Nancy L. Stockdale. Colonial Encounters among English and Palestinian Women, 1800- 1948. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2007. xi + 246 pp. $59.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8130-3163-7.
Reviewed by Michelle Tusan (University of Nevada, Las Vegas)
Published on H-Albion (June, 2008)
Nancy Stockdale has written a useful and engaging monograph examining the points of contact between English and Palestinian women during a formative period in the history of the Near East. Drawing on archival sources gleaned from her research on three continents, she argues that English women should be seen as playing a central role in the making and unmaking of the imperial project in Palestine. Travel literature, private correspondence, and papers from missionary groups operating in the region comprise the main body of the source material used to build this argument in the five substantive chapters and brief conclusion that follow a short introduction.
Recent scholarship from the fields of gender and subaltern studies informs her critique of the "colonial encounters" that she describes. English women, Stockdale argues, never "saw" Palestine but rather read it through a set of lenses colored by the popularly held belief in "the region's singular status as the 'Holy Land'" (p. 1). Chapter 2, "'The Bible was Our Handbook and Guide': Women's Travel Writing and the English-Palestinian Encounter," examines travel writing by English women who visited the region starting in the early 1800s. As the title of the chapter asserts it was not travel guides such as those put out by Karl Baedeker and Thomas Cook and Son that informed these women's impressions of the region, but the Bible itself. Here the image of an unchanging East served a larger agenda that looked to make Palestine a "British space … result[ing] in their metaphorical, and then actual, ownership of the land, assisting the larger imperial project in Palestine" (p. 33).
Chapter 3 turns to the "material" side of the colonial encounter. Stockdale argues that English women's experience with indigenous forms of culture that included the harem, festivals, and clothing furthered an imperial project that favored "ownership" over understanding. Critiques of the harem reflected the ideals of English middle-class culture obsessed with the material lives of women in Palestine. For some English women, owning clothing from the "Holy Land" was akin to knowing the Bible. This form of collecting offered a mode of social control over the inhabitants who themselves were sometimes criticized when they appropriated forms of Western dress. In the case of religious festivals, Stockdale argues that they served as "tableaux for the onlookers" rather than meaningful spiritual rituals (p. 90). For women who often represented themselves "pilgrims" in their writings, this disconnect served to disrupt their notions of the region as the cradle of Christianity.
Encounters between English missionaries and Palestinian women are the subject of both chapters 4 and 5. Mission groups such as the Society for Promoting Female Education in the East, the Society for Promoting Christianity amongst the Jews, the Church Missionary Society, and the Jerusalem and the East Mission had a long history with the region. Many women affiliated with these groups found themselves "attracted by their faith to live in Palestine" and helped set up institutions that promoted both English domestic values and Protestant beliefs (p. 110). The evidence presented here repeats the claims made in the two preceding chapters that most missionaries read the "Holy Land" through the lens of their own interpretation of the Bible. English women missionaries both imposed their own views on potential converts and served as agents of the state according to Stockdale. In addition to promoting religious and philanthropic projects English missions had their institutions used by the state during the mandate period. Some, like Frances E. Newton, even stayed on as government advisors after their period of mission service.
The narrative turns to questioning the motivations and actual work of English women in the Palestinian mission field in chapter 5. A scandal at the Protestant orphanage at Nazareth in the late nineteenth century provides Stockdale with the opportunity to turn the gaze inward to examine what is presented, ultimately, as the failure of the imperial project in Palestine. This case study provides fertile ground for exploring the tensions between colonized and colonizer as they came to be represented in context of the orphanage run by the Society for Promoting Female Education in the East. Questions regarding harsh work conditions at the orphanage arose when girls under the charge of the headmistress, Julia Rose, attempted to commit suicide while in her charge. (As in other mission projects in the region, girls were expected to perform labor in exchange for room, board, and educational training.) This case study of the limits of English cultural authority in Palestine leaves open the question of how representative this incident was in the long history of the encounter between English and Palestinian women.
One of the most important contributions this book makes is in taking seriously the claims by critics of European travel writing like Mary Louise Pratt that the imperial gaze provides a distorted view of its subject. Chapter 6, "A Refracted Gaze: Palestinian Women Reading the English," attempts to correct this historically lopsided portrait by including interviews of Palestinian women educated in English schools around the time of the end of the mandate. These oral histories provide a valuable corrective to the many travel accounts cited earlier in the text that cast Palestinian women as the exotic other. Stockdale's is a sympathetic reading that represents the contradictory sensibility of the women she interviewed as part of complex set of discussions revolving around contemporary political concerns in the region.
This is a book that quite rightly does not shy away from the political questions that shaped this cultural encounter. Stockdale's critique of Billie Melman's seminal work on women travelers in the Middle East is that Melman does not see these women enough as participants in the imperial project. Although Stockdale cites example after example of Orientalist thinking in English women's writings the connection to the politics of conquest is not always evident. More analysis of women who served as political advisors to the British government, such as Francis Newton for example, might have helped to firm up this connection. Stockdale's emphasis on the political ramifications of the colonial gaze also would have been well served with the inclusion of a clearer narrative of how the British not only ideologically but actually conquered the region. A brief history of the lead up to, execution of and end of the Palestine mandate, for example, would have better situated her story within the larger political narrative. Finally, the inclusion of a more reader-friendly bibliography designed around collections consulted at archives would have made this section more useful to future researchers working in the field.
. On the harem as a representation of middle-class English values see Billie Melman, Women's Orients: English Women and the Middle East, 1718- 1918 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992); and Diane Robinson-Dunn, The Harem, Slavery and British Imperial Culture (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006).
. Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (London: Routledge, 1992).
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Michelle Tusan. Review of Stockdale, Nancy L., Colonial Encounters among English and Palestinian Women, 1800- 1948.
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