It was a hackneyed truth that while European Christian women in the 18th century were essentially free, ‘“Oriental” and Muslim women were incarcerated body and soul behind veils,’ as Margaret Hunt puts it. Browbeaten British wives accused oppressive husbands of Turkish despotism, drawing attention to the illegitimacy of domestic tyranny in the land of Liberty as well as to their total ignorance of Ottoman Europe. The most influential Orientalist novel of the 18th century, Montesquieu’s bestselling Lettres persanes (1721), drew a melodramatic comparison between Christian and Muslim marriage, contrasting Muslim polygamists who made sex slaves of their wives with Christian monogamists who allowed their womenfolk to rove and socialise freely (possibly too freely). Montesquieu had not ventured into a single Muslim country when he wrote the book, relying instead on Orientalist cliché. A self-serving fantasy of the exotic East as foil to Western superiority took deep root. It even permeates letters I have read in provincial archives in the north of England in which happy British women congratulate themselves on having escaped the fate of their benighted sisters in the East.
LRB 8 September 2011 | PDF Download