social context and political situations into a set of core deficiencies’ (Andreasson 2005), a theory challenged by Smith (2006) who argues the ‘reductive repetition motif is typical of intellectuals reproducing and legitimising a culture of imperialism that veils the history of subaltern peoples and reproduces their identities…as weak, failed’. By engaging with the colonial regime stereotypes are made effective producing more visible and available access to power, further linking to the ideological legitimisation of colonial rule.

It is important to understand that like Blunt (1994) and Madge (1993) constructions of difference expressing a person’s identity through gender, class and culture are constructions that are time-space specific, ever changing and dynamic (Harrison 1995). When considering the role of postcolonial thinking and our understanding of written sources and how they shape our representations, positionality, identity and relation to the oriental other we must be critical when forming new representations of old.

2.3, Understanding of ‘others’

Colonial theory is concentrated on the idea of a hierarchal system of governance and knowledge as expressed in Said’s Orientalism. This expresses the idea of ‘otherness’ as a ‘Western Style for dominating, restructuring and having authority over the ‘other’. This notion of Western hegemonic domination over others can be seen through feminist critiques of patriarchal Orientalism including that of Yeğenoğlu (1998) who argues Orientalism is the European imagination at work in the field of the other. The veil attracts the eye, forces one to think, to speculate about what is behind it. This legitimises Said’s theory on what Blunt (1994) criticises as the production and reproduction of myths and imagined geographies constructing the inferiority of other people and places. Similarly, Spivak (1988) identifies the British ‘civilising mission’ as further legitimisation of colonial ideology that particularly concentrates on the representations of female suppression (Kapoor 2004,Dossa 2007). This idea of ‘the other’ is important in gendered representations of colonial rule, as expressed by Blunt (1994) who suggests white women become visible at the expense of colonialised women. She also argues that the construction of gender issues should not be isolated from cultural differences as both share links, as a ‘loss of voice’ is experienced by both marginalized groups due to Western constructions of hegemonic power. This perception is reiterated by Briggs and Sharp (2004) who suggest that the postcolonial discourse creates a very limited perception of ‘concern with the ontological and epistemological status of the voices of the subaltern peoples in Western knowledge systems’. It is clear in postcolonial theory that the voice of indigenous peoples is written out of history as suggested by Greene (2003) where ’truths’ were rendered marginal, and removed from public discourse, silenced’, particularly seen through patriarchal literary representation of Middle Eastern and Iranian traditions

2.4, Right and wrong? Effects of Power in domination and resistance – Silence as the norm

The use of hegemonic ideology and power in ideological domination and the domination of peoples was particularly common in the writings and research of the past and to an extent, remains so today. As Chilisa (2005) argues, postcolonial societies still ignore, marginalise and suppress other knowledge systems and ways of knowing. Many aspects of traditional lives particularly the movement of women through public and private space and through and across cultural boundaries within these societies, pre-colonisation, were subject to social conversion, challenging Oriental stereotypes, pushing emancipation among elite women as a euro - centric view of living and a sign of modernisation (Mernissi 2003). Much of this ideological transfer as documented by Green (2003) remained out of view from Western public understanding radicalising gender identities (Mernissi 2003).

“The institutionalized boundaries dividing the parts of society express the recognition of power in one part at the expense of the other. Any transgression of the boundaries is a danger to the social order because it is an attack on the acknowledged allocation of power” (Mernissi 2003).

Much of these transitions contained in the enlightened era place cultural and gender differences into the same category of marginalized difference. As argued by Blunt (1994), a powerful imperial ideology of ‘otherness’ should be recognised as historically and geographically specific – appealing to difference in a contextualised framework. Difference and inequality expressed and given prominence in primary imperial literature critiques have led to the disguise of the gender issues experience of both Western and Eastern women. This has largely affirmed the Western ethnocentric perception of patriarchal dominance and continued to further undermine the representation and voice of women in geographical history and cultural literature, seeing most dominant forms of literature being bound by patriarchal representations of a hidden, veiled space. Considering this loss of voice, Greene’s theory on ‘whispers and silences’ helps the understanding of how ‘silence’ has become the norm, within not only African societies but Western societies alike and how these yardsticks could negatively affect the geographical imagination of future generations in regard to ’other-ed’ cultural spaces as little relevance is associated with contemporary identities. The polarisation of the “backward veiled other” determines the power and authority held by the Western voyeur and the national patriarchal power. This can be expressed through the opposition created through which white Western women and ‘other’ women have been constructed, where power is a constant theme (Bulbeck 1998).

2.5, Representations of New and Old

Space and time amalgamated with gender and culture can provide a rich depiction of changing ideologies towards questions and perceptions surrounding the issue of Orientalism, the veiled other and the construction of boundaries containing female representations of identity, voice and agency. As argued by Abrahamsen (2003) a move away from the past in order to create a parallel study of then and now may help when looking at the representations of old and new.

“For Post colonialism the encounter with a more empirically oriented discipline may help expand its focus and field of enquiry away from the preoccupation with the past and with representation, towards critical analyses of contemporary institutions and practices of power” (Abrahamsen 2003).

When considering the impact of Western feminist critiques of the patriarchal gaze on Orientalism, the impact of emerging Iranian fiction writers and the effect of post colonialism in modern society toward the representation of feminist identity, these representations in comparison with colonial perspectives, could provide new insights into modern understandings of development struggles and the impact of modern thought on the development.

After building on themes and looking at the content and context of the literature available, a concentration on the understanding of the boundaries between the orient and the occident and the production of contemporary knowledge through the effect of the socio-historical concepts of knowledge highlight the influence of feminism as border making. The issue of the veil and the hidden voices of ‘oppressed’ women through the analysis of Iranian fiction writing will become the focus of the deconstruction of Western conceptions of a generalised understanding of difference through the use of some key exemplary studies, concentrating particularly on their use of ‘memory’ in postcolonial thinking and its effects on new development perceptions.

2.6, Conclusion

The legacy of colonialism and oriental constructions of knowledge are restrictive ideologies which raise important questions about the representation of complex spaces between cultures, particularly those which are shrouded with mystery and under international pressure to be defined and explained. The importance of the deconstruction of multiple boundaries created by insider/outsider patriarchal dominance is still relevant in modern society. This is because during post-colonial adjustments, euro-centric power sources have allowed residual imperial power structures to persist as a subliminal constant at the expense of traditional ethnocentric representations of indigenous societies, which have remained less visible..

“All that comes before colonialism becomes its own pre-history and whatever comes after can only be lived as infinite aftermath” (Ahmad 1995 cited in Abrahamsen 2003).

From looking at the literature relevant to this area of study trends emerge suggesting interconnectedness between groups of marginalized females and in particular, traditional representations of veiled women and the spaces in which they exist and are bound. Although the common assumption that Eastern women are veiled and therefore silent is being challenged. This is being achieved through the emergence of educated literary accounts of women whose memories and experiences of the ideologies and cultural definitions within which they exist, make clear they lack the agency to allow them to breakthrough the dominant patriarchal ideology of the nineteenth century. Although there have been emergences of new feminist representations of the colonial and orientalised other it is still clear that like all representations within geographical development studies, gender was (and is still) undermined within the discipline despite its widespread popularity through the literary world.

The authors draw similar conclusions which suggest that marginalised groups have been and are still affected by the implications of colonial and postcolonial discourses affecting their visibility within the development of world policy. By looking at the representation of Nineteenth century oriental assumptions and the more predominant marginal groups of indigenous or subaltern peoples represented by new feminist critiques and new feminist fiction writing, it is evident that the imposition of ethnocentric and hegemonic ideology suppresses the possibility for modern thought to create new representations in development theory. By using past writings and new critiques and personal representations of the indigenous other, in this case the fiction writing of women of the Iranian Diaspora women about their experiences in post - revolutionary Iran, the possibility of the formation of new modern interpretations of the colonial world and movement away from ‘offstage’ discourses (Greene 2003) will help to engage gaps in the literature for further consideration into new identities. Identities formed through the reconstruction of fragmented pasts and the deconstruction of cross-cultural boundaries to form modern transitions and discourses in which transculturation can form a hybridised geographical construction of culture.


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