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Turkish women freer ‘than we believe’

Ethnic prejudice can lead to hilarious ironies.

In an earlier post, I wrote about the orientalist ideas of many Europeans (and European Americans, Australians, etc.), and specifically about the idea that the Islamic world is characterised by its oppression of women. In that post, I quoted an eighteenth-century English visitor to Turkey who experienced an ironic reversal of this oppression: she was the one who was being seen as oppressed by her Turkish hosts.

In this post, we move forward one century, to 1842 Constantinople, or Istanbul. In that year, the Austrian traveller Ida Pfeiffer made a remarkable solo journey to Jerusalem, one that she had to work hard to defend to worried compatriots at home. However, Pfeiffer herself was not devoid of prejudice. (And note that apart from religious contradictions, political conflict also played a role in Austrian preconceptions about the Near East: the Austrian and Ottoman empires had been waging war for centuries.) Let me illustrate this with the help of the following scene.

idapfeifferaquarel

Adolf Dauthage, Ida Pfeiffer, 1858 (portraying a later journey)

In Constantinople, Ida Pfeiffer pays a visit to a mosque where she hopes to see a show of whirling dervishes (still popular among tourists today!). Waiting for the ceremony to start, she whiles away the time in the mosque’s garden together with several hundred other, more local women.

The women are sitting in small groups, chatting and eating pastry and dried fruits. Here, as in other parts of her travel account, Pfeiffer is fascinated by the cultural practices of the veil. She notes that in this dedicated women’s court, all have removed their white veil because the space is inaccessible to men. But what really strikes Pfeiffer is that

with divine zest, the women [a]re smoking a pipe of tobacco, and on the side they are slurping from a bowl of black coffee.

In this same period, ‘respectable’ women in Christian Europe were not expected to indulge in these pleasures, even if they were not officially forbidden.

The abolitionist Ida Pfeiffer is also wary about the existence of slavery in the Near East. In the same mosque garden, Pfeiffer assesses the relation between the ‘ladies […], their children and their nurses, who are all negro-slaves.’ Yet she finds that

the fate of the slave in the house of a Muslim is far from being so oppressive, as we believe.

The ‘we’, of course, speaks to the orientalism of her imagined readers in Austria, Germany, and the rest of Christian Europe.

Sitting in the garden, she observes how well-dressed the enslaved nurses are. They

sit among the rest of the party and munch away bravely with the rest of them. Only the colour of the face distinguishes mistress from servant.

The point I want to make is not about the living conditions of enslaved women in nineteenth-century Turkey – there is hardly any telling from this text, and since all she bases herself on is ‘the colour of the face’, Pfeiffer might even be completely misinterpreting the situation. Rather, it is about the traveller’s eye.

Clearly, Ida Pfeiffer is sufficiently capable to allow her observations to override her prejudices, and sufficiently brave to publish these observations in a book at home. Not all travellers are good at these things, and certainly no one manages to keep them up all the time (this includes Pfeiffer). But in this case, Pfeiffer saw the irony of encountering a set of women – the ladies in the garden -, in a country suspected of doing nothing but harm to women, that was in some respects freer than she could ever be at home.

dauthagepfeifferfull

Pfeiffer’s skirt looks like she can lower it to hide her trousers when required.

Reise einer Wienerin in das Heilige Land can be read online. I have quoted from p. 28, with my own translation. A nineteenth-century English translation is available from the Gutenberg project.

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Turkish women shocked at restrictive British clothing

Orientalising images of women’ s clothing are common enough. But how about occidentalist views?

A photo of an Egyptian street scene, taken by the European G. Lekegian & Co. This photo is easily interpreted in an orientalist frame, denying the women on the wagon any agency. I know little about Egyptian life around 1900, but perhaps these women were just taking the bus? (collection Rijksmuseum Prentenkabinet)

Many Europeans and North-Americans regard Muslim women who wear a veil with an orientalist eye. This means that they see them as specimens from outlandish and traditionalist Asian and north-African cultures that differ fundamentally from their own. Often, these women are regarded as the victims of Muslim men, who are thought either to force them to wear a veil, or against whom they would need their veil as a symbolic protection. (But see this interesting short documentary from Pakistan.)

Such European orientalist interpretations of cultures in North Africa, Asia, and indeed south-eastern Europe itself, stretch back several centuries.

Now from 1716 to 1718, as this orientalism was gaining ground, a wealthy English woman made a famous journey to south-eastern Europe. Mary Wortley Montagu joined her husband on a diplomatic and trade mission to the Ottoman Empire. In Sofia, then part of this empire, she visited a bath house. (The beautiful public baths still existing in Sofia all seem to be much younger, from around 1900.)

A bath house scene from a manuscript of Zenannâme  (The Book of Women) by the satirical Ottoman writer Enderûnlu Fâzıl (now in the University of Istanbul; repro from Wikimedia).

A bath-house scene from a manuscript of Zenannâme (The Book of Women) by the satirical Ottoman writer Enderûnlu Fâzıl, late 18th century. Now in the University of Istanbul; reprod. from Wikimedia.

Montagu noted three things while there. First: the women were ‘stark naked’ and presented a beautiful sight; a sight, she suggested, as one might see on an Italian Renaissance painting. Second: for the women, the bath house fulfilled the social function of a coffee-house. Third: the women did not mock Montagu’s foreign habits, as western-European women would have done, but welcomed her politely.

I was in my travelling habit, which is a riding dress, and certainly appeared very extraordinary to them. Yet there was not one of them that shewed the least surprise or impertinent curiosity, but received me with all the obliging civility possible. I know no European court, where the ladies would have behaved themselves in so polite a manner to such a stranger. I believe, upon the whole, there were two hundred women, and yet none of those disdainful smiles, and satirical whispers, that never fail in our assemblies, when any body appears that is not dressed exactly in the fashion. They repeated over and over to me; “Uzelle, pek uzelle,” which is nothing but, Charming, very Charming. (Letter xxvi from the collection she edited after her return to England, published online by Jack Lynch.)

Nevertheless, the Sofia women demonstrated a slight streak of reverse ‘orientalism’, that is, occidentalism.

They tried to convince Montagu to join them in their bath. But Montagu found it only self-evident that, as an Englishwoman, she could not expose herself. She excused herself – in vain. In the end, she stripped up to her stays.

probably North American

Stays, c. 1750-60, probably North American

This had the desired effect.

they believed I was locked up in that machine, and that it was not in my own power to open it, which contrivance they attributed to my husband

The Sofia women easily convinced themselves, it seems, that she had been ‘locked up’ in her stays by her husband. Pityingly, they allowed her to keep her clothes on.