The Clash Of Delusions

There is no better region for manufacturing differences than the Middle East. There is no greater antithesis to the liberal, tolerant West than the Muslim. US journalists working in the area or covering anything to do with Muslims seem to be at a loss of common sense and self-reflection.

There is a long history of voyeuristic and titillating depictions and representations of Arab sexuality. This trope continues with a European fascination with sexuality in the Middle East and the apparent capriciousness, violence, cruelty, lust, sexual perversion, and slavery that seemed to be present within it. [Alain Grosrichard, The Sultan’s Court: European Fantasies of the East, Verso Books, 1998.] It is a fantasy that continues in popular cinema, novels, television sitcoms, and even documentaries.

Ironically, the construction of a unique, deviant, and misogynist Muslim man lies at the heart of the Western feminist movement. The much-celebrated self-proclaimed feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, in her famous text “Vindication of the Rights of Woman,” repeatedly used the idea of an enslaved Muslim woman to shame and harangue Christian Europeans for their treatment of Christian women. That is, the Muslim male was the exemplar of the height of misogyny, and Christian men had to do better.

So complete was Wollstonecraft’s Orientalist disdain for the Arab man that she “reserves her fullest scorn for the gendered despotism that she sees as a defining feature of Eastern life…[And in fact,] any aspect of the European treatment of women that Wollstonecraft finds objectionable she labels as Eastern.” [Joyce Zonana, “The Sultan and the Slave: Feminist Orientalism and the Structure of Jane Eyre,” Signs 18, no. 3 (Spring 1993): 598-600.] Wollstonecraft’s feminism was little more than a demand to not be like the [imaginary] Arab man.

Feminist Orientalism’s grotesque and ugly face is there for all to read in Wollstonecraft’s representation of the Arab man.

It is “Mahometanism,” and the “Mahometan” institution of the seraglio or harem-that Wollstonecraft singles out as the grand type for all oppression of women. Any Western writer who treats women “as a kind of subordinate beings, and not as a part of the human species” is accused of writing “in the true style of Mahometanism.” This is because what she believes about “Mahometanism” embodies for Wollstonecraft the antithesis of her own central claim: that women, like men, have souls. [Joyce Zonana, “The Sultan and the Slave: Feminist Orientalism and the Structure of Jane Eyre,” Signs 18, no. 3 (Spring 1993): 598-600.]

For Wollstonecraft, to highlight the condition of American women, she only had to compare them to Arab women. Western women are educated in “worse than Egyptian bondage,” their masters are “worse than Egyptian task-master, upper-class women, “dissolved in luxury,” have become weak and depraved “like the Sybarites,” if women do not “grow more perfect when emancipated,” Wollstonecraft advises that Europe should “open a fresh trade with Russia for whip.” [Joyce Zonana, “The Sultan and the Slave: Feminist Orientalism and the Structure of Jane Eyre,” Signs 18, no. 3 (Spring 1993): 598-600.]

The list of demeaning and racist simplicities goes on and on. 19th and 20th century feminist discourses in the US were deeply influenced by these racist constructions, and have continued to infect white feminism and its easy marriage to what is now referred to as imperial feminism. [Deepa Kumar, Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire, Haymarket Books, 2012]. These racist ideas can be found in works by Mary Shelley (Wollstonecroft’s daughter), Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Elizabeth Gaskel, and Charlotte Brontë (Edward Said did a whole review of Jane Eyre in Culture and Imperialism to reveal its many colonial and racist ghosts) among others. The denigration of Arab men as depraved, overly sexual, abusive, misogynist and the epitome of gendered oppression, has a long genealogy in Western feminism.

There is a direct line between this 18th-century texts and today’s twenty-first-century journalism because this same mantra informs the work of many journalists and photojournalists who, blissful in their ignorance and ahistoricism, fail to understand their place in the long lineage of colonial racist constructions of difference.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning US journalist Stephanie Sinclair’s long-term reportage and NGO project, Too Young To Wed, highlights stories of young girls coerced into marriages against their will. [Online at: (last accessed, December 2023)]. The work has won numerous awards and recognitions. National Geographic Magazine was sufficiently impressed to feature it on their pages. In an essay for the magazine, Writer Cynthia Gorney grandly explained that child marriage is a common practice among societies with “rigid tradition.” [Cynthia Gorney, “Too Young to Wed: The Secret World of Child Brides,” National Geographic Magazine, June 2011]. That is, not the USA. According to her, such “rigid societies” consider it an “appropriate way for a young woman to grow up when the alternatives, especially if they carry a risk of her losing her virginity to someone besides her husband, are unacceptable.” [Ibid.]

She highlights the violence of the men in regions like Yemen and Afghanistan, where “husbands may be young men or middle-aged widowers or abductors who rape first and claim their victims as wives afterward, as is the practice in certain regions of Ethiopia.” [Ibid.] These were disturbing arguments, suggesting that these “traditional” or “rigid” societies are unlike our modern communities of free choice, freedom, and women’s rights. At one point, the writer becomes the story as she tells us how she intervenes to save a girl child by donating money to help educate her. The girl later wrote to Gorney to thank her for her liberation and salvation from the barbarism of her people and men.

This project fits neatly into the now long, tiresome, and oft-critiqued tradition of the “white savior industrial complex,” where Western interlocutors place themselves as narrator and savior of the blighted Other. [Teju Cole, “The White Savior Industrial Complex,” The Atlantic, March 21, 2012]. These narratives are researched, written, and represented in a way that creates a “space” for the centrality of the narrator to become the hero/martyr for the Other. The “white savior complex” is as much a social and fictional construction as it is a myth, where the humane outsider presents the world only so that s/he is at the center of it and presented as the force that can save it. It is a position the savior creates for herself by carefully eliding the social, historical, economic, and structural realities of a nation and its people and making just enough room for her to come marching in like a superhero and at the center of the story.

[Several texts discuss this humanitarian/savior desire: Julietta Singh, Unthinking Mastery: De-humanism and Decolonial Entanglements, Duke University Press, 2018; Teresa Hayter, Aid As Imperialism, Penguin Books, 1971; Linda Polman, War Games: The Story Of Aid And War In Modern Times, Viking Books, 2011; Linda Polman, The Crisis Caravan: What’s Wrong With Humanitarian Aid, Picador, 2011. Fiona Terry, Condemned to Repeat? The Paradox of Humanitarian Action, Cornell University Press, 2002; Peter Uvin, Aiding Violence: The Development Enterprise in Africa, Kumarian Press, 1998].

What I want to point out, however, is how the tragedy of child marriages is also a major US problem. And yet, not once is it mentioned in the National Geographic Magazine article, nor is it covered by Stephanie Sinclair in her celebrated photo project. Between 2000 and 2018, nearly 300,00 children, 87% girls, were married off in the USA. [Anjali Tsui, Dan Nolan, and Chris Amico, “Child Marriage in America,” Frontline, July 6, 2017; Fraidy Reiss, “Child Marriage in the United States: Prevalence and Implications,” Adolescent Health, Volume 69, Issue 6, Supplement, S8-S10, December 2021; Al-Jazeera, The Stream, “Child marriage: Why does it persist in the US?”; Mischa Valencia, “‘Trapped’: The American women and girls forced into marriage,” Al-Jazeera, December 24, 2020; Valerie Hudson, “How Is Child Marriage Still Legal in the U.S.?,” The Atlantic, November 6, 2023].

Several US states allow girls as young as 12 years of age to get married. The US has one of the lowest age requirements on record, with some states, such as Massachusetts, allowing girls as young as 12 to be wed (after judicial consent) [Rainesford Stauffer, “Why Are Some States Quietly Trying to Make It Easier to Marry Young Girls?” InStyle, October 25, 2019]. No federal laws ban child marriage [Sarah Ferguson, “What You Need to Know About Child Marriage in the US,” UNICEF USA, October 29, 2018].

It wasn’t until 2017 that New York State passed an anti-child marriage law. [Lisa W. Foderaro, “Child Marriage Is Sharply Curtailed by New York Legislature,” New York Times, June 8, 2017]. In North Carolina and Alaska, a 14-year-old can marry with judicial approval. Some states allow a clerk to approve these weddings. [Misha Valencia, “‘Trapped’: The American Women and Girls Forced into Marriage,” Al-Jazeera, December 24, 2020]. Even a fraction of research shows that child brides are a severe American pathology. It isn’t tough to find that there is a long history of American Christian men also worrying about the “risk of [their daughter] losing her virginity to someone besides her husband.” [Shannon Firth, “Father-Daughter Purity Balls Still Drawing Crowds, Criticism,” FindingDulcinea, February 13, 2023; Jessica Valenti, “Purity balls, Plan B and bad sex policy: inside America’s virginity obsession,” The Guardian, May 5, 2014].

This issue is still with us.

In early 2023, in the name of liberty and freedom, the Republic Party in Wyoming tried to kill a bill that would raise the minimum legal marriage age to 16, arguing that any attempt to place “limits on child marriage interferes with parental rights and religious liberty.” [Nick Reynolds, “Wyoming Limiting Child Marriage Sparks Republican Outrage,” Newsweek, February 10, 2023.]

But all this is ignored and erased. Along with the language of rescuing the women in the non-West, these discourses misrecognize the treatment of women in the West itself, frequently framing issues such as domestic violence as “health” issues rather than human rights issues and offering strategies of mitigation through better training for healthcare workers, police and judges. Journalists can foist the pathology onto the Other, where she can then center herself as a savior, witness, and moral voice transforming the lives of helpless and grateful women.

She does this despite the prevalence of the same pathology in her nation, a focus on which could help her understand the issue better and think about it if she examined it. Instead, there is silence. There are no calls for human rights campaigns and international interventions to save child brides in the US from their predatory men. Human rights campaigns are always only aimed at the Other, perpetuating the myth of their uniquely problematic, backward, and distressed realities that we, here in the ‘modern’ West, have outgrown and moved on from.