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A Tent of One's Own: A Critical History of Travel Writing by Muslim Women


  March 23rd 2021

Photo source: CRCS UGM YouTube

Nearly everyone has heard of Ibn Battuta, the Medieval Moroccan travel-scholar. But few could name a Muslim woman travel writer from the past. Indeed, one might ask, did Muslim women write about travel at all? And if so, how do their narrations inflect the way that we think about Muslim mobility? Daniel Majchrowicz, Assistant Professor of South Asian Literature and Culture at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL, USA, explored this issue in his presentation in Wednesday Forum, a weekly discussion forum organized by the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies (ICRS) and the Center for Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies (CRCS) on March 3, 2021. This presentation is based on his upcoming book entitled A Tent of One's Own: A Critical History of Travel Writing by Muslim Women (Indiana University Press, 2021) which introduces this literature critically in English for the first time. This book is based on new research by a team of scholars from different linguistic traditions, it recovers forgotten travel writing by Muslim women from fourteen languages, including Indonesian, Uzbek, Urdu, and Dutch.

Dr. Majchrowicz explains that there was a story that bothered his mind and motivated him to do this research. A couple of years ago a museum in London did an exhibit on women travelers, unfortunately, the majority of the women travelers who were included in that exhibition were European. Some of them were not but there were no Muslim women on that exhibition. Therefore Majchrowicz was inspired and motivated to conduct this research. Since the beginning, Majchrowicz believed that women did, in fact, travel and write their travel experiences, but their voices have been poorly preserved and rarely translated, rendering their experiences inaccessible to all but the most specialized scholars today. Muslim women, especially, are often twice neglected. First, because Muslim women have tended not to be studied or thought of as serious travelers or travel writers. Secondly, on top of that a whole set of Orientalist assumptions about the ability of Muslim women to express themselves has led to even further neglect of their work. Daniel argues that it has tended to happen even within certain Muslim contexts as well which has made this research a little bit more complex.

Align with that Majchrowicz then formed a research team with his two colleagues: Siobhan Lambert Hurley at Sheffield University in the United Kingdom and Sunil Sharma at Boston University in the US. Majchrowicz, Hurley, and Sharma are generally scholars of South Asian literature and history who focus on the study of India's Islamic past. This research assembled a team of scholars from various linguistic traditions from around the world that have some connection to Muslim societies. In 2015, this group of researchers received a major grant in which these questions could be addressed. In some years, this group attempted to track down travel writing as the specific area of research. This research then was limited to the period before the jet engine made international travel much more efficient, therefore the cut-off date for this project is 1955. The main question for this study was: did the history of mobility and global connection, and the history of global Islam look different when told from the perspective of a Muslim woman traveler? The heart of the book is excerpts and translations that were analyzed. Once again there is a struggle to think of a Muslim woman who wrote travel writing from the past. Probably most people think of some Muslim men who are already famous like Ibnu Batuta, but for women, it is a little more difficult until perhaps we get to the contemporary period and that may even raise the question of did Muslim women write travel writing at all, then if they did, where do we find it and why is it that we know so little about it? Moreover, if this literature exists, what can it tell us about the Muslim past and global history as well? India is one of the main producers of Muslim women travelers, however in India too, there's very little knowledge of the past of women's travel and travel writing, but in this research, it is noticed that there was an opportunity to think more about the global implications this kind of forgotten literature and why they are not preserved?

According to Majchrowicz, there are several reasons for that. Firstly, when it comes to women's travel narratives, text or writing is not always the primary mode in which these are circulated. In the context where literacy is low, women's literacy is often even lower and women's accounts would have circulated orally rather than being written as literacy was often the domain of men and the ability to freely read and write was less common among women in many places and many times.  Another issue is that the failure to take women seriously as travelers and their literature seriously as well, thus a lot of material that was produced was not well preserved, much of it was destroyed and it was often very difficult to find buried in the archives. Because of this, women often were required to publish in spaces that were marked out for women and those materials were not necessarily preserved by libraries. Therefore, this research ended up including 45 women and their travels in this book. Many of the pieces in the study would not typically appear in volumes of travel writing because they are magazine articles, speeches, diary entries, poems, and book excerpts. If it is a journal it has circulated through the family, everybody in the family was aware of it including the extended family but it did not go beyond the family. Even if the researcher can access the journal, still it is handwriting written in the language that the researchers do not speak researcher should read it to figure out the story and it is difficult to read.

The most important observation of this research is that the women travelers producing their writing did so in very different ways for very different audiences and very different objectives. These women are also very diverse and the category of Muslim women is also not monolithic. Therefore, the heart of the book then is to look at the contribution of the women travelers' way of thought about the world around them.  One story included in this research and book is that of a Muslim woman from India named Begum Sarbuland Jang. She was born in the city of Delhi, but she spent most of her life in the Southern Indian City of Hyderabad. Jang’s husband was an extremely influential judge in the Southern kingdom of Hyderabad. Jang traveled to the Middle East in the first decade of the 20th century. She was deeply interested in interacting with other Muslims from around the world. While Jang was on her trip, she kept a private diary talking about this trip to the Middle East and Europe and it was only 25 years later after the death of her husband that she decided to have it published, apparently at the urging of her children. She named the diary Dunya Aurat Ki Nazar Me (The World in the Eyes of a Woman a Travelogue of East and West) In this book, Jang goes to great length to make friends and connections with other Muslim women on her travels and with women generally. Interestingly, before she set out on the trip she hired a tutor to teach her Arabic. As an elite woman from a wealthy family in India, she had most certainly studied formal Arabic and Qur'anic Arabic particularly. She also hired a woman servant who could teach her everyday spoken Arabic.

In this research, Majchrowicz also explains that there was also one woman from Indonesia, Herawati Diah (1917-2016). She was the first Indonesian woman to graduate from an American University. She received a B.A. in Sociology from Barnard Women's College at Columbia University in New York. Her story first appeared in the Malay and Dutch language women's magazine Doenia Kita, founded by her mother, Siti Almiah. It was published serially from 1941-1942. The piece was originally written in English, not Dutch or Malay, to help readers "practice English". From this research, Majchrowicz concludes that Muslim women did travel widely and write about their experience and they were very deeply engaged with the social and intellectual currents of their times. One of the possibilities of what happens when we look to the literature and try to recover the voices of Muslim women travelers, we find that Muslim women travelers not only can tell us about literature but most importantly about the development of Islam in South Asia and its global connection and global history.