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Playing the Game: Western Women in Arabia
Penelope Tuson
London: I.B. Tauris, 2003.
£25.00, 266 pages, ISBN 1-86064-933-5.

Mélanie Torrent
Université Paris 1 - Panthéon Sorbonne


Playing the Game: Western Women in Arabia is a fascinating and informative attempt to open up new perspectives on British imperial history in the Gulf by studying it through the eyes of the few and generally very independent-minded women who were there from the end of the nineteenth century to the first part of the 1930s. The paramount question, "Who should be allowed to represent and symbolise Britain in the Gulf?" is seen through British officials' response to three main groups of women: British officials' wives, British and American explorers and American missionaries. Penelope Tuson thus shows the tensions between their perception of life and Empire in the Gulf and the way the ruling British males considered them. The case of the Gulf is both an interesting and a difficult one; as it was not a settlement colony, not many women were there, and most of those who were generally retreated to India during the harshest season. Tuson's objective is two-fold: surveying the position of women in the British hierarchy and studying their attitudes towards the local societies in the Gulf. Official archives offer only limited references to women. Belle Cox, the wife of the British representative in Muscat and one of the most important women in the Gulf before the First World War is hardly ever mentioned. Women only seem to appear in official discourse when they are a source of trouble, for instance if they happen to be taken hostage by pirates! Departing from official archives, Playing the Game: Western Women in Arabia brings together Western women's personal letters and diaries to give a new insight into the reality and the perceptions of British imperial history in the Gulf.

First of all, Playing the Game emphasises that the independence felt by all the Western women present in the Gulf was ambiguous. Tuson underlines that women in the Gulf were expected to play two roles: a patriotic role, spreading British civilisation, and a domestic role, being their husband's wife. An American missionary was thus praised after her death from typhoid for having had "the knack of being able to run her hospital and her household work without either one or the other suffering unduly" [121]. But none of the prominent Western women studied by Tuson seems to fit the model of the "incorporated wife" [24] whose identity is merely conveyed through her husband's occupation and words. Most had professional training, even those who were married, such as Emily Lorimer who had taught at Oxford. Gertrude Bell had been educated at Oxford, had travelled extensively and done some mountaineering in Switzerland, before being a corresponding officer in Basra. The fact that there were few Westerners in the Gulf—only fourteen Europeans were present in Bahrain in 1891—meant women could enjoy more responsibility and freedom than their counterparts in India. And like Emily Lorimer who considered that "better be first in a little Iberian village than second in Rome!" [35], they were acutely conscious of it. All had great abilities for languages and Gertrude Bell distinguished herself as the only woman at the 1921 Cairo Conference. Nevertheless, Tuson warns that Western women's diaries and letters partly relay men's voices, particularly in the case of married women. Women seldom played a central role in public events which they then related from their husband's accounts. This ambiguity is extremely well shown through Tuson's analysis of Emily Lorimer's life. Although she left her Oxford career when she married, her letters reveal that her husband knew she could not limit herself to the domestic world. When her husband was sent from the Gulf to the North West frontier of India, Emily went back to England to work with the Red Cross only to be sent to Alexandria before joining the British officials' circle in Basra where she became the editor of the government-run Basra Times. And yet, when the couple was awarded the Burton Memorial Medal by the Royal Asiatic Society in 1948, Lorimer confessed that she merely followed what her husband had become interested in. The same ambiguities apply to Violet Dickson who arrived in the East to marry a fiancé whom she had only met once and who only left Kuwait at the age of 94 before the Iraqi invasion, yet remained within the official limits of imperialism and in the female spheres.

One of Penelope Tuson's objectives is to show that it is impossible to speak about one single female voice in the accounts of imperialism in the Gulf. All had different views regarding the feminist movement and women's role in Empire—Emily Lorimer and Gertrude Bell were strongly against suffrage for women. Many female imperialist associations were founded after 1870, mainly under the influence of the emblematic figure of Victoria. Some women, like Lorimer, were eager to participate in the imperial project and extend British civilisation. Opposed to Irish home rule which she saw as a threat to Empire, Lorimer was her husband's aide, dealing with his business letters and files, a role which she probably never would have held in Britain. She was fiercely against Arab independence, at least before British civilisation had been extensively spread within the territories, and thought that the punitive expeditions to repress Arab nationalism were highly justifiable. On the other hand, Gertrude Bell came to support the Arab independence movement despite the many misogynistic comments levelled at her by the male hierarchy, and she founded the Iraqi National Museum in 1923.

Penelope Tuson demonstrates how gender representations were used by the male hierarchy for the preservation of the British Empire. Lord G.N. Curzon himself, Viceroy from 1898 to 1905, certified that imperial society relied on specific gender roles. The wardrobe, the "dressing up" for Empire, was thus of the utmost importance to recreate the British domestic scene and impart values to the local population. Tuson reveals that during the war, British women in India made a point of dressing "in white satin with a rope of pearls and a tiara" [141] for important occasions, merely to show the Indians that Britain was as strong as ever. Women had a double role to play: not only were they expected to look after their husband, but they were also to compensate the fear their husbands might inspire in the local population by symbolising female gentle virtues to outsiders. Belle Cox is thus depicted as the mother figure at the centre of the social life. Gender perceptions in a predominantly Muslim world implied that living and official arrangements be adjusted; European women and male natives could generally not be in the same room. Imperial demands on women also created tensions between duties to their husband and duties to their children. Tuson thus looks at the influence of conventions on women and how some were torn between their husband and the Middle East, and their children and England.

Playing the Game examines how the presence in the Gulf of any woman who did not conform to the British official perception of females in Empire was strongly objected to. Some officials criticised Lorimer's position as editor of the Basra Times. But those who encountered the fiercest opposition were female travellers and explorers, those who blatantly evaded traditional gender definitions and boundaries. English women like Frances Wakefield and Americans like Grace Strang posed political and cultural problems to the British hierarchy. Tuson shows that they threatened both domestic and imperial life by travelling without being doctors, missionaries or having a diplomatic mission. They were thus more likely to be mocked or marginalized than distinguished and admired. Female travellers were seen as potential nuisances, likely to fall ill and require waster attention, shortcomings which were seen as typically female characteristics. British officials were opposed to the 1913-1914 expedition of Gertrude Bell who realised that a female was barred "from travelling to live with and like the local people for months or years" [135]. Tuson underlines how these females threatened the male world by sharing and even surpassing their qualities. Freya Stark considered that "women can bear danger and responsibility, discomfort of climate and loneliness, almost as well as their menfolk" [134]. The Times Literary Supplement underlined G. Bell's qualities as an explorer, considering that true female travellers are "more enduring and, strange to say, more indifferent to hardship and discomfort than men. They are unquestionably more observant of details and quicker to receive impressions. Their sympathies are more alert, and they get into touch with strangers more readily" [134].

Yet, the book demonstrates extremely well how these condemnable explorers were recuperated by the male hierarchy when their knowledge made them necessary for the preservation of the Empire and therefore politically, if not always socially, acceptable. After her 1913-1914 trip to Ha'il, Baghdad, Damascus and Constantinople, G. Bell reported to the British Ambassador and the Foreign Office, providing extremely useful information at the beginning of the war. Joan Rosita Forbes, a divorcee who journeyed through the Sahara in Arab dress, was widely acclaimed by the mostly male members of travel societies and provided a very good political report when she travelled to the South West Arabian province of Asir in 1922. The explorer Freya Stark was sent to Yemen in 1940 with propaganda and worked as a Middle East expert for the Ministry of Information during the Second World War. So did Emily Lorimer whose knowledge of the Middle East and of German proved invaluable. Not only did she utter warnings against Hitler, she also carried on the imperial task by contrasting German repression in Czechoslovakia to the British beneficial civilising mission in Aden. Nevertheless, a misogynistic bias still prevailed. Back in 1921, G. Bell, the only female political officer in the Middle East and the only woman at the Cairo Conference portrayed the sarcastic reaction to her report: "The general line taken by the press seems to be that it's most remarkable that a dog should be able to stand on its hind legs—i.e. a female write a […] paper" [164]. But it remained that G. Bell was an invaluable actor in the Gulf who had met and was held in great esteem by most of the leading Arab rulers and chiefs [167].

In parallel, Penelope Tuson demonstrates how these prominent females in the Gulf shared some male characteristics and could be said to have a male outlook on the world they lived in. Emily Lorimer shows masculine energy and uses masculine language to refer to war, "a glorious time to be alive" [125] with "the discovery that we are still the men our grandfathers were and that the God of our fathers need not blush to be the God of their succeeding race" [125]. Tuson reveals that Lorimer, Bell and Stark, who referred to herself as "an Anti-feminist" [227], all preferred the company of men. All thought that a community with too many wives diminished one's motivation to learn the local languages. Not only was Bell harsh on other women, calling the wife of the British Consul in Baghdad "a dull dog, a very stiff, narrow and formal Englishwoman" [137], she was also perceived by others in masculine terms. She was said to be "not interested in women's conversation and had no interest in any of the ladies in Baghdad" [198] and to live "on a man's plane" [198]. Her reports were even styled in the manner of her male colleagues, and Tuson suggests that it may have been a way of countering opposition and of being accepted, or of having the liberty to carry on with the tasks she was interested in.

Playing the Game also demonstrates how British imperial life in the Gulf was perceived in relation with American missionaries. The American Arabian mission had opened a station in Basra in 1891, followed by one in Bahrain (1892), Muscat (1893) and a dispensary in Kuwait (1910). The attention of British officials was therefore focused both on the influence of American missionaries in general and on the particular role played by female missionaries in the Gulf. At one level, the British deemed the missions useful. They dealt with education and health—for example Dr. Sarah Hosman ran the dispensary at Muscat during the war whilst Dr. and Mrs. Bennett treated both local patients and wounded soldiers at the Lansing Memorial Hospital in Basra. They thus conveyed a positive image of the Western world to the local population and could be seen as moral symbols, all the more so as they often provided accommodation for the problematic female travellers. Nevertheless, many points of tension appeared between British officials and American missionaries. But Tuson underlines that they often had little to do with female missionaries specifically. In fact, all British citizens, including women, were suspicious of the religious side of the American mission. While the Americans thought the British arrogant and class-conscious, the British criticised the uncouthness of the Americans. As Lorimer pointed out, "However nice the Americans were, they were always a foreign type" [122]. More importantly, there was a conflict over the occupation of Arabia: whereas the British did not want to interfere in inland politics, American missions were eager to occupy Central Arabia to promote their faith there and were a constant source of worry for the British officials in charge of the Gulf. During the First World War, the British were suspicious of all Americans with Germanic names and of the contacts between American female missionaries and local women. Other tensions appeared after the war, mainly because of Wilson's prominence and his opposition to London on the Irish question.

A fascinating area which Penelope Tuson explores is Western women's relations with local women in the Gulf. Once again, she shows that there is no model pattern to Western female behaviour in that respect. Whereas Emily Lorimer is passionate about Arab language and literature, she admits she cannot understand their culture, their religion and their habits. Arab dignitaries' table manners fall under very heavy criticism, as she recalls that "their efforts to deal with peas were a study" [73]. Her attitude was part and parcel of her position regarding Empire. The Arabs' "shortcomings" merely proved that the British civilising mission should not be over yet. As for the local population, she met some local men at receptions with her husband but had no contact with the women. On the contrary, Tuson's study of Bell's attitudes reveals a tremendous evolution. At first, G. Bell showed no interest in the fate of Arab women or in their religion and declared that it is "a bore being a woman when you are in Arabia" [135]. Yet after 1920, she became interested in their daily lives and reflected on the best suited education they might receive. Interestingly, Tuson shows the dominant and male outlook that Bell seems to have had on Arab women. She believed Arab girls and women should learn about domestic science, housecraft and hygiene, whilst admitting that "the women of the better classes […] meet one more than half way" [166]. If she does show any interest in women, it is so that they might give her access to the world of men: "a troop of female friends who vastly improve one's personal relations with the men" [166]. In the end, it seems that American female missionaries were the closest to the local female population. The female missionaries, who had only arrived once their male counterparts had begun mapping out the territory, were particularly prominent as teaching and medical staff. Although the missions' hierarchy was male-dominated, females were indispensable to reach local women in a Muslim world that segregated genders. Female missionaries tended to conform to local customs, and contrary to English women, they tended to keep their children with them in the Gulf rather than sending them home. Simultaneously, Muslim customs were used to emphasise the value of the American way and portray the unity and equality of the American home; gender segregation and the veil as a symbol of oppression were severely criticised by people like Josephine E. Spaeth and Amy Zwemer. After the First World War, Islam was particularly criticised for oppressing women. Tuson points out how missionaries failed to recognise the direct link between Islam, Arab nationalism and feminist Arab movements. Local people therefore praised American missionaries for bringing health and education, but strongly resented their interference with the local culture and religion. Arab females were both idealised and feared. Women were seen as the potential link between differing cultures. An article published in 1932 by F. Stark and a male Cambridge professor claimed that when "women understand one another, the battle is won" [221]. In "The Arab of the Desert," written by the Dicksons and edited by Lorimer in 1949, the Bedouin woman is described as passionate and innocent, in an extremely romanticised fashion. As for British officials, they were extremely wary of Arab loyalties after the war, and fearful of the very influential 'Aisha bint Muhammad, wife of Shaikh 'Isa, ruler of Bahrain, as she had the reputation of being anti-British.

Attitudes to women and problems concerning their presence in the Gulf shifted with the opening up of Arabia in the 1930s—when air travel began and oil companies arrived. One striking example of the new worries for British officials is what Tuson calls the incident of the beach pyjamas, when one female air traveller wandered off into the city wearing such clothes, causing dismay amongst the local population and maybe even more dismay amongst the British diplomatic mission. As Tuson explains, "fear of sexual impropriety was both a real and imagined factor in the preservation of imperial authority and control" [215]. The problems posed by female explorers were multiplied with more women wanting to get to or arriving in the Gulf. Non-official female travellers still needed to be monitored and could not enter the territory without knowing where to stay and who to stay with. British officials first refused entry to the wives of non-diplomatic employers lest it might create incidents with the local population. Access to the region was only later granted, but on the condition that they would have proof of a suitable accommodation. Tuson partly links these British fears to the memory of the 1857 Indian mutiny which was preceded by the arrival of large numbers of Western women.

Finally, Playing the Game offers the reader evocative portraits of Arabia seen through the eyes of the Western women who lived there. Thus Lorimer refers in her letters to the "buildings of the Muharrak sea-front [that] form a little greyish-white streak and beautiful white-sailed boats race past continually," or to the horizon "broken by little date-palm groves at varying distances which look wonderfully fairy-like in the evening light" [40]. One of Tuson's great strengths is that she does not consider her book as a closed entity that has achieved its purpose fully. On the contrary, she appeals for more research to be undertaken to enrich imperial history with new perspectives and alternative accounts. Suggesting that others look into the responses of local men and women to the presence of Western women, into the role of non-prominent Western women, she repeatedly assures that local women should not be silenced by research, although sources are scarce. Tuson herself brings into the open the topics which her book only hints at or throws into question, and calls for renewed dynamism in this area. Playing the Game: Western Women in Arabia is a well-written and fascinating account that interconnects male officialdom and rival female stories but also mirrors conflicting female perspectives. It is thus both an invaluable tool to understand imperial history and a compelling read in order to undertake informed and multi-faceted historical research.


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