English literature major Nusaiba Imady ’15 searched her own identity and analyzed tropes of Eastern women in literature and art for her Antonian Scholar senior honors project, “Burqa-Wearing Belly Dancers: Orientalist Feminism in the Formation of Eastern Women Identities.”
“Identity is one of the most flexible, changing things over our lifetime, but also the most fortifying,” Imady said.
What began as an independent study with Professor Cecelia Konchar Farr, head of the English department, turned into an honors project that is part scholarly article and part art project, with Konchar Farr as Imady’s adviser. Imady liked the idea of a creative project and saw the scholarly aspect as a way to prepare for graduate school and take her work seriously.
“I love that it matters. I love that I’m doing something that I think is important,” Imady said.
Imady analyzed the representation of Eastern women by examining paintings by Matisse and three major literary works. She began by looking at tropes of eastern women, thinking about her own identity, and seeing herself in literature—as the villain—in books she had thought she would enjoy.
Postcolonial theorist Edward Said described problems of orientalism, Imady said, but never addressed the depictions of women in literature and art. Imady’s scholarship is aimed at filling this gap.
In many ways, Imady’s project began when she opened Frankenstein for the first time, expecting to enjoy the science fiction story, and found a portrayal of a Middle Eastern woman, Safie. Safie’s importance to the plot is at first glance tangential and confusing, but at second glance is vital to the credibility of the narrator.
Her reading list for the project includes Jane Eyre and Othello, in addition to Frankenstein. The original list Imady ambitiously compiled was far too long, and her project committee asked her to narrow it down. Amy Hilden, Amy Hamlin, and Gay Herzberg, along with Konchar Farr, comprise Imady’s interdisciplinary committee for this project. Though she found the project “exhausting,” Imady considered her work with the fine scholars on her committee rewarding.
Imady refers to the women she based her research upon as Middle Eastern/North African (MENA) women, a term that she said is problematic but encompassing of her subject.
MENA women, Imady found, are hypersexualized in art—as in nude paintings by Matisse—and desexualized and dehumanized in literary texts—in the case of Imady’s project, texts written shortly before colonialization. This matters because art and literature echo what society at the time believed about MENA women.
Under cultural colonialism, Imady said, real oppression of MENA women became intensified because it merged with Eurocentric ideals. In our society, the media talks about MENA women, but the women themselves are not having their voices heard or their stories told.
Imady began her project because she believed the subject matters today. After months of research, Imady started questioning this relevance. She could not say that all MENA women have falsely constructed identities. Hilden told her to consider that some identities are “more true” than others.
Colonial identities, Imady said, are less true. The tropes playing out in literary texts and art tell audiences that the only way MENA women could rid themselves of the “evil” of being MENA was through assimilation.
“We must acknowledge the importance of literature and art in finding a more true identity,” said Imady.
In the 21st century, Imady asked, what does it mean to create an identity that rids itself of the colonialist structures that still affect us? Where do ideas surrounding MENA identities come from?
Looking at art as well as literature, Imady considered hyper-sexualized paintings of Eastern women and asked, “How do I find myself in these paintings?”
“It’s white men painting white women bodies as if they were Eastern women,” Imady said.
Imady’s sister Essma, an art student pursuing her MFA, helped her in the creative portion of her project. Imady took photographs representing three ways Eastern women can exist: shrouded, uncovered, and scarf open with facial tattoos of the paintings she examined.
“All we see in Eastern narratives is the hijab, the scarf. The desperate need to liberate women from this piece of clothing ignores them as humans. It casts them in the tropes that literature and art put them in, and at the same time, it ignores their heritage,” Imady said.
As Imady progressed in her project, she asked herself, “Does writing this change who I am? Does it delegitimize my identity as an Eastern woman?”
At the end of her project, Imady declared that there was no conclusion—and that was the whole point.
“This project is not the end. It can’t be finished. It’s talking about something I live, something millions of women live,” Imady said.
Imady’s project is something she thinks about constantly. She wants to continue working on it as a graduate student. This project is so much more than a senior paper, she said. It made her question her own identity and look differently—more appreciatively—at the women in her life.
“I’m trying to understand how I interact in this world I live in, and I think I’d like to do that for the rest of my life,” Imady said.
Imady will present her project on Wednesday, March 18 at 12 p.m. in the Recital Hall.