Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Turkish Harems: Issues of Gender and Power in Cristina di Belgioioso's Vita intima e vita nomade in Oriente

Biographies of Cristina di Belgioioso chart impressive and sometimes startling territories in terms of the breadth of roles she assumed and reinvented. Princess, scholar, writer, traveller, farmer, healer, newspaper director, salon hostess, romantic muse for leading literati, political and women?s rights activist, a fervent supporter of Italian independence and the Risorgimento, forced into exile for her pains, she succeeded in challenging during her lifetime (1808 -1871) just about every social convention defining and limiting women?s lives. Denigrated and ridiculed by many for daring to live her life as she chose and her wealth allowed her to, Cristina broke boundaries on acceptable roles for women because she perceived none. This is evident in her travel writings, when her participation in the violent struggle of the short-lived Roman Republic against French and Austrian domination in 1849 resulted in her going into self-imposed exile in Turkey, where she settled for several years.

It is her writings during her eleven-month journey on horseback across the bandit-infested terrain of Turkey and Syria to Jerusalem for her daughter?s confirmation that provide one of the most fascinating accounts of a cross-cultural encounter between women from the East and West, an account that inserts itself into the debate on post-colonialisms first given prominence in Edward Said?s text, Orientalism. Arguably one of the first European women to observe from close hand the condition of women in harems, a subject much-beloved by male European painters and writers steeped in the phenomenon of ?orientalism?, Cristina di Belgioioso rewrote these romanticised scripts from a critical and ironic perspective, providing some interesting insights on issues of gender and power when the gaze on the ?other? of an ?other? culture is female, and herself ?other? in her own culture.

?Orientalism? is the name Said has given to the scientific discipline beginning in the early nineteenth-century in which the specialized study of various oriental cultures and traditions was initiated. A body of knowledge resulted from these studies, among them the disciplines of anthropology, philology, ethnography, geography, and political science, which led to ideological images, interpretations, suppositions and fantasies about the Orient, where the perceiving Orientalist is always positioned as the impartial subject and the Orient as the object of representation. For Said, a significant feature of Oriental/European relations was that Europe was always in a position of power and domination and projected itself as a civilizing influence. However, as fundamentally important his text has been to the way we look at cross-culturalism today, his theories are universalizing, as, when presuming dominance as the standard European position, they do not take into account the crucial factor of gender, where women?s subaltern status as ?other? in their own cultures must be considered when we look at the accounts of women travel writers. [There has been considerable literature on]

Historically, the interest in ?orientalism? in literature and painting was sparked off by Napoleon?s expedition to Egypt in 1798. It gave rise to a taste for depictions of Arab horses, exotic landscapes, figures of negroes, and harems inhabited by sensual, half-naked female slaves with undulating curves, dark skins, and alluring eyes. The harem as a space which symbolized the otherness of the Orient has produced a long western preoccupation with harem fantasies - sensual, available bodies, veils, mystery - and these have come to stand for the Orient as a whole: an opaque, feminised, eroticised space, awaiting the penetration of light and reason embodied in the civilizing, and ultimately colonizing, western ?gaze?.

Cristina di Belgioioso?s encounter with the harems of Turkey spans several segments of her Vita intima e vita nomade in Oriente, a text originally published in French in serial form in a Paris journal, ?Revue des Deux Mondes? in 1855. These articles were then published in book form in 1858, and the present edited version was distilled from this text, although not translated and published in Italian until 1921.

In her preface, Cristina places herself in relation to former male travellers and male-authored texts by affirming the inadequacy of their writings on Oriental matters. Because men were forbidden from entering the harems, she saw them as being at a disadvantage in terms of their ability to describe this institution accurately. She uses her gender and its traditional relegation to the limited spaces of the domestic sphere, as an instrument of epistemological empowerment.

She writes triumphantly: ?L?harem, questo santuario maomettano, ermeticamente chiuso a tutti gli uomini, mi era aperto. Vi potevo penetrare liberamente; potevo conversare con quegli esseri misteriosi che l?europeo intravvede solo velati, interrogare alcune di quelle anime che non si aprono mai, e stimolarle a confidenze preziose su tutto un mondo sconosciuto di passioni e di pene? (VI, p. 22). [?The harem, this Mahometan sanctuary, hermetically closed to all men, was open to me. I was able to penetrate it freely, converse with those mysterious beings that Europeans glimpse only veiled, interrogate some of those minds that have never opened before, and encourage them to precious confidences on an unknown world of passion and suffering.?] Her ?penetration? or prising open of the harem draws both on masculine sexual imagery with its imperialist implications of conquest and freedom of movement, and the promise of seductive revelations reminiscent of confessional literature. Asserting her access to this previously unattainable knowledge by virtue of being female, Cristina privileges the importance of gender in terms of her ability to gain and disseminate knowledge, and carves out her own distinctive position in adding to the body of knowledge on oriental civilizations. The women of the harem become living human beings, subjects worthy of interrogation. As opposed to the fantasized, objectified and voiceless bodies of the male imagination, they are endowed with minds and voices, and are thus attributed a subjectivity previously denied them. [However, it is a ?subjectivity? that Cristina remains firmly in control of ]

She proceeds to debunk myths about the exotic, seductive nature of women living in the harems by inscribing it within a patently domestic frame that de-eroticises well-known painters? and writers? depictions (among them Flaubert, Ingres, and Delacroix), and critiques the seminal oriental text Thousand and One Nights (VI, p. 34) as a series of impossible and misleading fantasies. She further de-eroticises the harem by reporting the appalling environment, lack of hygiene and miserable conditions of the women she encounters there. Cristina?s de-eroticism of the harem sets up the binary of the domestic which, although situating women in a network of family relationships close to the actual functioning of the harem, serves as a forum where she can comment on how wanting this familial situation is, compared to the obviously superior western model.

She spares no one in her often censuring approach, from the ninety-year old patriarch whose many wives range in age from twelve to thirty, to her perceptions of the vain, lazy, dirty, pitiable women who inhabit the compound. She narrates several of her encounters in the form of a dialogue between herself and the patriarch in an information-gathering exercise presented as a gradual awareness of the deplorable state of family relationships, due to the practice of harem-keeping. Often her initial respect for the dignified, white-bearded mufti evaporates as she hears of his cavalier neglect of women and children, and reflects on their total subjugation to the whims of their master. An effective narrative strategy is to pose rhetorical questions which the narrator directs to, then answers on behalf of the patriarch, appropriating his perspective in order to both strongly criticize and ironize it (VI, p. 109). In doing so, she exposes women?s worth as being totally dependent on their reproductive function. An infertile woman no matter how beautiful, was treated as a pariah in the harem, tormented, insulted, and ridiculed (VI , p.120).

Yet Cristina?s obvious sense of horror at and empathy with the condition of these women vies with her distaste at what she saw as the excesses of their habits. In one passage Cristina exposes with obvious passion the worst examples of the system in the appalling treatment of small girls who are given as slaves to boys as young as nine and twelve as a kind of preparation for their future (VI, p.112). But two paragraphs later, she extols the ?natural? gentleness and tolerance of the male Turk and blames women?s oppressive conditions on their lack of doing anything to better themselves. One page later, she blames women?s plight on the fact that ?she really doesn?t do a thing for herself to improve her condition?. (VI, p.113) This is in direct contradiction to the considerable energy she has spent on describing an environment and customs which, in her opinion, explain why women are powerless to act for themselves.

Her empathy and identification soon shift to distinguishing herself from the implications of powerlessness embodied in these ?poor degraded women?. REF? She sympathises with the patriarch?s distaste at sleeping anywhere near the compound of women and enlists his efforts to provide her, too, with a separate sleeping space. Cristina maintains a psychological and physical distance from the harem where wives, children, servants, and black slaves mingle, eating, sleeping and passing time together in the same dishevelled, undifferentiated area. She abhors this apparent equality and in mock horror elucidates on ?cosa diventerebbe il nostro bell?arredamento europeo, se le nostre cuoche , le nostre donne di servizio, venissero a riposarsi dei loro lavori sui nostri divani, sulle nostre poltrone, con i piedi sui nostri tappeti e la schiena contro le nostre tappezzerie? (VI, p.35). [?what our beautiful European furnishings would look like if our cooks and our maids came to rest from their work on our divans, our armchairs, with their feet on our carpets and their backs against our tapestries?]. The lack of segregation and recognition of social hierarchies in this female-dominated world poses a threat to Western notions of order and decorum and the sense of ownership associated with class privilege from which Cristina so clearly benefited. But it can also be linked to the sense of anarchy and disorder that Oriental despotism seemed to represent - a feminized space in which uncontrolled female sexuality and lack of class distinction threatened Western self-constructions of enlightened civilization.

Accounts of harem life from women who grew up in them will testify to the strong solidarity and physical displays of affection among the wives and the advantages of having so many ?step-mothers?. Also, some theorists, without denying its oppressive nature, have recently suggested that the harem, with its easy access to other women and potential for a variety of relationships between women, is no greater site of oppression than the domestication and physical isolation of women in the nuclear family, along sharp class divisions within the bourgeois ideology of marriage.

In one passage Cristina describes the women?s penchant for adornment and face-painting. Due to a lack of mirrors they used each other as guides, encouraging what Cristina perceived as grotesque decoration of each other?s faces in gaudy colours in order to make their presumed rival for male attention as ugly and disagreeable as possible. In European cultures painted faces were associated with prostitutes, and were presumed to hide imperfections. Thus Cristina, making no effort to find out how the women themselves saw it, imposes European meanings of female rivalry and degradation on to the women in the harem, de-eroticising without however, de-exoticising them (VI, pp. 34-5).

One particularly interesting factor of Cristina?s analysis is that she approached it from a class-based perspective, dividing the harem into three classes. In this way, she avoided the sweeping over-simplifications of the phenomenon which lumped all Eastern women together, and showed how the condition of women changed depending on their husband?s social status. Harems, she saw, were the prerogative of the upper and middle classes, constructed on economic and social conditions, as well as age and class variables. Contrary to expectation, she revealed that the situation of a woman married to a peasant was far better than that of her upper-class counterparts, whom she depicted as little more than slaves. For economic reasons, peasants rarely had more than one wife and, according to Cristina, she was treated with love and respect. Clearly, this was the ideal conjugal situation to which Cristina aspired, investing to a certain extent in the contemporary European romantic notion of the noble peasant, closer to ?natural? goodness, and praising strongly the husband who remained loyal to his one wife, even when, according to Cristina in one of her severely moralistic pronouncements, she was thoroughly undeserving. Her motive seems to have been to promote the Christian custom of monogamous marriage as the most dignified practice in raising the status of women to assume a moral dignity that she felt the harem thoroughly erased. Yet, in looking to the ?natural goodness? of the Turkish male peasant and equating it to European, Christian-based matrimonial practices, she does not go beyond the moral absolutism of the west in assessing the lives of the women she sought to ?know? and represent.

[Her recognition of the harem as a multiform, heterogeneous social practice dependent for meaning on a variety of locations contradicts its representation as a monolithic, isolated discourse. She writes; La parola harem designa un?entit complessa e multiforme. C?? l?harem del povero , quello della classe media e del gran signore, l?harem di provincia e l?harem della capitale, quello della campagna e quello della citt, del giovane e del vecchio, del pio musulmano che rimpiange il vecchio regime e del musulmano libero pensatore, scettico, amante delle riforme e abbigliato all?occidentale. Ognuno di questi harem ha il suo carattere particolare, il suo grado di importanza, i suoi usi e le sue abitudini? (VI, p.100).

The word harem designates a complex and multiform entity. There is the harem of the poor, the middle classes and of the nobleman, the harem of the provinces and the harem of the capital, that of the countryside and of the city, of the young and the old, of the pious Muslim who pines for the old regime and of the free thinking Muslim, sceptical, supporter of reform and attired like a westerner. Each one of these harems has its own particular character, its grade of importance, its customs and its habits.

Her assertion of the plurality and differences of the harem serves to accentuate its constitutive factors of class, age, geographical location, This is backed up by a description of the harem women?s survival tactics, where they joined forces to mock and belittle the man on whose goodwill they depended upon so totally. Cristina demolishes any Orientalist fantasies of respectful, adoring slaves by contrasting their servile, submissive behaviour in their husband?s presence to their lewd, vulgar, gesticulating activities among themselves in his absence, (VI, p.111) acknowledging their propensity to stick a knife in his belly if given half a chance. She questions, through savagely ridiculing, masculine Orientalist stereotypes of dominance and seductive subservience, yet reinforces cultural stereotypes about women by representing them as conniving and duplicitous, exploiting the relative tolerance of their husbands.

Her account of a conversation between herself and the head wife in one of the harems is particularly telling. The woman?s submissive behaviour completely changes when her husband leaves the room and, demonstrating an indefatigable curiosity, she fires a barrage of questions at Cristina on her culture and customs, asking ?why? to each answer. Cristina?s response is to first acknowledge that the woman is not as stupid as her husband thinks she is, and then to disparage and minimize the woman?s intelligence by asserting that the most effective way to silence such questioning, which would require more complex answers than her interlocutor could understand, is to say, ?it?s our custom?. She therefore suppresses any real exchange or opportunity for mutual interchange by avoiding acknowledgment of the otherness of her own culture, and firmly cementing Orientalist subject/object binaries. In this way, European questioning and information-gathering is represented as far superior to the child-like acceptance of the Oriental woman, thus legitimizing her own cultural project and the superior analytical tools of the European race.

In addition, it erases the fact that any ?knowing? of another culture is a very mediated exercise. It is not a transparent process, nor in any way effected through direct communication with the outside observer, as suggested by Cristina?s text. Although Cristina was in charge of her expedition and made most decisions herself, all conversations with her subjects were made through an interpreter. This fact was not revealed in her text except almost jokingly in passing, when her interpreter had difficulty in translating a certain expression. Instead, her conversations were usually recreated in the form of a narrative dialogue between herself and her subject, emphasizing Cristina?s journalistic, fact-finding enterprise.

Some feminist theorists have read women travellers primarily in terms of their tenacity, bravery and unconventional behaviour, emphasising these elements so that travel becomes the celebratory launching pad of female liberation. A woman traveller is seen to be a contradiction in terms, transgressing the private domestic sphere and the limited social and political spaces in which women have traditionally been located. In the process, less palatable aspects, such as European women?s collusion in the imperialist /colonial venture of expansion and domination, are ignored or glossed over, giving a very partial view of women?s participation in travel literature.

In these texts, the confined Oriental woman is contrasted with the freedom of the European woman who is able to move around and write of her impressions. Such Orientalist representations of these women dramatize what European women feel they have surpassed, thus disguising issues of their own continuing subservience in a patriarchal culture in which women were denied civil and political rights. Thus, (as Inderpal Grewal has observed) the discourse of women caged in the harems is the necessary binary to women?s sense of dignified freedom in European society. This view was central to an imperialist culture in which the superiority and freedom of European forms of civilization were the rationale for colonialism. Women, by travelling, demonstrate an equality with men, implying a mobility that is synonymous with freedom and rights for women. But those freedoms, embodied in Mary Wollstonecraft?s founding treatise of western humanist feminism, Vindication of the Rights of Women, published in 1792, were often couched in metaphors of eastern male despotism and female enslavement. The use of the harem as a trope for the depth of the oppression of western women by western men was a recognised cultural code of feminist discourse. Thus the discourse of western women?s emancipation is structured upon the presumed economic and cultural subjugation of eastern women, a guidebook on how not to treat women if one belonged to a superior civilization.

Yet to assume that women travellers mime and appropriate masculine imperialist rhetoric is to ignore that very different place and stance from which men and women spoke in their own societies. And to assume that all women speak in a similar voice risks ?homogenizing? the very different locations in which travel writers moved. Cristina was an extraordinarily independent and powerful woman, even by today?s terms. The enshrinement of domesticity, in a home away from home, which some British women brought to their colonial ventures was not evident in Cristina?s writings, nor her activities. [She figures herself as a nomad] She never remained in one place long enough to call it home, and her various publishing, scholarly and farming enterprises along with her political activism, including her running a hospital, established her as a formidable, if controversial presence in the public sphere. Nonetheless, women in the Italo-French society Cristina moved in still lacked civil and political rights. No amount of wealth or position could confer legal status upon her illegitimate daughter, who needed the proof of paternity in order to inherit her mother?s estate. Cristina?s journey to Jerusalem for her daughter?s confirmation was conducted not so much for pious reasons (and she had several run-ins with the clergy), as to prepare Marie for her entry into society, and facilitate the battle for her judicial recognition.

In reading sections of Cristina?s texts against each other, the shifting, often conflicting narrative positions reveal that her critique of Turkish women?s status is located within imperialist assumptions incorporating social hierarchies of power relations. Although much of her life was spent actively fighting the savage colonization of Austria in order to establish Italy as an independent, self-governing nation, those same colonizing notions are woven through her account and assessment of Middle-Eastern society and her observations on women in harems.

As such, her views reveal the tensions inherent in her own ambivalent and complex relationship as a woman to the dominant imperialist discourse. It is within these contradictions that her encounter with the women of the Orient should be discussed. She both challenges and debunks Western myths about the harem, yet supports the power structures and gender notions which have created her own perceptions and experiences. The harem women act as a disturbing mirror of unresolved issues of gender and power pertaining to Western women, issues which Cristina?s own extraordinary and passionately-lived life seemed intent on confronting and questioning.


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