Warrior Borthers and Veiled Sisters

In her book, Moallem argues that, although Iranian modernity and postmodernity have produced specific images of gendered, sexualized, and racialized bodies, these images are not produced with any degree of finality, instead a dynamic, historically specific process through which visual imageries of bodies are framed and coded by gender and race against the background of institutional practices across various domains, such as the family, the state, and political and religious organizations. While modern Westernized cultural meanings of Persianness claimed hegemony over the meaning of identity pre-revolution of 1979; the meaning of identity, then, was replaced by Islamic notions of community (Moallem, 2005: 25).

In both cases, Iranian modernity and post-modernity are dynamic response to the Western modernity and colonialism. What so called umma (Islamic community), for example, is necessarily product of modernity rather than a return to an idealized archaic community (Moallem, 2005: 25); and what is called “fundamentalism”, for another case, is the crisis of modernity, instead of the one of tradition (Moallem, 2005: 120).

To work on those arguments, Moallem draws on scholarship from a number of fields: transnational and post-colonial feminism, queer theory, and Middle Eastern and Iranian women’s studies. Her objective is to contest the existing Western representation of Islamic fundamentalism as irrational, morally inferior, and barbaric masculinity and its passive, victimized, and submissive femininity (Moallem, 2005: 8). There are three serious consequences to this problem: first, it legitimizes imperialist and militarist intervention of the West in general in the Middle East; second, it is used to maintain racism against Arabs and Muslims in the U.S.A.; last but not least, it indeed makes various forms of fundamentalism appealing to the masses of people in the Middle East — creating situation where claiming an “us” or making certain claims to authenticity becomes a site of resistance and identity formation. Furthermore, such intellectual tradition reduces all Muslims to fundamentalist and all fundamentalist to fanatical antimodern traditionalist (Moallem, 2005: 8).

Therefore, Moallem tries to historicize what is becoming fixed in the notion of Islamic fundamentalism and Iranian identity. In so doing, she looks at how Iranian reacted to “civilizational imperialism” and its counter reaction. Civilizational imperialism led the Reza Shah to impose western model of modernization deemed capable of bringing Iranian out of the fixed backward Islam: the adoption of European dress, suits, jackets, trousers, and the likes (Moallem, 2005: 64). As a reaction, in turn, the revolutionary Muslims impose a kind of de-westernization during the revolution, producing a number of tropes found in Islamic tradition to replace any tropes of the western ideas, such as promoting the imagined Islamic community called ummah to replace nation, imposing reveiling on the women instead of unveiling,

Another important point she makes — I think it is of her use of queer theory — is her analysis on how civic body is preferable site whenever the regimes attempt to impose their certain ideology. Moallem works well on this issue when she discusses unveiling and reveiling (Moallem, 2005: 69). The hijab (veil) has been crucial in staging difference and in giving meaning to a series of dichotomies that underlie gender, power, and authority in Iranian modernity. In 1934 and 1935, Reza Shah imposed forced unveiling, while post-revolution regime forced women on reveiling. Governing civic bodies is one most important disciplinary tools of any regime in Iran.

This book is not really new in the sense that many scholars have challenged what Said called “orientalism” attitude of the West in othering the Rest. Since Saeed’s path breaking work, Orientalism, was published, many scholars have tried to understand the Rest in its own right. Peletz’s book we discussed before was also written in this spirit. However, the contribution Moallem made is in the way she deals with the issue of umma. While there is a small number of works have been done to understand the rise of umma, amid bulk theories of nation; Moallem put the discourse of umma in distinguished fashion: her argument that umma is the product of modernity rather than a return to the earliest time of the community of Allah is challenging at all.

I am also interested in her explanation that one of serious impact of Orientalist way of depicting Islam is indeed a boost for fundamentalism. By fixing Islam to certain type of fundamentalism, it is very difficult for those who try to reinterpret Islam in a different way. The Liberal Muslims in Indonesia, for example, have no public credential to claim Islamicity because the fixed representation of Islam is in a fundamentalist trope. In the case of banking, for instance, only shariah banking can claim Islamicity. The conventional banking (with its interest based system), although acceptable according to Islamic liberal interpretation, is considered non-Islamic. It is necessarily difficult to claim Islamicity out of the fixed fundamentalist trope of Islam.

Considering its “heavy” content, this book will be difficult reading for those who are not familiar with post-modernist approaches. Just reading one paragraph in page 25, for example, we find several methodological terms requiring wider reading on contemporary approach: cultural studies, queer theory, transnational, and discursive production, tropes, images, signifiers, narrative, subject formation, all of which unexplained in the book. The reader needs to understand first the concepts developed by Ferdinand de Saussure (linguistic), Rolland Bart (semiotic), Michel Foucault (discourse), Jacques Derrida (deconstruction), and Edward Saeed (post-colonial study) and other structuralist and post-structuralist to understand better this book. And, as far as I experienced, that is not easy done.

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