Over the last century, women have been represented in U.S. popular culture primarily as harem girls, belly dancers, and oppressed veiled women. 

According to Amira Jarmakani in Imagining Arab Womanhood, the veil, the harem, and the belly dancer are cultural mythologies that purport to represent the realities of Arab and Muslim women through sweeping generalizations that rob these women’s experiences of their diversity and historical context. She claims that these images masquerade as accurate portrayals of Arab and Muslim women’s lives.

Veiled women and belly dancers are two sides of the same coin. On the one hand, belly dancers code Arab culture as exotic and sexually available. Portrayals of Arab women as sexually available position them as existing for male pleasure. On the other hand, the veil has figured both as a site of intrigue and as the ultimate symbol of oppression. As a site of intrigue, the veil has been represented as a forbidden zone that invites male penetration. As a symbol of oppression, the narrative about the veil is powerful and comes in many forms – such as stories about “honor” killings, female genital mutilation, forced marriages and forced veiling. These stories have been circulated and consumed with such frequency that Arab culture and the religion of Islam have come to be seen as inherently oppressive to women. De-veiling and liberating oppressed women have become part of the American cultural imagination.

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