Revising Arab Female Identity and Sexuality:

Lalla Essaydi and Salwa al-Neimi

by Lorena Bolaños


Classical Arab authors once regarded the pleasures arising from sex as a glimpse of the “promised pleasures of Paradise” (Al al-Neimi, 44). To a Western reader today, however, this vision contradicts the impressions of the Arab world that have been shaped most prominently since the 19th century. For it was precisely during this period that European artists first developed an abundant tradition of literature and painting that portrayed the reality of Arab society according to their personal experiences or to the travel accounts of earlier authors to the Middle East. Over a century since the emergence of Orientalist art, the perspective of numerous painters and writers has distorted our perception of the people in the Arab world, especially of the Muslim woman and her sexuality. During that period, Orientalist artists subjected women, and the recurring symbols of the veil, the harem, and the odalisque into ideals of sexual desire. In response to this Western perception of Arab female sexuality, two Arab female artists revisit the past, examining both their personal life as well as the collective history of the Arab woman in her world in order to correct their misconceptions. Moroccan-born artist Lalla Essaydi challenges Orientalist views of the women and their sexuality by appropriating the works of 19th century European painters. In her latest exhibition, Revisions, Essaydi displays photographs and digital installations, portraying Moroccan women in their own intimate space. In a similar manner, Salwa al-Neimi's novel The Proof of the Honey, tackles not only the misconceptions of Arab female sexuality by outsiders, but also the widespread sexual taboos within the Arab world. Both artists adjust those prevailing Orientalist symbols and present their vision of the contemporary reality of Arab women.

In their struggle to show this reality—either through photography or through literature—they both employ distinct approaches when looking back at their individual and collective past. Their return includes three points of reference: their traditional Muslim childhood which they had abandoned to continue further studies and experiences in the West; the apogee of Orientalist mentality, namely the works of 19th century artists; and the ancient Arabic splendor and traditions of the Islamic Golden Age. Initially, Essaydi and aAl-Neimi gaze into these distinct periods simply to understand the context and to look at the position of women during each of the three points of reference. Afterwards, they initiate a revision of early Western depictions, and make their own modifications to the distorted images. Finally, and just as nineteenth century authors used art to construct a world of their imagination, both Arab authors use their artistic talents as well as their individual experiences to reimagine or render a new vision of what it means to be an Arab woman today. By and large, the West would not only be a stage for their critiques but a strong influence in the recovery and the formation of this identity.

Although their works are an effort to present the collective identity of Arab women and a reality that is truthful to their experiences and not simply the imagination of Western artists,  their approach is first and foremost a personal one, in which they return to individual experiences growing up in Arab countries. Both Essaydi, as the creator of the photographic series, and the narrator in al- Neimi’s novel, as the writer of a book on ancient Arab erotica, return to the recent past, to the period before their encounters with Western culture and civilization. In Essaydi’s case, for example, much many of her photographs are taken in her native Morocco, in a traditional home with an also traditional Arab architecture. As the artist explains, “in order to go forward as an artist, it was necessary to return physically to my childhood home in Morocco and to document this world which I had left in a physical sense, but of course, never fully in any deeper sense” (Jadaliyya). This physical return, this need to see again her country, and to touch it, is precisely the first step in her revisions of the numerous works that distorted the identity of Arab women. Before looking back at 19th century Orientalist paintings and subsequent Western depictions, it is essential for Essaydi to step back into her own world. Evidently, her return will be reminiscent of her personal experiences living with her large family in a traditional Muslim harem, but it is also essential in order to grasp the tangible reality of Arab women today. Similarly, the narrator in The Proof of Honey shows a corporal need of the Arab world before beginning her research on ancient Arab erotica. She leaves Paris and returns to the place culture  where into which she was born, to Tunis, in order to write her book. To her, this is a need for the country itself:

A physical need for that world. For the language and the people. For the streets and the gardens and the tastes and the scents and the light and the sounds. For the faces and the bodies. A need for the sun and the sea…the hammam, the souk, the masseuse, and the scalding water (Al al-Neimi, 49).


She introduces two fundamental elements of the culture and collective tradition: the language and the people. After continuing to enumerateing other elements of the Arab world in general, the narrator brings back personal memories of her years living in Tunisia[MS1] . For instance, she associates the hammam “with pleasure, with sex”, although “not because of the nakedness so much for the stories on which [she] was raised” (al-Neimi, 52). Being an element of passion, pleasure, and delight, water is for the narrator deeply connected with the hammam and the stories that women share. The intimacy in an all-female hammam, the gazes, and the conversations that take place, attest to the vibrant sexuality of Arab women. The return to this unique place is clearly reminiscent of her earlier years in Tunisia, but also fundamental in regaining the current stories of other women. It also resonates with Essaydi’s own return to a Moroccan harem where she captures the stories and the gazes of other Arab women and presents them in her photography series. Returning to their respective countries before venturing into their academic or artistic pursuits is noteworthy because it exemplifies the period before their direct encounters with the West. It is also a context where they ignore the depictions that Orientalist artists had made of Arab women. However, after these initial references of their earliest years in the Middle East, Essaydi and aAl- Neimi revisit the period when the West first cultivated a fascination for the East, a fascination, however, that was distorted by personal desires and biases. Both women recreate the setting in the works of Orientalist artists, but make modifications to the details and surroundings of the customary female subjects in order to get rid of the misconceptions of Arab women.


19th Century Orientalism

            The Orient had allured the imagination of Western artists for several centuries prior to the height of Orientalist art. Contact had been minimal, however, for it was not until Napoleon’s presence in Egypt, ending at the turn of the 19th century, that more Europeans ventured into the Near East and promoted further encounters. Many of these travelers began capturing their impressions in paint or in print, especially scenes depicting harems. Looking back at this period, Lalla Essaydi and Salwa al- Neimi recreate in their work the setting and the context in which Orientalist artists depicted their subjects. Consequently, both the novel and the  photographic series of photographs are, before anything, a look at history and more specifically, a glimpse of the 19th century. For example, by the appropriation of the canonic works of artists such as Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Eugène Delacroix, and Jean-Léon Gérôme, among others, Essaydi is referencing authors that have shaped European literature and mentality throughout the years. While they have also widened several misconceptions of the Arab world, their influence has been fundamental in subsequent artists, including Essaydi herself.

Upon a first glance at Essaydi’s exhibit, the mesmerizing depictions of Arab female sexuality that Orientalist painters once presented to us shatters in front of the artist’s modifications. Essaydi aspires to deconstruct their misguided notions of Arab women and confuse the expectations of the Western audience by breaking apart the different elements of the original paintings, adding new ones, removing others, or transforming some of their aspects. Let us first look at Essaydi’s Les Femmes du Maroc: Grande Odalisque (Figure 1), a striking photograph from her series of 2008, “Les Femmes du Maroc”. In this photograph, Essaydi revises Ingres’ painting La Grande Odalisque (Figure 2), of the early nineteenth century. Although her creation maintains the same central figure, namely a woman lying down with her back against the viewer but directing her gaze towards him, she removes the décor of the original painting. The entire surroundings of the female subject are now covered in henna: the walls, the bed, the clothes, and her body itself are decorated with Arabic calligraphy printed in henna. In a culture that values greatly its language and poetry, the position of the Arabic script at the reach of women is suggestive; it takes the place of the vibrant colors and of the small decorations (as in the figures in the curtain) of the original. The words, with their potential to express stories and ideas, overpower any embellishment that Ingres had added to the surroundings in his original paintings. Additionally, the woman is no longer fully naked, and although Essaydi’s photograph still retains a certain sensuality through her nude back and her posture while lying on a bed, it is missing the vibrant colors and fabrics of the original work, which helped create an alluring sexual vision of the Arab woman. Furthermore, the serious and challenging gaze of the woman in the photograph, as well as her feet covered in henna stand in strong contrast to the delicateness of the eroticized woman of the Ingres’s painting. Her feet might not seem particularly appealing to the unaware Western viewer because their color diverges from the rest of her body, and it does not create the smooth and clean skin of Ingres’s original work. While retaining the general structure of the Orientalist painting, namely the woman, the bed, and the posture, but making changes to surroundings and several details, Essaydi does invite the viewer to remember Orientalism, but to question the authenticity of the impressions it sought to transmit. On the one hand, this questioning of authenticity refers to the fact that, after all, Essaydi’s photograph too closely resembles a well-known painting. She has given the original a new life by adding her unique elements to it such as the Arabic calligraphy, which allows personal stories to spring forth, or by the changes in colors, which removed the overly eroticized image of the Arab woman. However, the viewer still has space to measure how genuine her photograph is. Does it resemble Ingres’s painting too closely? Essaydi’s new rendering of Ingres’s La Grande Odalisque also reveals a second level of authenticity. Unlike the first level, which focuses on the outer elements of the image such as the appearance of the objects, the second level refers to the notions that the original Orientalist painting had once presented to the West. With the changes she makes to the colors, the walls, and the odalisque, Essaydi’s adaptation of Ingres’s painting removes the sexual extravagance that the West had associated with Arab women.

Likewise, aAl- Neimi's novel makes direct references to Orientalist authors, as well as to the themes they used in their depictions of Arab women. In a similar fashion to Essaydi’s photographs, Al al-Neimi plays with the Orientalist vocabulary and deconstructs the preconceived notions that emerge with her descriptions. She dismantles the Orientalist fantasy through two different approaches. The first is a direct dismissal of any possible Orientalist thought upon a customary Eastern custom, while the second one is an Orientalist scene, deliberately fabricated by the narrator, followed by a disassembling of precisely these Orientalist elements and details that she had formulated earlier. The aim of both approaches is to confuse the Western reader, and ultimately to disassociate Orientalist themes from what constitutes the truthful reality of the Arab women in the narrative. For example, while the narrator in The Proof of the Honey continues to reconnect with her native country, she visits a traditional hammam, or bathing house, for women. She immediately realizes the reader’s possible first thoughts when imagining such a scene: a bath, women, the East. Quickly, she refutes any Orientalist motifs, insisting that “there was no place for fake folklore—no cushions of velvet or oriental perfumes. There were only the women, the tiles, and the water” (Al al-Neimi, 51). She strips the elaborate décor, leaving behind a simpler, but truthful image of the hammam in the 21st century. It is also important to remember that it was confusing the narrator for a foreigner, “an orientalist”, what prompted her desire to correct the perceptions (Al al-Neimi, 51). The smallest suggestion of a Westerner watching over the East and having an Orientalist perception of the people and the place draws the narrator to act speedily in order to dismiss any possible Orientalist notions of the East, specifically of this hammam. In a second episode at another bathing house, Al al-Neimi purposely elaborates an Oriental scene, but this time, she invalidates the symbols by a suggestive action two Arab women take after her initial Orientalist description. Thus, when the narrator and her female friend Radja find themselves in the mixed-sex hammam in what she calls a “working-class neighborhood in an Arab city” (Al al-Neimi, 55), the narrator illustrates keenly an Orientalist background, stating:We were alone in the relaxing room following our treatment…I was drowsing, insouciant and languid. Two men came in, and stretched out on the velvet cushions in the midst of the sumptuous Oriental décor. They were smoking and talking in loud voices” (Al al-Neimi, 55). In this particular rendering of a bathing house, the narrator uses Oriental terms freely, bringing the reader directly to those paintings that previously erotized Arab women. By describing herself as “drowsing”, “insouciant”, and “languid”, the narrator calls back the image of the Oriental woman lying about nude in the harems or bathing houses depicted in Orientalist art. The entrance of the two men, this interruption of an intimate space, recalls the intrusion of 19th century Western painters who portrayed these same spaces, the harems orf hammams, without real knowledge of the reality inside. Nevertheless, she cuts the scene and its Orientalist descriptions by explaining how she and Radja “understood one another. [Their] nap had been interrupted, so [they] fled together to the sands of the beach, far from the noise and smoke” (Al al-Neimi, 56). The two women have dissociated themselves from these expectations. The fact that they “understood” and “fled” the scene implies an understanding of existing perceptions that the West has of Arab women, as well as the power to move away from these fantasies by means of immediate action. Al-Neimi erases the stereotypes of Orientalist paintings by stripping the scenes that take place in the East of the classic elements of this artistic current: the Arab woman lying leisurely in her intimate space, the vibrant colors of the cushions, and the male gaze while enjoying the scene. Her references to  the overall vocabulary that Orientalist artists employed during the 19th century make the readers aware of their preconceived notions of Arab women. Just as Essaydi, al- Neimi proceeds to reconfigure the pieces, confusing the audience in hopes to incite questioning and awareness of the fantasy. If the Western viewers are able to see the discrepancy between the preconceived notions affected by Orientalist works and the new images that both authors present, then they might liberate the mind and gain a clear perspective upon new encounters with Arab women. 


Ancient Arab Past

In their quest to dismantle preconceived notions of Arab female sexuality and identity, Essaydi and Al al-Neimi revisit not only the Middle East of the 21st century, or the “Orient” painted by 19th century Europeans artists, but also the ancient Arab past. Both Arab artists reclaim the Islamic Golden Age and portray Arab women as strong participants in the artistic wealth of this period. Once again, their quest into the historical and contemporary Arab female sexuality has made them revisit a period about which there exist strong Western misconceptions. To correct these misconceptions and to continue making modifications to the reality that the West assigns the Arab world, they first simply glimpse at the context by introducing us to the canonical works and scholars whose ideas have influenced subsequent authors. For example, through al- Neimi’s novel, The Proof of the Honey, we learn of the leading writers of Arab erotica, a list that dates back to at least the 9th century. Her list includes poets, writers, and religious scholars such as al-Tifashi, al-Suyuri, and al-Nafzawi, who are part of her copious secret book collection that in the novel have now become a “topic of conversation at the library”, and a recent interest of the West (al- Neimi, 22). Although writing is the artistic form that is most thoroughly reviewed, Essaydi and al- Neimi will introduce other forms unique to the Arab context.

Essaydi’s journey into the Arab past helps liberate her female subjects from the Western perceptions by associating the highly valued art forms of calligraphy, poetry, and architecture with woman’s ability and talents. The use of henna to cover the women in Arabic calligraphy gives them a sense of agency that earlier depictions of them had taken away. Essaydi intertwines writing which many people have associated with men only, and henna, which has been traditionally used by Arab women at important moments in their lives such as coming-of-age, marriage, or childbirth. In Les Femmes du Maroc: Harem Women Writing (Figure 3), the two women are not only covered in calligraphy, they are also actively engaged in writing, thus detaching themselves from Orientalist paintings where they were only objects in a fixed image. The poetic atmosphere that emerges from the photograph goes beyond the surface and the beauty of the Arabic letters. Through the writing, a narrative emerges of the conversations between the artists and the rest of the women she photographed. As Essaydi explains it herself, “the text is mine and is based on the story of these women and my story as well, so it is autobiographical but it’s also written in a poetic way” (TV2Africa). It is not a language that a Westerner can understand and translate; not even for the Arabic speaker is this possible. Instead, the henna writing is a compilation of words and phrases that attests to a universal story of Arab women and their identity. The stories are presented in a poetic manner, with sensibility and attention to aesthetics. Instead of being solely the objects imagined by Orientalist painters, women in Essaydi’s photographs are given a language, their very own Arabic alphabet, to voice their personal stories. Finally, in an interesting contrast to the first series—Les Femmes du Maroc— where Essaydi takes away the sumptuous Oriental décor in her photography, the series Harem elevates the beautiful Islamic architecture while still enticing the Western observer to question his or her Orientalist notions. As can be seen from Figure 3, Harem 9, the bold blue color extending across the interior courtyard emphasizes the splendor of the harem. The beautiful use of Arabesque motifs on the walls, doors, and windows is also an essential element of this architecture. Just as other important Islamic buildings display Arabic script on their walls, Essaydi uses calligraphy on walls, objects, and on the bodies of her female subjects, in her photographs. Thus, Essaydi links women’s ability to this rich Arabic artistic tradition exalting Arabic culture and women’s potential, all while dismantling misconceptions of Arab women as inactive, submissive, and confined.   

Also aware of a wealthy Arab artistic past, the narrator in The Proof of the Honey explores classical Arabic literature to review the position of Arab women as active participants of a dynamic sexual tradition. The narrator shows her disappointment of with the sexual taboos that persist in Arab society, and an interest for open conversation about what is simply natural. She uses precisely the wealth of Arabic erotic literature in order to show the active sexuality in the Arab world, both for men and for women. It is through the several years that the narrator has spent reading the works of classical authors that she is able to establish her own conclusions of the realities of women in her Arab society. One of her realizations from her readings is that “Arabs were the only nation in the world that considered sex a blessing and thanked God for it” (Al al-Neimi, 43). Later, she states that the pleasure gained from sex “directs our attention to the promised pleasures of Paradise and spurs us to seek them in order to deserve them” (Al al-Neimi, 44).  From these two observations, she concludes that copulation for men and women, as well as the pleasure arising from it, is supported by religion, and unmistakably existent in Arab society. For the narrator, this validation helps refute the erroneous ideas of the West, which judged Arab women as lacking sexuality. From a second ancient Arab writer, Muhammad Ibn Zakariya, she also learns the physical harms of abstinence, namely “the weakening of [the] organs” and that for “those who abandon intercourse in order to live a chaste life: their bodies turn cold and their movements awkward…” (Al al-Neimi, 18). The narrator is borrowing directly from the texts of respected Arab authors, which attest to an active sexuality, to present the reality of Arab women to both the Arab world as well as to the Western audience. In addition to presenting new Arab texts, as well as Western writings that also support the sexual nature of humans, the narrator tells of the numerous stories she has heard in the course of her conversations with other Arab women.  The variety of the stories is impressive; they are stories “of love and jealousy. Of women clothed and unclothed. Of sleep and waking. Of divorce and marriage. Of those who fell in love and those who were unfaithful…Women’s stories that resembled men’s stories…In every Arab city, the same stories” (Al al-Neimi, 84). Not only do they confirm the statements of ancient Arab writers, but they also highlight the contemporary reality of Arab women. Going back to centuries-old texts and then presenting the active sexuality of Arab women is a powerful parallel that confirms the vigorous sexual tradition that is still very much present in her contemporary society, and which contradicts the stereotypes of the West.


Personal Vision of 21st Century Arab Women

For both Essaydi and the narrator in Al al-Neimi’s novel, the West is not only at the origin of the persistent misconceptions of Arab female sexuality, it is also an important point of departure in their aspiration to show their vision of Arab female identity. Having rejected the “reality” of Arab women in the works of Orientalist painters while residing precisely either in North America or in Europe, they decided to correct it by appropriating the works that created the misconceptions.

After years of living in the West, and receiving higher education from the United States and France, Essaydi is granted a distinctive angle from where to look at the Arab world, the culture, and the women: “It is from there that I can return to the landscape of my childhood in Morocco, and consider these spaces with detachment and new understanding” (Jadaliyya), she insist. Later, Essaydi explains that, “when I look at these spaces now, I see the two cultures that have shaped me and which are distorted when looked at through the ‘Orientalist’ lens of the West” (Jadaliyya). The distortions, the misconceptions, and the lies, all become the motives to revisit the Arab past—her own Arab childhood, the rich Islamic tradition, and the 19th-century Orientalist conceptions of the Arab world. As the daughter of a painter, art was for Essaydi a strong presence while growing up in Morocco. Nonetheless, her rise to international recognition is not until she is an art graduate student in Boston, Massachusetts. This artistic heritage, the crossroads that she embodies as an Arab woman with specialized studies in the West, and deeply influenced by Orientalist artistic techniques, make Essaydi’s vision of the Arab woman unique. Photographical series that modify renowned 19th century Orientalist paintings is the creative outlet from where she presents this Arab female reality, one that is shaped by her personal experiences, history, and her own imagination.

As for the narrator in The Proof of the Honey, it was the proposed exhibition by the Bibliothèque Nationale what first impelled her to embark on an academic endeavor on ancient Arab erotica. After the West cancelled the exhibition for safety reasons, the narrator declares her ongoing interest in publishing the findings. “What mattered was the book…If they, [the West], hadn’t asked me to do it, I wouldn’t have found the courage to write it, or to return to the time of the Thinker,” she insists, upon hearing the news (Al al-Neimi, 141). From these last few words in the narrative, she gives credit to the West for giving the initial stimulus and motive to begin her research. However, there is a clear insistence on a return to the past, the Arab past, which is where she obtains the experiences, the history, and the notions that ultimately describe the reality of Arab women and their sexuality.  The West receives a recognition “simply, for their collaboration” (Al al-Neimi, 141). In the former comment, there is also a remark on the image of the Thinker, this complex character who during most of the novel is understood as embodying a powerful sexuality and manliness, not patently Arab or Western. In spite of this ambiguity, his appearance as the novel comes to its conclusion is more revealing as a Western symbol when she credits the West with only providing the initial stage and impetus for her study, but not in the actual formation of the Arab female identity. While looking at her writing, it occurs to herthat everything I had experienced was of my own making. The Thinker did nothing but lift the veil on all I had gathered in preparation for life. He came so that I might arrive at meaning. He didn’t bestow it on me: I found it through him (Al al-Neimi, 138). Again, the narrator refutes the idea that the West is able to “bestow” something on the Arab woman, thus granting her agency once more. More importantly, the reference to the Thinker and to an arrival at her own “meaning” also emphasizes the narrator’s personal vision of Arab women. This vision has also been uniquely influenced by her experiences growing up in her native Tunisia, later moving to France, and becoming an avid reader of ancient Arab erotica. The literature of these classic authors, their descriptions and openness with sexuality is what most strongly parallels the narrator’s own writing throughout her narrative. Evidently, there is a history of the Arab world, both ancient and recent that she visits for her research; however, female sexual vitality is at the core of her personal vision of the reality of Arab women. The result of her readings, conversations, and individual experiences is the final book she will publish, a book on both ancient Arab erotica and the sexual environment of her world today. Similar to the Orientalist art that so strongly influenced Essaydi’s photographs, classic Arab literature was imminent in the narrator’s idea of Arab women in contemporary times.

Owing to an ardent desire to present the reality of Arab women in the 21st century, Lalla Essaydi and Salwa al-Neimi undertake unique artistic projects to correct the misconceptions that persist today. It is through photography that Essaydi presents her vision of this reality, while al-Neimi chooses the novel. In both, Revisions and The Proof of Honey, its authors formulate this reality of the Arab woman by retracing the near and ancient Arab past. They begin with the first memories of their own Arab country, both as young children or as returning adults after the encounters with Western customs. From these personal reminiscences, they look back at the period from which most stereotypes about Arab women originated, 19th century Orientalism. By looking back at this specific period, they highlight the misconceptions originating from Western imagination, but discard the elements that erotized the female subjects. Beyond this century, Essaydi and al-Neimi also gaze towards a past dating back over a millennium, for their work also reclaims the Islamic Golden Age and the participation of women in the wealthy tradition. Their vision of contemporary Arab women ultimately shares an element of Orientalist art: the imagination. Combining their personal experiences with their education in history and art, their work is a creative product with a unique vision of the contemporary identity and sexuality of Arab women.

References Page

Al-Neimi, Salwa. (2009). The Proof of the Honey. New York, NY: Europa Editions.


Jadaliyya Editors & Essaydi, Lalla. (2012). Artistic Depictions of Arab Women: An Interview with Artists Lalla Essaydi. Retrieved from Jadaliyya


TV2Africa. (2012). Morocco Artist at the National Museum of African Art. Retrieved from