Heffernan, Teresa, 1999-00. Feminism Against the East/West Divide: Lady Mary’s Turkish Embassy Letters. Eighteenth-Century Studies, vol. 33, no. 2 (1990-00) Pp. 201-215.


In 1717, Lady Mary Pierrepont journeyed to the Ottoman Empire with her husband, Edward Wortley, who had been appointed British Ambassador to the Sublime Porte but had failed miserably as a diplomat and was recalled after only fifteen months. During their brief sojourn, be attempted to negotiate peace between the Orttomans and Austrians and to safeguard British commercial and naval interests in the Levant; she kept a journal and wrote letters on Turkish culture and habits. Lady Mary upon returning to England produced an edited and polished epistolary account of her travels based on these records. Although her daughter Lady Bore burnt the journal and tried to prevent the publication of the letters, the travel narrative was finally published in 1763, a year after Lady Mary's death. The Embassy Letters were immediately popular and reprinted often to meet the demand; they also received glowing reviews from figures such as Dr. Johnson, Voltaire, and Gibbon.

Recent analysis of the letters has focused largely on the question of whether Lady Mary's letters participated in or resisted the orientalism of her day and the related issue of whether or to what extent her narrative can be read as feminist. Lisa Lowe, arguing that Edward Sid’s theory of orientalism does not take into account the heterogeneity of works on the East, reads Lady Mary's work as a specifically gendered text which makes use of an emergent feminist discourse to resist the standard Orientalist tropes about Eastern women found in many of the works of male travel writers such as Robert Withers, George Sandy, John Covel, Jean Dumont, and Aaron Hill. Despite her own lapses into the Orientalist “rhetoric of difference” that characterizes male travel writing and that produces the Occident/Orient divide, Lady Mary, Lowe argues, dissents from this dominant discourse by deploying a “rhetoric of likeness” that….


….encourages an identification with Turkish women. She Concludes: “Lady Mary employs the rhetoric of identification between women of Turkish and English courts as a means of intervening in the differentiating rhetoric of orientalism.”1

Meyda Yegenoglu, however, takes issue with Lowe's reading, suggesting that Lady Mary's work, rather than disrupting the monolithic narrative of orientalism, instead foregrounds the complicity between orientalism and Western feminism. In her travels, Yegenoglu argues, Lady Mary assumes a masculine role (a role unavailable to her in the “masculine” West), “attaches a penis to herself,” and penetrates a “feminized” East, thus complementing rather than challenging the work of the male colonist. While many of the male travelers to the Orient were frustrated by their lack of access to the space of the Eastern woman, the metonymic heart of the Orient, Lady Mary, in good colonial fashion, exposes its inner workings, thus satisfying the desire for the “truth” of the other and solidifying the position of the West as the knowing subject.2

Srinivas Aravamudan suggests that Lady Mary is far too conscious of the performative nature of writing to invest unquestioningly in such an empirical model in her travel account. It is the very model of the masquerade that Lady Mary valorizes that offers the female subject “a kind freedom that suspends truth.” Interested neither in “capturing” and possessing the Turkish woman nor in indulging the other colonialist narrative of “going native,” Lady Mary maintains a “partial identification” with aristocratic Turkish women, which allows for the possibility of a "positive Orientalist ideal" that is both “progressive and inclusionary.”3

As these debates in the scholarship suggest, it would be reductive either to dismiss Lady Mary's text as irredeemably Orientalist or to herald it as unquestionably feminist. The complicated nexus of her personal life, her role as a public figure, her blue-blood allegiances, the intellectual circle she traveled in, and her race and class biases certainly complicate any attempts to endorse her as a perfect cultural ambassador, bridging the divide between Eastern and Western women. For instance, in several letters, she celebrates the superior beauty of Turkish women, a description that leads Anita Desai to comment enthusiastically on her “extraordinary” attitude to an alien culture, and yet, at least part of this description of their beauty involves a fetishization of white skin.4 Surrounded by naked women in the Turkish bathhouse, she writes: “There were many amongst them as exactly proportioned as ever any Goddess was drawn by the pencil of Guido or Titian, and most of their skins shineingly white, only adorn'd by their Beautiful Hair divided into many tresses, hanging on their shoulders, braided either with pearl or riband, perfectly representing the figures of the Graces” (emphasis mine).5 While attending the ceremonies of a Turkish bride, again setting the stage with a classical reference to the epithalamium of Helen by the Greek pastoral poet Theocritus, she writes: “'Tis not easy to represent to you the Beauty of this sight, most of them being well proportioned and white skin'd, all of them perfectly smooth and polish'd by the frequent use of Bathing” (emphasis mine).6 Rendering the Mediterranean complexion “shineingly white” in one letter and “white skin'd” in another and overlaying the scene with classical allusions, Lady Mary, following the trend of the neoclassical eighteenth-century intellectual, claims an “idealized” ancient Greek world as the rightful origin of Enlightenment England, effacing the dark-skinned populace that inhabit and have inhabited the landscape.7


Furthermore, although consistently aware of a society that valued women as little more than chattel-from her early complaints of the marriage contract to her remarks later in life that she would “prefer liberty to a chain of diamonds”-she, nevertheless, in one letter, perhaps due to her resentment over her financial dependence on Wortley and her frustration over his failure to attain either economic or political prowess, covets Turkish women's wealth, problematically equating indulgent husbands, privilege, and pampering with freedom: “Turkish Ladies, who are (perhaps), freer than any Ladys in the universe...are the only women to live a life of uninterrupted pleasure, exempt from cares, their whole time being spent in visiting, bathing or the agreable Amusement of spending Money and inventing new fashions. A Husband would be thought mad that exacted any degree of Economy from his wife, whose expenses are no way limited but by her own fancy. 'Tis his busyness to get Money and hers to spend it, and this noble, prerogative extends it selfe to the very meanest of the Sex.”8

Yet, what I will argue in this paper, without discounting the very ambiguous and complex nature of her politics, is for one more framing that further complicates this question of orientalism and feminism in Lady Mary's letters. At the center of the divide, which, as it emerges in the eighteenth century, pits religion and tradition against reason and modernity, is the (un)veiled woman. The legacy of this Orientalist narrative underlies the troubled debates about the relationship between feminism and Islam today and, in order to address this impasse, it is necessary to investigate this reason/religion binary. Focusing on several of Lady Mary's letters t at have not been much discussed in scholarly literature, but that raise the question of the relationship between reason and Islam, as well as focusing on the more famous ones that speak of the hamman, veiling and unveiling, I will argue that Lady Mary challenges this particular Orientalist narrative, even as it is being constructed by her contemporaries, in particular Locke. By disrupting 'he foundational rhetoric of the social contract theorists that co-opts women's bodies in support of the religion/reason binary, Lady Mary releases the (un)veiled woman from her role as placeholder in the East/West divide and demonstrates, in this albeit very specific context, Gayatri Spivak's model of “speaking to the other.”9


In an episode of Cervantes's Don Quixote (1604) entitled “The Captive's Tale,” a Moorish woman and a Spaniard arrive at an inn where Don Quixote and various guests are lodged. After reassuring the guests, who are disturbed by the presence of the veiled woman, that although his companion is “Moorish ... in body and dress,” she is “in her soul ... a very good Christian,” the Spaniard begins to tell o is adventures and she is persuaded to remove her veil.10 While fighting for “his God and king” against the Turks at the battle of Lepanto (1571), the Spaniard recounts, he was captured and imprisoned in Algeria. Coming to his rescue, a wealthy Moorish woman promised to free and marry him in return for taking her to Christian lands. This woman, his traveling companion, "the most beautiful princess in the whole kingdom,” according to the Spaniard, betrayed her father, denounced her people, and charged her name from Zoraida to Maria, warning her Spanish savior “‘Do not trust….


any Moor; they are all deceitful.’”11 The Christian victory at the battle of Lepanto was, according to the Spaniard, the moment “when the insolent pride of the Ottoman's was broken for ever,” proving to “all the nations” that the Ottoman empire was penetrable; his story of this veiled woman's unveiling seems to support this claim.

As the balance of power shifts and Islam begins to lose ground, the West asserts its dominance by speaking for and producing a silenced Orient, much as the Spaniard speaks for his silent Moorish companion. Moreover, this tale of conquest and domination ' which involves the emasculation of the Eastern father and the “rescue” of the daughter, underscores a seminal change in the relations of East and West. No longer is this story just about the Christians against the infidels, as in the Crusades. Rather, Zoraida's father, on discovering his daughter's complicity in the betrayal, accuses her of joining the captive not for reasons of faith, but in order to indulge in the “immorality” of the West and to satiate “her wicked desires”: “Do not imagine that she has been moved to change her faith out of a belief that your religion is better than ours. No, it is because she knows that immorality is more freely practised in your country than in ours.”12 Caught between the captive's reading of her in terms of a sexual conquest and her father's reading of her in terms of sexual perversion, Zoraida as the (un)veiled woman is doubly silenced. This tale, ostensibly about religious difference (the daughter wants to convert to Christianity), undergoes all important shift in this scene as the religious tension between West and East is recast into its modern form. In this East/West divide, depending on which side articulates the dispute, the West's moral decay is pitted against the East's spirituality or, alternately Western freedom and reason are pitted against Eastern fundamentalism.

Despite the commercial and diplomatic alliance between Britain and Turkey (which encouraged Queen Elizabeth to solicit the help of the Sultan against the idol-worshipping Spanish), like the captive's tale, many of the earliest travel narratives about the Orient written by the merchants of the Levant Company, established in 1581, stressed the cultural divide between East and West, keeping “intact the separateness of the Orient, its eccentricity, its backwardness”13 Looking back over the life of the Company in 1893 and paying homage to its “heroic” colonial past, Theodore Bent writes in his introduction to an edition of the diaries of two early merchants (Dallam and Covel), The Levant Company, “besides the amount of wealth it accumulated for this country, did infinite service in the development of art and research, geography and travel, the suppression of slavery, and the spread of civilization ill countries which would still have been unapproachable, had not the continued efforts of the 244 years [the life of the Company] been towards civilization and humanity.”14 As a burgeoning publishing industry begins to develop around these tales of the “exotic” east in the late seventeenth century, in these narratives, like in the “Captive's Tale,” the construction of the (un)veiled woman is central to the depiction of the East as barbaric. These colonial narratives thus justified the economic domination an exploitation of foreign markets with scandalous stories that testified to the essentially, uncivilized behavior of distant neighbors. In his diary that details his travels in the Levant (1599), Thomas Dallam mentions catching a glimpse of the Signor's concubines through a grate in a “very thick wall” surrounded by “very strong iron”; lie lingers, on pain of death, over the spectacle of these bejeweled captive Women, perversely commenting that the sight “did please me wondrous well.”15 In an entry of his diary dated 23 May 1 676, John Covel tells a sordid tale about a slave of great beauty,


who is ravished by an admirer. The Sultan, overcome “with madnesse that he lost one so sweet,” beheads the man and takes the girl for his harem.16 Bon Ottaviano writes of the eleven or twelve hundred virgins that make up the Sultan's harem in his 1625 account of the Ottoman Court. He further gives details of the brutality these women faced at the hands of the Grand Seignior, claiming that in some cases the punishment involved them being bound hand and foot, put into a sack, and thrown into the sea in the dark of night. Furthermore, he tells us that these “young, lusty, lascivious wenches” are allowed radishes, cucumbers, and gourds only in slices to, prevent them from engaging in any unnatural or unclean acts.17 Robert Withers, who claimed Ottaviano's 1625 account as his own, embellished this already exaggerated and inaccurate narrative with more lurid details about life in the harem, rashly claiming to have penetrated it. Finally, Jean Dumont comments in A New Voyage to the Levant (1696) on the Sultan's wives who, he re ports, are guarded by white and black eunuchs “who never permit'em to enjoy the least Shadow of liberty.”18

These larger fictitious (given the fact that male travelers had no access to women’s quarters) and, at the very least, grossly distorted accounts of the abusive treatment of the veiled woman are standard tropes of seventeenth- and eighteenth century travel narratives to the Levant. At once voyeuristic and indignant, these travel narratives distracted attention from the gender inequities at home, presented the Orient as a place in need of rescue, and secured the idea of Europe as free, fair, and civilized. These narratives also allowed the male reader to experience vicariously the role of hero or savior, in the colonial vein of “white men saving brown women from brown men,” while satisfying fantasies of penetration and domination of the East.19 Furthermore, despite the similarities in the subordinate positions of women in the Fast and West, the veiled woman, as portrayed in these narratives, becomes one of the most powerful symbols of the “irrationality” and “backwardness” of Islam. Jean Dumont, claiming there is “no slavery equal to that of the Turkish Woman,” suggests that these customs are the result of a mind that “is at the bottom nothing else but a pure Insensibility and a Weakness that is altogether inexcusable in any reasonable creature.”20

This seventeenths and eighteenth-century Orientalist literature that foregrounds the trials of the (un)veiled woman is already part of the story of the West's shift to modernity. While the West was preoccupied with the struggle of liberating itself from the tyranny of the father and articulating itself as secular, a story in which paternal rule is replaced by a fraternal order and reason displaces faith, Islam was perceived as arrested, irrational, and backward, still enslaved by despots. The modern understanding of the opposition between a traditional, religious, and conservative Islam that values community, faith, and spirituality and a modern, secular, and progressive society, which is founded on liberty, reason, and materialism, in short, the contemporary East[West divide, is already evident in these tales. Like Zoraida, the (un)veiled woman, captive in this narrative, can only be “saved” from her culture or “submit” to it.


Early British feminists were quick to import the image of the enslaved Eastern woman into their writings -,is a means of expressing their own frustrations with power inequities, and thus they contributed to colonialism to the extent that they supported….


….the “liberation” and, the “civilizing” of the East. For instance, Mary Wollstonecraft employs the analogy of the East as a way of discussing the subjugation of British women. She writes in her introduction to A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) that in the books written by Western men, “in the true style of Mahometanism, [women] are treated as 'a kind of subordinate beings, and not as a, part of the human species, when improvable reason is allowed to be the dignified distinction which raises men above the brute creation, and puts a natural sceptre in a feeble hand.”21 Not only is it “the true style of Mahometanism” to oppress women, in her analysis, but while reason is claimed as continuous and compatible with Christianity, the teachings of Islam are understood as “irrational” and brutish.

Many recent works have focused on this complicity between feminism and colonialism. For instance Joyce Zonana argues in her essay on Jane Eyre that the metaphors that are frequently employed to discuss women's oppression in the writings of Western feminists, from Wollstonecraft to Florence Nightingale, are those of the Eastern woman “veiled," in the harem or in the seraglio. Further, she argues, this understanding of masculine tyranny as foreign and Eastern merely serves to reinforce the notion of Western superiority. She writes: “If the lives of women in England or France or the United States can be compared to the lives of women in 'Arabia,' then the Western feminist's desire to change the status quo can be represented not as a radical attempt to restructure the West but as a conservative effort to make the West more like itself. Orientalism-the belief that the East is inferior to the West, and the representation of the Orient by means of unexamined, stereotypical images-thus becomes a major premise in the formulation of numerous Western feminist arguments.”22

Western feminists, in using the example of eastern women as "enslaved" and oppressed by an irrational East as a means of discussing their own lack of freedom, encouraged, directly or indirectly, the ideology of colonial domination. The legacy of Orientalist feminism has persisted through much of the modern era, as evidenced in the birth of modern Turkey. Restaging the earlier narrative of the Enlightenment, Turkey "progressed" from an Islamic nation to a secular nation at the beginning of the twentieth century. Again, at the heart of this transformation ties the (un)veiled woman. In wanting to transform Turkey from a “backward” country into a "modern" nation, Mustapha Kemal, the leader of the Turkish nationalists, encouraged the emancipation of women" and strongly discouraged veiling: “I see women covering their faces with their head scarves ... Do you really think that the mothers and daughters of a civilized nation would behave so oddly or be so backward?”23

Yet while "Western' feminism has aided imperialism and colonialism by accepting the "barbarism' of Islam, fundamentalists and the right in Islamic countries have in turn denounced gender struggles as “Western.” Women interested in raising issues about gender inequity in Muslim countries have been countered by claims that feminism is inseparable from colonialism and that in order to rid Islam of this legacy one must equally abandon. “feminist” rhetoric. Marie-Aimée Hélie-Lucas, who is a founding member of the international feminist network Women Living Under Muslim Law, articulates this dilemma: “we have been accused in our own countries of being brain-washed by 'foreign ideologies,' as if our reality was not enough o a reason to protest.”24 Similarly, in her discussion of feminism in Turkey in the 1980s, Ayse Düzkan states: “we have such an atmosphere in Turkey that if you defend ideas of freedom, of….


...liberation, it sounds like you are adopting a Western attitude; and to defend the opposite of this is considered something Eastern.”25

Thus, women, trapped in this East/West divide, are veiled in the name of religion or unveiled in the name of reason. In order for feminism to be viable in an international frame, it must be read against this divide that is secured by the figure of the (un)veiled woman, and it must begin by challenging the story of the West's shift to reason against which the East is positioned as irrational. This shift, of course, already takes place Within what Spivak refers to as “the story [in the West] of Christianity to secularism ... the only story around,” which also claims 'in praise or dispraise of reason, that reason is European”.(emphasis mine).26 In the next section, I want to suggest that an analysis of the birth of this East[West divide also works to undo it.


For most of the modern era, Islam, whether condemned or celebrated, is increasingly and overwhelms: associated with the other of reason and secularism. Feminism is too often caught in, the midst of this divide, having to choose between materialism or spirituality, individual rights or community allegiance, reason or religion. However, Lady Mary, I one of the first female travelers in the Ottoman Empire, begins to question this complicated divide, even as it is emerging, by challenging the voyeuristic tales about Turkish women and their enslavement. In her Turkish Embassy Letters (1763), she writes to one of her correspondents: “Your whole Letter is so full of mistakes from one end to t'other. I see, you have taken your Ideas of Turkey from that worthy author Dumont, who has writ with equal ignorance and confidence. 'Tis a particular pleasure to me here to read the voyages to the Levant, which are generally so far remov'd I from Truth and so full of Absurdities I am very well diverted with 'em. They never fail to give you an Account of the Women, which 'tis certain the)' never saw, and talking very wisely of the Genius of the Men, into whose Company they are never admitted, and very often describe Mosques, which they dare not peep into.27 Lady Mary frequently berates earlier travelers for their exaggerated accounts of the abuse of Oriental women; in another letter, she writes: “'Tis also very pleasant to observe how tenderly he [Aaron Hill] and all his Brethren Voyage-writers lament the miserable confinement of the Turkish Ladys, who are, perhaps freer than any ladies in the universe.”28

While these criticisms of previous travelers' work certainly accommodate the convention of “outstripping” previous accounts, a trope of the genre, in the context of Lady Mary's reading of Islam as rational, these letters also begin to break up the Orientalist equation (evident for instance in Dumont's account quoted earlier) of the Turkish woman's “slavery” and the “pure Insensibility” and “Weakness” of the Eastern mind, which keeps the (tin)veiled woman captive in the East[West divide. Thus she provides an alternative reading of the (un)veiled woman-one in which she has neither to be saved nor to submit to her culture.
Alluding to the long tradition of science and rational philosophy in the East, Lady Mary suggests in one letter that Dr. Samuel Clarke, who wrote about rational theology, and Mr. William Whiston, who held the chair of mathematics at Cambridge, would both find receptive audiences in the Ottoman Empire.29 In another letter, in a….


….discussion of the shunning of virgins by Islam and the worship of them by Christians, she concludes “[w]hich divinity is more rational I leave I you to determine.”30 These letters suggest, as Billie Melman points out, Lady Mary's awareness of the “relativeness of belief and value's;” but also, in these passages, Lady Mary refutes claims about the irrationality of Islam, Questions Europe as the birthplace of reason, and foregrounds the continuity,between reason and religion in the West.31 However, to understand the radical implications of this reading of Islam as rational, we have to turn to the writings of some of her contemporaries
Following and building on the tradition of both Aquinas and Descartes and their insistence on the compatibility of reason and religion, John Locke is preoccupied with proving the superiority of Christianity because it is a religion that defers to reason.32 Reason and not faith he argues, is the means to knowledge: “Reason must be our last judge and guide in every Thing.”33 It is important to note that in Locke's analysis, reason mimics more than replaces religion as divine light becomes continuous with the light of-reason. Locke does not leave behind the language of revelation, of revealed religions,- but only removes that aspect of doubt or indeterminacy that is inherent in religion: “Reason is natural Revelation” and “Revelation is natural Reason enlarged by a new set of Discoveries communicated by GOD immediately, which Reason vouches the Truth of, by the Testimony and Proofs it gives that they come from GOD.”34 The otherness of religion is reinscribed as “natural,” while the prophet of divine origins merges with modern man: “God when he makes the Prophet does not unmake the Man. He leaves all his Faculties in their natural State, to enable him to judge of his Inspirations, whether they be of divine Original or no. When he illuminates the Mind with supernatural Light, he does not extinguish that which is natural.”35 The knowledge acquired through the application of reason is presumed to be divine and hence becomes the grounds for establishing universal values in the world, The Enlightenment's understanding of divinity as translated through reason, where the divine becomes readable, justifies the imposition of "universal" values. Thus Locke can ask, rhetorically, “can those be the certain and infallible Oracles and Standards of Truth which teach one thing in Christendom, and another in Turkey?”36 He argues that there can only be one true standard and it is poor judgement or lack of reasoning that leads to error.37 Locke prepares the groundwork for later rationalist philosophers, such as Hume and Kant, who suggest that difference can only be understood as deviance; a defective mind or inadequate education underlies “unenlightened” views.38

Islam had already produced a similar narrative about the struggle from old to new, in which the “barbaric” jahiliya (the pre-Islamic era) was overcome by the civilizing influence of Islam in 622. Yet this narrative of social progress has been suppressed in both the West and East, which, contributes to the misreading of the West as modern and of Islam as traditional. The umma, the Islamic nation, from its inception combined secularism with religion, its caliphs attending to religious, criminal, and civil law. Although the Islainic world has often been understood, in the narrative of progress, to have not yet embraced reason, in actual fact, as a religion that attends to the secular, that is not, based in miracles or saints, and that is revealed to a prophet who does not claim divine origin, “rational” Islam (as termed by Edward Gibbon) predates John Locke's humanizing of the divine.

However, the two very different approaches to colonization exemplify the seminal difference in the understanding of reason in the East and West. During the….


….period of Islamic conquest, Jews, Christians, and Muslims coexisted under Moorish rule, ,while the Christian reconquest involved the forced conversions, expulsions, and finally extermination of the Muslims and Jews. The Jihad whether by pen or by sword, refers only to the establishment of Islamic rule and does not involve conversion. While Islam, literally submission to God, is about universal faith, the Koran forbids compulsion of religion (2:256). This policy of nonconversion suggests that whereas Christianity understands the divine as continuous with reason and man as sharing in the divinity of the prophet, Islam limits reason to understanding in the world. The Koran, although revealed to Mohammed, is God's Word and thus cannot be understood, in any absolute way, through reason: “no one knows its meaning except for God” (3:9). Furthermore, Muslims, unlike Christians, hold that both Mohammed and Christ are human Locke overlooks this important difference when he argues that “Christians, as well as Turks, have had whole Sects owning, and contending earnestly for it, That the Deity was corporal and of human shape” (emphasis mine). 39 The Deity is not corporal in Islam and man does not share in the divinity of God - there is an impassable gulf, a lacuna, between the divine and the secular. The prophet's saying that “Allah will never make my community concur upon misguidance” also prevents man from displacing God as judge. Thus, as Islam encountered and conquered other cultures in its conquests, it was able to accommodate differences in its social order because its followers were forbidden to assume absolute knowledge. According to Islam, the eternal cannot be translated in the temporal world and reason cannot mimic divinity. Unlike the Christian West, which assumed access to a divine knowledge through reason and asserted its superiority in its colonial exploits, the East employed a nonhegemonic reason in its negotiation of the social body.

In the course of modernity, the divine origins of reason in the West will increasingly be suppressed and the story of the break with religion, the separation of Church and state, will dominate. The secular aspects of Islam will also be suppressed in both the East and the West, and the Muslim world will be understood as living under a translation of God's law. For most of the modern era, Islam is increasingly and overwhelmingly associated with the other of reason and secularism. Citing Ernest Renan's 1883 talk at the Sorbonne entitled “L’Islamisme et la science,” Edward Said writes that Renan insisted that "Islam and its Arabic language represent hatred to reason, the end of rational philosophy, unremitting enmity to progress.”40

As if fulfilling, this role of the radical other perpetrated in the West, the Ayatollah Khomeini (as Spivak in her reading of the Salman Rushdie affair describes him) becomes a “monolithic face, defending an unchanging world.”41 Playing into the division of East and West, Khomeini matches the hegemony of reason with the hegemony of religion. In his analysis of Islam, the critic Hussein Ahmad Amin argues that this hegemony is one of the major problems with the modern umma: the religious establishi-ment has abandoned its commitment to individual reasoning (ijtihad) and has embraced absolute doctrines (taqlad). He writes “This [abandonment] caused the ‘ula ma’ in the Muslim world to neglect one of their most fundamental duties, that is, to concentrate on developing the doctrinal and intellectual basis of Islam so as to meet the changing needs, problems, and circumstances of their contemporaries.”42


In an increasingly “global” world dominated by transnational elites and multinational corporations, it is problematic to “stay at home” in local or identity politics, and yet "traveling" (an option that already suggests privilege) or coalition politics often elide cultural, racial, and economic differences. How can feminism fuction in an international frame without imposing a universal subject or feminine consciousness that suppresses or collapses differences? Gayatri Spivak argues that the critic should not assume to “speak for” the other, a posture that assumes shared interests, universal values, and a common subject, a standard against which the other can only be understood as deviant. Nor should the cultural critic “listen to” the other, a posture that assumes some authentic, original, and representative other that can be unproblematically accessed, translated, commodified, and put into circulation on the dominant market by a “transparent” investigator.43

Providing a space for feminism against the East/West divide must begin with an understanding of how Western feminism, in “speaking for the other” and “listening to the other,” has contributed to and benefited from this reason/religion divide, but it must also involve reading for the gaps in this tradition, to historical moments in which a gendered reading does not repeat but resists the binary of the divide. Just as this divide is gaining currency, Lady Mary challenges it: her invitation to consider Islam as rational.deraits the Orientalist project as the hegemony of “Western” reason, which assumes universal standards, is recast into reason as a universal practice subject to the particulars of culture. Europe can no longer claim to be the birthplace of reason, nor can Islam overlook its rational roots.

In arguing her case for Islam, Lady Mary is careful not to “listen to” the other. While the Koran, which, she maintains, has been corrupted by Greek priests and which she does not presume to understand, is praised, she complicates the idea of any authoritative translation of God's word.44 The impossibility of translation is playfully alluded to in her account of the Arnounts, which follows her discussion of the Koran. These people were practicing Muslims and Christians, attending Mosques on Friday and Church on Sundays, respectively, because “they are utterly unable to judge which religion is best” and “are not able to determine in this world” the “true prophet”45 In the translation of God's word as in the translation of culture, Lady Mary understands that the translator is not transparent; the translation cannot be secured. The Law of the Father, as the voice of authenticity that announces the original truth of the culture prior to the Orientalist presence, offered as an alternative to the imperialism of the West, is forestalled in her account.

In her famous description of her trip to the hammam, Lady Mary further challenges the logic of the desire to “unveil” and to liberate the Eastern woman in the name of Western reason. In learning to “speak to the other,” Lady Mary “unlearns female privilege.” Donning Turkish dress and dissimulated enough by her encounter with the “other” that near the end of her voyage she fears losing her language, she responds to this engagement not by condemning the foreign and propping up the familiar but by investigating the “grounds” of her position as a Western woman Surrounded by naked Turkish women who encourage her to join them, she strips off just enough clothes to reveal her own constricted body. She writes: “The Lady that….


.… seem’d the most considerable amongst them entreated me to sit by her and fain would have undress'd me for the bath. I excused my selfe with some difficulty, they being all so earnest in perswading me. I was at last forc'd to open my skirt and shew them my stays, which satisfy'd 'em very well, for I saw they believ'd I was -so lock'd up in that machine that it was not in my own power to open it, which contrivance they attributed to my Husband.”46 In this description, Lady Mary invokes the tradition of eighteenth-century travel narratives, such as those of Aaron Hill and Jean Dumont, which nd enslavement of the oriental woman delight in imaginative descriptions of the abuse and enslavement of the oriental women and “lament the miserable confinement of the Turkish Ladys.”47 But, as Lady Mary shifts the gaze to her own “imprisoned” body, teasingly opening her shirt and inviting rescue, she forces attention on the English social order And complicates the role of the heroic colonialist reader. This gesture interrupts the binary of veiled and unveiled, the slave and the free woman, religion and reason, which structures the travel accounts of her predecessors. Lady Mary's undressing or unveiling does not naively assume an unfettered freedom but rather displays a gendered social order that underlies the very rhetoric of Western reason.

Freedom is of course one of the concepts that is critical to modernity. Throwing off the bounds of paternal authority, the brotherhood, the social contract theorists like Locke, established itself as free, but free from what? How could the “free social body” be secured? At least one of the strategies, as I have at argued, involved reconfiguring the old religious battle with Islam as a battle against a traditional "emasculated" paternal culture. Islam stands in as the perfect foil allowing reason to cast light into the dark shadows of this “backward” culture, exposing it as irrational, while “unveiling” its women. But the source of this representation of the emasculated East, as Lady Mary's playful take on it in the hamman suggests, is Western reason's own contentious relationship with women. The eighteenth-century French writer Charles Pinot Ditclos once wrote: "I don't know why men have accused women of falsity, and have made, Truth tla Ve'rit6i female. A problem to be resolved. They also say that she is naked, and that could well be. It is no doubt from a secret love for Truth that we pursue women with such ardent; we seek to strip them of everything that we think hides Truth; and when we have satisfied our curiosity on one, we lose our illusions, and we run after another, to be happier. Love, pleasure, and inconstancy are perhaps only a consequence of the desire to know Truth.” Peter Brooks elaborates on this passage. “[w]e have only to think of representations in painting and sculpture to acknowledge that Truth, in our culture, is indeed a woman. She may be naked, or she may be veiled, in which case the veils must be stripped, in a gesture which is repeated in countless symbolizations of discovery, which will often give a narrative similar to Duclos's pursuit. In a patriarchal culture, uncovering the woman’s body is a gesture of revealing what stands for ultimate mystery.”48 Woman, like the “emasculated” Orient, is first constructed as mysterious and irrational; stripped, pursued, and conquered, she is then made to surrender to the force of masculine reason.

In presenting tier “imprisoned body” in the hamman Lady Mary interrupts the Orientalist desire to rescue the Eastern woman in the name of freedom, but this act also demonstrates her cognizance of the gender inequity that underlies the very articulation of freedom in the social contract, a document that, although supposed to protect individual freedom, assumes, as Locke does, the “natural” right of the husband over his wife: “But the husband and wife, though they have but one common concern,


….yet having different understandings, will unavoidably sometimes have different wills too; it therefore being necessary that the last determination, i.e. the rule, should be placed somewhere; it naturally falls to the man's share.”49 Born the same year (1689) that the divine right of kings (which required the unquestioned submission of a subject to the monarch) was withdrawn, Lady Mary has no desire to see its return, suggesting in one letter that Parliament send over its “passive obedient men” to witness the brutalities of arbitrary rule under the Sultan.50 Yet, she is also well aware that women do not share the same freedom to consent, the basis of the social contract theory, but remain subjects of despotic rule. Thus she writes to Wortlev in response to his marriage proposal: “As for the rest, my Father may do some things disagreeable to my Inclinations, but passive Obedience is a doctrine should allwaies be receiv'd among wives and daughters. That principle makes me cautious who I set for my Master” (emphasis mine).51 Here, the political doctrine is intentionally made to refer to gender in order to politicize the position of women, Foregrounding this politics, to her future husband's inquiries about her dowry, she responds sarcastically: “People in my way are sold like slaves, and I cannot tell, what price my Master will put on me.”52

This paternal order depends, as Spivak has argued, on the appropriation of the womb and the “effacement of the clitoris,” the woman as desiring subject.53 The autogenic civil society, miraculously giving birth to itself, both excludes wol-nen from the public sphere and claims right to the “private” bodies of women, calming any anxiety about the question of paternity that might arise in lieu of the overthrow of the father. The subsequent separation of public (contract) and private rights (natural) ensures that a woi-nan s body, where the question of origin is always at stake, will not disturb the hegemony of Western reason, which makes claims to the original – the very foundations of truth.54

Ladv Mary's letter insisting that veiled women are the most free of women disturbs the logic of orientalism and paternalism. She writes: “This perpetual Masquerade gives them entire Liberty of following their Inclinations without danger of Discovery,”55 concluding that “[u]pon the Whole, I look upon the Turkish Women as the only free people in the Empire.”56 In Lady Mary's reading of the veil, the emphasis on Turkish women as desiring subjects subverts the image of the docile, po@vertess veiled woman awaiting her savior which fuels Western fantasies of the harem and orientalist feminism. In terms of the “Captive's Tale,” Zoraida is thus released from the restrictive colonial narrative that values her as -,in object of conquest that confirms the inferiority/irrationality of the East. Freedom is figured in terms of disguise, veils,, and masquerade disturbing the Enlightenment equation of reason, revelation, and liberation; freedom cannot define itself against the veil. Beneath the veil are only more veils, and in this “perpetual Masquerade,” the question of origin comes back to haunt the public sphere, disturbing the foundational truth claims of Western reason.

But the East, which equally holds the (un)veiled woman captive, is also interrupted. Zoraida is silenced by her father's reading of her as sexually perverted for her flirtatious encounters with the West, just as Eastern feminists have been accused of betraying their culture - the only possibility of “return” in this scenario is submission to a paternal order. Fatima Mernissi has argued that the homogeneity of the umma is an abstraction that depends on the veiling of women: “the law of paternity was instituted to screen off the uterus and woman's will within the secular domain.”57 Lady….


Mary, by intentionally misreading the purpose of veiling suggesting that feminine agency is not inhibited but enhanced by veils and seclusion, disturbs the very basis of paternal social order. The scenario of women enabled by their disguise, meeting lovers who cannot identify them, leads Lady Mary to suspect “the number of faithfull Wives very small in a country where they have nothing to fear from their Lover’s indiscretion.” The elaborate checks put in place to guarantee paternity, the separation of women from the public sphere in both the East and the West, are clearly not secure.

Lady Mary thus opens up a critical space for feminism by complicating the rhetoric of reason and religion. She resists the East/West divide of modernity, which is already evident in the “Captive's Tale” and which comes to define seventeenth- and eighteenth-century travel narratives, by releasing the (un)veiled woman from her position as placeholder. However, to be useful in an international frame, feminism. must check the impulse to universalize and continue to read for the limits of its discourse. That Lady Mary's writing is limited to the critique of the (un)veiled woman as she is positioned between reason and religion is evident in her extreme classism and her unwillingness to “speak to” the country women of North Africa. The inclusive multinational, cosmopolitan and heterogeneous world of Constantinople and Adrianople (modern Edirne) that Lady Mary embraces is bordered by a poor, rural, black population that she views as inalienably other: “We saw under the Trees in many places Companys of the country people, eating, singing, and danceing to their wild music. They are not quite black, but all mullattos, arid the most frightful Creatures that can appear in a Human figure.”58 While Lady Mary writes from Adrianople that “the Manners of Mankind do not differ so widely as our voyage Writers would make us believe,”59 her description of these “frightful creatures” and the later comparison of the country women in Tunisia to “baboons” suggests that she considers the gap between herself and this “other” immense.60 Outside the wealthy, elite, “civilized” circles, she falls back into the very conventions of the colonialist traveler that she cautions against.

Heffernan, Teresa, 1999-00. Feminism Against the East/West Divide: Lady Mary’s Turkish Embassy Letters. Eighteenth-Century Studies, vol. 33, no. 2 (1990-00) Pp. 201-215.


1. Lisa Lowe, Critical Terrains: French and British Orientalisms (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1991), 51.
2. Meyda Yegenoglu, “Supplementing the Orientalist Lack: European Ladies in the Harem,” Inscriptions 6 (1992): 45-80.
3. Srinivas Aravamudan, “Lady Mary Wortley Lady Mary in the Hamman: Masquerade, Womanliness, and Levantinization,” English Literary History 62 (1995): 69-104.
4. Anita Desai, introduction to The Turkish Embassy Letters (London: Virago Press, 1994), xxix.
5. Robert Halsband, ed., The Complete Letters of lady Mary Wortley Montagu, 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965-67), 314.
6. Halsband, The Complete Letters, 407.
7. Thanks to Maria Koundoura, who at “Snapshots from Abroad: A Conference on American and British Travel Writers and Writing” (Univ. of Minnesota, November 1997), pointed to this tendency in the Embassy Letters.
8. Halsband, The Complete Letters, 406.
9. Gayatri Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. Cary Nrlson and Laurence Grossberg (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1988), 241. This model, which I will return to, posits that in order to engage productively with other cultures it is important to assume neither that cultures are universal nor that the otherness of a culture can be named.
10. Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote, trans. J. M. Cohen (London: Penguin Books, 1950). 338.
11. Cervantes, Don Quixote, 359.
12. Cervantes, Don Quixote, 375.
13. Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), 206.
14. Theodore Bent, introduction to Early Voyages and Travels in the Levant, ed. J. Theodore Bent (New York: Burt Franklin, n.d.), ii.
15. Thomas Dallam in Early Voyages and Travels in the Levant.
16. John Covel Early Voyages and Travels in the Levant.
17. Bon Ottaviano, The Sultan’s Seraglio, An Intimate Portrait of Life at the Ottoman Court (from the Seventeenth-Century edition of John Withers) (London: Saqi Books, 1996), 57.
18. Jean Dumont, A New Voyage to the Levant (London: 1696), 167.
19. Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” 242.
20. Dumont, A New Voyage to the Levant, 261.
21. Mary Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman (London: Penguin, 1975), 80.
22. Joyce Zonana, “The Sultan and the Slave: Feminist Orientalism and the Structure of Jane Eyre,” Signs 18 (1993): 594.
23. Naila Minai, Women in Islam: Tradition and Transition in the middle East (New York: Seaview, 1981), 64-65.
24. Marie-Aimée Hélie-Lucas, “Bound and Gagged by the Family Code,” in Third World-Second Sex: Women’s Struggles and National Liberation, compiled by Miranda Davies (London: Zed Books, 1987), 15.
25. Ayse Düzkan, Feminism on Turkey in th e1980’s: An Interview with Ayse Düzkan by Meltem Ahiska (Grabels, France: 1994). Pamphlet published by “Women Living Under Muslim Law”.
26. Gayatri Spivak, “Reading the Satanic Verses,” in her Outside in th eTeaching Machine (New York: Routledge, 1993), 240.
27. Halsband, The Complete Letters, 368.
28. Halsband, The Complete Letters, 406.
29. Halsband, The Complete Letters, 317.
30. Halsband, The Complete Letters, 364.
31. Billie Melman, Women’s Orients: English Women and the Middle East, 1718-1918 (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1992), 80.
32. See also John Locke, Reasonableness of Christianity: As Delivered in th e Scriptures, ed. George W. Ewing (Washington: Regenry Gateway, 1965).
33. John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Peter H. Nidditch (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979), 704.
34. Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 698.
35. Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 704.
36. Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 708.
37. The pervasiveness of this view in the eighteenth-century is evident for instance in a sermon that is reproduced in Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, ed. Ian Watt (Boston: Riverside, 1965): “God and reason made the law, and have placed conscience within you to determine;- not like an Asiatick Cadi [an Arabic or Persian judge], according to th eebbs and flows of his own passions,- but like a British judge in the land of liberty and good sense, who makes no new law, but faithfully declares that law which he knows already written” (106). This passage, inadvertently, highlights the different understanding of reason in the West and East: the “rational” British judge, it is assumed, has access to divine knowledge – the Law, while the Arabic or Persian judge, ruliang by a temporal law, has no recourse to the absolute.
38. Barbara Herrnstein-Smith explicates the problem of universal value in both Hume and Kant in Contingencies of Value: Alternative Perspectives for Critical Theory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1998).
39. Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 94.
40. Edward Said, The World, the Text, and the Critic (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1983), 281.
41. Spivak, “Reading the Satanic Verses,” 233.
42. Hussein Ahmad Amin, “The Present State of the Muslim Umma,” Muslim World 79 (1989): 222.
43. Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” 242.
44. Halsband, The Complete Letters, 318.
45. Halsband, The Complete Letters, 319.
46. Halsband, The Complete Letters, 314.
47. Halsband, The Complete Letters, 406.
48. Peter Brooks, Body Work: Objects of Desire in Modern Narrative (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1993), 12-13.
49. John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, ed. C. B. Macpherson (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1980), 44.
50. Halsband, The Complete Letters, 322.
51. Halsband, The Complete Letters, 54.
52. Halsband, The Complete Letters, 64.
53. See Gayatri Spivak for her detailed analysis of the “clitoridectomy” of women in political, economic, and legal exchanges in “French Feminism in an International Frame,” in her In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics (New York: Routledge, 1988), 151.
54. See Carole Pateman’s excellent reading of the coopting of the “origin” in social contract theory to which this section is idebted: “The Fraternal and Social Contract,”in Civil Society and the State: New European Perspectives, ed. John Keane (London: Verso, 1998), 101-27. Also see Pateman’s The Sexual Contract (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1988).
55. Halsband, The Complete Letters, 328.
56. Halsband, The Complete Letters, 329.
57. Fatima Mernissi., Islam and Democracy: Fear of the Modern World, trans. Mary Jo Lakeland (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing, 1992), 128.
58. Halsband, The Complete Letters, 425.
59. Halsband, The Complete Letters, 330.
60. Halsband, The Complete Letters, 427.