(Wo)men Travellers: Physical and Narrative Boundaries

By Koo, Halia | Mosaic (Winnipeg), June 2006 | Go to article overview
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(Wo)men Travellers: Physical and Narrative Boundaries

Koo, Halia, Mosaic (Winnipeg)

This essay analyzes the strategies of self-representation in the travel narratives of two women who visited Persia disguised as men. It demonstrates how cross-dressing can affect female subjectivity, and how radically the role of masquerade can change in situations that combine sensitive issues such as imperialism, religion, and gender.


Alas! What danger will it be to us,
Maids as we are, to travel forth so far? [...]
Were it not better [...]
That I did suit me all points like a man? [...]
We'll have a swashing and a martial outside,
As many other mannish cowards have
That do outface it with their semblances.
--Shakespeare, As You Like It

At first sight, Jane Dieulafoy (1851-1916) and Sarah Hobson (1947-) are two women travellers who seem to have little in common. Dieulafoy, the devoted wife of a nineteenth-century French archaeologist, is a socially and financially dependent woman who follows her husband on his scientific assignments: her social status is dictated by her husband's station in life, and her relative freedom made possible by foreign travel is merely a reflection of her husband's successful career. Hobson, a twentieth-century English documentary filmmaker and writer, is a modern, independent career woman who is free from archaic social conventions and whom nothing prevents from travelling solo for professional purposes or to pursue her own personal interests. Considering their backgrounds, these women travellers would be worlds apart, but for their common destination and the same outward appearance they choose to adopt for the journey: Persia (modern Iran), and their masculine disguise.

When Marcel Dieulafoy, a civil engineer and architect turned archaeologist, meets young Jane Magre for the first time in the respectable drawing rooms of Toulouse polite society, he is captivated immediately by her unusual energy and openness of mind. The story of the Dieulafoys' lifelong affection and intellectual collaboration begins in 1870 with the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, shortly after their wedding. The bride, with the bridegroom's approval and unabashed support, dresses as a young man and follows her husband to the battlefield as one of the army irregulars; she is barely twenty years old. After the war, the couple travel extensively in Europe and North Africa, and in 1881, when Marcel is assigned an exploratory mission in Persia by the Ministere de l'Instruction Publique et des Beaux-Arts, they naturally decide to set off on the expedition together, he as an archaeologist, and she as a photographer, assistant, and travel diarist. For safety reasons, and in order to avoid unnecessary trouble by appearing unveiled in a Muslim country, Jane cuts her hair short, dons a pair of trousers, and follows her husband with a whip in her hand and a rifle slung across the shoulder. Together, they sail to Constantinople and reach Persia by land, crossing the Caucasus and covering 6,000 km on horseback. During the following fourteen months, they draw up a list of all historical monuments in and around Teheran, Isfahan, and the ancient sites of Susa and Persepolis. Her travel account is published in 1887 under the title La Perse, la Chaldee, la Susiane: relation de voyage (republished in 1989 as Une amazone en Orient: du Caucase a Ispahan).

Born in a proper British family where "the women were expected to marry at nineteen, settle down and raise children" (Ashley), Sarah Hobson decides to escape her conventional milieu: at seventeen, she takes off for the Middle East, teaching English in a Russian Orthodox school near Jerusalem and camping through Syria. Back in London, she starts a small business with a friend, designing leather goods and experimenting with new materials, techniques, and patterns. In 1970, almost a century after Dieulafoy, Hobson travels to Iran to study the art of traditional Persian designs and crafts by observing the work of silversmiths, cloth-printers, jewellers, and enamellers.

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