EGYPT-Unveiling the Harem: Elite Women and the Paradox of Seclusion in Eighteenth-Century Cairo

By Pollard, Lisa | The Middle East Journal, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

EGYPT-Unveiling the Harem: Elite Women and the Paradox of Seclusion in Eighteenth-Century Cairo


Pollard, Lisa, The Middle East Journal


EGYPT Unveiling the Harem: Elite Women and the Paradox of Seclusion in Eighteenth-Century Cairo, by Mary Ann Fay. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2012. 331 pages. $45.

Mary Ann Fay's terrific study of elite women during the Mamluk revival in Egypt is the latest in Syracuse University Press's Middle East Studies Beyond Dominant Paradigms series. Unveiling the Harem is appropriately placed in this series, as Fay uses the book's pages to take aim at and to dismantle several long-standing paradigms in the study of Middle Eastern women on the eve of modernity, in general, and in the study of 18th-century Egypt in particular. At the same time, Fay's rich comparisons of 18th-century Egypt to Europe and to the American colonies result in a greater elucidation of several understudied topics in Middle Eastern history, including race and slavery. Her work joins that of Jane Hathaway, Afaf Marsot, and, most recently, Alan Mikhail, in rescuing 18th-century Egyptian history from the morass of political chaos, factionalism, and infighting through which it has traditionally been portrayed.1Unveiling the Harem makes the local and imperial politics of the Ottoman-Mamluk condominium accessible and comprehensible and illustrates the primacy of elite women to the consolidation of the Qazdaghli households' political and economic power.

The first and most prominent paradigm to surrender to Fay's deftanalysis is the favored Orientalist fantasy of elite women trapped in the harem, prey to the tyranny and (over) sexuality of men. Fay uses waqf inheritance records and an original "reading" of a still-standing Mamluk household, Cairo's Bayt al-Razzaz, as text to demonstrate not only that Orientalists were wrong in their depictions of elite Muslim women, but also to reveal the extent to which travel writers and scholars have failed to appreciate the role of household politics in Mamluk culture. By illustrating how men, rather than women, were limited to specific spaces within the houses of the Qazdaghli households that rose to prominence over the 18th century, and the extent to which men used domestic space to negotiate the politics of governing and alliance building, Fay gives new meaning to harem literature. Her concern is not simply to illustrate women's active roles in household management, or their access to space both inside and outside their homes. Rather her greater focus on the role of marriage in forging the fictive kinships that defined Mamluk culture suggests both that women were included in politics, and that the harem was central to the political realm.

This reconfiguring of the harem allows Fay to speak to women's power rather than their submissiveness, and in so doing to challenge further paradigms. By contributing to an ongoing discussion in Middle Eastern history about women as property owners and waqf administrators, she places Mamluk women in the company of powerful men. …

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