Himan Heidari profile

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Himan Heidari

University of Roehampton London (2023)


Dr Mary L. Shannon


Curious Travellers and Ambivalent Performers: British Women Travellers and Orientalism in Kurdistan (1890-1940)


Western male travel writing about the Middle East by the likes of T. E. Lawrence and George N. Curzon is well known; contemporaneous western female travel writing about the same region, especially on Kurdistan, has been overlooked, yet it can reshape our understanding of the authors and the Kurds alike. This project will explore neglected texts by well-known and lesser-known female travel writers and offer new methodological approaches to them. I will argue that female accounts of travels in Kurdistan deployed an ambivalent strategy, establishing women travellers as both Orientalists and as advocates for women's emancipation from rigid gender roles.

I will explore the opportunities British women embraced when travelling to Kurdistan over a 50-year period (1890–1940), recording their observations of Kurdish people and other ethnic groups, while performing their gender identities. My project argues that travellers’ self-fashioning is enabled by ambivalence, which manifests as a tension between attraction and repulsion: travellers express sympathy and understanding for the Kurds, while also reinforcing the dichotomy of 'us' versus 'them'. I will combine the concept of gender performativity (i.e., of gender as a performed social construct) with postcolonial concepts of Ambivalence, Othering, and Third Space in Western literature to show the ways in which identity is performed or constructed by these female writers through narratives and images of encounter, conflict, and transformation. Their ambivalence distinguishes them from the male writers mentioned above and reveals the surprisingly contradictory voices and ideologies at play in colonial texts.

This project will contribute to the expansion of the burgeoning fields of Kurdish Studies, Imagology Studies, and Travel Literature to offer new ways of analysing gender within these fields. It will further elucidate the connections between travel, empire, and the struggle for female self-fashioning to impact debates about female autonomy and mobility relevant to the region today.