For those who haven’t studied the Middle East, the historical lives of women there can be thought to be a black hole: no information available about those who were thrown under a burkha and locked up at home or in a harem.
Never mind that few women wore the clothing of modern-day Saudi Arabia in the past; women had vibrant lives there regardless of social restriction. Even in the harem, ostensibly the most restrictive place in the pre-modern Middle East, women ironically could exert more power than anywhere else. In fact, if you wanted to rule an empire through your weak-minded husband or son, there was no better place to be.
To discuss these issue I am joined by Marie Grace Brown, professor of history at the University of Kansas. She is a cultural historian of the Modern Middle East with a special interest in the questions of gender and empire.
Marie does a great job of making academic concepts about Westernization vs. modernization accessible to a non-scholarly audience. But we don’t get too scholarly. At one point I ask her how she would take over the Middle East as a woman in the pre-modern world.
Her award-winning book, Khartoum at Night: Fashion and Body Politics in Imperial Sudan (Stanford University Press, 2017), traces gestures, intimacies, and adornment to give a history of northern Sudanese women’s lives under imperial rule.
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