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March 09, 2005



Before I even got to the end, I was thinking the same think - at least one graduate thesis will be written on this.

I've seen comments from conservative blogs like this: "there were no hot chicks at the Hezbollah protestors."


I mean protest.


I hope some feminist grad students kick all your honky MCP asses over this "hot chicks of Lebanon" orientalist sexist talk.

And I say this with utmost respect for Ustaz Abu-Aardvark.

/end middle aged feminist rant.

the aardvark

Well, for my part at least, "hot chicks of Lebanon" is now being used ironically, hence the scare quotes. At first I thought it was funny, and then it became more than a bit odd, as it migrated into the Instapundit-sphere.

The fixation on these women is very interesting, analytically and politically, but I would certainly distance myself from it at this point as a participant. I'm going to keep talking about it because I think it's important, but I would say all power to those feminist grad students!

I reject the complaints on the other thread about Haifa Wehbi and the rest, though. These women, whatever their limited talents, are hugely successful and have real cultural power, and deserve to be taken seriously. Whatever their surgical enhancements or aversion to clothing, they are successful women and should get some respect - just like Madonna and, yes, Britney!

David All

Great cartoon, Abu, thanks for posting it.


Thanks for the clarification, Abu-Aardvark. I've been taking this girlie picture/Hot Lebanese women meme with mostly good humor but the frat boy slavering is getting on my nerves. Makes me want to dig up lost texts from college on Orientalism and images of Arab women. I gave that reader away to somebody more doctrinaire feminist than I, and now I miss it.

And of course, you, as a teacher of young minds, do have a responsibility to all of those minds, not just the ones addled by male hormones. This is a personal blog so it can get as frat boy clubby as you want, but in the end, you aren't really anonymous. How do young women in Poli Sci 101 at Aardvark U. feel about all this hubba hubba talk in the middle of serious political discussion? Maybe none of them care.

Heck, maybe all those hot LEbanese chicks photographed in Beirut don't care either.

But I'll bet there's some non-hot chicks who might care, and a few hot ones, too. Being female and smart is still problematic, and looks (whether favorable or not) just add to the difficulties. How much discussion of women's sexiness do we have to endure before somebody blows the whistle and says -okay fellas, knock it off!

All right, I said this in a private e-mail to the Head Heeb and I'll let fly here: it's extremely uncomfortable to hear all these triumphalist American males slavering over the "exotic" females of a region which said males want to dominate through war or empire.

Makes me want to ditch my mid-life Dove Persona and revert to the Lioness of Saida. You don't really want to meet the Lioness in person, she's kinda scary.

Anna in Cairo

I actually don't think American guys think Lebanese women are "exotic" as in "Oriental" - they look more European than anything else. (Paritcularly as I keep sayign as they all have the same surgically enhanced Europeanized features.) I think it is just the same old male silliness. I certainly dont' think it's something to write a PHD thesis on but then I don't think the Hijab is worth debate either and I am obviously not in the majority there.


AA, this site is for you:



What Leila said.

the aardvark

As above, I think you're right about the way a lot of the media and blogs are dealing with it. It's trivializing and annoying, and all that. But it's also important.

I know that you're responding to the general blog atmosphere these days, but take this post. The point of posting Emad's cartoon is to show that Arab observers are picking up on this framing - "good, pro-American protestors are hot chicks and bad, anti-American protestors are ugly" - and including that in their political readings.

Take the "zoom out" deal with the opposition protests - the opposition crowds are shown in close up, with the focus on the pretty girls - it humanizes and personalizes them, makes them seem more "like us." The price was being open to the charge that the size of the protest was exaggerated. The Hizbollah protests are shown as masses, not individuals, conveying great numbers and raw power, but no humanity - not "like us." This framing matters enormously for how the protests are being interpreted politically.

As for "pretty girls" - once again, I'm sorry but this is part of a real cultural political battle. I don't accept that Haifa Wehbe is unimportant or inauthentic just because she's a bit slutty looking. She poses a real cultural alternative to the Islamic trend, and how can that not be relevant?

Anna in Cairo

Abu A, you are starting to sound a wee bit disingenuous. Why do you see singers as cultural alternatives? To what? They have always existed. Arabs invented belly dancing, it is not like this is a new trend or anything. Go back a bit and post old pictures of Nagwa fouad and where is the new? (Except that they used to have talent as well as looks and now they don't)

I just don't see why you attach such importance to the Lebanese plastic barbie dolls as a trend. It seems to me it is just a chance to you to post their pix on the blog and get some readership.

the aardvark

Anna - no! Where you see Lebanese barbie dolls, I see a proxy for an alternative cultural worldview carried over satellite television via video clips and pop music. Yes, pop music and belly dancing have always existed in some form, and they've always mattered culturally in some way. This is a new form, one which matters in a new way. It carries overtones of Americanization, but it isn't - Haifa and Nancy might resemble Christine and Britney, but they aren't them.

You live in Cairo, you've seen the "personal piety" types with their cultivated asceticism, rejection of public displays of sexuality (male or female), hostility towards music (people should be listening to cassette sermons, not to pop music which inflames the senses and arouses the passions), and rigid policing of gender behavior and relations. Like it or not, this is a powerful and attractive cultural force. Lots of young Cairenes seem to be attracted to it, and to the extent that they are it dictates a whole set of personal behaviors and preferences. If you are "pious" then you should frown upon pop music and half-dressed young men and women cavorting on TV.

The Lebanese barbie dolls, and their enormous popularity, challenge this pietist cultural trend really deeply. They offer an alternative vision of gender behavior, of what is publicly permissible and desirable - and in each instance, they directly target key tenets of the Islamic cultural universe.

This isn't about trolling for readers, or indulging in frat boy fun. I think that feminists should be excited about girl power, not threatened by it.


There was no Orientalism associated with Nagwa Fouad?

Robert McDougall

She poses a real cultural alternative to the Islamic trend, and how can that not be relevant?

Sure it's relevant, it shows that even theists aren't always wrong; they figured out several centuries ago that getting led around by your dick isn't good for your community and isn't good for you.

Nur al-Cubicle

Are there raves in Beirut? Are Christian and Muslim guys and chicks shakin' in til dawn with Fat Boy Slim at the turntables? 'Cause that's genuinely subversive as opposed to pop culture in-your-face hyped midrifts, glossy magazines and tee-vee songfests.

the aardvark

"Are there raves in Beirut?"

Habibi, you know there are.

Is that more subversive than tee-vee songfests? Yes and no. Boys and girls dancing til dawn in Beirut nightclubs is essentially private, affecting only the ravers themselves. But do it on satellite television, and it becomes public, and it becomes political.


Leila - MCP, maybe, but why orientalist? If anything these women are being highlighted as representative of a more Western-friendly trend - the hip and trendy Lebanese who love democracy and admire the results achieved by the U.S. in Iraq. Tying that to "hot chicks" is exactly the opposite of orientalist exoticization of Arab women.

That said, AA - I disagree that women should see the cultural trend you've been talking about as "empowering". As Leila says, some women might not actually want to be evaluated purely on the basis of their sex appeal. Yes, it's a rejection of Islamist puritanism, but so what? That doesn't by itself make it a positive development - just different.

the aardvark

saurabh - fair enough, but... I would prefer to find out from the women themselves if they consider it empowering, if embracing Westernized pop music represents - in their minds - an assertion of identity, and so on. I guess I just can't buy into the idea that women celebrating their sexuality is anti-feminist... even if I would agree that men salivating over them sure can be. My argument here concedes the latter point (blogs have been pretty darn sexist on this point lately), but not the former. But I'll also admit that I honestly don't know the *answer* to the question I just posed. Could be I'm wrong, and the Lebanese Britneys really are just an exploitative diversion... could be. But I'm not sure that I am.

David Witt

i'm definitely *not* a fundamentalist (and yes, i'm a red-blooded male), but i really don't think this is a great way to promote a cultural revolution...

AA, although you do have a point, i think you're looking through rose-colored glasses--Britney's entire goal is to sell 'product,' and like many others, she's willing to do whatever it takes (or go as low as needed, as some would say)--while it may be a breath of fresh air to see this phenomenon in the ME, it's not something to base a movement on.

if there's any singer who should represent Lebanon in the 'culture wars' it should be Fairuz--comparing her music and image to today's 'pop tarts' is like comparing Britney to Aretha Franklin;>

always remember, sugar is a treat, not a meal!


Raves in Beirut? Hasn't anyone here been to Rue Monot? "1975" anyone? Call me a sexist Orientalist pig-man, but there are more beautiful women on that street than any other place in the world. There are more significant things happening than ph.d dissertations on Rue Monot, although come to think of it, I wonder if it would be possible to get a Fulbright for "field work" there. Hmmm...

Scott Martens

Leila, if you'll indulge me in a moment of lit-crit-speak, this is nothing more to this than the eroticization of the Other, which is hardly news to anyone these days and a syndrome that is every bit as endemic to the intellectual class as the lumpenproletariate. Frankly, I'll take "See exotic lands, meet new people, and sleep with them" over "See exotic lands, meet new people, and shoot them" any day.

(I had an Iranian girlfriend many, many years ago - a "daughter of the revolution" whose father was a diplomat of the Islamic Republic stationed in the "decadent west." She wouldn't be caught dead wearing a headscarf and wouldn't be seen in public without make-up on. So, as far as eroticizing exotic Middle Eastern women goes, I can claim to have been there and done that.)

Yeah, the emphasis being placed on "hot chicks" bespeaks pimply frat boys. But, a big chunk of this is just that "hot Arab chick" is widely held to be an oxymoron in middle to right-wing America. So, at the very least this focus implies that American stereotypes of Arab society are actually being confronted, and may be melting down. This display is far from the "stealth nun" conception of Arab women to emerge from the first Gulf War.

You're also right that it suggests an objectivization of women and a rather fetishistic sexuality that is neither liberating nor terribly healthy. But again, that's hardly news. The political manipulation of erotic imagery is not exactly a new business, and I'd argue that it's at least potentially slightly more progressive than manipulating erotic imagery in order to sell beer.

It'll end fast enough when it becomes obvious that boobs are not enough to solve Lebanon's problems. In the mean time, it's an arguably positive sign that westerners may be starting to see Middle Eastern women in a different light.


What I think you're missing, Abu Aardvark, is the extent to which the personal piety of religious types is *itself* a reaction to a perceived debasement of women and exalting vulgar sexiness above all else. Some muhaggiba friends of mine have explained their decision to wear the higab as a way of asserting themselves as persons, as opposed to bodies to be drooled over. So I don't see the new crop of video clips as the "antithesis" to the Islamist "thesis."

You've highlighted two alternatives: a "personal piety" alternative and a "Nancy Ajram" alternative, if you will. That seems like a dismal set of choices to me.

the aardvark

"You've highlighted two alternatives: a "personal piety" alternative and a "Nancy Ajram" alternative, if you will. That seems like a dismal set of choices to me."

Yeah, maybe I gave that impression - I didn't mean to. That would be pretty dismal, if those were the only two choices. I *do* think that the Nancy/Haifa option does offer a powerful alternative to the Islamist option, but I didn't mean to suggest that it was the *only* alternative. Of course there are other options on the menu for today's Arab women to choose from.

One of the reasons I like Jumana Nimour of al Jazeera so much is that she's not just eye candy: she's a tough, savvy, smart - and beautiful - professional woman. If LBC gives us the "Lebanese barbie doll" option and the Islamists push the muhajiba option, al Jazeera, with its stable of professional anchors (as in that Fatima Mernissi piece I linked to last week), gives a third response. There are lots of others.

David Witt

i do agree with the antithesis/thesis point, that these images can be good to counterbalance the prevailing western image of all muslim women being just a set of eyes behind the hijab...

and i agree with AA that this isn't a bipolar option, that there are other options available--i just worry that the issues will be overshadowed by the 'democracy, whiskey, sexy' mindset;>

somehow related to this, i remember going to meet my wife's family for a luncheon--my wife was wearing a short-sleeved top that showed just a hint of decolletage, and knowing that some of her female relatives wear the hijab, i asked her if this was going to be a problem--she seemed suprised and said, 'they wear the hijab for their own reasons, but they won't look down on me for making my own choices.' sure enough, no one blinked an eye!

this is the sort of thing that makes Lebanon a unique place in the ME, and makes me hopeful for the future...


FYI, on the subject of cartoons in the Arab media:


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