|Orientalism posits a global race/gender divide in which women from the cultural west are more liberated than women from the cultural east. While much has been said about how this discursive structure can trap putatively eastern women in traditional roles, Orientalist contrasts likely limit women on the western side of the divide as well. For example, the belief that one is from a community distinguished by its gender egalitarianism can blind women to the sexism they experience in their own communities. |
In this paper, I use life stories to explore feminine self presentations among Polish and Iraqi Jewish women who immigrated to Israel in the 1950s, and who are matched on class background and gender roles prior to immigration. In Israel of the 1950s, benefits accrued to those who appeared western, and both groups of women came to Israel with the cultural capital necessary to convincingly self-present as western. However East European immigrants like Poles were regarded as already part of the western sector, while Iraqi Jews were classified as eastern. The contrast between the two groups of immigrants thus enables us to ask: in this environment in which westernness matters, how is being perceived as already-western associated with gender presentations?
I show that while the two groups’ educational and occupational experiences in Israel were largely similar, the Poles also self present as traditionally feminine in ways the Iraqis do not, by stressing their homecenteredness, delicacy, personal style, passivity, self sacrifice, and modesty. The respondents’ own words suggest that this difference is tied to the strategies they use to highlight their western identities. With gender traditionalism an omnipresent eastern stereotype, most Iraqi narratives construct western by stressing the immigration’s value in opening up new options for women. Poles, whose gender relations have never faced the same scrutiny, construct western by highlighting continuity between their current behavior and their lives in 1930s Europe, preserving older feminine ideals in the process.