Gender and the colonial encounter in the Arab world: Examining women's experiences and narratives

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It has been asserted that women's travel narratives are fundamentally different from those of men. The differential access of women to the dominant imperial position produced a gaze on the Orient that registered differences in less pejorative ways. However, the analysis of the intersection of gender, class, nation, and race discourses problematizes this view, and gives evidence that in women's narratives and life experiences one can find sites of resistance to colonialism as well as sites of complicity, depending on the individual women's positioning in this intersection. But even if women's narratives and life experiences do not necessarily deviate from the predominant Orientalist discourse, their texts are nevertheless specifically gendered. In this paper I study two women travelers, Isabelle Eberhardt (1877 - 1904) and Gertrude Bell (1868 - 1926). Eberhardt, born in Geneva (although with a Russian background), traveled to Tunisia and Algeria, wrote in French, and became a legendary figure in France. Gertrude Bell, born in County Durham (United Kingdom), spent most of her adult life in the Middle East and, at the service of the British Government, played a major role in the creation of its modern political map (in particular in Iraq). The study and comparison of these two women shed light on the complexity of attitudes towards colonialism that can result from a combined analysis of gender, class, nation, and race. Eberhardt was frequently torn between identifying with her race and class or with her gender, and among French colonial officers held a reputation of being an enemy of France as well as profoundly Algerianized; but, in the end, she gradually reached a compromised position in relation to France's colonial policies in the Sahara. In contrast, Bell was a traveler and a scholar who used her knowledge and her travels to promote the cause of the British Empire. But although she was unambiguously imperial in her outlook, she also managed to achieve a personal closeness with many Arabs and was a champion of their history and culture.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)653-672
JournalEnvironment and Planning D: Society and Space
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2003


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