- Unveiling the Harem: Elite Women and the Paradox of Seclusion in Eighteenth-Century Cairo by Mary Ann Fay
Mary Ann Fay's terrific study of elite women during the Mamluk revival in Egypt is the latest in Syracuse University Press's Middle East Studies Beyond Dominant Paradigms series. Unveiling the Harem is appropriately placed in this series, as Fay uses the book's pages to take aim at and to dismantle several long-standing paradigms in the study of Middle Eastern women on the eve of modernity, in general, and in the study of 18th-century Egypt in particular. At the same time, Fay's rich comparisons of 18th-century Egypt to Europe and to the American colonies result in a greater elucidation of several understudied topics in Middle Eastern history, including race and slavery. Her work joins that of Jane Hathaway, Afaf Marsot, and, most recently, Alan Mikhail, in rescuing 18th-century Egyptian history from the morass of political chaos, factionalism, and infighting through which it has traditionally been portrayed.1 Unveiling the Harem makes the local and imperial politics of the Ottoman-Mamluk condominium accessible and comprehensible and illustrates the primacy of elite women to the consolidation of the Qazdaghli households' political and economic power.
The first and most prominent paradigm to surrender to Fay's deft analysis is the favored Orientalist fantasy of elite women trapped in the harem, prey to the tyranny and (over) sexuality of men. Fay uses waqf inheritance records and an original "reading" of a still-standing Mamluk household, Cairo's Bayt al-Razzaz, as text to demonstrate not only that Orientalists were wrong in their depictions of elite Muslim women, but also to reveal the extent to which travel writers and scholars have failed to appreciate the role of household politics in Mamluk culture. By illustrating how men, rather than women, were limited to specific spaces within the houses of the Qazdaghli households that rose to prominence over the 18 th century, and the extent to which men used domestic space to negotiate the politics of governing and alliance building, Fay gives new meaning to harem literature. Her concern is not simply to illustrate women's active roles in household management, or their access to space both inside and outside their homes. Rather her greater focus on the role of marriage in forging the fictive kinships that defined Mamluk culture suggests both that women were included in politics, [End Page 311] and that the harem was central to the political realm.
This reconfiguring of the harem allows Fay to speak to women's power rather than their submissiveness, and in so doing to challenge further paradigms. By contributing to an ongoing discussion in Middle Eastern history about women as property owners and waqf administrators, she places Mamluk women in the company of powerful men.2 By comparing Islamic law to 18th-century inheritance laws in Western Europe and the American colonies, she positions shari'a as a vehicle of women's empowerment rather than oppression. Fay's comparison of Middle Eastern forms of slavery with those of the chattel slavery practiced in the United States allows her to illustrate the differences in the two societies' understandings of slaves as persons. She also demonstrates the potential for freed slave women to rise to positions of prominence in Mamluk culture and to use their own slaves to forge marriage alliances. Such unions, she tells us, lay at the heart of a Mamluk culture that emerges from the pages of Unveiling the Harem as more cohesive than factionalized and more inclusive than exclusive of women.
Unveiling the Harem is the product of archival research, comparisons of legal systems, family structures and practices of slavery, readings of urban landscapes and domestic structures as historical texts, and close readings of travel literature. The book's ten chapters are arranged into four sections, each working to tie the harem, Mamluk culture and society, urban and domestic studies, and gender theory together. A substantial glossary makes the text...