From Visual Culture to Visual Imperialism: The Oriental Harem and the New Scheherazades

Esmaeil Zeiny


Drawings, paintings, photographs, moving images and the emergence of Visual Culture as a discipline can confirm the growing centrality of the visuality in our everyday life. This visuality shapes people’s attitude and understanding and once constantly reproduced, constructs a fixed set of meaning for certain issues, perspectives, cultures, and groups of people. Therein lies the danger when visuality commits the misrepresentation, which is part of the process of ‘Othering’ and the backbone of visual imperialism. The Western representation of the East and its women has been one of these misrepresentations through which East is conceived as exotic, erotic, inferior and slave. By drawing upon Hall’s definition of representation (1997), this paper explores the historical representation of Eastern women through the Oriental harem paintings and photography, and reveals how the misconception of the harem Odalisques was conceived. It examines how this stereotypical representation resurfaced in the post-9/11 contexts through life narratives written by Muslim women known as the new Scheherazade. Unlike the Scheherazade of the Oriental harem who was reduced to a submissive sexy odalisque, these Scheherazade are brave and articulate. I argue that this is a post-9/11 strategy to offset all the negative depictions of Muslim women. These brave Scheherazades have been provided with the platform to relate the plights of living in Islamic societies as a woman, and therefore their texts are, in Whitlock’s term (2007), ‘soft weapons’ in manufacturing consent for the presence of empire in the East by corroborating the Orientalist representation of Muslim women. 


Keywords: Visual culture; Oriental harem; Scheherazades; women; representation  

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