Practices of Mobility, Regimes of Visibility: Jocelyne Dakhlia on Women in the Early Modern Maghrib

May 6, 2019
Jocelyne Dakhlia

Jocelyne Dakhlia, Director of Studies, Center for Historical Research, Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales, was the distinguished speaker this year for the H.A.R. Gibb Arabic and Islamic Studies Lecture Series, established in 1964 in honor of Sir Hamilton A.R. Gibb, who was a director of CMES as well as University Professor and James Richard Jewett Professor of Arabic at Harvard. Youssef Ben Ismail, PhD candidate in Muslim Societies and Cultures in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, covered the lectures for CMES.

In the summer of 1535, Charles V sailed to Tunis to drive Ottoman troops out of the Hafsid Kingdom. Dutch painter Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen accompanied the emperor on his expedition. Based on his observations, Vermeyen produced a series of tapestries portraying the fighting with a quasi-ethnographic attention to detail. One of the most striking elements of Vermeyen’s depiction of The Conquest of Tunis is the ubiquitous presence of women on the battlefield. They are portrayed performing many crucial tasks, such as serving water to the soldiers and healing the wounded among them. Vermeyen’s vivid depiction of North African women’s active role in battle stands in stark contrast with the commonplace notion that they were confined to an isolated and sedentary lifestyle in the early modern Maghrib. What are we to make of Vermeyen’s women on the battlefield? How does this square with the traditional view of women’s quarantined harem life? In her two Gibb lectures at Harvard, Jocelyne Dakhlia provided important answers to these questions, as she set out to trace the social practices and political stakes of female mobility and visibility in early modern North Africa.

Jocelyne Dakhlia

A widely acclaimed historian of the Mediterranean, Dakhlia dedicated much of her scholarly career to the cultural history of political life on its southern shore. Particularly insightful in this regard was her brilliant book Lingua Franca, which examined the history of the eponymous "pidgin" that served as a shared language of politics and diplomacy on the two shores of the early modern Mediterranean. In her first lecture, entitled "The Sultanic Harem in Movement: State Logic and Feminine Mobility in Morocco (1500-1800),” Dakhlia focused on the Moroccan harem’s continuous movement outside the walls of the Sultan's palace. One could be tempted to ascribe this movement to moments of political crisis: in the early seventeenth century, forced to contend with an increasingly threatening political climate, Mawlay Zidân chartered a French ship to send two hundred of his harem’s women away to safety (another ship was loaded with thousands of manuscripts from his personal library). Yet what make Dakhlia’s approach most compelling is that she does not see the movement of the sultanic harem as a contingent outcome of political events. Instead, she proposes that it be considered a structural characteristic of the ever-expanding Moroccan Sultanate, for Dakhlia locates the extra muros life of the harem’s women at the heart of the state’s techniques of government.

In her first lecture, Dakhlia began by showing how the accumulation of women in the Sultan’s harem mirrored the expansion and centralization of the Moroccan state. In the late seventeenth century, the heyday of the Alawite Dynasty, European observers ascribed up to eight thousand women to Mawlay Ismail’s harem. As the state established its rule over increasingly vast territorial domains, urban elites and tribal leaders gifted their women to the Sultan as a symbol of political alliance or a sign of renewed allegiance. During this period, virtually any travel of the Sultan outside of his palace resulted in more women joining the harem. The travel from their village to the palace was hardly the last trip the new recruits would take. The Alawite state conceived of itself as a gazi warrior state. When the Sultan was not at war, he led his mahalla to the countryside to ascertain his rule. Like the rest of the state apparatus, the Moroccan harem was thus a traveling one. Abroad, women often accompanied the Sultan as part of his official retinue. In the late eighteenth century, Mawlay Yazid travelled to Tripolitania with seven women. There, he abducted and married the daughter of a powerful tribal shaykh before returning to his kingdom. But it is within Morocco that these women's contribution to the inherent workings of the state was most visible.

Dakhlia’s lecture was most compelling when she described how the mobility of these women played into the Sultan’s strategy of what we may call—somewhat anachronistically—governance: on a trip to Marrakesh, the ruler made sure to take with him women who originally hailed from the region. This way, they could meet with their families, express public support for the Sultan, and defend his interests. As a result, the women of the harem came to constitute a system of local representation that could be wielded by the increasingly centralized Moroccan state in order to further enshrine its legitimacy on the ground. There were other examples of what Dakhlia called the moving harem's “political capillarity." Many of the Sultan’s newly acquired women were sent to the houses of urban notables for education and training. This was for instance the case during the reign of Mawlay Ismail, who instituted a group of black female servants within his palace, many of whom were first placed with prominent families in the city of Fez. The notables were responsible for women’s education and security but also for their honor. This system created a direct link between the state and urban elites which, in turn, formed complex relations of solidarity and surveillance vis-à-vis potentially rebellious families. As it were, this practice turned on its head the pre-existing tradition of gifting women to the Sultanic harem in order to secure influence in the palace.

Of concern to Dakhlia, the effort to paint the picture of a harem in flux pushes back against the historiographical emphasis on its static nature, secluded from social dynamics and political life. Through her frequent recourse to local chronicles and European travelogues, she presented these women as both power brokers and social mediators. The political role of the harem’s women urges us to call into question the idée reçue of a strict separation between masculine and feminine worlds. Admittedly, some of the women—often those of the highest social rank—were not allowed outside of the palace. But, Dakhlia shows, this was not true of all the harem’s women: European travelers such as Nicolas de Nicolay or Count Potocki noted the free circulation of female slaves and servants outside the palace walls in the eighteenth century. British diplomat John Braithwaite wrote that he was surprised when one of these women, unveiled and covered in jewellery, approached him to offer her mediation. In the 1760s, Princess Fatma travelled alone from Marrakesh to Fez in order to visit various pilgrimage sites. She made the trip on horseback accompanied by a large escort of a thousand men. Following these women’s ventures outside of the palace, one is forced to dismiss as illusory “the utopia of honor and virtue” that is the closed harem. It appears instead as a porous space composed of highly visible women.

It is to this question of visibility that Dakhlia turned for her second Gibb lecture entitled "Undesired Bodies: Figures of Continuity and Discontinuity in the Mediterranean of Lady Montagu.” As the accounts of Nicolay, Potocki, and Braithwaite suggest, North African women did not go unnoticed in the accounts of European travelers. As is well studied in the secondary literature, ‘oriental’ women in European sight have frequently been portrayed in an eroticized and hypersexualized manner. This orientalist portrayal was especially prevalent in the nineteenth century, a time when colonial projects flourished on the southern and eastern shores of Mediterranean. That orientalist discourse and colonial endeavors went hand in hand is, by now, a well established fact. But what can be said of the European perception of oriental women before this explosion of orientalist discourse? For her second lecture, Dakhlia proposed to examine other modalities of otherization (“the other leg of racism”), namely the cast of the other’s body, not as desirable and erotic, but as undesirable and de-sexualized.

In 1718, Lady Montagu, the famed wife of the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, made a stop in Tunis during her Mediterranean travels. Lady Montagu’s "Turkish letters" are well known for their eroticized depiction of Ottoman harems. Her enthusiastic descriptions of female naked bodies in the hammams of Sofia earned her the nickname “Sappho” among some of her British readers. She had come to represent something of an early feminist who praised women-only spaces of the East as spaces of freedom and harmony. But in her writings on the women of Tunis, she did not display any of the feminine solidarity that she had expressed towards the women of the Ottoman east. Under the Lady Montagu's pen, Tunisian women appear as frightful and masculine, deformed and ugly, at times even compared to “baboons” and “monkeys.” How are we to understand the immense gap between the penetrating charm of Turkish women and the repulsive ugliness of Tunisian women in her account?

Dakhlia offered several possible explanations to this puzzle. It could be the result of a form of aristocratic contempt vis-à-vis the women of Tunis. After all, the British aristocrat could identify with high-class Turkish ladies in a way that was certainly impossible with lower-class Tunisian women. But something else seems to underlie Lady Montagu’s views as suggested by the use of the terms “baboon” and “monkey.” At the heart of her judgement lies a rejection of a specifically African alterity. Other common European tropes may also be at play: the fundamental distinction between "Turkish" and "Moorish" territories and populations, lament for the degradation of ancient ruins (in this case Carthage) at the hands of "uncivilized societies." As a cultural historian, Dakhlia is interested in the roots of these motifs of disgust. Often times, classist and racial dynamics appear to be at play together. In his Description of Africa, Leo Africanus described the sahaqat of Fez, a lesbian sisterhood cast who led honorable women astray from marital duty by initiating them to same-sex love. By the eighteenth century, such accounts had given rise in Europe to a cultural bundle associated with North African women: oversized sexes, masculine behavior (mirroring the feminity of men), repulsive tattoos. Their bodies came under the same level of scrutiny as did Ottoman ones, but with the additional dimension of unattractiveness.

Returning to Lady Montagu, her views regarding the repulsiveness of tattooed women is particularly striking. Her position on the matter was shared by many other foreign observers in the eighteenth century Maghrib, such as Elizabeth Broughton in Algiers and Miss Tully in Tripolitania. The tattoos harbored by bedouin women had been praised as an important feature of their beauty in the writings of Maghribi men of letters such Ibn Khatib and Ibn Khaldun. The latter even quoted a hijazi poem on the beauty of bedouin women with their tattooed arms. But as Dakhlia observed, Lady Montagu was blind to this poetic beauty. In fact, what is striking in her account and in those of her contemporaries, is the totally de-eroticized character of women's bodies. For any student of European discourse on women of the Orient, this is a remarkable absence. Dakhlia’s careful reading of these sources forces us to readjust our understanding of the nexus between otherization and sexualization and pay further attention to the plurality of ways in which the alterity of oriental women was expressed in early modern Europe.

At least since Fernand Braudel, historians of the early modern Mediterranean have defined the region as a space of social contact and cultural exchange. Jocelyne Dakhlia goes even further: the Mediterranean is a continuous space, composed of societies that are coextensive rather than merely connected. But a continuous world is not necessarily a homogeneous world: the histories of circulation and encounters should not foreclose those of violence and othering. In this context, the task of the historian is to carefully excavate continuities without flattening out the various points of contention and resistance that may arise in the process. Both aspects are equally precious to our understanding of the early modern Mediterranean. Seen under this light, Dakhlia’s Gibb lectures appear as an insightful complement to Lingua Franca. Early modernists and historians of the Mediterranean historians alike should look forward to her next book with enthusiasm.