I miss being a student. I miss spending hours immersed in my research, playing Yann Tiersen or Debussy on repeat, over-analyzing to the point of deconstructing every assertion I have about the world.
I particularly miss being a student at the University of Hull (edit: I just realized I moved there exactly three years ago today!). While I had very inspiring professors at my local university, I prefer the UK academic system over the US academic system. There is more emphasis on independent study and I thrived in that environment. I also feel, in general, that England is a better cultural fit for me. I would love to go back to the University of Hull for another year to earn a master’s degree, but with Ryan and I having stable careers in the States, that’s highly unlikely to happen. I still hope to get my master’s degree from somewhere, some time and some how.
In the spirit of nostalgia, below is an essay I wrote two years ago during my time at the University of Hull for the ‘Travel and Writing’ module I took. I figured it’s pertinent to this blog, a blog that focuses (or at least attempts to) on travel and cultural observations. The purpose of the essay was to discuss the tradition of female travelers writing about the domestic space and using that space as a vehicle to expose political issues. It encompasses broader topics as well, such as Eurocentrism in the post-colonial world and how imposing Western assumptions about feminist goals is problematic.
There is a long tradition in women’s travel writing to write the domestic space—a tradition that undoubtedly stems from patriarchal practices. Conventional patriarchal codes of gender assigned men to the public sphere—the sphere of politics and paid labour—and women to the domestic—the sphere of home, family life, and unpaid labour. Historically in the West, women were discouraged both from travelling and writing, for such engagement in public concerns was deemed improper and unfeminine. Western women still travelled and wrote about their experiences nonetheless, though their accounts were considered trivial and widely ignored (Mills 118). Harem literature—a genre that was introduced in the eighteenth century and popularised in the nineteenth century—was the first distinctively female literary genre to emerge in the West (Melman 311). The harem was essentially a segregated women’s quarter inside a Muslim home, and it was the object of fascination for Westerners hearing about the Orient. Western male travellers were forbidden access to the harem, which gave women the authority on the subject. Harem literature, as Reina Lewis notes, became ‘a genre through which Western women were able to mount a sustained and interventionalist political discourse about international relations’ (Lewis 15). Through writing the domestic space, women earned an authoritative voice in the public sphere, and exploring spaces beyond the public gaze proved to be an invaluable source of insight on political issues.
This paper will discuss three female travel narratives, examining how each utilises the domestic space to address various political issues. It will begin with Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s Turkish Embassy Letters, in which Montagu focusses on domestic spaces within the Ottoman Empire to refute Western misconceptions about the Middle East and challenge the notion of Western superiority. Then it will move on to Åsne Seierstad’s The Bookseller of Kabul, a contemporary novel that examines the conditions of women in Afghanistan—as revealed by one family’s domestic space—while also urging global feminist dialogue. Finally, the paper will discuss Ahdaf Soueif’s ‘Melody,’ which centres on domestic life inside a multicultural compound in the Middle East in order to expose the lingering presence of racism and Eurocentrism in post-colonial societies.
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was an aristocrat, the wife of an English ambassador, and one of the first female travellers to provide a secular account of the Ottoman Empire (Melman 78). In her Turkish Embassy Letters, written in 1717 and published posthumously in 1763, she challenges men’s ‘voyeuristic tales about Turkish women’ (Hefferman 207), while providing ‘a forceful critique on the Europocentric vision of the world’ (Melman 70). Montagu’s Letters was the first to satisfy the West’s curiosity about the harem. This forbidden, impenetrable territory was both fantasised and feared by the West. Some Westerners imagined it as a man’s stable of women, where indiscriminate sex ran rampant. Others imagined it as a prison, where women were held against their wills and abused. Montagu was the first to provide the West with descriptions of the harem based on actual experiences rather than rumours. She debunks the mythical idea of the harem being ‘a sexualised realm of deviancy, cruelty and excess’ (Lewis 96), and explains that ‘in short, ‘tis the women’s coffee house, where all the news of the town is told, scandal invented etc.’ (Montagu 29). Montagu dispels the Western conception of the harem as a brothel or a prison, and instead illustrates it as a source for female empowerment. As Mary Jo Kietzman notes, ‘Montagu saw that gender segregation could provide women the opportunity to shape themselves and their societies’ (Kietzman 545). Interestingly enough, while Montagu does dismantle Western myths about Ottoman women, she also constructs new ones by illustrating the women according to classical Western aesthetics. In her account of the Turkish bath, Montagu describes the Ottoman women in the same manner as the graceful, nude goddesses prominent in Western classical art:
There were many amongst them as exactly proportion’d as ever any Goddess was drawn by the pencil of Guido or Titian, and most of their skins shineingly white, only adorn’d by their Beautifull Hair divided into many tresses hanging on their shoulders, braided either with pearl or riband, perfectly representing the figures of the Graces.
Montagu’s portrayal of the Turkish bath is inaccurate not only in her projection of Western features onto Ottoman women, but also in the fact that nudity was not actually a common sight in the Turkish bathhouse. As Billie Melman notes, ‘Most later descriptions testify that the Ottoman women never bathed in the nude, but covered themselves with linen-wrappers’ (Melman 91). Nonetheless, by illustrating the women according to familiar classical images, Montagu normalises the exotic for her Western readers, while also desexualising the image of the Turkish bath.
Furthermore, Montagu’s Letters criticises Eurocentric prejudices about the Middle East by providing a reciprocal perspective of the West. As Melman explains, Montagu’s purpose in her Letters ‘is not merely to inform and divert her readers but also offer a critique on British attitudes to women and…Christian notions of womanhood and sexual morals and manners’ (Melman 92). For the West, customs such as the veil and gender-segregated spaces were ‘invariably associated with tyranny and the subjection of females’ (Melman 97). One way that Montagu turns this notion on its head is by aligning the Eastern veil with the Western corset. Montagu recalls an episode in the bathhouse where she hesitated to undress in front of the other women. When she finally did, she claims it ‘satisfied them very well, for I saw they believed I was so locked up in that machine, that it was not in my own power to open it, which contrivance they attributed to my husband’ (Montagu 29). This passage is significant for two reasons. First, Montagu employs role reversal to present herself as the exotic spectacle—trapped in a ‘machine’ that could be nothing else but something forced on her by her husband to ensure her constancy. By illustrating Western customs as bizarre, Montagu ‘others’ the West, and effectively challenges their Eurocentric attitudes. Moreover, the passage depicts Western women as the oppressed group, through emphasis on the corset. In Western society, the corset was a symbol of status; it demonstrated discipline and control (Johnson 206). But this constricting, body-contorting fashion trend severely impacted upon women’s comfort, health, and fertility (Johnson 212). The corset can easily been seen as more brutal and oppressive than the veil, which in turn is loose, comfortable, and not damaging to one’s health. By addressing Eurocentric attitudes with a reciprocal view of the patriarchal West, Montagu encourages her readers to focus on issues within their own society rather than asserting superiority over others’ based on cultural misunderstandings. Now this paper will shift its focus to a text published 240 years later, by another Western woman travelling in the Middle East.
is a Norwegian journalist and author of international bestseller The Bookseller of Kabul. She travelled to Afghanistan just three weeks after the September 11 attacks in the United States, where she stayed with a bookseller’s family to experience life in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban regime. Seierstad explores the domestic space of the Khan family (whose names were changed by Seierstad to conceal their identities) in order to demonstrate the subordinate role of women in Afghanistan. Bookseller addresses a wide range of women’s issues in Afghan society, including gender hierarchy, marital customs, the burka, and other female expectations. Seierstad writes herself out of her book and assumes the role of an omniscient narrator as she weaves in her imaginings of internal dialogue ‘based entirely on what family members described’ to her (Seierstad 3). The controversy of this stylistic approach will be elaborated on later, but first it is important to examine how Seierstad makes use of the domestic space to assert her stance on the sexual politics in Afghanistan. One way that Seierstad implements this is by taking her readers through an average day for Leila, the bookseller’s younger sister. Leila’s days are filled with exhausting domestic labour; as Seierstad explains, ‘She has been brought up to serve, and she has become a servant, ordered around by everyone’ (Seierstad 154). Seierstad quotes Leila’s nephews to illustrate the treatment she receives from the men in her family. Eqbal shouts, ‘You bitch! Lazybones! My socks have got holes in them’ (Seierstad 146), and Mansur adds, ‘Haven’t we got any milk? I told you to buy some! You parasite’ (Seierstad 146). This is the life Leila was destined to have, as she was born last and female. Seierstad contrasts Leila’s experience with that of her eldest brother, Sultan:
As the oldest son any savings were spent on him. His sister, who was born before him, never set foot inside a school and never learnt to read or write. Today she can barely tell the right time. After all, her only future was to be married off.
It is not because he is the first-born, but rather because he is the first-born male, that Sultan is given the most opportunities of all his siblings. Seierstad demonstrates how sons are favoured in Afghan society, to the extent that ‘the value of a wife is the number of sons she bears’ (Seierstad 120). Throughout the text, Seierstad evinces male privilege in Afghan society, displaying many ways in which women are deprived of the same opportunities and choices that men have. However, while illustrating the ways in which Afghan women are muted by men, Seierstad does not realise that she, too, mutes them by imposing Western ideals as their true desires.
Seierstad applies Western feminist thought when examining Afghan gender roles, perceiving Afghanistan as ‘still a society where women have almost no human rights’ (Judah). Seierstad does not consider her interpretations ethnocentric, but instead admits she is no cultural-relativist. She states:
In Norway, if a husband beats up his wife he’s going to go to prison. Not so in Afghanistan. But the pain of the woman is the same in Afghanistan as it is in Norway. How can we say it doesn’t hurt so much because it’s part of her culture?
It is true that cultural-relativity, though a well-intentioned effort to be respectful, can potentially do more harm than good. As Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said, ‘We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented’ (Wiesel). That being said, there is something problematic in Seierstad’s method of deliverance. As previously mentioned, Seierstad writes herself out of the book, yet interprets every scene from a Western perspective through her imposition of a Western omniscient narrator. By doing this, she is essentially implying that the Khan women share the same Western ideals as her, but are simply imprisoned by their cultural customs. This ignores indigenous feminist perspectives, which may view Western feminism unfavourably. For instance, Third World feminist Kumari Jayawardena finds Western feminism to be ‘a product of “decadent” Western capitalism … [which] alienates women from their culture, religion and family responsibilities’ (Jayawardena 1). A clash between feminist values was exemplified in 2005 when American politician Karen Hughes spoke at a university in Saudi Arabia, expressing hope that one day Saudi women would be able to drive and enjoy the same freedoms as American women (Ware 2006). One Saudi woman responded, ‘I don’t want to drive a car. I worked hard for my medical degree. Why do I need a driver’s license?’ (Weisman 2005). The assumption that Western goals are universal hinders the global feminist cause, as it isolates non-Western women. Ethel Crowley expands on the issue:
Because of their exclusive nature, western feminist normative models isolate and marginalise the actions and experiences of many Third World women … [whose] forms of resistance are rendered impotent by macro-economic analyses and are often obscured by feminist rhetoric which may homogenise whole dimensions of experience.
To delve any further into these issues in feminism would be beyond the scope of this paper. What is important is that Western feminists, like Seierstad, realise that Westernisation does not equate to female accomplishment. In all, Seierstad’s observations of the Khan family’s domestic space bring awareness to the oppression of women in Afghanistan, but does so in a way that urges dialogue among feminist groups in order to establish a coalition among women worldwide. The next text in this discussion slightly expands on this, as it reveals how the East-West dichotomy distorts Western women’s perceptions of feminist accomplishments.
Ahdaf Soueif is an Egyptian author and political activist who received an education in both Egypt and England. Because of her experience as a Middle Eastern woman living in the West, many of Soueif’s stories and commentaries bring awareness to political issues regarding transculturalism and the post-colonial condition. Her short story ‘Melody’—featured in her 2007 short story collection I Think of You—uses the multicultural domestic space of a compound in order to expose Eurocentric and xenophobic attitudes that persist in post-colonial societies. The story is narrated by a middle-class Western woman who lives on a compound in the Middle East with her husband and son. The unnamed narrator constantly makes patronising, homogenised assumptions about her Muslim neighbours, demonstrating her sense of racial superiority. Her use of language dehumanises them; a method which is ‘essential for Europe to regard European behaviour as the norm and hence to assert itself as a superior race’ (Mills 88). This is exemplified when she visits her Turkish neighbour Ingie after hearing about her daughter’s death. Rather than demonstrating compassion for a mother who has just lost her child, the narrator scrutinises Ingie’s behaviour; ‘Her movements were slow and awkward: adolescent’ (Soueif 134). Ingie’s tears are apathetically described as ‘brief, dry-eyed convulsions’ (Soueif 135). The narrator fails to empathise with Ingie during her time of mourning—a universal human experience—and instead dehumanises her emotions. She does this with the other Middle Eastern women in Ingie’s home as well; one woman in mourning is described as ‘a fat Egyptian who was perspiring so much you couldn’t tell the sweat from tears’ (Soueif 135). The narrator’s language reveals her inability to identify with her Middle Eastern neighbours on a basic human level. This is also revealed in the way the narrator asserts racist stereotypes as pre-given traits of all Middle Eastern people. For instance, she remarks: ‘The way these Muslim women treat their husbands just makes you ill. They actually want to be slaves’ (Soueif 128). The narrator makes this comment out of nowhere, revealing that she is consciously constructing differences between the groups. To put the quote into context, Ingie had merely expressed that she likes making dresses for her daughter’s dolls rather than just buying them. The narrator thinks to herself, ‘And I guess she likes cooking three-course meals and a sweet for her husband every night and waiting on him too, not doubt’ before asserting that all Muslim women want to be slaves (Soueif 128). The narrator’s obsession with their cultural differences—which are widely imagined and based on stereotypes—prevents her from expanding her worldview beyond Western norms.
Furthermore, the narrator cannot see past her Eurocentric presumptions about Ingie to realise how much they actually have in common. As Joseph Massad notes, Soueif subtly exposes the narrator’s blindness ‘to her own experience of sexist oppression—as she was too busy noticing that of her Turkish counterpart—which is concealed under a façade of racial/cultural superiority’ (Massad 79). The two women, in many ways, lead similar lives, though the narrator criticises Ingie’s while normalising her own. For instance, when she learns that Ingie’s husband was previously married to an American woman, she assumes that the American woman’s strong personality and autonomy must have frustrated the Turkish man ‘so he packed up and went home and got himself a Turkish wife who would do absolutely everything for him and then he brought her to this country where he could virtually lock her up while he made lots of money’ (Soueif 129). Not only is her assumption riddled with racist stereotypes, but it ignores that fact that she is the same position as Ingie. Her husband was also previously married, and she was also brought to the same country as Ingie so that her husband could make more money. Relatedly, when the narrator learns that Ingie does not want more children while her husband does, she sneers, ‘That’s what these Muslim men are like, they can never have enough children’ (Soueif 131). She depicts Ingie’s husband as a misogynist dictator who decides for his wife how many children she will bear. Paradoxically, the narrator brings up how she wanted children while her husband did not, so he got a vasectomy to keep her from nagging him. With her husband’s act of getting a vasectomy without discussing it with her, he is also deciding for his wife how many children she will mother. The narrator cannot recognise her own oppression under patriarchy as she is too preoccupied with establishing cultural superiority.
In conclusion, the purpose of this essay was to discuss the theme of utilising domestic spaces to address political issues in women’s travel writings. It was not to argue that all women, or only women, write the domestic space, but rather to show where the tradition came from and how it is still used today despite having less dichotomous social spheres. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s Turkish Embassy Letters anticipated the trend of Harem literature—the first distinctively female literary genre in the West. In her Letters, Montagu shares intimate details about Ottoman domestic spaces, which in turn disproves Western misconceptions of the Middle East and criticises Eurocentric attitudes. Åsne Seierstad’s The Bookseller of Kabul focusses on the domestic space of the Khan family in order to address women’s rights issues in Afghanistan. The book also inadvertently stresses the need for establishing a coalition among the varying feminist perspectives, rather than basing feminist goals on Western values. Finally, Ahdaf Soueif’s ‘Melody’ uses domestic spaces within a multicultural compound to reveal the detrimental effects of Ethnocentrism. The three texts merge the public and private spheres to provide a more comprehensive understanding of the political issues that concern and affect them. Along with the depolarisation of the social spheres, the texts also encourage cross-cultural interaction in order to bridge cultural divides.
Ahmed, Leila. ‘Western Ethnocentrism and Perceptions of the Harem,’ Feminist Studies 8.3 (1982): 521-34. JSTOR. Web. 29 Apr. 2014.
Anthony, Andrew. ‘This Norwegian Would.’ The Observer. Guardian News and Media, 23 Oct. 2005. Web. 26 Apr. 2014.
Crowley, Ethel. ‘Third World Women and the Inadequacies of Western Feminism’
Development Review. Global Research. 08 May 1991. Web. 06 May 2014.
Foster, Shirley. Across New Worlds: Nineteenth Century Women Travellers and Their Writings. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf. 1990. Print.
Golley, Nawar Al-Hassan. ‘Is Feminism Relevant To Arab Women?’ Third World Quarterly 25.3 (2004): 521-36. Military & Government Collection. Web. 30 Apr. 2014.
Heffernan, Teresa. ‘Feminism against the East/West Divide: Lady Mary’s ‘Turkish Embassy Letters,’ Eighteenth-Century Studies 33.2 (2000): 201-215. JSTOR. Web. 18 Apr. 2014.
Hirschmann, Nancy J. ‘Western Feminism, Eastern Veiling, and the Question of Free Agency.’
Constellations. 5.3 (1998): 345-68. Wiley Online Library. Web. 03 May 2014.
Huddleston, Diane M. ‘The Harem: Looking Behind the Veil.’ Department of History seminar paper, Western Oregon University, 2012.
Jayawardena, Kumari. Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World. London: Zed, 1986. Print.
Johnson, Wendy Dasler. ‘Cultural Rhetorics of Women’s Corsets.’ Rhetoric Review 1.3 (2001): 206-18. JSTOR. Web 30 Apr. 2014.
Judah, Tim. ‘The Kabul Bookseller, the Famous Reporter, and a ‘defamation’ of a Nation.’ The Observer. Guardian News and Media, 21 Sept. 2003. Web. 27 Apr. 2014.
Kandiyoti, Deniz. ‘Identity and its discontents: women and the nation.’ Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader. Eds. Patrick Williams & Laura Chrisman. New York: Harvester Wheasheaf, 1993. 376-92. Print.
Kietzman, Mary Jo. ‘Montagu’s Turkish Embassy Letters and Cultural Dislocation.’ Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 38.3 (1998): 357-551. JSTOR. Web. 18 Apr. 2014.
Lewis, Reina. Rethinking Orientalism: Women, Travel and the Ottoman Harem. London: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd. 2004. Print.
Maitra, Keya. ‘The Questions of Identity and Agency in Feminism without Borders: A Mindful Response.’ Hypatia 28.2 (2013): 360-76. Wiley Online Library. Web. 03 May 2014.
Massad, Joseph. ‘The Politics of Desire in the Writings of Ahdaf Soueif.’ Journal of PalestineStudies 28.4 (1991): 74-90. JSTOR. Web. 21 Apr. 2014.
Martin, Alison E. ‘Travel, Sensibility And Gender: The Rhetoric Of Female Travel Writing In Sophie Von La Roche’s Tagebuch Einer Reise Durch Holland Und England.’ German Life & Letters 57.2 (2004): 127-42. Academic Search Premier. Web. 21 Apr. 2014.
Melman, Billie. Women’s Orients: English Women and the Middle East, 1718-1918: Sexuality, Religion and Work. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995. Print.
Mills, Sara. Discourses of Difference: An Analysis of Women’s Travel Writing and Colonialism. 1991. London and New York: Routledge, 2000. Print.
Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. ‘Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial
Discourses.’ Feminist Review 30 (1988): 61-88 JSTOR. Web. 28 Apr. 2014.
Montagu, Mary Wortley. ‘Turkish Embassy Letters.’ An Anthology of Women’s Travel Writing. Eds. Shirley Foster and Sara Mills. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002. 28-33. Print.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978. Print.
Seierstad, Åsne. The Bookseller of Kabul. Trans. Ingrid Christophersen. London: Little, Brown and Company, 2003. Print.
Soueif, Ahdaf. ‘Melody.’ I Dream of You. London: Bloomsbury, 2007. 125-41. Print.
Ware, Vron. ‘The Info-war and the Politics of Feminist Curiosity: Exploring New Frameworks for Feminist Intercultural Studies.’ Cultural Studies 20.6 (2006): 526-51. Academia. Web. 21 Apr. 2014.
Wiesel, Elie. Acceptance Speech. Nobel Peace Prize. Oslo City Hall, Oslo, Norway. 10 Dec. 1986. Elie Wiesel Foundation. Web. 22 Apr. 2014.
Weisman, Steven R. ‘Saudi Women Have Message For U.S. Envoy.’ The New York Times. The New York Times, 27 Sept. 2005. Web. 21 Apr. 2014.