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Reconstructing the East, Western style
A modern Orientalist view of Iran


April 27, 2007

An article titled "A Nation of Nose Jobs, Not Nuclear War" by Peter Hitchens in Mail on Sunday is only one of many recent audacious pieces that amalgamates two favorite issues used to support the American propaganda machine against Iranian sovereignty: women and the nuclear energy program.  In a disingenuously compassionate tone, and using literary chicanery for his aim, the author draws unsuspecting readers in by impersonating a wide-eyed, open soul in search of understanding an enigma.

The piece starts out like so many others of its genre, which, as the late Edward Said has comprehensively explained in his thesis on Orientalism, dates back to the 19th century: A curious, adventurous Westerner sets out to intellectually and sexually conquer the land of the Persians, friendsand family warn him of the “mullahs,” chadors, and myriad other dangers and evils which await in this daring escapade; nevertheless, in the tradition of his colonialist forefathers Hitchens sets out on his journey exemplifying the masculinity that runs through the veins of conquerors and conjuring up images of tanks and artilleries which are its ultimate palpable manifestation.  

Aside from shedding light on the fact that Hitchens obviously did not do his homework prior to departure (he does not demonstrate an appropriate understanding of modern Iranian history), the article includes three main themes that are frequently propounded in writings of those who support the Western propaganda machine against Iran, including, native informant tourists and their personal memoirs.

These themes include the hyper-sexualization of Iranian women, derogatory references to Arabs with the aim of creating dissonance in the region, and finally, an implicit promotion of a class system through subtle yet aggressive descriptions of sophistication.

I respond to this article not only because of its orientalist approach to examining modern-day politics of an independent state, but because this form of writing -- off-the-cuff, personal narration intended to head straight to the heart of the reader -- is fast becoming one of the most effective tools of American empire, proposing in unequivocal terms that some forms of unequal interdependence are legitimate.  Most importantly, this kind of writing further enhances a class-system which is adversely impacting the cultural and social fabric of Iranian society. 

Before even beginning the article, readers encounter an imposingimage of women licking ice cream cones, which does not obviously relate to the article title.  However, upon a closer examination of the text, it becomes apparent that the subtly sexual nature of the photo works to frame one of Hitchens’ unstated aims: the sexual objectification of Iranian women.  Hitchens makes the following statements throughout the text:

  • “ ... in a park by a lake, some teenage girls are splashing each other ... ”
  • “ ... and everyone knows that, once it is over [short-time summer crack down on dress codes] scarves will creep back a little further and heels will get a little higher ... ,”
  • “ ... in the evenings, cinemas are popular places for some mild canoodling ... ”
  • “ ... but there is plenty of extramarital and illicit sex in Iran ... ”
  • “ ... women who wish to join the West’s drive for sexual equality also loathe the state..”
  • “ ... the fashionable cafes are full of painted, un-Islamic butterflies, sipping milkshakes or coffee ... ”
  • and finally: “ ... the desire among lovely Persian women to look like Snow White is strange ... ”

with Hitchens, in the final quote, grabbing from his tool box of orientalist discourse a child’s fairytale character to compare with the modern day Iranian women.

It quickly becomes clear that Hitchens is more concerned with objectification of Iranian women, dedicating over half of the article to the depiction of offensive imagery, rather then addressing the nuclear program. 

Even more disturbing is the message behind these images, that somehow these real or imagined characteristics of Iranian women should be the basis of international dialogue. Even today, some prominent academics refer to the “exceptional” beauty of Iranian women and their embodiment of “modern” ethics as a reason why an invasion should be avoided. 

In this process, international law, respect for national sovereignty, and political discourse become secondary.  Furthermore, Thiscontradiction also begs the question: What are readers to think, that those nations and people of the world who do not subscribe to neo-liberal standards of beauty and sexuality are suitable for extinction?  Is sexual orientation the new marker for salvation from the American empire?

While readers might expect an analysis of the nuclear dispute, Hitchens instead elaborates racist theories of Arabs and Persians hoping the ruse approach of writing dissidence into mainstream discourse will lead to actual strife in the region.

For example, Hitchens writes:“ ... personally, I found Tehran much less oppressively Islamic than Kensington High Street in London, where an ever-growing number of women voluntarily go about in black shrouds, masks and veils,” “I have tried to understand the sweet, sad mystery of Iran's unique brand of Islam, quite unlike the hard, aggressive faith found in the Arab lands,” and, “ ... the last thing the ayatollahs need is for the peoples of Europe and America to know much about their country and its people, or to realise the truth - that Iran is our natural ally in the Middle East, a European civilization trapped by history and geography in the midst of Arabia. It does not belong there, culturally or religiously.” 

This approach is commonly implemented by the Western propaganda machine aimed at geographically reconstructing the East.  Hitchens panders to the colonized Iranian ego, the segment of Iranian society that views light skin, slender forms, and English spoken with an American accent to be markers of “civilization.” In the process, Hitchens (and the propaganda machine he represents) is in reality disintegrating Iranian sovereignty through cultural manipulation by creation of an “Other” in the image of an Arab. 

The last dominant problem with the article lies in its articulation of what is deemed as “sophisticated” by the author, who imposes his views on Iranian society both in hiswriting and certainly during his presence in the country.

For example, Hitchens writes, “On the streets the women walk and stand like Parisians. Somehow, with a belt here and an adjustment there, they manage to make the modest 'manteau' jackets look chic.” Later, he notes that “About one in 50 seems to have had recent plastic surgery on her nose. They wear their bandages with pride and some even stick plaster on their faces to pretend that they have undergone this subversive surgery.” Finally, Hitchens observes that “in a bustling restaurant in north Tehran, where Iran's wealthy middle classes live, it is obvious that Islamic dress has been forced on the many women present and that they are determined to let everyone know it is not their choice.” 

These statements imply that religiosity is significantly impacted by class, which is an oft-heard analysis in Western academia; however, an astute observer traveling in Iran will notice an eclectic and variegated understanding of religiosity embodied in neighborhoods throughout the country.

In fact, diversity in thought, political orientation, and religious adherence are dominant characteristics of both historical and contemporary Iranian society.  Nevertheless, the theory advocated by Hitchens has been internationally imposed on the Iranian people, engendering social problems and cultural disintegration in the most aggressive way.  Further, while Iranian women have been trying to dispel the myth that contemporary style clashes with Islamic-Persian identity for more than a century, Hitchens takes readers back to the early 1900s with the stroke of a pen, proposing a dogmatic understanding of Iranian society which the ulama, he aims to discredit throughout the text, argue against. 

Although Hitchens never fully engages readers in an analysis of the nuclear program, his depiction of Iranian women and society is used as a mechanism for addressing the former point.  By combining these two issues through real or imagined analyses, Hitchens argues that internally, the Iranian state is weak and unstable, and therefore a soft cultural invasion is a better option than an all-out military assault.

The article portrays the Iranian state as an indecisive, feisty yet weak female, ready to be disciplined and maintained by its beloved Western cowboy.  Why bomb them, the author poses, when we can coerce them through other means, and in the process, enjoy the sight and senses of their women.

 It is only through close examination of such writing, which at first glance may appear innocuous, that we can stop the perpetuation of myths regarding gender, sovereignty, and religion which are entangled in modern Iranian encounters with imperialism.  Comment

Shirin Saeidi is an editorial board member of CASMII and a doctoral student at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge

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