As the Tropicalist attempts to record her observations on the Turkic world, how could she not acknowledge her debt to another female practitioner of the genre? That progenitor would be Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, wife of the English ambassador to the Ottoman Empire and the author of The Turkish Embassy Letters, written three hundred years ago.

An upper class Englishwoman pronouncing on the oppression of native women who take the veil would likely be of little interest to readers of this site, but Lady Mary (like her namesake on Downton Abbey) had other ideas.

For one, she was confident enough in her intellectual abilities to pour scorn on the male travel writers who could “give no better an account of the ways here than a French refugée lodging in a Garret in Greek street could write of the Court of England.” As a woman, she had access to the interior world of the Turks in a way that few men did, and, unlike other dilettantish travellers, she could base her opinions on lived experience.

She refused to take at face value the people she encountered in her travels, understanding—as an independently-minded woman—the necessity for all women, veiled or otherwise, to obscure their true selves behind a mask.1

Piercing the Veil

She noted that even as the veil minimized women’s participation in the male-dominated public sphere, it also allowed them to retain psychological agency. A veiled woman in the outside world would be unknown even to her husband, giving her a freedom that an Englishwoman of the time could only dream of.

These veiled women also retained dominion over an interior private sphere—the fabled harem of European fantasies. Imagine her delight then, when befriended by Ottoman gentlewomen, she was invited not only into the harem, but eventually to a women-only hammam (the Turkish bathhouse).

 

For Montagu, these spaces were a feminine counterpoint to the men-only coffeehouses of England. Within their intimate atmosphere, Ottoman women were unclothed and unmasked, freely discussing politics, current events, scandal and so on.

 

And unmasked herself (or at least partially—for in her writings for a puritanical English audience, she could not admit to being fully disrobed and would only confess to revealing her stays), Montagu could more freely pursue genuine friendships. Without the distinction of dress, all the perceived racial and religious divisions between a newly coalescing European identity and a non-European one fell to the wayside.2

Setting aside her native provincialism, Montagu eagerly participated in Istanbul’s dazzling cosmopolitanism, boasting to a friend that the “[s]uburbs of Pera, Johanna, and Galata, are Collections of Strangers from all Countries of Universe” and that “[t]here’s not one single Family of Natives that can value itself on being unmixt.”