Picturing “Female Followers of Mahomet” as “Veiled Maids”: Muslim Women and the Victim/Seductress Binary in Frankenstein and “Alastor”

This paper focuses on the portrayal of the East, and especially of Muslim women, in two texts from the Romantic period that travel across various countries in their narratives: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818) and Percy

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  Postcolonial Text , Vol 13, No 1 (2018) Picturing “Female Followers of Mahomet” as “Veiled Maids”: Muslim Women and the Victim/Seductress Binary in Frankenstein    and “Alastor”   Sauleha Kamal University of Cambridge “Safie” (1900), by William Clarke Wontner  1   Mary Shelley’s  Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus  (1818) contains an episode involving the “lovely Arabian” Safie, an episode often noted for its apparent disconnect from the larger plot of the novel. In the passage in question, a “lady … dressed in a dark suit” arrives at the De Lacey cottage while the monster watches. This lady, later introduced as Felix De Lacey’s lover Safie, seems out of place in  2   Postcolonial Text  Vol 13, No 1 (2018)   a text that locates most of its action in the mountains of Geneva. Safie is decidedly un - European: she is otherworldly, shrouded in a “thick  black veil” (106) and speaks in “a sweet accent” with a “musical” (106) voice that is explicitly “unlike” (107) that of the other women in  Frankenstein . A transformation occurs in Safie when she sees Felix and “[throws] up her veil,” revealing “angelic beauty and expression” (107). It is almost as if the entire episode were a fantasy sequence that has no place in the novel. Indeed, what is the role of this otherworldly Oriental woman and why is it that when she throws up her veil, she  becomes “angelic”? Something similar happens in Percy Shelley’s “Alastor; or, the Spirit of Solitude” (1816), a poem about a solitary poet who wanders the East in search of his ideals. At the very heart of the poet’s exploration of the self, and, ultimately, the portent of his future demise, is his dream about a “veiled maid.” Again, what role does this sexualized Oriental woman play in the text? Why do both Shelleys engage with images of Oriental women who appear to be Muslim or associated with Islam? This paper will argue that these images are in no way out of place  but serve a central role in both texts. They do not suddenly appear in the Romantic period but rather arise out of a pre - existing historical conception of Muslim women found in Western texts and out of the larger cultural assumption that there is a fundamental difference  between the East and West (Said 1 - 3). This imagined difference—that allows for a construction of the East as a place of both seduction and danger—leads to the depiction of Eastern women as either dangerous seductresses or the victims of a dangerous culture. A combination of words and pictures in the nineteenth century produced a very specific image of the East—or the Orient—and its women in Western imaginations. In medieval texts, the Muslim woman would appear as a high - ranking noblewoman who was converted to Christianity through a sexual relationship (that blossomed into love) with a Christian knight (Kahf 6; Hasan 38); in the seventeenth century, she began to be associated with the veil and the harem, and by the eighteenth century, she became the odalisque who occupied the harem (Kahf 4 - 6), “abject and angry or virginal and victimized but always…oppressed” (Kahf 6). In this incarnation, the quintessential victim oppressed by the tyranny of Muslim society is reduced to an animal existence. This primed her for the nineteenth century when she was, first, recreated as the ideal of femininity (Kahf 8) and sexual attractiveness (Hasan 32) and, then, rescued by the Romantic hero. The Romantic era, in particular, coincided with a moment of increased British expansionism and was marked by a renewed fascination with the Orient. As such, the Shelleys were not unique in their engagement with Eastern images. Indeed, the  best - known works of Lord Byron—“Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” and “Don Juan”— are notable for such imagery and Byron’s biography, most prominently his role in the Greek War of Independence, provides  3   Postcolonial Text  Vol 13, No 1 (2018)   ample evidence of his associations with the East. While Byron’s creative reliance on the East may be most memorable, other poets also did the same such as Robert Southey with “Thlaba the Destroyer” or Samuel Taylor Coleridge, most notably in “Kubla Khan.” Returning to the Shelleys, it must be mentioned that while Percy Shelley’s interest in the Orient, and particularly in India, has been well - documented both in his time and in subsequent criticism, his wife’s interest has received less attention. This is where this paper enters the conversation. It examines the intersection of orientalism and a particular imagination of women in Percy Shelley’s work through an analysis of a poem that is emblematic, before shedding light on Mary Shelley’s own gendered Eastern engagements in her magnum opus. The gendered dimension of the Shelleys’ orientalism is not surprising given that the construction of the Orient, in general, and of Muslim women, in particular, as seductive and/or dangerous is nowhere more apparent than in the Romantic period. Then, as Said notes, the Muslim woman in the Western imagination was located in a landscape populated with fantasies about veils, harems and dancing girls (190). These associations have in no small part contributed to the enduring narrative of Muslim women as victimized (Kahf 1), a narrative that still persists today. This image departs from a singular focus on seduction that characterized earlier conceptions—such as the Saracen seductress in medieval times—, instead formulating Muslim women as either seductive or victimized. Cognizant of this pre - history, this paper argues that the representations of Muslim women in Mary Shelley’s  Frankenstein and Percy Shelley’s “Alastor; or, the Spirit of Solitude” reflect what will be referred to here as the victim/seductress binary whereby Muslim women are circumscribed to either the victim or seductress role. The concept of this binary draws on Freud’s Madonna/whore complex (Freud 251), Gilbert and Gubar’s angel/monster divide (developed in relation to Jane Eyre and Bertha Mason) (361 - 367) and Edward Said’s contention that the West has historically imagined the East as simultaneously seductive and threatening 2  (Said 21 - 27, 73 - 75). The Muslim woman, who appears either as an oppressed victim whose oppression reflects the tyranny of her religion and culture, or as a seductress who is defined by her sexual desirability and the danger associated with it, is doubly Other: both in gender and srcin. This paper reads Percy Shelley’s images of the Arabian maid and the “veiled woman” in “Alastor” as connected to each other and emblematic of the victim/seductress binary and contrasts them with Mary Shelley’s representation of Safie in  Frankenstein , which is both an extension of these typical images and a subversion of them. The Shelleys may converge on the religio - cultural stereotypes imposed on their characters but they depart on gendered stereotypes, as this paper will go on to discuss. This paper proceeds by first locating the victim/seductress binary in the historical representation of Muslim  4   Postcolonial Text  Vol 13, No 1 (2018)   women in Western literature and then by exploring the images that align with this binary in both texts. Finally, it explores the role of images of the Orient—or the East—in both texts within “feminist orientalism” (Zonana 594) as well as the imagination of Muslim men as the oppressors of Muslim women to ultimately consider whether  Frankenstein’  s Safie, as a feminist figure, manages to transcend the victim/seductress binary. In this, it contrasts her treatment to that of the stagnant Muslim women of “Alastor” in order to assess the larger implications of the victim/seductress binary.   The first Muslim woman Alastor encounters, the “Arab maiden” who is rejected by the poet, seems to belong to the victim category. The second, the “veiled maid,” is a seductress who causes his ruin. The representation of the Muslim woman in  Frankenstein , however, seems to be closer to the image of the victim than that of the seductress. Though Safie does appear as sexually attractive, there is nothing dangerous about her attractiveness. She may be connected with danger, as will later become apparent, but she is largely innocuous herself. “Alastor” engages with images of the Muslim woman at two key moments in the poem: the first encounter is with the explicitly Arab, obsequious and silent “Arab maiden” (l.129 - 139), the second is with the ambiguous “veiled maid” (l.151) of the poet’s dream. This dream maiden, most often read as a counterpoint to the “Arab maiden” of earlier verses (Strickland 151) and a projection of the self (Kirchkoff 120; Jones 109 - 110), has been the subject of much literary analysis. However, strikingly and curiously, in spite of this focus, very few critics have paid attention to her veil. She is simply a seductive ideal of  beauty and intellect whose religious and cultural associations are left uninterrogated. In the preface, Shelley himself characterizes her as “the Being whom he loves” and goes on to state that:   The vision in which he embodies his own imaginations unites all of wonderful, or wise, or beautiful, which the poet, the philosopher, or the lover could depicture…the intellectual faculties, the imagination, the functions of sense…[in] a single image. (Shelley, iv)   However, if the only function of this dream maiden is to be a “self  - object” as Kirchkoff has argued (120) and as Percy Shelley suggests here, then why does she need to appear in the image of a sexually attractive veiled woman with Oriental associations? Furthermore, why should this vision emerge in the East (specifically in Kashmir (l.45))? In order to answer these questions, it is useful to consider the moment in which she appears in the text. She appears almost immediately after the first Muslim woman leaves, when the memory of that rejected “Arab maiden” is still fresh in the readers’ minds:   Meanwhile an Arab maiden brought his food,   Her daily portion, from her father's tent,    5   Postcolonial Text  Vol 13, No 1 (2018)   And spread her matting for his couch, and stole   From duties and repose to tend his steps,   Enamoured, yet not daring for deep awe   To speak her love, and watched his nightly sleep,   Sleepless herself, to gaze upon his lips   Parted in slumber, whence the regular breath   Of innocent dreams arose; then, when red morn   Made paler the pale moon, to her cold home   Wildered, and wan, and panting, she returned. (P. Shelley, l.129 - 139)   This victim Arab maiden is self  - sacrificing and generous, bringing her “daily portion” (P. Shelley, 1.129) of food to the poet, which she has to  procure from her “father’s tent” (l.130) (ostensibly, she is under his authority as well). She is “enamoured” (l.133) with the poet and devoted to him; however, she is unable “to speak her love” (l.134). She is literally unable to “arouse” (Fischman 146) the poet (for he sleeps in her presence, oblivious) because  she does not speak. Though her one transgression is to steal away for brief moments to be with the poet, she does not move further than this and otherwise remains the perfect image of the silent Oriental victim, the type of docile woman resigned to life in the harem, standing in strict contrast to Western women. She clearly belongs to the “realm of the Arab maiden: female, guarded, inaccessible, and unaccessed” (Fischman 154). Therefore, she cannot  be a true companion to the poet and must inevitably be rejected in favor of “the nocturnal vision who represents something of the mystery  behind the painted veil” (Strickland 154). Just as the intellectual capacities of the veiled maid are attractive to the poet, the absence of intellectual congruence with this “Arab maiden” is unappealing to him. As James Wilson notes, and as is apparent in the preface to the poem discussed above, Percy Shelley himself insisted that a sexual relationship could not be satisfying if the woman was not “completely liberated from social and intellectual servitude” (Wilson 393). The Arab maiden who is still under the control of her father and her culture cannot be considered completely liberated, and must therefore be rejected.   However, though Wilson sees this rejection as that of “human love” for a “sterile projection of his inherent narcissism” (393), it appears to be more than that. It is useful, here, to recall Sigmund Freud’s conception of what is known as the Madonna - whore complex whereby men can exhibit a tendency to characterize women as either admirable or attractive but not both. Read through the lens of this idea, it follows that Shelley’s poet is attracted not to the good, admirable woman but the dangerous, seductive woman. The poet’s rejection of the Arab maiden is also his rejection of the image of the good Muslim woman—the victimized Muslim woman—for the temptation of the seductive Muslim woman. The good Muslim woman has the classic sacrificing qualities that are characterized as feminine. She sacrifices her food and her sleep for her devotion to the poet, a devotion that
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