They say never judge a book by its cover. Yet how does the picture gracing the front of a book construe its characters to the reader, and what impression do certain images convey about the subjects they discuss?
Many a book on the Middle East, its women, its extremists and some of its fiction has been increasingly appearing on western bookshelves in the last decade or so. But even a fleeting glance at these book covers displays a remarkable lack of understanding of the region and a continual stubborn tendency to portray the Arab East through orientalist spectacles.
Look at this collage of recent books about Muslim women. Almost of all them are biographical (memoirs) or deal with issues facing women in the wider Middle East.
Notice immediately that the two books below the top right-hand corner have the same cover picture, as do the two in the bottom left-hand corner. No women are presented as unveiled, and some of the images evoke an semi-erotic harem-like depiction, especially the three on the right hand side from the bottom up.
It’s particularly disappointing that Nawal El Saadawi has surrendered her books to these stereotypes seeing that she herself champions womens’ emancipation and abhors the veil in any of its manifestations (two of her books appear at the bottom of the above picture).
The images of veiled women, especially the close ups of the eyes, act to extricate these women from their identities or their realities. Instead they become a popular image for consumption, as demonstrated by the fact that most of these images are available from stock-image websites or image libraries such as Getty. One of the authors seen in the image above is Jean Sasson, an American who has made a career by penning the lives of Saudi princesses and their escapades. Her later book Mayada (in the picture above) tells the story of a well-heeled Iraqi woman of Ottoman descent and distinction. She was arbitrarily arrested under Saddam’s Bath party and shared a jail cell with other Iraqi women.
The book describes the harrowing torture these women suffered in Iraqi detention on spurious charges. Sasson’s books are an incredible read mind you, but have a look at the cover of another of her books (right). Another stock image of a veiled woman in heavy mascara and eye-liner.
We saw Sasson's Mayada in the collage above, but take note of these two German translations of the very same book:
They portray veiled women with no background images- these memoirs are simply telling the bookshop browser ‘here’s another oppressed woman who will unveil if only you would read me’. Nothing of the scenes and incidents in the book are captured (I've read the book three times). What remains is the submissive delicate woman with eyes either averted or staring the reader directly in the eye.
The irony of these books is that the stories they tell often refute popular assumptions about Arabo-Islamic Muslims- these are stories of women overcoming torture, facing draconian traditions, discussing the illicit details of Lolita in a clandestine book group in Tehran, and finding their voices. Yet the covers portray the exact opposite. The casual bookshop browser of course would not be aware of this.
To that extent, the trivialized images on the covers of these books can be described as orientalist- they do nothing to expel the tired stereotypical images of the Middle East that we are fed from an early age. The cover on the above left displays an sexually enticing woman robed in a romantic-red veil. For a book recounting torture in Iraqi prisons, it's a very suggestive cover. What it does evoke, however, is the nineteenth century European fascination with the Hareem women. The woman in the picture does not even look Arab, let alone Iraqi.
It is not the writers of the books that are to blame, it is the publishing houses that design the covers to a certain specification- what they feel the public readership wants. And according to these publishers, it seems the readers still want these clichéd images of lone, veiled women with heavy mascara. It sells. Books on these sort of issues published and sold in the Middle East itself are not sold with these banal images (although it may be fair to say they have their own stock designs).
Much of our (by 'our' I mean western) actions in the Arab and wider Muslim world are unfortunate catastrophes of presumption and intervention justified on the sort of orientalist stereotypes perpetuated in material like the book covers above (I'm not commentating on the value of the books' content by the way).
Publishers must become more aware of how their cover designs speak to their audiences.