During the nineteenth century, the figure of the passive, oppressed, yet highly sexualized female of the Muslim harem became the pivotal figure of Western orientalism. Despite recent challenges to orientalist thinking, however, an enduring mystique continues to surround Western perceptions of Eastern women.
In Rethinking Orientalism, Reina Lewis makes a major contribution to correcting the prevailing stereotype of the subjugated, silenced woman of the harem. Bringing together published autobiographical accounts of self-identified "Oriental" women at the turn of the twentieth century, she reveals that these women were, in fact, able to intervene in orientalist culture and manipulate cultural codes. Lewis shows how the writings of Demetra Vaka Brown, Halide Edib, Zeyneb Hanum, Melek Hanum, and Grace Ellison were part of a social and textual dialogue with Western women, and how their contentious engagement with Western feminism was an important facet of regional modernization.
Exploring the complicated ways that these writers addressed topics such as seclusion, the veil, and polygamy, Lewis vividly illustrates the possibilities and limitations of resistance that women from Islamic societies have experienced and continue to work within.