‘Is Nothing Sacred?’ : Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s Turkish Embassy Letters and the Novels of Elif Shafak/ my dissertation

[some rambly thoughts during and after writing]

 I started this piece of writing frustrated that so often, Muslim bodies clothed in devotion are becoming clothed in political rhetoric. And then I became frustrated that my writing was so responsive. For whom, am I arguing about the agency of veiled bodies or is it about my veiling? Certainly not for myself… am I then playing a part too? Are photos of me, of us, fuelling the fetish for women that look like us? Is my writing only in response – does it matter? Am I well placed to write about this when this is so much bigger, so reliant on people’s personal and lived experiences, when a couple of months of research and thousands of words do not seem like enough? [spoiler: they are not, they will never be, this is just a beginning… a dissertation was never the end despite how final it is formatted to be.] Is this writing – are all these responses trying to humanise something that is already human to me – and better yet, connected to and for the Divine. And for whom, am I humanising then, when there is no need? 


05.09.20

Some of those thoughts remain unresolved and I’m not sure if this is a response. The dissertation I handed in to complete my degree at Cambridge could not be exactly what I wanted. I think the content of it became what I wanted to say but there were things I wanted to preface the work with. And now, posting 7,500 words on my blog seems strange, boring even, but this is the way I would do it.  Attached at the bottom of the post is my dissertation, (please let me know if you have difficulties accessing it, I’d be happy to email it over).

My title: ‘Is Nothing Sacred’, is taken from a brilliant article written by Nabeelah Jaffer on cultural appropriation and Mawlana Rumi, I use this title because it underpins the academy’s refusal to use religion as a critical lens. My piece begins with an article I came across on twitter a month before the final deadline, I think this is important to note because twitter informed my dissertation hugely. Sahar Ghumkhor brilliantly writes on the Oscar winning Orientalist lens attempting to ‘save’ Afghan women — there she uses a quotation from Susan Sontag. This article and the line from Sontag (who I had not read prior to March) clicked for me and reframed my work. My focus on images of Muslim women created to quite literally feed the Orientalist lens developed through the example Ghumkhor cites and Sontag’s work. This dissertation is of course, built upon hours in the library combing through books on the top floor of the Cambridge University Library and books published from the 18th century onwards, but it is also built upon the circulation of knowledge I came across on Twitter. I am grateful to reading suggestions from Instagram and the wonderful Muslim women writers across the world who have created a global community of solidarity and space for my own work to be a part of…a space where literary analysis and faith can be written about together and indeed about how faith informs our critical interpretations. 

Finding pieces that have shaped my dissertation on twitter have helped me reconcile part of the conflict I had when writing and comparing. On one hand I am choosing to focus on an eighteenth century white, English aristocrat and on the other I am focusing on a very popular writer who fuels the commercialisation of Islam and profits of the Orientalist lens and fetish. These dichotomies were present in the actual research itself and the sources I turned to. The examples of lived experience, the way that Muslim women write about this – that are crucial to my work, are not sitting on the top floor of the UL – but they are available to me through twitter, journalistic pieces and blogs. 

So, I see my piece now occupying this space on the internet of my not very tech savvy or always grammatically correct blog, as a continuation for how our sources and lived experiences will be both within book stacks and twitter threads. I struggled to separate journalistic writing and academic writing, I worried about my writing not being academic enough and why this piece fell three marks short of achieving a first – the academic measure of success – and as devastating as that will always be for me, it is liberating and has redirected what my end really is: to make forms of knowledge and writing more accessible.  The argument I go on to make is about the structure of discourse and academia itself and ourselves as readers – who do we applaud and celebrate? Shafak’s quotes accompanying pictures of the Oriental East saturate both Muslim twitter and the ‘diversity’ tab of mainstream media outlets. While writing, I felt that I had chosen the wrong place to write about all of this…that there was not sufficient or well supported space within the structure of academia for this, but I know now that is not entirely the case. It is reflective of structures that are upheld to keep some things out and actually, that has directed me to broaden the scope of my research. And despite it, the process of writing this was incredible, it was challenging and enlightening, it was emotional and heartfelt and so worthwhile. I share this all as an extended note of gratitude and a kind of love letter and endless gratitude to this piece of work and my time at University, in the hope that it is helpful and we can work in making more space for ourselves and ideas to make these discussions and academic writing altogether, more accessible. 

I attach here a part of my conclusion as I appear to have articulated it better months ago:

‘I have considered that this literature [or indeed this format of writing and where I am submitting to] may not be the place to seek representation as a Muslim woman, but in turn have found that this study remains constrained because there is an already an established epistemological framework in western scholarship that is complicit in Orientalising: terms like Orient, East, and West, remain in use. How can representations outside of the stereotyped, exoticised frame emerge anywhere when the critical discourse is complicit in Orientalising? So, I end by affirming [Peter] Morey’s comments: ‘what we need is a critical Muslim studies to match developments such as critical race studies’. Critical gender studies operates within a secular feminist framework that often misses religious complexity, by celebrating Montagu’s unveiling as liberation or Shafak’s appropriation of Islam as diversity. This occurs because the discourse operates without considering religion as a critical perspective. It is our position as readers and critics that should be scrutinised: to reflect the problem back upon a critical tradition of misrepresenting women speaks to an Orientalised arrogance that believes in the falsely dichotomised positions of ‘oppressed or liberated’, ‘veiled or unveiled’.’


This piece of work could not be completed  without the invaluable help of my wonderful supervisors: Claire Wilkinson and Janani Ambikapathy. 

click for a PDF copy of the diss: dissertation:mb:montagu shafak

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