Hybrid ethnicities, fashionable bodies and unruly transgressors: Fetishizing Arab ‘first ladies’ in western media1 | Intellect Skip to content
1981
Volume 15, Issue 2
  • ISSN: 1751-9411
  • E-ISSN: 1751-942X

Abstract

Until the Arab uprisings occurred, many Arab first ladies and queens feted by US media received exceptionally favourable coverage that celebrated their physical appearance and western sense of fashion. Grounded in the context of neo-liberal politics which considers them objects of cultural identification, this article studies western media’s representations of Suzanne Mubarak, Queen Rania of Jordan and Asma al-Assad who are framed as virtuous house wives, western by ethnicity, birth place or education, and sophisticated upper-middle class ladies with panic-trigger for both Arab elites and western observers: Egypt’s veiled Naglaa Mahmoud and the architype of a working-class seductress with lust for power, Tunisia’s Leila Trabelsi. Using qualitative textual and visual analysis of narratives and images from media coverage, reports and fashion magazines, the article presents a comparative content analysis of their representations through a set of three dichotomies: the first one pays careful attention to the intersection of neo-liberal politics and the deployment of ethnic hybridity as an ideological apparatus that sets up a binary between Arab and Caucasian or half-White women who emerge as the new ‘saviour’ of Muslim women; the second is a close pairing between the sexualization of the westernized and fashionable first lady and the de-sexualization of her veiled ‘backwards’ counterpart sister; the third entails a juxtaposition of the good and desired seductress with the promiscuous and bad one. Findings show how media discourses of modernity impose neo-liberal and neo-Orientalist demarcations to define Arab Muslim women’s agency, femininity, bodies and status according to western standards.

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