Preening Alterity

Softly she then parts her féradje (coat) and offers herself entirely as prey to my gaze. I saw her angelic body as white as camphor or virgin wax; then, continuing my inspection downward, I admired her secret recess with gracefully rounded hare’s lips, and, for greater pleasure still, absolutely free of any down. For starkness one could have hardly better compared her than to crystal or to the [eye] of the phoenix; in the middle, a cleft, due to the steady and infallible penknife of the Creator, divided it into two parts. —Anonymous1

In her landmark essay “The Body as Inscriptive Surface” (1994), Elizabeth Grosz has argued that various corporal practices — ranging from tattoos, piercing, and scarification, to dieting, exercise, manners, and fashion — “mark the body as a public, collective, social category, in modes of inclusion or membership.” In other words, she suggests that the body is transformed by these practices and infused with meanings and values consonant with societal norms; it is socialized, endowed with identity, and labeled as belonging to a particular community.

Islam prescribes a number of such practices, notably in a Hadith narrated by Abū Hurayra according to which the Prophet said “Five things are in accordance with al-Fitra: to be circumcised, to shave the pelvic region, to pull out the hair of the armpits, to cut short the mustaches, and to clip the nails.” In addition, different Muslim societies engage in a variety of practices not necessarily stipulated by religion, such as the application of henna to the hands and feet, and the dyeing of eyelids with kohl.

Personal grooming habits like these, especially as they apply to women, greatly preoccupied European travelers and orientalist writers. However, while these habits acted to bind together the communities that practiced them, for westerners they were markers of “otherness” — always narrated in the third person, and always from a distance that simultaneously betrayed both fascination and repulsion. They were nothing less than tools with which to construct difference. Thus, James Dallaway wrote in his Constantinople Ancient and Modern (1797) that Turks “have a custom… of drawing a black line with a mixture of powder of antimony and oil, called Surmèh, above and under the eyelashes, in order to give the eye more fire… The nails both of the fingers and feet are always stained of a rose color. Such is the taste of Asiatics” (emphasis added).

Such testimonials go back several centuries. Luigi Bassano da Zara wrote in I Costumi et i Modi Particolari de la Vita de Turchi (1545) that Turks “like the hair black, and she whom nature has not so endowed resorts to trickery, so that when it is blond, or white from old age, they dye it red with Archenda, which they call Chnà, with which they dye their pony tails; with the same medicine they dye their nails, many dye their entire hands, some their feet, but in the form of the shoe; there are some who also dye their pubic hair and four fingers above it; and they make the hair fall out because they consider it a sin to have hair in the secret parts.” Likewise, in his Voyage dans la Haute et Basse Égypte (1799), Charles Nicholas Sigisbert Sonnini de Manoncourt described in painful detail how women “are unmercifully stripped of the veil of nature” since they are “anxious to preserve over their whole bodies an exact and uniform polish.” It is very difficult not to interpret the emphatic and repeated use of the pronoun “they” in these accounts as a statement of difference: the modes of personal hygiene and grooming practiced by — or ascribed to — the women of the “Orient” thus worked to set them apart in the western imagination. To use a Foucauldian term, they were technologies of alterity.

Travelers were not the only ones to dwell upon the topic of depilation. In an interesting and voluminous pseudo-anthropological book entitled Medizin, Aberglaube und Geschlechtsleben in der Türkei (1903), Bernhard Stern wrote that “on the day before her marriage, the Fellah bride in Syria takes the greatest care of her body. Accompanied by friends and relatives she goes to the bath. There she is washed, scrubbed, rouged, and decorated. It is an important duty of the friends with the aid of a plaster made of honey and other ingredients to rip all the hair from the body of the bride — she becomes smooth and shiny, like a small immature girl.” Similarly, Stern goes on to note that in Egypt, “several days before the wedding the bride takes a bath. On a fixed evening she comes together with her friends and they remove the hair from every part of her body except her head; for this they need a sticky semi-fluid resin, which they pour on the hair which is to be removed, and after it cools, they tear it off violently with the hair.”

Evidently the topic of hygiene and personal grooming in the “Orient” was often eroticized, even in fairly clinical accounts such as Stern’s. But some writers were quite a bit more explicit in their efforts to titillate their audience; John Richards wrote in 1699 that “upon solemn occasions, when a virgin does prepare herself for her husband’s bed, they make a feast in the baths to which they invite their friends, at which time she takes off the hair of her body, which she never does before, and is always practiced afterwards in these hot countries. With how much modesty this is done I cannot tell” (emphasis added). Substituting innuendo for fact, Richards made sure at least to plant the seed of doubt in his reader’s mind as to the sexual nature of the custom. Such preoccupation with the removal of body hair, incidentally, gains particular significance when one considers that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century mainstream pornography in Europe generally tended to emphasize a thick growth of pubic hair. Waxed or clean-shaven genitals, which have become relatively mainstream these days in the West, were still very much an exotic curiosity as recently as a decade or two ago.

In her essay “The Fiction of Fiction” (1973), Susan Koppelman Cornillon describes the centrality of the grooming rituals of depilating “legs, armpits, chests, chins, cheeks, upper lips, and eyebrows” to the lives of American women, noting “and yet, with all this that attaches itself to female leg-shaving slavery, I have never seen any fictional female character either shave or pluck a hair.” She is making the point that the “real” lives of women are not always reflected in their literary representation, and that is no doubt correct. In contrast to western fiction set in the West, however, western accounts of “oriental” women are replete with descriptions of grooming practices, including depilation, precisely because such practices were part and parcel of what made them different. The hammam was portrayed as the nucleus of an empire of the senses, and the women who languorously whiled away their hours there as preoccupied, indeed obsessed, with their bodies and with sex.

In part, this rhetoric served the important purpose of constructing the European self by projecting onto others those qualities that the rising western middle classes disavowed, such as sensuality, luxury, and self-indulgence. At the same time, however, it bolstered colonialism by portraying Europe’s “others” as incapable of ruling themselves. As Lewis Wurgaft writes of the British in The Imperial Imagination (1983), while the European bourgeoisie regarded itself as “the incarnation of austerity, courage, and self-control,” the natives overseas “were caricatured to an increasing extent as their emotional opposites, and as captives of a constitutional weakness for emotional excess and moral depravity. Such moral shortcomings were said to reflect the inroads of centuries of breeding and climate, and were not amenable to simple legislative or educational remedies.” It is not hard to see how this reasoning led directly to the conclusion that colonial rule was necessary and inevitable.

From smooth pubes to colonialism — is this just another case of abstract theorizing run amok? Not necessarily. Colonialism was not just spatial appropriation, military coercion, and economic exploitation; it was also imagination, narration, and interpellation. In an age when ideas like “liberty, equality, fraternity” were taking root, the unadulterated evil of colonialism needed to be legitimated in one way or another. Constructing an unbridgeable chasm between colonizer and colonized was but one element of that legitimation process, and sexual difference but one aspect of that unbridgeable chasm.

Anonymous, Le Livre de volupté (Bah Nameh). Translated by Abdul-Haqq Efendi (Brussels: Jules Gay, c. 1878–79).