Veiled voyagers: Muslim women travellers from Asia and the Middle East

To evoke ‘the Muslim woman’ in the contemporary political climate is to conjure images of black veils and shrouded faces. The hijab becomes a symbol of clipped horizons and curtailed movement. And yet many Muslim women throughout history have countered these omnipresent images by participating in that most liberating form of movement: travel. For many Muslims, Islam’s central requirement to go on hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, provided motivation and opportunity to travel. Others justified travel as education (rihla) by quoting the Prophet Muhammad: ‘seek knowledge even if it is as far as China.’ Religious doctrine even inspired travel for the purpose of migration: the hijra from an ‘abode of war’ (dar al-harb) to an ‘abode of peace’ (dar al-Islam). My project supported by a Research Project Grant, provides access to these gendered cultures of travel by focusing travel writing produced by Muslim women themselves.

In recent years, there have been a number of anthologies and studies made of women’s travel writing that have dispelled notions that travel was a purely male pursuit by uncovering the emotional and physical difficulties that women overcame to visit the four corners of the earth before the mid-twentieth century. And yet non-European women continue to be marginalised in this history despite the efforts of some Asian and Middle Eastern scholars to bridge these gender and racial gaps. Similarly, women and gender are often generalised out of the new world histories with their emphasis on grand political, economic and ecological transformations. By examining narratives by individual Muslim women travellers, this project will make it possible to integrate gendered subjectivities into a deepened understanding of our global past.

Indian traveller and travel-writer, Atiya Fyzee, attending a party in Cambridge, 1907. The image is included in her book, Iqbal (1947). Atiya is stood in the back row, second from left (from authors’ own collection). 

The historical materials to be recovered, translated, annotated and analysed during this project are particularly unusual and wide-ranging. In temporal terms, they date from the seventeenth century up to c.1950 – and thus focus on a period before political and technological change made travel and travel-writing far more common and accessible. The authors studied range from an emperor’s daughter in Mughal India and a lowly widow in Safavid Iran to educationalists, princesses, reformers and nationalists in the modern period. Their point of physical departure could be anywhere in the Muslim world – from India and Indonesia to Egypt, Turkey and Iran. Where Muslim women travelled was similarly not contained by established or predicted patterns of movement within the Islamic world or European empires with journeys being undertaken to Britain, continental Europe, the United States and various parts of the Muslim world.

Students and staff at Maria Grey Training College, 1905-7. Indian traveller and travel-writer, Atiya Fyzee, is sat on the ground in the front row, third from the right (by permission of the Brunel University Archives). 

My project considers the gendered nature of Muslim women’s travel writings, drawing out how these veiled voyagers had a unique perspective on the literal and metaphorical journeys captured in their narratives. At the same time, it interprets these literary sources within the framework of world history, underlining the contributions of Muslim women to how significant historical moments and shifts came to be inscribed in texts. In order to do so, the project will involve translation of a significant number of recovered historical materials from Persian, Urdu, Arabic, Turkish and other languages that, at present, exist only in book form and periodicals in out-of-date and rare publications. Ultimately, these clear and readable translations of noteworthy excerpts from Muslim women’s writings on travel will be annotated and analysed in a published anthology supplemented by digitised extracts available via an internet-based collection (www.accessingmuslimlives.org).

Dr Siobhan Lambert-Hurley
University of Sheffield