936) Orientalism a Mere Fantasy

Westerners learned about the Ottoman Empire from the books of orientalist writers. These were exaggerated articles, especially about the harem. Reina Lewis opens a new window to orientalism in her book entitled, “Rethinking Orientalism.”

Western orientalists have said much about the East and the Ottoman Empire. These books and articles, generally written from the male perspective, failed to reach the essence of life in the East.

Thoughts that have nothing to do with the East have been discussed so far as a result of this. Oriental discourses from the points of view of Western men attracted attention and writings embellishing Eastern women and harem life with mysticism emerged. The book “Rethinking Orientalism: Women, Travel, and the Ottoman Harem” opens a new window to orientalism with an unusually objective point of view. . . .

The East never intended to describe itself but the West, in a determinacy peculiar to itself, wanted to understand and interpret the East through its own values, which at times paved the way for misunderstanding and alienating the East. Reina Lewis appears as a Western writer, taking pains in dealing with the classical orientalism paradigm again with a point of view free from the characteristics attributed to the East. The author allows the women in Ottoman society as well as those who acquired a new identity with the founding of the Republic to express themselves in her book.

Mentioning the charm of the word “harem” and its influence on the reader, Lewis introduces us to Zeyneb Hanum, Melek Hanum, Demetra Vaka Brown, Halide Edip and Grace Ellison in her book.

Translated into Turkish by Beyhan Uygun-Aytemiz and Seyda Basli, the book develops an interdisciplinary approach dealing with the Ottoman women’s role as a social and cultural conveyor and intends to interfere in the discussions on the value and limits of orientalism from a few aspects. Its focus on the sources, which have a woman’s point of view, adds a new element to the existing challenges against the written histories of orientalism from a man’s viewpoint. Introducing Ottoman sources has also offered an example of the “domestic” cultural conveyance which shows the other face of the classical orientalism paradigm. The fact that these sources belong to Ottoman women is of special importance; they express a practice of resistance, including the differences between communal sexuality and ethnicity.

The book mentions the intersection of the lives of famous French orientalist Pierre Loti, and those of Zeyneb Hanum and Melek Hanum as well as the writings of these women educated in the Western system.

The book also deals with the identity of Demetra Vaka Brown, known as “the daughter of the East,” her place in the Ottoman society and the events that lead to her writing career. In the book, we meet Halide Edip Adivar, another author Turkish readers are familiar with, who was one of the most important female figures of the Turkish War of Independence. We read about her place and influence in both political and literary life.

Grace Ellison, who met Halide Edip, is a woman we see as a fervent supporter of Turkish nationalism. In her book, where she tries to deal with orientalism from a women’s angle, Reina Lewis also mentions the Ottoman Empire’s Westernization movement starting with the Tanzimat reforms.The changes in women’s lives during this movement are also dealt with.During the changes in cultural life caused by this Westernization process, the Ottoman Empire came face to face with the Balkan wars on the one hand and World War I on the other.The author witnesses the fall of the Ottoman Empire, mentions the Turkish Republic founded by Mustafa Kemal and the modernization process that followed in her book.

Who is the Eastern woman?

Trying to give an answer to this question, the author discusses the woman’s place in both the Ottoman period and the Turkish Republic. Studies on women’s rights as well as the roles undertaken especially by the main female characters of the book are also mentioned in the work. The era when big steps were taken in the modernization process with changes in women’s clothing and the place of the veil pushing women to private life in the harem are also dealt with by Lewis.

We discussed orientalism, the harem and women in light of all these points.

1-What do you think about the evaluations that western orientalists have made about Ottoman Empire so far?

In the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, the period I cover in ‘Rethinking Orientalism’, the West tended to view the Ottoman Empire through the lens of Orientalism – ie. They conceptualized a binary division between east and west in which the west was generally felt to be superior. This was not an absolute rule, but there was a widespread cultural tendency to see the east as inferior, so that even if it was found to be enticingly exotic, the factors that made the east seem so interesting were also those that made it barbaric, or savage, or uncivilized. The stereotype of the secluded, oppressed, and sexualized women of the Islamic harem was emblematic of this imagined divide between east and west: where the west could be coded as moral, democratic, rational, the east could be regarded as corrupt, sexualized and despotic.

2-The West felt the need to understand and evaluate the East with its own values. What was influential, do you think, in this?

Yes, the impact of Orientalist ways of thinking was very influential. The west’s tendency to see the east as the less civilized underwrote imperial foreign policy and colonial administration in western colonial territories. In relation to the Ottoman empire, Ottomans themselves were well aware that western misconceptions about Ottoman society influenced popular attitudes and government policy.

3-Especially the masculine orientalist expressions drew attention and a lot of articles depicting the women in Harem life’s mysticism were written. What did this masculine point of view prevented to emerge?

The typical Orientalist stereotype about the harem coded the harem as a sexualized space, often more like a sexual prison or brothel than a space of family life. The harem was pictured as space out of time, frozen into apathy, with women waiting listlessly for the arrival of the sultan. There was a tendency to present the harem as an imperial space, and the position the man of the house as a sultan or despot – in keeping with western critiques of Ottoman or Oriental rule as the unjust and unregulated opposite of western rational governance. So the image of the harem woman was not so much about her reality as about western projections: projections that were to do with western concerns about politics (forms of government) and sexuality (because the harem was inevitably conceptualized as polygamous, something that was morally repugnant to the west but endlessly enticing).

It is important to remember that these masculine representations of the harem were fantasy not reality, not only because western men could never enter a harem, but also because their attitudes to it were colored by their local concerns (which changed over time) and informed by Orientalist knowledge and presumptions.

4-In your book, you separate an important role to Ottoman women and let them tell about themselves. This is an exceptional point of view. Why did you need to do so?

I wanted to find sources in which Ottoman women represented their own lives because these would, I hoped, present an antidote to western Orientalist stereotypes. All the sources I studied were written in English, they were not works of translation, and as such they represent a targeted intervention by Ottoman women into western Orientalist discourse. In my previous book ‘Gendering Orientalism’ (1996), I had revealed paintings by western women artists who visited the harems of the east in order to point out that western Orientalism was not monolithic but that were within it challenging and competing points of view. Western women tended, for example, to show harems as domestic spaces, populated by women and children – as a social realm, that is, not an isolated sexual prison.

Finding books by Ottoman women allowed me to extend this argument by showing that women in the elite harems of the last decades of the empire were living lives quite unlike the stereotypes still held in the minds of the west. Elite women, increasingly literate thanks to Tanzimat education developments, wrote about lives that were modern and engaged. By bringing their work back into circulation I wanted to show that women coded as ‘oriental’ were in fact able to intervene in western cultural codes with great sophistication – they knew what they were up against and they knew what they wanted to say. But I also wanted to deal with their books as cultural commodities – artifacts that came into being in particular circumstances, their publications received commissions because there was a market for harem literature in the west made possible by the very Orientalist curiosity that they sought to challenge. I also wanted to be sure to discuss their books as cultural representation – they are mediated literary sources, not transparent inscriptions of truth. They do tell us a lot about how a section of Ottoman society lived, sure, but they also reveal something of the difficulties of writing in a foreign language and in a transculturated literary genre.

5-You try to go out of the boundaries by re-examining the classical orientalist paradigms and you accept this as a mission for yourself. Why, do you think, a western writer would choose this difficult and torturing way?

I didn’t’ find it ‘torturing’ though it was difficult! My motivation in doing this was partly because I am interested in how gender and race or ethnicity play out today. I think that looking at examples from the past can tell us a lot about how gender as a constructed category (how one is made into a ‘woman’ or a ‘man’) changes over time and is bound up in other forms of social differentiation. In other words, to be a woman is also radicalized in particular historically specific ways. In relation to the Ottoman empire, I wanted to turn the tables: so much work on western orientalism has focused on the image of the ‘oriental’ woman, but little has paid attention to how women coded as oriental might represent themselves. The authors I studied were not only representing themselves for a local audience (who they knew also read their work) but for the west – specifically challenging western stereotypes at the same time as they wanted to intervene in local/Ottoman debates about female emancipation. I also wanted to challenge the idea that segregated women were living entirely outside the public domain by demonstrating the extent to which Ottoman women were engaged in cultural activities and constituted their own public, in their political campaigns, writing, and cultural activities that reached other women in the region and women and men beyond.

6- Why did the word “Harem” drew attention that much in the western world?

The harem was the pivot of the orientalist fantasy and anything that harem in the title would sell. Even those authors who wanted to challenge harem stereotypes, like the English feminist Grace Ellison, knew that using the word in their titles would attract readers. Even if readers bought the book for the ‘wrong’ reasons, authors hoped they would learn something new. For women authors, and artists, the harem was a special selling point: since no man could enter a harem, all men’s accounts could be invalidated as imaginary. For western women, their access to the harem meant that they had something unique to report. For women who had grown up in segregated society, their experiences were doubly valuable – even if they had always to challenge western expectations.

7- Who, do you think, an Eastern woman?

Who is an Eastern woman? Well, it depends on the period and the definition you are using. In the years before the end of the empire, I would take the term Ottoman to describe the social identities of Halide Edib, Zeyneb Hanim and also Demetra Vaka Brown – since Demetra Vaka as a Greek from Constantinople/Istanbul saw herself as an Ottoman, though not at Turk. Once the republic commenced this identification ceased to be possible, so that whereas Halide Edib could transfer to identification as Turkish, Vaka Brown faced a more difficult sense of identity, and one that was further complicated by her residence in the USA and her marriage to an American.

8- Can you summarize the orientalism concept you derived after your long researches and studies on the topic?

I would say that now I see Orientalism as a discourse that was fractured and divided within, rather than coherent, and that was challenged by voices from outside. Ottoman women engaged with Orientalism in ways that were contestatory, and multi-faceted forging their own adaptive sense of regional modernity as they sought to create opportunities for female cultural and political participation.

Ali Pektas
August 17, 2006


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