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Posted in: Feminism, Arts, Film & Culture

Published on Jan 13, 2010 by Reina Lewis and Nancy Micklewright

Published by Middle East Quarterly

Gender, Modernity and Liberty

Middle Eastern and Western Women's Writings, a Critical Sourcebook

Lewis, a professor of cultural studies at the University of East London, publishes in the areas of postcolonialism and sexualities, meaning she avidly criticizes Western Orientalism but equally avidly takes interest in the alleged Western eroticization of "Orientalized" women. Lewis has published other titles in this area including Gendering Orientalism: Race, Femininity and Representation,[1] and Rethinking Orientalism: Women, Travel, and the Ottoman Harem.[2]

Lewis, in brief, is an ideologue, committed to Edward Said's highly biased view about how Western travelers, scholars, and memoirists essentially colonized their subject and, in so doing, rendered the Orient passive. But Ibn Warraq has definitively challenged Said's interpretation in Defending the West. A Critique of Edward Said's Orientalism, and I share his views.

In Gender, Modernity, and Liberty, Lewis has collaborated with Micklewright, a program officer at the Getty Foundation and author of A Victorian Traveler in the Middle East. The Photography and Travel Writing of Annie Lady Brassey.[3]

The material itself is fascinating as is their choice of photographs. The authors provide extracts from selected nineteenth- and twentieth-century writings of British, Turkish, and Egyptian women, including Julia Pardoe, Sophia Lane Poole, Emmeline Lott, Melek Hanum, Annie Lady Brassey, Zeynoub Hanoum, Grace Ellison, Huda Shaarawi, and Halide Edib.

They correctly criticize Westerners for confusing the harem with the brothel—although polygamy and the endless waiting that characterized the secluded, indoor life of Muslim women easily lends itself to such confusion. A harem meant that multiple generations of women and children were forbidden, protected, off limits to everyone except other women and male blood relatives. Hence, Western women, but not men, developed a small cottage industry of harem literature.

Although the authors approve of travelers such as Julia Pardoe (1806-62), who "struggled against" the male Western eroticization of the Orient and viewed Turkish women as happier than European women, they typically take every opportunity to view Western women travelers and their harem photographs sarcastically, suspiciously, bitterly. There is almost nothing Westerners can do to avoid their scorn. For example, the fact that indigenous cultures did not educate even elite women in their native languages—while foreign colonial powers did—led to elite Muslim women writing in English and French and not in Arabic or Turkish. The authors condemn this.

Lewis and Micklewright reserve their ire primarily for Orientalists and expend no scorn on the indigenous cultures for failing to educate women nor do they critique patriarchy with its concubine-sex slaves and multiple wives. The authors' mission is to rescue Oriental women from other Western writers who are not sufficiently postcolonial, i.e., anti-Western, pro-noble savage in outlook. This means that they savage most of the extraordinary writers and photographs that they have carefully and lovingly excerpted for this volume.

Contrast this volume with Barbara Hodgson's graceful and beautifully written work, Dreaming of East. Western Women and the Exotic Allure of the Orient.[4] Hodgson is no ideologue and in her text, photographs, and drawings, she captures the complexities and charm of Western women traveling eastward. Yes, many heavily-corseted, Victorian-era women did appreciate Muslim women's loose clothing, the charm and politeness of Eastern hospitality, and the fact that, as travelers, they were themselves far freer than they were back home. However, this does not mean that Western descriptions of the Orient are necessarily biased and racist or that the lives of indolent, bored, and illiterate home-bound women were anything to envy.

[1] London and New York: Routledge, 1995.
[2] New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2004.
[3] Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate Publishing, 2003.
[4] New York: Greystone Books, 2006.

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