Moslem Women Enter a New World

Source: Ruth Frances Woodsmall, Moslem Women Enter a New World (New York: Round Table Press, 1936), pp. 82-84

Text: The most widespread change in the general recreational life for women is shown by the increase of attendance at cinemas. Only a few years ago marked the beginning of cinema privileges for women in the Moslem East. Official approval of the cinema was given to women in Iran in 1928 by the removal of police restrictions. Special days were set aside when they could attend the cinema, the popularity of which was evident at the end of the performance from the steady stream of black chaddur figures leaving. A most remarkable performance for a mixed audience was given in Teheran in November 1928, when for the first time an unveiled Moslem woman sang in evening dress before a public audience. Seats were sold out several days in advance. Police were stationed in the aisles to avoid any possible trouble. A large detachment of police was detailed to the environs of the cinema, a precaution which showed the unusual significance of the occasion. It was one of the great events of the winter, widely talked about all over Iran. Cinemas in Iran still have a woman’s section, but women sit also in the mixed section, and enter veiled or unveiled. Even in a conservative centre such as Meshed women may attend the same cinema with men. An Iranian liberal newspaper made the interesting comment that having women sit with men at the cinema reduces the number of scenes in the streets and tends toward a higher moral tone. The opponents would of course challenge that statement.

In Baghdad, but not yet in Basra or Mosul, everybody goes to the cinema. “Open a schoolgirl’s desk, and you will find on top of her books a movie magazine with pictures of Hollywood stars,” the principal of the girls’ high school in Baghdad said, in commenting on the present passion for the cinema. The conservative women attend the special afternoon performances featured for them; others of prominent social position attend the mixed movies in the evening, with their husbands. They are technically veiled but from their box they look freely around the audience. The distinction between the special afternoon cinemas for women and the mixed evening cinemas holds also in Aleppo and Beirut. If Moslem women in Syria attend the mixed performances, they usually are unveiled in order to avoid being conspicuous, for although Moslem women go freely, there are always more men. In Damascus women began
attending the cinema in 1930 when a large outdoor cinema was turned over to them once a week. The rule “For women only” was strictly observed; not even boys over twelve years were admitted. Crowds of women flocked to this popular weekly dissipation, almost as interested in seeing each other as in seeing the film, which, however, on the occasion of my visit was one of absorbing interest for the women of Damascus — the story of Saladin and the Crusades. Their keen reaction to the picture and enthusiasm over Saladin’s exploits gave one a different idea of the Crusades from the usual Western point of view. The women in Amman Trans-jordan six years ago attended their first film, entering veiled but sitting on the front row unveiled. Cinema attendances of women in Cairo in now a commonplace. Women go unveiled with men or veiled alone, unveiling during the performance; they sit in boxes or with the audience, as they choose.

For the most part the cinema has not attracted the Moslem women of the lower class in Beirut or elsewhere as much as it has the upper class, since change in recreation, as in unveiling, begins at the top and works down. A woman in Beirut of this lower class whom I asked whether she ever attended a cinema, gave me an answer which seems typical of her social level. “We know the cinema by name, but have never seen one.” But the different grades of cinemas and cheaper prices are beginning to make their appeal to this class also. Moreover the production of films portraying Eastern life in the language of the East and produced by Eastern players is bringing the cinema more into the life of the uneducated women, to whom the unfamiliar Western scene makes less appeal than to those who have had some Western education. In Turkey since the first Turkish film with Turkish women performers was produced only a few years ago, the Turkish production has steadily increased and doubtless the appeal of the cinema has accordingly widened. The unrestricted cinema attendance of Turkish women, since the special harem days were discontinued early in the new regime, is only one of the many indications of the naturalness of everyday life in Turkey to-day.

Travel, bobbed hair, photographs, sports, recreation, going to the cinema, these many precious stages of advance for the still veiled or hesitantly unveiling woman elsewhere in the Moslem world, have all become for the Turkish woman merely a matter of personal choice. One is impressed to-day with the lack of all reference in the Press or in private conversation to these details of freedom, which are regarded to-day as a normal part of life. The idea of freedom of women has been so completely accepted that distinctions between men and women are now as little emphasized as they would be in the Western world. It is indeed difficult to realize that the grandfathers of the present free young Turkish girls might have paid the price of this freedom by exile or death. For to-day Turkish girls play tennis, dance, dine out if invited, swim, ride horseback, play bridge, patronize the beauty parlour, frequent the movies, travel if they can afford it — work, study and play just as girls do in France or America. There is of course at the present time between the life of Istanbul or Ankara and parts of Asia Minor not only a difference of degree, but also of the kind of social life. But there are no artificially imposed social conventions of the veil and eventually Istanbul or Ankara will differ from Konia or Sivas in much the same way as the life in New York or Washington differs from that of cities or towns in the south or middle west.

Comments: Ruth Frances Woodsmall (1883-1963) was an American schoolteacher and author, who worked for the Young Women’s Christian Association, the Allied High Commission for Occupied Germany (where she was Chief of the Women’s Affairs Section), and UNESCO, reporting on women’s affairs. In 1928 she obtained a fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation to investigate the changing status of Muslim women in the Middle East, which resulted in her influential book Moslem Women Enter a New World and other studies.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Travels through Arabia and other countries in the East

Source: Carsten Niebuhr (trans. Robert Heron), Travels through Arabia and other countries in the East (Edinburgh, R. Morison and Son, 1792), pp. 144-145, abridged version of Reisebeschreibung von Arabien und anderen umliegenden Ländernorig pub. 1772/1774)

Text: The magic lanthorn is a favourite amusement in the East, I was not, however, fond of such entertainments; as their scope was always to turn the dress and manners of the Europeans into ridicule.

Comments: Carsten Niebuhr (1733-1815) was a Danish cartographer and explorer who took part in the Danish Arabia expedition of 1761-67, visiting Egypt (in 1762), Arabia and Syria. The above comes from an account of public shows seen in Cairo, which included plays, puppet shows, jugglers and performing monkeys (dressed as Europeans).

Links: German original
English translation at Hathi Trust

Out of Place

Source: Edward W. Said, Out of Place: A Memoir (London: Granta Books, 1999), pp. 34-34

Text: There were two main sources of stories whose boundaries I could expand: books and films.


The second source was films, particularly those like the Arabian Nights adventures that regularly featured Jon Hall, Maria Montez, Turhan Bey, and Sabu, and the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan series. When I was in good favor with my parents, the pleasures of Saturday included an afternoon cinema performance, fastidiously chosen for me by my mother. French and Italian films were taboo. Hollywood films were suitable only if declared “for children” by my mother. These were Laurel and Hardy, lots of Abbott and Costello, Betty Grable, Gene Kelly, Loretta Young, many, many musicals and family comedies with Clifton Webb, Claudette Colbert, and Jennifer Jones (acceptable in Song of Bernadette, forbidden in Duel in the Sun), Walt Disney fantasies and Arabian Nights preferably with only Jon Hall and Sabu (Maria Montez was frowned on), war films, some Westerns. Sitting in the plush cinema seats, much more than in viewing the Hollywood films themselves – which struck me as a weird form of science fiction corresponding to nothing at all in my life – I luxuriated in the sanctioned freedom to see and not be seen. Later I developed an irrecusable attachment to Johnny Weissmuller’s whole Tarzan world, especially to the uxorial and, in Tarzan and His Mate at least, virginally sensual Jane cavorting in their cosy tree house, whose clever Wemmicklike comforts seemed like a pure, uncomplicated distillation of our life as a family alone in Egypt. Once “The End” appeared on the screen in Tarzan Finds a Son or Tarzan’s Secret Treasure, I began my ruminations on what happened afterward, on what the little family did in the tree house, on the “natives” they cultivated and befriended, on members of Jane’s family who might have visited, on the tricks that Tarzan taught Boy, and on and on. It was very odd, but it did not occur to me that the cinematic Aladdin, Ali Baba, and Sinbad, whose genies, Baghdad cronies, and sultans I completely possessed in the fantasies I counterpointed with my lessons, all had American accents, spoke no Arabic, and ate mysterious foods – perhaps “sweetmeats,” or was it more like stew, rice, lamb cutlets? – that I could never quite make out.

Comments: Edward Wadie Said (1935-2003) was a Palestinian-American intellectual and cultural critic, best know for his 1978 book Orientalism. He was born in Jerusalem and his childhood was spent between that city and Cairo. At the time of this memoir he was aged around ten and going to school in Cairo. The films mentioned are The Song of Bernadette (USA 1943), Duel in the Sun (USA 1946), Tarzan and His Mate (USA 1934), Tarzan Finds a Son! (USA 1939) and Tarzan’s Secret Treasure (USA 1941).