Egyptian Polygamy, c. 1848

My first class of the new academic year will look at the European presence in the Middle East during the 19th century.

I was suddenly seized by the urge – for the group session – to not blunder through the dates and maps as in the lecture, but to study the region from the perspective of Victorian travellers.

Straight from the Victorian’s mouth, if you will.

And it is how I stumbled across the following observational quip on polygamy in Egypt circa 1848, by the British social theorist Harriet Martineau, in her travel tome Eastern Life: Present and Past (1848):

I declare that if we are to look for a hell upon earth, it is where polygamy exists: and that, as polygamy runs riot in Egypt, Egypt is the lowest depth of this hell. I always before believed that every arrangement and prevalent practice had some one fair side, – some one redeeming quality: and diligently did I look for this fair side in regard to polygamy: but there is none. The longer one studies the subject, and the deeper one penetrates into it, the more is one’s mind confounded with the intricacy of its iniquity, and the more does one’s heart feel as if it would break.

Striking stuff.

Almost makes me wish I could be a historian all the time.

5 comments on “Egyptian Polygamy, c. 1848

  1. kinziblogs
    October 18, 2010

    Thanks for the quote. Made my heart break too. A woman who is not uniquely loved and exclusively committed to, who must share the most intimate of bonds with another woman, will never be empowered to be truly who she is, nor able to give that man all he needs to be his best.

    Call it sexist, but after decades of observation, it is what I see.

    • Layla
      October 18, 2010

      Yes, I agree completely. And while polygamy may not be the issue of the day in contemporary Egypt, the final line can be applied in the modern Middle East in the context of alternative forms of gender-based persecution – most notably, honour killings.

      • kinziblogs
        October 18, 2010

        Well said. Because the fear that the most significant men in your life (husband, brother, uncle husband) could end your life without much discussion hardly promotes intimacy either.

  2. Haitham
    October 18, 2010

    Historian r history! …makers 😀


    • Layla
      October 18, 2010

      Hehe! Were it not for historians, we would never make sense of the present or discern the near future 🙂

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This entry was posted on October 17, 2010 by in Africa, Culture, Egypt, Middle East, Womyn and tagged , , , , , , , .
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