Much useful insight into the gendered operations of colonialism has emerged from the study of women’s involvement as missionaries, teachers, reformers, and health specialists in colonial settings, and from wider cultural analyses of links between gendered ideas of domesticity and moral improvement and colonial agendas. However this reading of colonial histories also raises conceptual and ideological challenges. Does it confirm rather than critique conventional nineteenth century assumptions about “woman’s mission”, thereby marginalising or obscuring other aspects of women’s involvement in colonial settings? Does it ignore European women’s use of colonial space and colonial privilege to resist dominant gender conventions? Does it allow historians to explore tensions or inconsistencies within the gendered practices of colonial governance, culture and ideology? This paper will explore these questions through a comparative analysis of texts produced by a number of French and English women involved in Egypt between the 1850s and the 1920s when European involvement there moved from commercial, cultural and diplomatic contact to the consolidation of colonial occupation. It will examine their interests in travel, archaeology, and local custom as well as their interests in anti-slavery, education, and health care, and suggest that “civilising” and moral agendas could co-habit with an appetite for the exotic, and with ambitions to establish “expert” or “insider” knowledge, or personal agency. It will consider whether in addition to ‘improving’ or “interpreting” colonial subjects, women’s agendas might include desires for pleasure and power, which fit neither nineteenth century expectations, nor some of the assumptions in the historiography of gender and empire. This discussion will thereby contribute to a sharper and more nuanced understanding of the conflicted character of European women’s involvement in colonialism in the Middle East.
Joanna de Groot is Senior Lecturer in History, University of York. Author of Imperialism and history writing in Britain 1750-2010, Manchester UP, forthcoming ; “War empire and the ‘other’: Iranian-European contacts in the ‘revolutionary’ and ‘Napoleonic’ eras” in R. Bessel, N. Guyatt and J. Rendall (eds.), War, empire and slavery in the revolutionary and Napoleonic era, Palgrave 2010 ; ‘Removing peoples; some comparative reflections’ in R. Bessel and C. Haake (eds), Removing peoples, Oxford UP, 2009 ; Religion, culture, and politics in Iran: from the Qajars to Khomeini, I. B. Tauris, 2007 ; ‘Metropolitan desires and colonial connections: consumption and empire 1750-1950’ in C. Hall and S. Rose (eds.), At home with the empire, Cambridge UP, 2006 ; ‘Oriental feminotopias? Montagu’s and Montesquieu’s “seraglios” revisited’, Gender and History, 2006 ; “Brothers of the Iranian race”: manhood, nationhood and modernity in Iran 1870-1914′ in S. Dudink, K. Hagemann, and J. Tosh (eds.), Masculinity in politics and war, Manchester UP, 2004, ‘”Sex” and “race”: the construction of language and image in the nineteenth century’ in C. Hall (ed.), Cultures of empire, Manchester UP, 2000.