Gazing through the Mashrabeya: Contrasting the representation of Egyptian women in Islamic architecture, British nineteenth-century orientalist art and the writings of Aisha Taymur by Ahmed Shokri
This essay analyses the contrasting artistic representations of Egyptian women in nineteenth-century Cairo, by examining certain examples of Islamic architecture which was prevalent at that time in the city, and British orientalist paintings of the same period. The essay examines two examples of such representations. First, the British Orientalist imaginings of the private quarters of women in houses, often referred to as the harem, and compares this hyper-sexualised view of Egyptian women to the conspicuous absence of female representation in Islamic art. More specifically, I will study the mashrabeya, which is an intricate window wooden latticework that served in many ways as a means to contain women’s exposure to the outside world, leaving them only small spaces through which they are allowed to gaze. John Frederick Lewis’s 1850 painting, the Hhareem, and the mashrabeya windows from the mansion of Beit al Souhaymi in the old Cairo downtown form the basis of this analysis. Finally, this essay will study some of the poems and writings of Aisha Taymour, the most prominent female Egyptian poet to reflect an aspect of the realities of female Egyptian voices in that period.