Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Domestic Life in Palestine

Mary Eliza Rogers' Domestic Life in Palestine contributes significantly to a distinctive tradition of British women's travel writing about the Middle East, a tradition begun by Mary Wortley Montagu, Elizabeth Craven, and Hester Stanhope. Residence in Palestine during the Crimean War provided access for Rogers to a world of empowerment closed to her in England, where she was constrained by the conventions of what I refer to as "The British Harem." I am particularly interested in the ways in which Rogers constructs herself as imperial through representations of her honorary male status, and her "conquest"' of Arabs and "Oriental" territories in her interactions with Arab and Turkish men and women in the Middle East.
For Rogers, the Middle East provided a discursive site fraught with ironic possibilities, since the Orient was a space historically regarded by Eurocentric "Imperial eyes," via the trope of the Oriental harem, as a locus of women's enslavement. As a Victorian woman, Rogers experienced a tremendous sense of liberation through her travels. In contemplating women in Palestine, particularly Muslim women secluded in traditional harems, however, she consistently rejected identification with local women. Women's dress and manners, Eastern and Western, become the focus of significant portions of the description in her text, figuring Rogers, the British woman observer, as educated and civilized, active and superior. In other words, Rogers' status as a foreign British women empowered her to act in ways usually gendered male. At the same time, Rogers tended to assign the local Palestinian woman a relatively uneducated and childlike role similar to that of the Victorian angel on the hearth. Rogers herself preferred to be outside playing empire with the men. In order to reconcile her roles of domestic observer and honorary imperial male, Rogers constructed herself as a gentle and nurturing ruler, a figuration similar to the British imperial construction of Queen Victoria herself.
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