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British Women Travellers And The Harems: Liberties, Enslavement and Domesticity

This thesis examines the complex perspective of a woman traveller. Wortley Montagu, Martineau, Burton and their contemporaries, represented the harem through various lenses. The Oriental harem has fascinated Western civilization since time immemorial. This sacred place, reserved for the women and children of the Muslim household, had long been a terra incognita to British outsiders, until the publication of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s (1689-1762) Turkish Embassy Letters (1763), which gave impetus to a whole tradition of travel writings, particularly harem accounts, penned by British women. The aristocratic Wortley Montagu recasts Turkish women from their previous Western image as over-sexed and soulless beings to idealized domestic goddesses, living in an ideal world, the harem. Harriet Martineau(1802-1876) , travelled to the Ottoman Empire more than a century after Wortley Montagu’s residency in Oriental lands. Martineau was a rare talent. She was an accomplished journalist and a pioneering figure in Western sociology. She spent her life validating a place for herself and her sex in a patriarchal and male-dominated society; she earned her own keeping, and lived independently. Martineau related her eastern experience in Eastern Life: Past and Present (1848), in which the Oriental harem figures very little. Martineau pitied the women she encountered in Egypt, and depicted them as slaves of a corrupt system, the harem and the practice of polygamy. My thesis ends with the travel writings of Lady Isabel Burton (1831-1896) whose view of the Oriental women she met in Syria is the most tempered. Her Inner Life of Syria, Palestine and the Holy Lands: from my Private Journal (1875) displays a tolerance of other cultures and a move toward moral and cultural relativisms. Each of the women considered in this thesis formed her own harem, projecting on to this distant Oriental structure her fears, hopes and desires. Wortley Montagu’s harem was a utopia for women only. The Victorian Martineau opined that the Oriental harem was a hell on earth. Lady Isabel Burton constructed a happy medium between the two. Although at times ambivalent towards the Syrian women she encountered, she partook in their customs and manners, particularly public bathing, smoking and other Eastern indulgences. Her attitude illustrates that the British home and the Oriental harem are not so dissimilar, bridging the gap between us and them.
Type of thesis
Ammar, H. (2013). British Women Travellers And The Harems: Liberties, Enslavement and Domesticity (Thesis, Master of Arts (MA)). University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10289/8463
University of Waikato
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