“Orientalism” and “Woman”…


Summer, 2013, Beloit College. I was devising a performance piece about the first meeting of Egyptian and American feminists at the 1930 International Women’s Suffrage Association in Rome, Italy.  This course and the resultant project were to be part of a collaborative performance with students from the American University of Cairo.

Nine students were enrolled in the course:  three men and six women.  Of the men, two were international:  one hailing from Japan and the other from Bosnia.  The third man, an American, lived in a Jewish community in Prague for six years.  Four women were white Americans, two women were mixed race Americans.  All students were theatre or media students.  None of the students were transgender.

Our first task was to understand “orientalism” as it informed the writings and behaviors of the American women’s writings we would be using as source material. The first three days of the course focused on Said’s concept of the Oriental (and the Occidental).  On the third day, we brought these ideas together to examine “Woman” as “Orientalism”.

Students were placed in gender-identified groups to discuss the conception of woman as they “knew” it.  Men were asked:

  • What is strange about women?
  • What do you KNOW about women because you’ve read it? (and why would men write this down?)
  • What mystifies men about women?

Women were asked:

  • What do men not “get” about women?
  • What do men know about women from reading about them?
  • What do you believe is mystifying about women for men?

These conversations were developed into important vignettes for the performance.

For me, students’ experience and knowledge is an essential starting point for education.  Articulating what is “known” allows the known to become “un-known” when other perspectives complicate the known.  Two years after asking students to consider “Woman” as “Orientalism”, I am still haunted by a comment from a male student, “Amy, you are asking us to apply the concepts of Orientalism to women and it really just can’t be done.”  I said to him, “In Orientalism, according to Said, there is a self-conscious scientific perspective that looks at the linguistic significance of Orient on Europe; and, Orientalism divides, subdivides and classifies the Orient as an unchanging object.  It becomes a uniform and peculiar thing.  Don’t you think that when you replace “orient” with “women”, “Orientalism” with “Woman”, and “Europe” with “men”, the statement remains true?  An argument erupted in the room –and, it’s still continuing!

6 thoughts on ““Orientalism” and “Woman”…

  1. Amy, I am so curious to hear and see more when we meet up at ATHE. Did the students have any prior familiarity with Said? Did they resist or endorse the groupings? Did conversations diverge significantly from your prompt questions? Since this was in service to a devised theatre piece, how did it materialize in the end? Were the students writers and performers for the performance?

  2. Amy, thank you for sharing these important lessons on linking epistemology, power, Orientalism, and patriarchy through the production of knowledges that feminize “The Orient” and that orient women. To what extent do you think that your students imagined white women when asked to apply Orientalism to women? And perhaps conceiving of white women as exempt from rather than socially reproducing and profiting from Orientalism? Your remarks on orientation also remind me of Sara Ahmed’s work in Queer Phenomenology. I’m eager to hear more!

  3. Amy – I am struck by your very savvy replacing of “orient” with “woman” – your male student in question may not have gotten it! But I certainly do. I recently engaged students in a discussion of gender and colonialism and their intertwined and interdependent relationship with respect to Churchill’s Cloud 9. The next time I teach that class I will borrow – if I may – your particular use of Said’s theory. I will also be curious to hear at ATHE how the ongoing discussion you referred to impacted your devised theatre piece with your students. Did it “resolve” or further complicate your particular male student’s resistance?

  4. Amy, like Catherine, I work love to hear more about the collaborative performance you created with the students. You mention using American women’s writing as source material for it. What specifically did you use? Did you incorporate other material as well? It sounds like the exercise you developed asked the students to imagine “woman” as “orient” vis-à-vis men. But did you also use the Said to critique American feminists’ view of the Egyptian feminists they encountered at the 1930 IWSA meeting? Did you find that the exercise helped students to approach the performance’s source material in more nuanced ways than they would have otherwise? In what ways? Did the emphasis on Said and the exercise lead students to (new?) perspectives on intersectional feminism?

  5. Amy, this is fascinating. To what degree did you consider the notion that dividing groups by gender identification might reinforce a male-female binary? Or were these groupings designed to prompt students to deconstruct such a divide? By the same token, to what extent might replacing one oppressed group with another in any given postcolonial/feminist/queer/anti-patriarchal theoretical framework circumvent the idea of intersectionality? I am curious about the structures you set up as tactics to encourage students to investigate these very conflicts. Looking forward to hearing more!

  6. This assignment is super interesting and so challenging on a number of levels. Like Jessica, I am very curious about the dynamic that arose from dividing the students into groups based on genders. I’d also be interested to hear some of the students answers to these questions–as well as how within these answers they may have also been putting forward certain generalizations about their own genders (some of the answers seem to prompt certain generalizations about one’s own gender). I’m also eager to hear about what the piece they devised was like, and how some of the classroom conversations/dynamics may have influenced how the piece was produced and rehearsed.

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