- Rethinking Orientalism: Women, Travel and the Ottoman Harem
In this book Reina Lewis focuses on a group of women writers whose travel accounts, memoirs, and fictions offer a non-Western engagement with the stereotypes of the Oriental woman. As Lewis reminds us at the outset, stereotypes change; they are challenged and yet they also possess a flexibility that continues to structure the terms of contemporary power and oppression. "Orientalism" gathers together a series of powerful stereotypes that are fundamental to the self-construction of the Western subject as an enlightened, modern, sovereign individual understood over and against its "Other," understood as the archaic, primitive, exotic Oriental. Lewis's concern, both here and in her earlier study of women's roles in imperial culture and discourse, Gendering Orientalism: Race Femininity and Representation (1996), is to grasp how the West is constructed through its Others. This preoccupation defines the field of postcolonial criticism, emerging originally in Edward Said's groundbreaking study Orientalism (1978). And yet, as Said himself recognized in later work, it is a terrain that needs to be mapped with careful attention to specific determinations of gender, race, class, and ethnicity, and in locations where local relations and the coordinates of place and time are marked precisely and with care. It is this attention to the specific formulations of Orientalist discourse, and the ways that these are resisted and used variously, that defines Reina Lewis's scholarly project of rethinking Orientalism and building on current developments in Middle Eastern women's studies.
The series of little-known autobiographical English-language publications about segregated life by Ottoman women Halide Edib, Demetra Vaka Brown, the sisters Zeyneb Hanim and Melek Hanim, and the British author [End Page 383] Grace Ellison that Lewis focuses on here emerged early in the twentieth century. These texts are read together as a gendered counter-discourse, a politicized rewriting of Western harem literature that occurred at a time of tumultuous social and political change as the Ottoman Empire was transformed into the modern nation state of Turkey. In part, Lewis's intention is to produce a biographical study of these women that brings them alive in a "quaintly old-fashioned way" (11), and Rethinking Orientalism includes a series of photographs that do encourage this kind of engagement. However, these autobiographies and images are taken up in what is often dense and sophisticated discourse analysis. My own heavily marked-up copy of this book, scored with highlighter and pencil, records what has been a slow process of often labored reading that might well defeat some readers who would otherwise find these little-known women and this moment in Middle Eastern history fascinating in exactly the old-fashioned way Lewis desires. This is a pity, and a reflection of the fact that the mix of theoretical and biographical work required to "rethink Orientalism" in more subtle and complex ways can easily kill its subjects of attention.
Nevertheless, this is an important book that repays the effort of reading and has much to offer postcolonial and feminist scholarly work. Lewis focuses on some of the most resistant, entrenched tropes of Western Orientalist fantasy: the harem, the veil, and polygamy. These emerge again around and about us now, hideously emboldened by the "war on terror." By taking these up in a study that is meticulously attentive to the particular codifications of gender and ethnicity, Lewis means to take up the flexibility of stereotypes, and their various and contradictory social and political uses. For example, she reminds us that from Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's Embassy Letters (published posthumously in 1763) onwards, women writers have taken a culturally relativist stance to the harem, presenting Ottoman women as possessing freedoms not available to Western women, and using the harem as a way of reflecting upon Western domesticity rather than a voyeuristic sexual sphere emblematic of Oriental excess. By the mid-nineteenth century, trips to the harems of the Middle East were a staple of the tourist industry for Western women, to the point that...