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online DOI: 10.1080/00497870902724612
Women’s 1547-7045Studies 0049-7878Studies, Vol. 38, No. 3, February 2009: pp. 1–28 GWST
ISLAM, WOMEN, AND WESTERN RESPONSES: THE CONTEMPORARY RELEVANCE OF EARLY MODERN INVESTIGATIONS
BERNADETTE ANDREA The University of Texas at San Antonio
Bernadette Andrea Islam, Women, and Western Responses
This article focuses on Western responses, both historically and today, to the issue of “Women and Islam”—admittedly a monolithic categorization that presumes both patriarchal and orientalist reifications. Virginia Woolf, considered to be one of the foremothers of contemporary Anglo-American feminism, dramatized her personal and professional confrontation with such monoliths in the archly ironic British Museum scene in A Room of One’s Own (1929). Inundated by “an avalanche of books” written by men about “WOMEN AND . . .”—from the “Condition in Middle Ages of” to Alexander Pope’s influential pronouncement that “Most women have no character at all”—Woolf highlights the egregious discrepancy between the proliferation of maleauthored opinions on women versus her own experience of being a woman writer (28–30). But it is precisely this liberal feminist tradition, since its formulation at the end of the seventeenth century, that has presumed English women (and, by extension, Western women) to be the “freest” in the world with specific reference to Muslim women, assumed to be inherently oppressed.1 Historian Margaret R. Hunt reframes this assumption as a question
For the foundational work on liberal feminism and its prospects, see Eisenstein, The Radical Future of Liberal Feminism. Like Eisenstein, I am using “‘liberal’. . . in its more historical sense and not in the everyday usage suggesting open-minded or receptive to change. Liberal ideas are the specific set of ideas that developed with the bourgeois revolution asserting the importance and autonomy of the individual. These ideas, which originated in seventeenth-century England and took root in the eighteenth century, are now the dominant political ideology of twentieth-century Western society” (4). In later works, such as Hatreds: Racialized and Sexualized Conflicts in the 21st Century, Eisenstein begins to address how anti-Islamic and colonialist prejudices have shaped the perception that Western women are “free and liberated compared to the ‘orient’” (42). Address correspondence to Bernadette Andrea, Department of English, University of Texas at San Antonio, One UTSA Circle, San Antonio, TX 78249. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
in her paper, “Women in Ottoman and Western European Law Courts in the Early Modern Period, or, Were Western European Women Really the Luckiest Women in the World?”2 She cites the views of Mary Wollstonecraft, another one of Anglo-American feminism’s foremothers, who more than a century before Woolf argued for English women’s rights using the fallacy of the enslaved Muslim wife as her foil. As Hunt concludes, early feminists such as Wollstonecraft aligned with more conservative forces as they “turned the claim that Western European Christian women were the most fortunate women in the world, and Muslim women the most oppressed, into an unassailable truth, indeed one of the foundational truths of Western modernity” (2). Yet, as I demonstrate in my recent book, not only was this view belied by the facts, but eighteenth-century counter-orientalist feminists such as Delarivier Manley and Mary Wortley Montagu contested it from its inception.3 The most salient facts are, first, that English wives possessed no inherent civil rights, including the right to own property which constitutes the core of classical liberalism, until the end of the nineteenth century when “The Married Women’s Property Act” was passed; correspondingly, under Islamic law, Muslims cannot be enslaved (hence, the fallacy of the “Muslim wife as slave”) and Muslim women always had an inalienable right to own property. However, despite challenges within the feminist camp to the alliance between the advocacy for English women’s rights and their complicity with orientalism and other imperialist discourses, the view that Western women—and in the contemporary world, American women—are the “freest” women in the world as opposed to inherently oppressed Muslim women is still widespread.4 Let me give you a recent example of my own personal and professional encounter with such views: On a trip to Turkey in fall 2007 with a group commemorating the 800th anniversary of the birth of the world renowned poet, Mevlana Jalal al-Din Rumi—
I thank Professor Hunt for sharing this article with me. For an extended analysis of the genealogy of “feminist orientalism” and those early feminists who contested this alliance, see Andrea, Women and Islam in Early Modern English Literature, 78–104. Also see Andrea, “English Women and Islam, 1610 to 1690.” 4 On this persistent fallacy, see Ahmed, “Western Ethnocentrism and Perceptions of the Harem,” and Andrea, “Passage through the Harem: Historicizing a Western Obsession in Leila Ahmed’s A Border Passage.”
Islam, Women, and Western Responses
who is particularly interesting to me because this thirteenth-century Islamic scholar and mystic currently hails as the “best-selling poet in America” (Rumi 527)—a significant percentage of this group narrowed its engagement with the history, culture, and people of the region into the challenge: “Why are Muslim women so oppressed?” This challenge was aggressively reiterated in disregard of the nuanced and honest responses of Muslim women of deep scholarship and spirituality, whose knowledge and lives refuted this “loaded question,” one which perpetuates the conflation of the Muslim woman and oppression characteristic of “feminist orientalism.” To reinforce Hunt’s conclusion—“the claim that Western European Christian women were the most fortunate women in the world, and Muslim women the most oppressed” remains “one of the foundational truths of Western modernity” (2)—upon my return to the United States after this trip, one of the first news items I encountered satirically commented on the protests planned by “David Horowitz’s conservative Freedom Center” for its self-designated “Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week.” The pièce de résistance involved “urging college students to stage sitins outside the offices of women’s studies departments to protest ‘the silence of feminists over the oppression of women in Islam’ and to distribute pamphlets on Islamo-Fascism” (Dowd 27). With such fallacies, which we shall see are rooted in the debates of the early modern period, so widespread today in academia and among the general public, a return to this earlier period is not only relevant, but it is crucial for enabling us to intervene knowledgeably in contemporary discussions of “Women and Islam.” Only the combination of historical analysis and contemporary engagement can decouple the terms “women” and “Islam” from their monolithic conceptualization. This is the task of the balance of the article, where I explicate the moment when “feminist orientalism” was first articulated in the English tradition. The conclusion returns to contemporary discussions as part of this centuries-long history. The Genealogy of Feminist Orientalism: Seventeenth-Century Debates Beginning with the patriarchal travel literature of the seventeenth century, the image of the Eastern—and, specifically, the
Muslim—woman became the basis for the uneasy marriage between English women’s protests against gender oppression at the turn of the eighteenth century and their complicity with the orientalist and racist ideologies supporting England’s emerging global empire.5 Yet, prior to Quaker women’s missions to continental Europe, the Americas, and the Ottoman Empire, starting in the mid-seventeenth century, English women were explicitly barred from foreign travel. As Fynes Moryson pronounces in An Itinerary . . . Containing his Ten Yeeres Travell (1617) from the British Isles through the Ottoman Empire, “women for suspition of chastity are most unfit for this course,” which he reinforces with the marginal gloss, “Women unfit to travell” (3: 350). This passage comes at the beginning of Moryson’s discourse on “Travelling in generall” (Part III, Book I), with the first chapter labeled, “That the visiting of forraigne Countries is good and profitable: But to whom, and how far?” (3: 349). Later he genders the saying, “he hath lived well who hath spent his time retyred [retired] from the world,” as applying exclusively to women. His marginalia reads, “Perhaps a true saying for women” and his commentary continues, “This may be true in women” (3: 355). However, this ban on English women’s travel did not preclude their presence in the spate of travelogues written by English men such as Moryson. In particular, the lot of purportedly enslaved Muslim wives was frequently compared with that of “freeborn Englishwomen,” who were celebrated in the patriarchal discourse of the period as living in a “paradise” for gender relations.6 As Kenneth Parker points out in his collection of Early Modern Tales of Orient, the embellished reports of the Ottoman sultan’s absolutist domestic and expansionist foreign policies,
reinforced a pre-existing stereotype of the Turk, as [to quote the Oxford English Dictionary] “a cruel, rigorous, or tyrannical man; any one behaving as a barbarian or savage; one who treats his wife hardly; a bad-tempered or unmanageable man. Often with alliterative appellation, terrible Turk.” (18)
5 For the emergence and extent of this empire, see Lewis, The Oxford History of the British Empire, particularly vol. 1, The Origins of Empire, and vol. 2, The Eighteenth Century. 6 Moryson cites “the Proverb, that England is the Hell of Horses, the Purgatory of Servants, and the Paradise of Women” (4: 169). Cf. The Hardships of the English Laws in Relation to Wives, 45–46, on this commonplace. I analyze this passage below.
Islam, Women, and Western Responses
Although Parker does not draw attention to the gendered dynamic shaping this definition, the texts by male travelers he adduces attest to the salience for nascent English feminism of specifying a “Turk” as “one who treats his wife hardly.” William Biddulph presents a typical example of this conflation of patriarchalism and orientalism in The Travels of Certaine Englishmen into Africa, Asia, Troy . . . and to sundry other places (1609). In this frequently reprinted text, Biddulph introduces the dictum that western women should feel grateful for their gendered status quo because, according to him, Muslim women must subsist as virtual slaves.7 As he intones to his intended audience in England, “Heere wives may learn to love their husbands, when they shal read in what slavery women live in other Countries, and in what awe and subjection to their husbands, and what libertie and freedome they themselves enjoy” (sig. A2; cf. Parker 85).8 In a paradox constitutive of orientalist patriarchal discourse then – and now–Biddulph evokes the image of the industrious, albeit enslaved, Muslim woman to threaten what he describes as the “many idle huswies in England” (36; cf. Parker 89).9 More ominously, after incorrectly claiming that “whensoever he [a Muslim husband] disliketh any one of them [his wives], it is their use to sell them or give them to any of their men-slaves” (55; cf. Parker 95), Biddulph predicts, “if the like order were in England, women would be more dutifull and faithfull to their husbands than many of them are” (55–56; cf. Parker 95). While one might argue Biddulph is confusing the status of slave concubines and legal wives, who could not be slaves, his previous claim that “their custome is to buy their wives of their parents” suggests the orientalist equation of Muslim wives with slaves (55; cf. Parker 95). Similarly, William Lithgow, in A Most Delectable, and True Discourse, of an admired and painefull peregrination from Scotland, to the most famous Kingdomes in Europe, Asia and Affricke (1614), deems Turkish
Cf. Imber, who specifies, “with regards to property, Islamic law is unusual, although not unique [Imber cites medieval Welsh law], in keeping the wife’s property separate from her husband’s and in requiring the husband to make a payment to his wife at the time of the marriage” (81). Hence, because under Islamic law “a slave cannot own property,” Muslim wives cannot be slaves (93). 8 Early modern typography has been modernized as follows: u/v and i/j. 9 Parker transcribes “huswies” as “housewives,” although its root also denotes “hussies,” as per the etymology for “housewife” in the Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed. (1989).
wives “not far from the like servitude [i.e. of slaves]; for the men by the Alcoran [Qur’an], are admitted to Marry as many women as they will, or their ability can keepe” (sig. I3v; cf. Parker 155). Lithgow thus offers another instance of the negative comparison with the orientalized woman to keep English women in their place.10 As virtually the sole exception to this unrelenting patriarchal orientalism, Joseph Pitts, who documented his sixteen years of enslavement in Muslim lands in A faithful account of the religion and manners of the Mahometans (1731, 3rd ed.), roundly critiqued the misrepresentation of Muslim gender mores by writers such as Biddulph and Lithgow. As Pitts explains,
It hath been reported, That a Mahometan may have as many Wives as he pleaseth, tho’, if I mistake not, the Number may not exceed four;11 but there is not one in a Thousand hath more than one [wife], except it be in the Country, where some here and there may have two [wives]; yet I never knew but one which had so many as three [wives]. (39; cf. Vitkus 243)
In fact, the Qur’anic injunction limits men to four wives, and only insofar as they can treat all four wives equally–an impossibility Islamic feminists argue renders this injunction moot (Women and Gender 63). Hence, even Pitts’s defense relies on an orientalist misconception. Barring this limited exception among English male travel writers, the spurious image of Muslim wives as slaves remained one Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who accompanied her husband, the English ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1716 to 1718, to Istanbul, felt compelled to correct. In her Turkish Embassy Letters (published posthumously in 1763), she corroborates, “’Tis true, their law permits them four wives, but there is no instance of a man of quality that makes use of this liberty, or of a woman of rank that would suffer it” (72). She likewise corrects the misconception that Greeks subjects of the sultan were held as slaves (104; cf. 130). This passage indirectly counters
10 For a related discussion of Biddulph and Lithgow, see Matar, “The Representation of Muslim Women in Renaissance England,” 52–55, although he does not consider English women’s writing. 11 The 1704, first edition, reads, “It hath been reported that a Mohammetan may have as many wives as he pleaseth, and I believe it is so . . .” (Vitkus 243), with the rest of the quote continuing as in the 1731 edition. Clearly, Pitts had refined his views in this latter edition, drawing on more accurate information about Islamic marriage laws.
Islam, Women, and Western Responses
Alexander Pope’s patriarchal orientalist projection of “white” slavery onto Montagu, refusing to treat her as an interlocutor, as she hoped, instead of a sex object (Grundy 130, 165). In particular, the situation of English women in the era, as detailed by The Law’s Resolutions of Women’s Rights (1632), was governed by the doctrine of coverture, whereby “every feme covert [a married woman under English common law] is quodammodo [in a certain way] an infant, for see her power even in that which is most her own” (47). Succinctly put, “that which a husband hath is his own” and “that which the wife has is the husband’s” (46-47), including any inheritance she received, any rents she collected, or any wages she earned. In the eighteenth century, the influential jurist William Blackstone confirmed this doctrine with his infamous phrase, “in law husband and wife are one person, and the husband is that person” (Holcombe 18; cf. 25). This condition of legal nonage continued until the end of the nineteenth century, when the British Parliament finally passed the Married Women’s Property Act. Montagu was intensely aware of the constraints the doctrine of coverture placed on women, as she possessed no property of her own during her marriage despite having been born into a wealthy aristocratic family. By circumventing an arranged marriage, which she considered “Hell itself,” she renounced the contract that would have settled an independent portion of wealth upon her (Grundy 46).12 Governed by the common law as a feme covert, she ceded all former and future earnings and inheritances to her husband. Montagu knew her entire married life that she owned nothing, that her welfare was based entirely on her husband’s largesse, and that even the heirloom jewelry she wished to bestow on her beloved daughter was not hers to give but her husband’s. As she wrote in the correspondence accompanying this gift, “You have been the Passion of my Life. You need thank me for nothing . . . I desire you would thank your Father for the Jewels; you know I have nothing of my own” (Grundy 558). Based on her firsthand experience in the Ottoman Empire, characterized by her efforts to seek accurate information about Islam from direct sources, Montagu learned that Muslim women
Erickson emphasizes the liabilities of coverture, even as she acknowledges some of the means by which upper-class families sought to temper the common law (3–20).
were under no such disadvantage, as “those ladies that are rich having all their money in their own hands, which they take with them upon a divorce with an addition which he [the divorcing husband] is obliged to give them.” On this basis, she deems “the Turkish [Muslim] women as the only free people in the empire” because they control their persons and property upon marriage (72).13 Regarding women’s economic rights, then, Islamic law as applied in the Ottoman Empire was far more advanced than England’s common law for almost a century past the publication of Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), which is considered “the founding text of Western liberal feminism” (Zonana 599). As “the first systematic feminist in England,” preceding Wollstonecraft by a century, Mary Astell stood at the forefront of those writers from 1690 to 1710 who emphasized her countrywomen’s oppression as wives (Rogers 71; cf. Perry 99). She sought to provide alternatives to patriarchal marriage in her inaugural manifesto, A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, Part I (1694, 1695, 1696), which presented a controversial blueprint for Protestant England’s first female college. This treatise was followed by A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, Part II (1697, 1703, 1706, 1730) in response to patriarchal resistance to her initial proposal. Astell’s final feminist treatise, Some Reflections upon Marriage (1700), developed her ongoing critique of the double standard structuring English gender relations. Throughout her oeuvre, Astell especially challenged the legal principle of coverture, whereby wives remained under the “authority and protection” of their husbands. Significantly, she remained unmarried. Much admired by the younger Montagu, Astell was asked in 1724 to prepare a preface for the Turkish Embassy Letters. As she records, “the noble Author had the goodness to lend me her M.S. [manuscript] to satisfy my Curiosity in some enquirys I made concerning her Travels.” Astell, in other words, had access to a sound cross-cultural critique of English marriage customs, with specific reference to the relative benefits of Islamic law. In her preface, she condemns the malice and ignorance of “Male Travels,” including the patriarchal orientalist writers surveyed above (234). Against their aspersions, she urges her readers to
Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam, traces women’s property rights in early Islamic societies, including the Ottoman Empire (110–12).
Islam, Women, and Western Responses
“be better Christians than to look upon her [i.e., Montagu, and by extension Astell] with an evil eye” (235). Although Astell adheres to a Christian standard, set in opposition to the largely eastern tradition of the “evil eye,” she refrains in this mature work from establishing Islam as a negative foil.14 In addition, while in her earlier polemics she equated English women’s oppression under patriarchy with slavery, figured “strictly as a metaphor” (Perry 8), she here refrains from casting Muslim wives as slaves, unlike the patriarchal orientalist travel writers and their feminist orientalist followers. This rhetorical choice is significant, as the polemic Astell initiated at the end of the seventeenth century was soon co-opted by the latter tendency. An Essay in Defence of the Female Sex . . . Written by a Lady (1696) complicates the retrospective view of a feminist consensus in early modern England. Although wrongly ascribed to Astell in some sources, the pamphlet clearly counters her conservative Tory feminism, based on a “Christian Platonist belief,” with “the language of political libertarianism,” characteristic of the 1688 Whig Revolution (Jones 193). It thereby positions English feminism on the foundations of “liberal individualism” in the tradition of John Locke (Radical Future, 5; cf. 33–54). In tracing this shift from hierarchical patriarchal privilege to horizontal individual rights, a “fraternal” model that continues to exclude women (Pateman 3), its anonymous author (probably Judith Drake) determines,
As the World grew more Populous, and Mens Necessities whetted their Inventions, so it increas’d their Jealousie, and sharpen’d their Tyranny over us, till by degrees, it came to that height of Severity, I may say Cruelty, it is now at in all the Eastern parts of the World, where the Women, like our Negroes, in our Western Plantations, are born slaves, and live Prisoners all their Lives. (21–22; cf. Jones 210)
As Vivien Jones in Women in the Eighteenth Century comments, by “using a recurrent analogy with anti-slavery arguments . . ., the writer points out the hypocrisy of a legal system based on rights of liberty and property which are denied to half the population” (194).
Astell’s juvenilia includes a poem linking her nascent feminism to Christian proselytizing: “How shall I be a Peter or a Paul?/ That to the Turk and Infidel,/ I might the joyfull tydings tell,/ And spare no labour to convert them all:/ But ah my Sex denies me this” (Perry 61).
Moira Ferguson, in Subject to Others: British Women Writers and Colonial Slavery, similarly adduces the Defence as an instance of “extra-colonial expropriations of the language of slavery” (22; cf. 24). She extends this argument in Colonialism and Gender Relations from Mary Wollstonecraft to Jamaica Kincaid, concluding,
By theorizing about women’s rights using old attributions of harem-based slavery in conjunction with denotations of colonial slavery, Wollstonecraft was a political pioneer, fundamentally altering the definition of rights and paving the way for a much wider cultural dialogue. (33)
By contrast, I maintain that Wollstonecraft in her evocation of “harem-based slavery” consolidates the model of feminist orientalism promoted by the Defence. As I have demonstrated, such “anti-slavery arguments,” to return to Jones’s terminology, when applied to the Islamic as opposed to the transatlantic case, encapsulate the orientalism associated with emerging liberal feminism, which articulated its goal of expanded property rights for “freeborn Englishwoman” through the negative foil of those women who “are born slaves” in the “Eastern parts of the World.” As such, the Defence merely transfers the orientalist fallacies of earlier male travel writers into an anglocentric feminist framework. It does not offer the “transcultural perspective” Zonana recommends, following contemporary Islamic and Third World feminists (595). Hence, it is misleading for Ferguson to conflate her analysis of “British Women Writers and Colonial Slavery, 1670–1834” with the core thesis of Edward Said’s Orientalism, as she does in her epigraph to Subject to Others.15 Rather, the references in An Essay in Defence of the Female Sex to eastern despotism and “our Negroes” highlight the ambivalence rooted in the historical conditions of late seventeenth-century England.16 On the one hand, as Nabil Matar has demonstrated in studies such as Turks, Moors, and
15 Ferguson’s epigraph to Subject to Others—“Slaves speak ‘through and by virtue of the European imagination’”—quotes Said’s Orientalism, 56, but elides the original subject of the sentence, which was “Asia” as represented in the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus’s The Persians (472 BCE). 16 Ferguson distinguishes between what she calls “Barbary Coast slavery” and “British colonial slavery” (Subject 11; cf. 14–15), although her sources are all from the mid-eighteenth century and later (15–18). Her intervention into the study of British women and slavery was innovative and remains crucial. My critique of the limits of her analysis thus constitutes an extension of her groundbreaking work.
Islam, Women, and Western Responses
Englishmen in the Age of Discovery and Britain and Barbary, 1589– 1689, the slavery of English men and women still had currency in the Islamic world during this era; on the other hand, the model of racial slavery St. Clair Drake documents in Black Folk Here and There concurrently emerged to support England’s accelerating imperialist project. In vacillating between these imperialist registers, the Defence establishes its feminism by positioning the imagined slavery of Muslim wives and the actual slavery of Africans in the “New World” in diametrical opposition to the claims of English women who sought greater access to the liberties associated with individual ownership. Rather than advancing a comparative feminist critique of global male supremacy, then, the writer of the Defence allies herself with the orientalism of her countrymen to advance the imperialist thrust of English feminism. The Genealogy of Feminist Orientalism: Eighteenth-Century Developments The feminist orientalist opposition between Turkish women’s “natural” slavery and the “unnatural” constraints English patriarchy placed on ostensibly “freeborn” English women was reiterated in polemical, literary, and legal texts from the end of the seventeenth century through the eighteenth century. For instance, in the same year as the aforementioned Defence, Elizabeth Johnson prefaced the anonymous Poems on Several Occasions (1696) with the declaration,
We complain, and we think with reason, that our Fundamental Constitutions are destroyed; that here’s a plain and an open design to render us meer Slaves, perfect Turkish Wives, without Properties, or Sense, or Souls; and are forc’d to Protest against it, and appeal to all the World, whether these are not notorious Violations on the Liberties of Free-born English Women?” (sig. a3; cf. Jones 144–45)
Preceding this feminist orientalist assertion is a reference to the debate that had persisted in the West for millennia, based on classical and patristic pronouncements, as to whether women had souls: “nay, when some of ‘em won’t let us say our Souls are our own, but wou’d perswade us we are no more Reasonable Creatures
then themselves, or their Fellow-Animals” (sig. a2v).17 Yet, the preface does not condemn the disabilities of the western tradition, but displaces them onto an imaginary “orient,” which defines feminist orientalism. This displacement of “the source of patriarchal oppression onto an ‘Oriental,’ ‘Mahometan’ society, enabling British readers to contemplate local problems without questioning their own self-definition as Westerners and Christians,” is epitomized by Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which to reiterate is considered “the founding text of Western liberal feminism” (Zonana 593, 599). In one of her several negative references to Islam, Wollstonecraft declares,
Thus Milton describes our first frail mother; though when he tells us that women are formed for softness and sweet attractive grace, I cannot comprehend his meaning, unless, in the true Mahometan strain, he meant to deprive us of souls, and insinuate that we were beings only designed by sweet attractive grace, and docile blind obedience, to gratify the senses of man when he can no longer soar on the wing of contemplation. (19; cf. 10, 29)
Strikingly, this orientalist fallacy persists in the editorial gloss to the widely distributed Norton critical edition of Wollstonecraft’s Vindication (2nd ed., 1988): “Islam (the religion whose chief prophet was Mohammed) did not allow women to go to heaven and denied them souls” (19n2). By contrast, Montagu, centuries earlier, clarified: “our vulgar notion that they [Muslims] do not own women to have any souls is a mistake” (100). While she wrongly states in this letter that paradise from an Islamic perspective is closed to women, in a subsequent letter she corrects herself, “’tis certainly false, though commonly believed in our parts of the world, that Mohammed excludes women from any share in a future happy state” (109). Still not completely clear about Islamic doctrine on this matter, she describes, although perhaps tongue-in-cheek, a paradise in which wives are separated from their husbands, with the suggestion: “the most part of them [the wives!] won’t like it the worse for that” (110). Yet as Islamic feminists today have underscored, in contrast to the still current
For a record (and a refutation) of the popular view that persisted in the West for millennia that women have no souls, see Nolan.
Islam, Women, and Western Responses
Western stereotype of “Mahomet’s paradise” as a place of sensual pleasures for males only, the Qur’an presents numerous descriptions of paradise inclusive of women and men equally (Wadud 44-61). Astonishingly, treatments of “postcolonial Islam” must still assert that “Islam, unlike the belief widespread in Christendom for so long, never asserted that ‘women have no souls’” (Majid 111). To return to the early modern roots of these persistent, and pernicious, fallacies, in the legal sphere, The Hardships of the English Laws in Relation to Wives (1735) juxtaposes “the Privilege of the Free-born Subjects of England” (1; cf. Jones 217), within which category the author includes “his Majesty’s faithful Female subjects” (2; cf. Jones 217), with the alleged despotism of the “Grand Seignior [or Ottoman sultan] in his Seraglio [or imperial harem]”(3; cf. Jones 218).18 This passage continues,
since supposing a Man no Christian [she is referring to the rise of Deism in England], he may be as Despotick (excepting the Power over Life itself) as the Grand Seignior in his Seraglio, with this Difference only, that the English Husband has but one Vassal to treat according to his variable Humour, whereas the Grand Seignior having many, it may be supposed, that some of them, at some Times, may be suffered to be at quiet. (3–4; cf. Jones 218)
With this twist, the author suggests that polygamy in the Ottoman sultan’s harem might give some wives a respite from husbandly despotism, whereas English women receive the brunt of their husband’s capriciousness in their monogamous marriages. Still, the Muslim woman is assumed to be the benchmark for oppression of wives, with the English woman’s condition a deviation from what should be her liberty as a “Free-born English wife” (11). But the cases this treatise adduces show that “the Estate of Wives is more disadvantagious than Slavery itself” under English common law (4; cf. Jones 218), where they lack privacy, property, and other fundamental civil rights. In addition to recognizing Muslim women’s inalienable right to maintain and manage their own property, whether as
18 Ç0rakman locates the emergence of the “oriental despot” stereotype at the turn of the eighteenth century; Peirce details the realities, versus the western fantasies, of the Ottoman imperial harem established in the sixteenth century.
wages, inheritance, or the required dowry (mahr), which the husband provided the wife, Montagu was amazed at the right to privacy that Muslim wives were afforded. As she records, “the Grand Signor himself, when a pasha [a high ranking member of the Ottoman ruling class] is executed, never violates the privileges of the harem (or women’s apartment) which remains unsearched entire to the widow” (72). Yet, when The Hardships of the English Laws in Relation to Wives challenges this commonplace, which we have seen early seventeenth-century male travel writers promoted, that “England is the Paradise of Women” (45), she does so by contrasting the inherent despotism of “the Grand Seignior . . . in Turkey” with the ideal of English liberty (46), despite the fact “that England is also, the Paradise of Men, no Subjects enjoying such invaluable Privileges as they do here”(45–46). Such are the contradictions of feminist orientalism. In the literary sphere, which offered a unique space for English women’s agency¸—as Katherine Rogers points out, “despite this increasing recognition [during the eighteenth century] that women had to have better opportunities for supporting themselves, the only profession that actually developed for them was writing” (21)—the trope of “harem slave” also persisted as a foil. Popular writers such as Penelope Aubin and Eliza Haywood, who “was averaging a novel every three months through the 1720s” (Ballaster 103), based their success on the “female captivity narrative or narratives about white women living as captives in Islamic harems.” As Diane Long Hoeveler continues, such narratives “constituted a way of refusing to address forms of racial, social, and sexual discrimination that were actually endemic within the body of Europe itself” (50). Similarly, Susanna Centlivre, one of the most successful playwrights of the era, with two of her plays among the “four non-Shakespearian comedies written before 1750 . . . still being regularly performed” at the end of the nineteenth century (Pearson 202), hinged her plots on the “Liberties of an English wife” as opposed to eastern, and especially Islamic, gender oppression (Centlivre 103). She thus confirms the tendency to articulate feminist demands through orientalist discourses.19 Commenting on this proliferation of
For an astute analysis of Centlivre’s articulation of liberalism and feminism, see Kreis-Schinck 71–82, 179–86.
Islam, Women, and Western Responses
female writers in the eighteenth century, John Duncombe in The Feminiad (1754) also uses orientalist comparisons, as when he juxtaposes “the freeborn sons of Britain’s polish’d isle” with “that dreary plain,/ In loathsome pomp, where eastern tyrants reign,/ Where each fair neck the yoke of slav’ry galls,/ Clos’d in a proud seraglio’s gloomy walls,/ And taught, that level’d with the brutal kind,/ Nor sense, nor souls to women are assign’d” (8; cf. Jones 171). Hence, while Hannah Cowley’s play, A Day in Turkey (1792, 2nd ed.), might countenance a conservative brand of feminist agency in the harem (Garcia 221–63), it is finally Wollstonecraft’s Vindication, epitomizing “the fullest explicit feminist orientalist perspective,” that determined the course of mainstream anglocentric feminism in subsequent centuries (Zonana 599). In summary, the persistent fallacy of Muslim women’s inherent oppression vis-à-vis Western women’s natural freedom has led modern scholars of feminism in eighteenth-century England to dismiss Montagu’s understanding of Muslim women’s rights— which, we have seen, far exceeded English women’s rights—as “perverse” rather than based on historical realities. In Rogers’s words, “Of course she must have realized that this was a frivolous proof of liberty and that Turkish women were even more restricted and less valued than English ones” (94; cf. 4). But it is just this fallacy, as we shall see, that blinds western women to their own disabilities, which continue to this day despite the dogma that Western women are “the luckiest . . . in the world” (Hunt 1).20 The Contemporary Relevance of Early Modern Investigations So where does this understanding of the historical roots of feminist orientalism leave us today? At the most basic level, after engaging this genealogy, we can no longer unthinkingly accept the cliché that Muslim women are inherently oppressed and
As Erickson details, “In the twentieth century all overt legal restrictions have been removed, and yet women as a group remain at a profound economic, social and political disadvantage. Women today predominate among those receiving income support or welfare from the state—at the identical rate that they predominated in the seventeenth century among those in receipt of parish poor relief. And an equivalent proportion of the poor then and now are single mothers, although the causes of their singleness have shifted. Women today earn only about two thirds of what men earn. But women have earned approximately two thirds of men’s wages for the last seven centuries” (3).
Western women (especially American women) are the “freest” in the world. Such stereotypes, I want to underscore, not only impact women in the Muslim world (as well as Muslim women in the West), but they stymie the efforts of Western women as a whole to achieve gender equity in their patriarchal societies. To cite a significant instance, historian Leila Ahmed in her groundbreaking study of Women and Gender in Islam addressees the nineteenth-century suffrage movement, which overlapped with the height of Western European imperialism in the Middle East, to show how the Western feminist alliance with orientalism—what she calls “colonial feminism”—ultimately served to disable Western women (151). As Ahmed documents, the very colonial officials (at the time, exclusively male) who enforced the notion that women in the Islamic world must abandon their religion and culture to be liberated simultaneously waged a vicious battle against women in their home countries who were fighting for the vote (153). Yet Western feminists then—and now—shared the assumption that Muslim women must abandon their religion and culture to be liberated. As a result, when Western feminists align themselves with patriarchal orientalist views, they—wittingly or not—participate in a colonial project that restricts the freedom of all women, including themselves. To cite an instance even closer to home, and with which I’ll conclude, I’d like to share an incisive response to an earlier presentation of the historical material I’ve covered here. In March 2004, during Women’s History Month at the University of Texas at San Antonio, I discussed the genealogy of the “feminist orientalist” fallacy that Muslim women are inherently oppressed and Western women are the “freest” women in the world with an audience that consisted primarily of students from a large “Introduction to Women and Gender Studies” class.21 Professor Marian Aitches, an audience member who regularly teaches in the Women’s Studies program, brought to the attention of the class the otherwise ignored irony of the major news story of the month as only one of the many contemporary instances of “feminist orientalism.” If you
I thank Professor Kirsten Gardner, Department of History, University of Texas at San Antonio, for inviting me to speak to her class in March 2004. I also thank Professor Bindu Malieckal for inviting me to present a version of this article at the Center for Religion and Public Life, Saint Anselm College, February 2008.
Islam, Women, and Western Responses
recall, at this time, media pundits were praising the “progress” of Muslim women who were being guaranteed, apparently due to American pressure, 23% of the seats in Afghanistan’s governing body and 25% in Iraq’s (Dale A19). Muslim women, asserted the mainstream Western media, were being “saved” from the oppression of Islamic law by the more liberal West. Yet, as Professor Aitches pointed out, this percentage would be a vast improvement on the representation of women in the governing bodies of the United States, where women at the time occupied only 14% of the seats!22 Zillah Eisenstein, in Against Empire: Feminisms, Racism, and the West, documents these discrepancies in further detail, showing how President Bush and his administration, with full complicity of the mainstream media, “called for women’s rights in Afghanistan while he eliminated several federal offices charged with protecting women’s interests here at home” (171).23 “Feminist orientalism,” still a fundamental feature of our political unconscious, thus continues to blind us to our own disabilities as Western women even as we are led to believe that Muslim women are inherently more oppressed. Works Cited
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For corroboration, see “Women Revel in Taste of Freedom.” For further details, see Eisenstein, Sexual Decoys, 120–21.
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