- Women’s Writing and Muslim Societies: The Search for Dialogue, 1920–Present by Sharif Gemie
Sharif Gemie, a modern historian by training, wades more explicitly into the waters of cultural studies, postcolonial studies, and the study of travel writing as she tackles a corpus of 100 texts by women writers. She sets out to explore cross-cultural transfer, its successes and failures, as seen through autobiographies, travel writings, and memoirs written by women who engage with questions of identity, culture, and women’s relationships through the unifying theme of rapprochements with Islam and Muslim communities, and countries. This engagement is bound by time—starting after World War I (1920) and ending in the contemporary period. The strength of this work lies in Gemie’s ability to control the [End Page 133] corpus, to guide the reader through the morass of texts as she explores how these women define themselves as writers, how they engage with their interlocutors, and how they represent their ideas to their readers. Its shortcomings lie in the difficulty of providing depth in the reading of any one text and in the inability of readers unfamiliar with them to gain a clear sense of direction about how to critically evaluate the substantive differences among them in terms of bias, analytical rigor, and even general readability. Gemie herself identifies the somewhat disappointing result she gleans from her project when she suggests, “In a sense, this book analyses a series of mistakes and failures” (5). However, she also hopes that it can help provide readers with how “new ideas concerning dialogue might be constructed” (6).
Certain popular and/or controversial texts, such as Betty Mah-moody’s Not Without my Daughter, Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, Hirsi Ali’s The Caged Virgin, and Deborah Rodriguez’s Kabul Beauty School, rise to the forefront of the author’s discussions throughout the work while others mentioned in the list of 100 texts do not seem to appear at all. Gemie suggests that she has limited her works to non-fiction first-person narratives and those that have a concern for the “condition of Muslim society question” as well as those with a “truth-claim.” While the travel-oriented texts are most often written by Western women, mostly Christian with the exception of a few Western Muslim women and converts to Islam, Gemie suggests that at least half of the texts she consults are by Muslim women in and from Muslim communities. She thus breaks down often artificial barriers erected to differentiate among different types of women who write about Muslim cultures and communities. However, given the typology for works she includes, it is hard to explain the absence of key works that seem to fit these categories such as Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Leila Ahmed’s A Border Passage.
Gemie moves through her book by drawing on works in a roughly chronological order in each chapter but through a different lens with each pass. She starts with a reading of genre (“Travellers’ Tales: a Typology”), of author (“Author and Self”), and of theoretical approach (“The Politics of Time and Space: A Fractured Modernity”); she then moves to issues of gender (“Voyages in Manistan: the Female Traveller and the Secret Woman”) and religion (“Islam: Return Journeys”). What Gemie gains from casting such a wide net is a relatively large set of data points [End Page 134] from which she can make some critical and interesting generalizations. However, due to the sheer number of works, even informed readers would benefit from some type of critical apparatus to serve as a guide to the texts.
Overall, some of Gemie’s more interesting conclusions include her identification of a trajectory among the texts and changing attitudes toward Muslim cultures and peoples as seen through the works of Western travelers. She starts with women who travel from West to East early in the twentieth century, women who can loosely be defined as upper-class Orientalist female travelers—women confident of their place in their own...