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“People are not influenced by words alone. Messages transmit themselves as well by gestures, by figures and pictures, the whole panoply of the sign’s ‘archives.’” (Debray, Media Manifestos)

Sexuality & Proxemics: The Reproduction of Codes Through Semiotics in the Western and Arab Worlds
Kallie Ejigu

Many cultures and societies that understand space communally generally do not accept woman’s sexual expression. More specifically in the Arab world, where the public sphere is shared and the community, property, and privacy are intertwined. Often times an Arab woman’s personal space and invasion of it are not recognized as they are in the West. Parallel to this are cultures where a woman’s sexuality is encouraged and in some ways taught; here space belongs to the individual who encompasses it and is respected as such.

Semiotics asks us to examine social codes through the traditions or practices that reproduce them. Non-verbal codes, such as the gaze or proxemics, are two types of perceptual organization. Through mediology we examine the media and means by which cultural mores or norms are reproduced. I intend, through this wiki, to explore the impact of semiotics and mediology on women’s sexuality and expression in the West versus the Arab World.

Western Concept of Space
external image personal_space.jpgFor Germans and Americans alike, boundaries exist around your persons. As Hall explores proxemics, “Germans sense their own space as an extension of the ego…the German’s ego is extraordinarily exposed, and he will go to almost any length to preserve his ‘private sphere’.” (Hall, 1966) The German’s, and presumably most Western people’s egos are exposed and not coincidentally, so too their bodies. The extension of the ego outside of the body then places equal worth to those things; whether it be a room, home, or body. Concepts of “alone” or “personal time” also persist, whether they be in a closed room or sitting in silence; either way the need to be alone with oneself is a pervasive symptom of Western culture.

In Hall’s anecdotes of misinterpreting proper conduct in entering or hovering between entering and not entering the domicile of a German, it’s highly apparent the set structures of private and public realms. Even in juxtaposing the laxity of American perceptions, in both there are clear delineations between what is appropriate and what isn’t in protecting and maintaining the private sphere. What’s slightly difficult in comparing anecdotes is the obvious bias involved and additionally the hyper-specificity of one situation accounting for a whole culture. Additionally, it would be fair to say that American culture as a basis of comparison against German culture is difficult as American society is in fact an amalgamation of various immigrant (including German), but mainly English and Protestant cultures.

Many immigrants in America feel a sort of alienation and loneliness as certain communication markers and cues are considered private or intense. Severe eye contact, being in another’s olfactory zone, or even platonic or harmless touches or embraces are all found to be incredibly intimate and reserved for the private or invited realm. This is where the dynamics of “contact cultures” versus “non-contact cultures” come into play. In researching Arab émigrés in America, many Arabs felt that what was considered as casual markers of social interaction were in fact intensely intimate and private and reserved for those of the opposite sex.
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“The Lewis Cross Cultural Communication Model shows:

  • how people from different cultures vary in their concepts of time and space: handle interpersonal distance, silence, and eye contact
  • how their communication styles are reflected in the language patterns they use
  • how they view the truth: as absolute or negotiable i.e. modifiable according to the situation
  • what their values, attitudes and world views are.”

Arab Concept of Space
Crowded spheres where large numbers of people touch without conflict is a significant difference by which in comparison Arab versus Western spaces are inhabited. Pushing, shoving, nudges, taps, yelling, and no “breathing room” (ability to even inhale another’s exhale, including odors) are all highly characteristic of many Arab cultures. What is public is public, what is experienced and felt outside is shared; whether this be a seat, a spot you are standing in, or a haphazard line. According to Hall, for the Arab the ego is not associated with the body but with something deeply internal. Most physical interactions, even assaults, are not considered as malicious as say a verbal insult.

One prominent marker of appropriate proximity is the sharing of one’s “olfactory zone.” To share in another’s olfactory zone equates to being with a friend or one who is close; to otherwise deny one of the other’s breath is to communicate that the person is ashamed. For an example, a friend may tell another that their breath smells sour and to thus caution in communication. An instance such as this would warrant distance as the person would in fact be ashamed of the smell they are emitting. Often smells are used to interpret emotions, feelings, and well-being. So, it is also a means of external image the-kaba-02-500.jpgcommunication and interaction. Many Westerners in this environment feel incredibly uncomfortable and find that their perceived private space is being intruded upon when in fact the intention is just the opposite.

(Pictured Right: The Kaaba in Mecca, Saudi Arabia)

Hall’s anecdotes of his experience with Arabs, while some could perceive as sweepingly generalizing, does in fact provide fascinating insight into the psychology of proximity and the placement of the ego, privacy, and the personal realm. On one occasion while waiting for someone in a public lobby he found himself being spatially bullied into moving from his seat. “…in Arab thought [he] had no rights whatsoever by virtue of occupying a given spot; neither [his] place nor [his] body was inviolate!” (Hall, 1966) This conclusion, while coming from an awkward and stereotypical situation, renders true as to what occurs in a public dimension is treated as a communal entity. Hall’s seat and area he was inhabiting was for anyone to occupy and his presence did not serve as a place or temporary ownership marker for the Arab he encountered.

According to the Qur’an a Muslim must have permission before entering an inhabited private sphere, and must do so by first somehow making a sound to alert their presence and to then greet the occupiers and wait for their welcome or permission to enter. “Outside of this domain privacy is not legally protected.” Additionally according Maliki, one of the four Sunni Muslim schools of law, early Islamic thought found privacy to essentially be a function of ownership. “A person's claim that his privacy has been breached receives legal attention only if that person can prove that his property rights (e.g., right of usage, right of ownership) were violated.” (Alshech, 2004) The implied space requiring permission is the private home of a person and in some cases a shop or market, otherwise open hostels and markets are free from the aforementioned protocol.

What’s imperative to gather from this understanding of ownership and privacy is that one must essentially own something for it to not be considered a public domain. For an example, Hall’s lobby experience exemplifies that his personal space was not respected as such because he did not own it. It’s fair to draw conclusions between Islam and the Arabic culture because not only has there been a natural intertwining of the two over centuries but because the Arab culture and language had much to do with the creation of Islam and the Prophet Mohammed’s teachings and implementation as well; it’s fair to say in the Middle East they are often one in the same.

Further proof of not only the commonality of Islam and Middle Eastern culture but also the tension of proximity and privacy is the issue of population density and contact cultures. “…pre-Islamic Arabs craved privacy, but their desire was frustrated by existing social norms (in part because many houses in Mecca and Medina lacked a screen or a door). God decided to satisfy this desire for privacy by creating a virtual screen in the form of strict access regulations.” (Alshech, 2004) The set standard by which a Muslim must enter a fellow Muslim’s home set forth in the Qur’an is an example of the strict access regulations. Essentially because physical privacy did not exist, the concept of it manifested in a specific code which at least allowed for Muslims to perceive control over the boundary of the private and public.

An interesting parallel is that of Hall’s anecdote of being accosted by a German because he disrespected a sphere which was not ambiguous but quite explicit for the German. The difference though is that the German expected to be greeted whereas in the Muslim protocol one must also be asked permission. As far as grievances are concerned in Islamic culture, “A person is held accountable by society and the legal system for his public behavior but is to be left alone, and judged only by God, when the sin is committed within the confines of his house.” (Alshech, 2004) This deduction is crucial to the understanding of why when a woman’s body is violated the public sees justification in punishing the woman because as her body serves the community, the violation occurs publicly. Additionally such a deduction on the nature of sin allows for men to act in any way that pleases them without concern for those inhabitants of the house because in that sphere it is not for the legal system to deal with but rather God.

In this video installation, "Turbulent", Shirin Neshat uses the sphere of a performance hall to parallel women's agency through voice. The male performer, with his back facing his audience, sings merrily not needing the acknowledgment of his audience to recognize the significance of his words. The female performer, on the other hand, sings hauntingly with no audience yet commanding the attention of men who do not see her (literally and figuratively).

Women’s Sexuality in the Arab World versus the West
Many women in several Asian and African cultures do not own their bodies as women do in the West. A woman’s sexuality belongs to her family and community. Shari’ah law, “traditionally treats rape not as a crime against God (as in the case of adultery), but as theft or violation of property, in this case property of sexual and reproductive value.” (Amado, 2004) This patriarchal belief extends beyond Islam and has existed as a societal norm to treat women’s bodies as an entity and a means of production. Because Western women are understood to be equal individuals owning their rights, her ego is of equal significance of her persons. How she wears her sexuality whether it be internal or external is a realm not to be violated; it’s private and owned by the self. What the Western woman does with herself is not so much of public concern because the goods and life she produces is not communal, it is private.

Language and Culture are tandem concepts. Within a language can much culture be found, and proxemics is too a sort of language. Very telling is the fact that, according to Hall, there is no word for “rape” in Arabic. Much of the world does not see rape as a crime by which the woman is entirely a victim and to be given an opportunity to not only express her grievance but a right to prosecute the rapist. Many women are silenced, and for many Muslims and Arabs, they are persecuted, ostracized, and even killed. For it to be a cultural norm to keep silent when another has violated you means several things: your body is not equal to the violators, your body has no significance outside of what it can produce, and your marker (woman, black, Jewish, etc) degrades you. For it to be a cultural norm to be punished for being raped equates you to a disposable good. Once soiled or defiled a woman cannot serve her community.

Honor killings are the most extreme expression of just how disassociated a woman’s ego and her body is perceived. “Even though they are premeditated, planned murders, they are misconstrued as ‘crimes of passion’, and the overarching perspective is that men have the right to punish women for improper sexual behaviour.” (Amado, 2004) What’s most disturbing though is that many honor killings are not done to women who, as the West would understand it, are actively enjoying a pre- or extra-marital sex life. Many Arab, Muslim women are raped and because they are vessel’s of familial honor and pride must essentially be gotten ridden of to remove the shame she is responsible for.

For men in the medieval Muslim Arab world, sex with prostitutes or slaves either male or female and young boys was a means of confirming male domination. Additionally, sex with any of these segments of society ensured that men would not overstep their boundaries and defile respectable women. “Adult men, who dominated their wives and slaves in private, controlled the public realm. Sex with boys or male prostitutes made men ‘sinners,’ but did not undermine their public position as men or threaten the important social values of female virginity or family honor.” (Dunne, 1998) Essentially, anything done in private that did not affect the progression of the community was excusable. It is therefore no surprise that contact cultures, who are often easy to indoctrinate because of their understanding of group preservation, tend to adhere well to religious and cultural orthodoxy.

Arab men were and are able to have pre- and extra- marital encounters with men and women, whether by force or choice without reprimand because it does not jeopardize the community in a tangible way. Homosexuality is shunned because to accept it as a lifestyle versus a casual option is to essentially interfere with procreation and the reproduction of culture and faith. “Denying the existence of transgressive sexual practices helps obscure the ideological nature of ‘transgression,’ making it difficult, for example, to see prostitute
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s as workers who support themselves or their families by performing services for which there is a social demand. Such denials also legitimize failures to respond effectively to public health concerns such as AIDS.” (Dunne, 1998) This denial of health concerns is also in addition to sexual violations of both men and women. What is not perceived as a crime or sin is not perceived as a reality.

Orientalist paintings, such as the one to the right by
Jean-Léon Gérôme, "The Slave Market", while they depict a European romanticism of Arab male sexuality and female subjugation; the trope is ironic in its scale of truth.

It is believed that, “Female sexuality, if unsatisfied or uncontrolled, could result in social chaos (ifitna) and social order thus required male control of women's bodies. The domain of licit sexuality was placed in service to the patriarchal order. The patriarchal family served as paramount social institution and the proper locus of sex, thus ensuring legitimate filiation.” (Dunne, 1998) For the preservation of familial lineage, which carries with it not only pride but property rights and monetary progression, a woman’s sexual activity must be insured to occur only with her husband to protect against illegitimacy. What can be presumed also about the woman’s sexuality is her inability to control it, when in fact it seems that it is the male populace with this problem. This belief in the overwhelming ability for a woman’s sexual prowess to take control and impede in rationality is a major basis for why many cultures find the justification to completely control a woman’s mobility. To use the woman’s sexuality as a scapegoat removes rationality and cognizance of a man’s transgressions and renders him free to act without blame.

In a collection of narratives by Arab-American women, Christian and Muslim, by Nadine Naber, many of the women spoke of a parallel of uploading the vessel by which upheld their families’ honor: their bodies; and the vessel that held their American derived freedom: their sexualities. One woman, a lesbian from a Muslim family, came out to her family in which case they blamed Western feminism for her sexuality. And while for her older sister who was constantly discouraged from pre-marital sex, her mother suggested for her to engage in it so as to try and pull her out of her homosexuality. In this case the Arab woman’s virginity could be sacrificed so as to save any semblance of familial honor from the depravity of homosexuality. “…while the discourse of the ‘Muslim virgin’ and the ‘Christian whore’ policed Lulu's femininity, the ‘virgin/whore’ dichotomy was also constituted by a series of intersecting and contradictory discourses such as white versus non-white, Arab versus American.” (Naber, 2006)

Examining the Arab-American experience is a perfect case study of exploring how contact and non-contact cultures understand and respect a woman’s sexuality. Even in coming to America, many of the women spoke of how pervasive the native country’s culture carried over and clashed with their enculturated expectations of American freedom in sexual expression. They could not escape the expectations of their parent’s culture and could not let go of the American freedoms afforded to them. One narrative expected sexual reservation and chastity and another encouraged individuality and expression.

It’s incredibly difficult for a woman to understand her sexuality when her parents come from a culturally staunch background and she is reared in a liberal country like the United States. When raised in one environment at home and an incredibly disparate one socially, one is bound to feel guilty or repressed in acting on one identity or another. This is especially so because in the West women are reared earlier and earlier to not only embrace their sexuality but to act on it and to do so purely physically, disconnected from emotions; essentially to enjoy sex like a man. And because a woman owns her body she is entitled to act in any way she wishes.

Furthermore Western culture is progressively shifting the shame of sexual violations from the violated to the violator. The discourse of rape has become one celebrating being able to speak out against the violator and to feel empowered in this process. Additionally, legally, one who is raped is given more respect and support in the prosecution process. The shame here is completely on the violator.

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The backdrop of the development of Western feminism against the growing stagnation of patriarchal Arab culture juxtaposes the woman’s personal freedom in relation to the threat of communal identity. Contact, communal cultures experience their preservation through the purity of the woman. The denial of her ego and ownership of her body maintains male hegemony and comfort through the status quo. Western feminism grew out of men having already challenged the status quo of religion and governance, so where the Arab culture is the Western used to be. The shift in Enlightenment individualism gave way for contextualizing the ego from a deeply internalized rational to one that surfaced and is essentially exposed, as the German’s is as explored by Hall. What this means for the Western woman is her equality and protection of rights as an individual. For the Arab woman, and many other women in contact cultures, rights can only be justified and supported by a man and more often than not if protecting a woman does not serve to benefit the father, husband, or community then it is not worth the effort.

Proximity, for all humans, serves to either keep us separate or to keep us tied together. The place of the individual is shaped by how a culture perceives the worth in their populace: through the collective or the individual. Because of this we can understand how disparate women’s rights and freedoms are shaped across the world and if desired by the native population of women, possibly how to combat these inequalities. These practices find themselves re-born through practices of codes of conduct, particularly in public and/or shared spheres. Daniel Chandler explains how we,"...learn to read the world in terms of the codes and conventions which are dominant within the specific socio-cultural contexts and roles within which we are socialized...Our sense of self as a constancy is a social construction which is 'over-determined' by a host of interacting codes within our culture.”

Works Cited
  1. Alshech, Eli. "Do Not Enter Houses Other than Your Own: The Evolution of the Notion of a Private Domestic Sphere in Early Sunni Islamic Thought." Islamic Law and Society 11.3 (2004): 291-332. JSTOR. Web. 18 Dec. 2010.
  2. Amado, Liz E. "Sexual and Bodily Rights as Human Rights in the Middle East and North Africa." Reproductive Health Matters12.23 (2004): 125-28. JSTOR. Web. 18 Dec. 2010.
  3. DeJong, Jocelyn, Rana Jawad, Iman Mortagy, and Bonnie Shepard. "The Sexual and Reproductive Health of Young People in the Arab Countries and Iran." Reproductive Health Matters 13.25 (2005): 49-59. JSTOR. Web. 18 Dec. 2010.
  4. Dunne, Bruce. "Power and Sexuality in the Middle East." Middle East Report 206 (1998): 8-11. JSTOR. Web. 18 Dec. 2010.
  5. Hall, Edward M. The Hidden Dimension. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, INC, 1966. 131-64. Print.
  6. Naber, Nadine. "Arab American Femininities: Beyond Arab Virgin/American(ized) Whore." Feminist Studies 32.1 (2006): 87-111. JSTOR. Web. 19 Dec. 2010.
  7. Ruggi, Suzanne. "Commodifying Honor in Female Sexuality: Honor Killings in Palestine." Middle East Report 206 (1998): 12-15. JSTOR. Web. 18 Dec. 2010.

Web Sources/Links
Daniel Chandler, "Semiotics for Beginners" http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/S4B/sem08.html
Debray, Media Manifestos, pp. 1-40; 69-79; 97-107; Tables, 171-174.