European Women in the Islamic World in the Early Twentieth Century (Paper I’m quite proud of)

Ever since I started posting my papers for Science, Technology and International Politics here, thinking about writing for FeelingElephants helps motivate me to write papers. This is silly, because my papers are always too long for the blog format, and I will not be posting most of them here. However, this paper has given me insight into my role as a Western woman in the Middle East and I wanted to share it. Enjoy my 37 footnotes and Terry Pratchett reference!

Jessica Dickinson Goodman
Dr Ben Reilly
Europe and the Islamic World
22 April 2010

Fluid Functions:
European Women in the Islamic World in the Early Twentieth Century

Many European women’s roles in the Islamic world were fluid in the early twentieth century. They were by turns Imperial wives, traveler-writers, political representatives and scholars in “male lands”. By embracing these roles serially or simultaneously, Mary Curzon, Emily Lorimer, Freya Stark and Gertrude Bell crafted open spaces for themselves within their expatriate communities.


Modern writers depict the early twentieth century as a time when women were insurmountably restricted in their roles. One author, writing about Gertrude Bell, said she had “the disadvantage of being born female and intelligent in an era that encouraged women to pursue husbands, not careers”. With weak political rights and so right to vote during most of this period, European women were allowed into a limited number of roles. There is a value in this stereotype: it explains why women had so little formal power and made relatively few documented contributions to its history. It is extremely dangers however, but it glosses over the contributions which women managed to subvert the culture and create independent roles for themselves. The four British women profiled here all worked within the male dominated cultures of both their homelands and the Gulf states from culturally approved roles to subversive ones and back again.

It is also commonplace to characterize the Islamic world as oppressive to women. While the rights of women in the Islamic world were and are curtailed, perhaps the motivation for this emphasis in Western writing is a product of mirroring than overwhelming fact. Whatever the causes, the assumption that both European and local women’s roles are impossibly limited in the Middle East is pervasive. Therefore, when Western women in the Islamic world confirm or challenge these stereotypes, it helps us understand of the range and complexity of roles which European women chose in the Islamic world.

Profile: Mary Curzon, Vicereine of India

Mary Curzon, the British Vicereine of India in 1903, shifted between the roles of Imperial wife and political representative. In 1903 she had the “greatest place ever held by by an American abroad” as the wife of the Viceroy of India, Lord George Nathaniel Curzon. She played both political representative and decorative wife on the 1903 tour of the Gulf and conferences with Arab rulers and British political agents in Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain. Some authors saw her as an “adjunct” to her husband, a passive observer of his power—she was often literally expected to sit still and look pretty while her husband talked. Nigel Nicolson’s 1977 biography argues her role was “to comfort and support her husband” and “to compensate for the fear and awe that he inspired”. This is a perfect description of the role a political wife is expected to play, but it is not how Curzon saw herself.

Mary Curzon saw herself as a representative of the British empire, and her husband’s political partner. Penelope Tuscon argues that, in her letters to her family,

Mary enunciated very powerfully her identity as a liberated American woman, in partnership with her husband, and she reinforced this representation by comparing her position with the perceived fetters of the Princely States wives

This image of the Viceroy and Vicereine of India in a political partnership is a tempting one. Curzon’s acute political observations and her confiding relationship with her husband might imply she had significant informal political power. Tuscon certainly believes she did:

Mary Curzon’s role as ‘Deputy Queen’, the female representative and representation of the highest formal imperial power, confirmed the inclusion of women in the imperial hierarchy and, at the same time, defined and demarcated their public status.

However, Curzon’s roles were more fluid than fixed, and she played both passive and active roles as political wife. Rather than trying to determine the exact amount of power Curzon held over her husband or his policies, it is most accurate to describe her roles as on a continuum. Like Gertrude Bell or Emily Lorimer, Mary Curzon shifted between roles depending on her circumstances.

Profile: Emily Lorimer, scholar and Imperial wife

Emily Lorimer was a talented linguist and Imperial wife living with her political agent husband in Bahrain in 1911. Lorimer and her husband met while she was at Oxford, challenged each other in Vedic classes at Oxford, and courted over Sanskrit paradigms. Lorimer continued her studies during her husbands’ postings in the Gulf, working on her “Hindustani” during the voyage to their first posting. She used to continue her voracious language-acquisition and correspondence with family once settled, requesting funding from the British government for an extension to their housing in Bahrain for her personal study. When writing her father about husband’s trip to Qatar in 1911, she describes Shaikh Qasim bin Muhammed Al Thani’s gifts to her husband with humor and an eye to the broader trends the gazelles, chickens and goat he presented might portend.

She was also a committed Imperial wife, requesting funding for a ladies parlor to accompany her study to help keep her lady friends and her husband’s Arab contacts separate. Even as she distinguished herself with her polyglot studies, she also conformed to the social requirements put upon her as an Imperial wife, spending stunning amount of space in her correspondence on clothing. Perhaps it was only by participating in the conventional women’s society could she bypass gender restrictions on her passions. Lorimer she moved easy between her roles as a scholar and Imperial wife during her time in the Islamic world.

Profile: Freya Stark, travel-writer and political representative

The year before Gertude Bell died in Baghdad, Freya Stark began her journey in the Middle East. Stark spend her 70 year writing career flowing between her roles as a political representative and travel-writer. She became an influential figure through her coordination of Arab support for the Allies in World War II and her decades writings on the region. During the war, she set up a network of pro-democracy groups—with 20,000 members in Egypt—to spread British ideas about governance to the Islamic world. Some writers see her work during the war as propaganda, but it is also the beginning of an effort to communicate her view of the Arab world to the West and her view of the West to the Arab world.

She published 20 books on her travels between 1932 and 1988, nearly all on the Islamic world. Her role as a political representative during World War II fed her role as a travel-writer, giving her material for decades of reflections. Her travels in the Islamic world, mostly independent of governmental support or mandate, seem to have been motivated primarily by her dramatic love for the desert. Traveling in places where no European had gone before, she sought out cultures that were being rapidly destroyed by change:

Back in 1921, when a very great professor, a family friend, was urging her to learn Icelandic (so as to read the sagas), she chose Arabic instead. She foresaw the changes oil- drilling was likely to bring to the whole Middle East, and she wanted to watch them happen. “I thought the most interesting things in the world were likely to happen in the neighborhood of oil.” Even then, as a very young woman, she knew she wanted to take part in current sagas more than she wanted to read old ones.

Freya Stark moved between the roles of political representative—taking part—and of independent travel writer—documenting the sagas of her age—regularly in her long career.

Profile: Gertrude Bell, Oriental Secretary to the High Commission of Iraq

Gertrude Bell is probably the most famous female explorer and scholar of the Islamic world. She is credited with the shape of modern Iraq and the elevation of King Faisal to the monarchy. She is also blamed for the borders of the Israel-Palestine conflict and the first Gulf War. In addition to her independent travels in the region, she served the British government in roles ranging from spy to Oriental Secretary to the High Commission of Iraq. Her impact on the shape and balance of power in the region cannot be overstated.

The woman called the “Desert Queen” was also an accomplished scholar and wrote influential books about the region. With her upper-class background and her Oxford training, she was a source the British government felt comfortable relying on for information about the history and modern politics of the Islamic world. She is responsibly for the existence of the Baghdad Museum and its possession of Middle Eastern antiquities. Marauding adventurer, first female Political Officer attached to the British military and serious archeologist by turns, Bell shifted her roles by necessity. shows false the supposition that the gender-role barriers erected in that region and period were not insurmountable.


The roles of European women in the Islamic world were fluid: in their time in the Middle East they might be an Imperial wife, a scholar, a traveler, a political representative or a writer. Often, they inhabited several of these roles simultaneously. Many modern writers assume that all women of that period and in that region accepted extremely restricted roles. While this argument does explain why so few women influenced the history of the region, it whitewashes the achievements of those who did. The gender-based role restrictions in European and Islamic culture in the early twentieth century were significant, but not insurmountable.


“Dame Freya Stark.” The Times. 11 May 1993.

The lives of most of the European women who lived in the Islamic world in the early twentieth century are

irretrievably lost because they left no documents. However, the few who wrote letters which have been kept and the even fewer who wrote books tell a story of a complex place and time. This sample leads to two forms of selection bias: a bias against women whose records were not kept, and a bias within their writing for a life story which conformed to their visions of themselves.

Howard, Jennifer. “Gertrude Of Arabia.” The Washington Post. 25 August 1996.

O’Connor, Sandra Day O’Connor. “The History of the Women’s Suffrage Movement.” Vanderbilt Law Review. April, 1996. 49 Vand. L. Rev. 657.

While the rights of women to public expression in the Islamic world were and are curtailed, perhaps the motivation for this emphasis in Western writing is a product of mirroring. In travel-writing analysis, mirroring is when a traveler characterizes a foreign culture by the ways in which it contrasts with her home culture. This explains why the macho Europeans who first traveled to the Islamic world and met the Byzantine empire characterized Muslims as effeminate. Later, when Enlightenment European men traved to the Islamic world, they described the male sexual liberality implied in polygamy as a central tenet of Islam, because it contrasted with the prudishness they disliked at home. Finally, today, where gender equality and sexual expression are values claimed by the West, the Islamic world is seen as sexually discriminatory and prudish. None of this speaks to the accuracy of any of these characterizations; it merely gives a cause for the predominance of a particular popular stereotype which permeates much Western writing in the Middle East.

Ibid, 21.

Tuscon, Penelope. Playing the Game: Western Women in Arabia. Palgrave, NY: 2003.

Ibid, 24-25.

Ibid, 22.

Ibid. Cites: Nicolson, Mary Curzon, pp. 103-4.

Ibid, 24.

Ibid, 28.

Much of the non-epistolary evidence of the Curzons’ 1903 Gulf tour came from the observations of John Gordon Lorimer, a British agent who later used this material to write his Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf, Oman and Central Arabia. His sister-in-law was Emily Lorimer.

Ibid, 49.

Ibid, 56.

Ibid, 57.

Ibid, 60.

“Qatari sheiks were regarded by the political agents in Bahrain as less of a responsibility but at the same time more untutored.” Ibid, 74.

Ibid, 61.

Ibid, 73.

“West and east.” The Economist. 6 January 1979. Review of FREYA STARK: LETTERS. Volume V New Worlds for Old 1943-46. Edited by Lucy Moorehead. Michael Russell.

“Ring of words.” The Economist. 7 January 1978. Review of FREYA STARK, Letters. Volume IV: Bridge of the Levant, 1940-43. Edited by Lucy Moorehead. Michael Russell. 306 pages.

“Ring of words.” The Economist. 7 January 1978. Review of FREYA STARK, Letters. Volume IV: Bridge of the Levant, 1940-43. Edited by Lucy Moorehead. Michael Russell. 306 pages.

“Freya’s ecstasy.” The Dominion (Wellington). 14 April 2001.

Buchan, James. “Grip of the East.” The Evening Standard (London). 15 November 1999.

The few that dealt with other cultures appear to be about cultural memes she witnessed in the Islamic world:

Siamese Harem Life. etc.

“I never imagined,” she wrote from Syria, “that my first sight of the desert would come with such a shock of beauty and enslave me right away.” “Freya’s ecstasy.” The Dominion (Wellington). 14 April 2001.

Perrin, Noel. “A Footloose and Fancy Freya; The Valley of the Assassins, By Freya Stark (1934).” The Washington Post. 19 June 1983.

Though I agree with Terry Pratchett’s relabeling of explorers as trespassers, I am following the convention set by most other authors discussing Ms Bell’s life. “Discworld News.” Visited 22 April 2010. http://www.

Howard, Jennifer. “Gertrude Of Arabia.” The Washington Post. 25 August 1996.

Johnson, Daniel. “The archaeologist, linguist and traveller Gertrude Bell casts her spell on Daniel Johnson.” The Sunday Telegraph. 27 August 2006.

Winstone, HVF. “Al Khatun the fearless / Profile of Gertrude Bell, Middle East expert.” 5 July 1986.

Howard, Jennifer. “Gertrude Of Arabia.” The Washington Post. 25 August 1996.


Edwards, Bob. “Women Explorers and their Accomplishments.” National Public Radio: Morning Edition. 29 March 1999.

McLinn, Frank. “The bluestocking and the sheikh; DESERT QUEEN: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell by Janet Wallach.” 8 December 1996. The Independent (London)

She fought fellow civil servants who had been exporting all Mesopotamian treasures to the London, Berlin and Philadelphia. Lloyd, Valerie. “Lady Valiant GERTRUDE BELL.” Newsweek. 21 February 21 1979.


Inspirational Quote:

“[T]here is nothing quite like this finding of ruins in the desert, something so august in its nakedness, and so dignified in man’s courage and helplessness against the passing of Time.”–Freya Stark


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