“Social status of women is changing in Islam”: My conversation with a 1955 issue of LIFE magazine

“Social status of women is changing in Islam”: My conversation with a 1955 issue of LIFE magazine

by Katherine Blouin

cover image: “A woman reading a magazine in the 1950s

The 1955 special issue of LIFE magazine dedicated to Islam includes a section entitled “CUSTOMS Social status of women is changing in Islam”. I recently had the pleasure of having a one-way conversation with the anonymously-written text, and I thought you, dear readers, might enjoy the ride. Here it goes:

LIFE: As Islam spread around the globe, the customs of conquered or converted people became entwined in the social fabric with practices laid down in the Koran. A notable instance is found in attitudes towards women of the Moslem world.

KB: Feel free to replace “Islam”/”Moslem” by any other religious term and “Koran” by any relevant sacred book/writing/foundational story and you’d have pretty much the same sentence. Check this out: “As Christianity spread around the globe, the customs of conquered or converted people became entwined in the social fabric with practices laid down in the Bible. A notable instance is found in attitudes towards women of the Christian world.” Makes sense, doens’t it?

Life May 1955 Cover

LIFE‘s May 9, 1955 cover

LIFE: A notable instance is found in the attitudes towards women of the Moslem world.

KB: You just said that. But since you insist: You mean your attitudes? As in you being the 1955 ghost-writer who is most probably white and male, as most of the staff listed in the first pages of the issue seems to be? Or those of your fellow Americans towards muslim women? No? Ah: You mean the attitudes of “muslim men” then (but which ones exactly?)!

LIFE: For many centuries and in many lands they were kept in seclusion and shrouded in heavy veils outside their homes.

KB: For a second I thought you had digressed and were talking about wealthy Athenian women from the time of Pericles. Sorry about that. Go on.

LIFE: Today, however, ancient practices are vanishing from Islam.

KB: Really? Like what? Reading the Quran? The Hajj? The Ramadan? Practicing charity towards the poor?

LIFE: The veil had disappeared almost entirely in Turkey, and to a great extent in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, and Palestine.

KB: THE veil disappeared? Which one? And where did it go? Did someone search for it? Sounds like you’re summing up the part of Flaubert’s Salammbô where Mathô and Spendius steal the Veil of Carthage’s tutelary goddess Tanit. Joke aside, it’s cliché yet interesting to see that by “ancient practices” that are “vanishing” you mean “the female veil”.  Can you expand on how you think this phenomenon fits within the broader, post-WWII geopolitical context of your time?

LIFE: It still persists in parts of Arabia, North Africa and, notably, in Pakistan, which remains among the most conservative of all Moslem nations in its attitude toward women. Half of urban Pakistani women – a small minority of the total population – are still in purdah (Persian for curtain or veil).

Life May 1955 Cover_Page_80

Life May 1955 Page 81

May 1955 LIFE, p.80-81 (= the whole section on the “social status of women”)

KB: Nice try at cleverly not answering my question. Now if I follow your reasoning, the veil has “disappeared almost entirely” from several countries, but remains in others, including Pakistan, which stands out as the “most conservative” country women-wise. Is it because Pakistan stands out by its conservatism that the editors of the magazine have decided to literally surround your text with three pictures of veiled Pakistani women, two of which featuring women wearing the purdah?

LIFE: Yet in some Moslem countries, including Pakistan, higher education is now open to them and a growing number have the right to vote.

KB: First, you need to stop with the “muslim country” thing. Cause most of them include a diversity of religious communities. You should know this. So stop pretending like you don’t. Second, may I ask whether you could expand on who “them” women are as far as socio-economic circumstances are concerned? Third, some handy facts: Pakistani women were officially granted the suffrage in 1947, that is the first year of the country’s independance from the British. Turkish women got it way earlier: In 1935, that is 6 years after that right was granted to American women (in some cases in theory only, since, to give an example you might well know already, many African-American women – as well as men – were not able to actually vote until way later) and 5 years before women in my native Québec could vote. As for the other countries where muslim communities exist, they allowed women to vote pretty much right after the departure of the colonial power that had been ruling ruling and occupying them. So I would like to suggest that the key word here is not so much Islam as decolonization.

LIFE: Though by Western standards some of the mores of Islam seem backward…

KB: You mean “backward” like the segregation you are enforcing in your country right now? And like lynching? I know what you think. I could have waited in order not to interrupt you, but I couldn’t help it. Go on.


“A Vespa advertisement from 1950 showing the Cairo Citadel”

LIFE: …Mohammed radically advanced the status of women.

KB: Wow: You are finally saying something positive. Though the first clause of your sentence kind of cancels your attempt at praising the Prophet.

LIFE: Condemning the practice of killing baby daughters…

KB:which ancient Greeks did indirectly through child exposure? I mean we even have a papyrus letter from Egypt in which a guy literally instructs his sister to “cast out” her baby if it’s a girl. I know: I’ve interrupted you again!

LIFE: Mohammed taught that girls as well as boys were gifts of God. As against the unlimited polygamy of the Bedouin, he preached, “Of women who seem good in your eyes, marry two, or three, or four; and if ye still fear ye shall not act equitably, then only one.” For economic reasons the vast majority of Moslems now have only one wife – or at most two.

KB: Wow: You actually did some research, did you? I’m almost impressed. What about Mohammed’s first wife – and former boss – Khadijah bint Khuwaylid, a savy businesswoman about fifteen years his senior who was substantially wealthier than him?

LIFE: In some regions individual customs have resisted the law of Koran. In Malaya, for example, the ancient traditions of a matriarchal society have preserved the independence of women. Elsewhere many of the rigorous restrictions on women derive not from the Koran but from later interpreters of Moslem law.

KB: You’re referring here to British Malaya, which included the Malaysian peninsula as well as Singapore, and which gained independence in 1957. I don’t know why but that makes me think of my mom’s upbringing in late 1950s, super-catholic Québec. She’s 1-year old right now (in 1955, that is), and she will soon have to deal with a whole set of conservative doctrine being shoved down her throat by the priests at church, and the nuns in school. And this is nothing new. As her mom often said regarding her own upbringing: “All the clergy did was to scare the shit out of us with a bunch of lies that, being children, we believed”. And let’s not even talk about the residential schools for indigenous children, which are in full-fledge activity in your days. Talk of “rigorous restrictions”.

LIFE: Everywhere in Islam today women are rebelling against the social fetters that warped their lives.

KB: I assume that what you call “social fetters” includes European colonial powers? And the American attempts at taking the lead over from them whenever and wherever they can?

LIFE: And among liberal Moslems it is widely recognized that the retardation of women is a prime reason for the long stagnancy of Islamic life.

KB: Whaaaat? Stop here, please. Can you define all these pompous tags you’re using: “liberal Moslems”, “retardation of women”, “long stagnancy of Islamic life”? I sense a very reductive positioning in what you’re saying here. If I understand correctly, you are arguing that “liberal”, that is “westernized” muslims consider that muslim women are “retarded” compared to “western” ones, and that this is why Islamic life is stagnating. I have so many questions I don’t even know where to start: Who are the “liberal muslims” referred to here exactly? What female voices have you properly listened to and processed in order to come up with such a grand statement? What evidence do we have for an actual “long stagnancy of Islamic life” compared to other types of lives (if all of these bogus categories even mean something, which I doubt they actually do beyond testifying to our tendency to box human experiences in simplistic, and thus fundamentally flawed, categories)? I’ll tell you: We have none. n.o.n.e. Why? Because there is no such a thing as an “Islamic life”, let alone one that “stagnates” (human history is the very antithesis of stagnation). And are you actually saying that the situation of women, all women in 1955 USA, is so amazing that you are a beacon of gender equality? Like haven’t you seen Mad Men? Oh. Right. You haven’t. CAUSE YOU LIVE IN THE TIME OF MAD MEN. Image result for Huda Sha’rawi

LIFE: Some other Moslem customs, acquired and prescribed, are shown on the next two pages.

KB: Nice deflection. I’ll read these two pages and come back to you shortly. In the meantime, I urge you to get some info on Muslim feminist pioneers (start with Huda Sha’rawi, whose pic is to the right), and to read Simone de Beauvoir’s Le deuxième sexe. It was published in 1949, so you can find it now. Oh, and since we’re at it, get Frantz Fanon’s 1952 Black Skin, White Mask. It’s not about women per se, but it is still definitely worth a read and will be so for decades to come. And please try to stay alive until 1978. That way you can read Edward Said’s Orientalism. You won’t regret it, I promise.

Canadian mining and settler nationalism:  legitimizing possession by erasing indigeneity behind the guise of modernity, expertise and benevolence

Canadian mining and settler nationalism: legitimizing possession by erasing indigeneity behind the guise of modernity, expertise and benevolence

By Leilah Elmokadem

The recent death of Peter Munk, chairman of Barrick Gold, flooded Canadian media with glorifying obituaries and odes to the supposed philanthropists’ accomplishments, contributions and achievements. Described as a renowned man of “lofty global ambitions”, Munk is praised for his leadership as an entrepreneur with “willingness to take risks, spot overlooked opportunities, and challenge the status quo” (Bickis, 2018). He is said to have pursued his national loyalties and global ambitions with “audacious vision and a relentless internal drive”. His legacy is considered one of “business success, charitable donations, and an outspoken defender of the benefits of capitalism” (Bickis, 2018). Left-wing activists and academics certainly did not hesitate to disrupt the celebratory narratives of Munk’s legacy, calling out Barrick Gold’s atrocious legacy of corruption, abuse, exploitation and environmental degradation of indigenous lands.

newsfrontLA_DSCF9806_px626Protest Barrick rally, Toronto, Tuesday, April 26, 2016 (Image: Tanja-Tiziana, Now)

The debates that ensued in light of these contesting narratives highlight the crucial placing of mining within constructions of Canadian history and national identity. The Canadian mining industry appropriates and reproduces a unique type of imperialist rhetoric to orchestrate a certain imagination of the Canadian miner’s personality traits—in ways that align with Canada’s national identity, hereby legitimating colonial settlement by fostering an unquestionable sense of righteous and deserving entitlement to land and resources. This post seeks to dissect this relationship with special attention to the erasure of indigeneity and settler nationalism as historically persistent enablers of resource extraction in Canada.


            As primary evidence, I deconstruct narratives from Canadian mining company reports and legal documents dating back to the 1800s, as well as contemporary texts sourced from present-day affiliated institutions such as the Canadian Mining Journal, the Fraser Institute, and the Canadian Mining Association. The intention here is to discern the ways in which “discovered” resources are described by miners (individuals and institutions), how miners themselves are constructed as “explorers”, and where indigenous peoples are included (or omitted) from these texts. To analyse these findings, I draw from Paula Butler’s book: Colonial extractions: race and Canadian mining in contemporary Africa” (2015), particularly its anthropological insights regarding the historically constructed identity of the Canadian miner. Audra Simpson and Eva Mackey’s works offer the theoretical groundwork for understanding settler nationalism and European entitlement, which is central to the discussion on legitimized resource extraction on colonized land. Lastly, I engage with the works of Alejandro Paz and Edward M. Bruner in an attempt to situate the relationship I establish—between mining and Canadian nationalism—within a broader process of authoritative story-telling that maintains state secrets and emblems to secure white capitalist state sovereignty. Throughout the paper, I corroborate my claims and analyses using literature that demonstrates how orientalist constructions and erasures of the indigenous “other” have historically served imperialist purposes, such as Timothy Mitchell’s “Rule of Experts. Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity(2002).


            It is useful to first briefly clarify and justify my position on Canadian mining as an imperialist project. This is not a novel suggestion; several anthropologists have analysed mineral extraction as a manifestation of neocolonial capitalist globalization. The mining industry has served as a cornerstone of Canadian settler society since the mid-1800s (Butler, 2015). Mineral resource extraction was a key motivator of northward expansion in Canada, a colonial incursion into Native territory that has only recently, and inadequately, been redressed with legislative efforts such as land claims and impact and benefit agreements (IBAs) (Keeling & Sandlos, 2015, p. 22). Globally and contemporarily, as well, Canadian-led resource extraction serves to exploit, displace and dispossess indigenous populations across central America and Africa (Butler, 2015). The objective of this post is certainly not to test this claim, as it is already sufficiently justified by existing literature. Rather, my intention is to unpack how the romanticized nationalist construction of Canadian mining has historically and perpetually erased indigeneity to secure settler sovereignty. Although these ideas have been posed by the scholars I mention in the previous section, I attempt to complement their work by adding an analysis of “othering” and techno-politics to resource extraction as an imperialist project. A key point here is that the “erasure” of the indigenous, in the history of Canadian mining, has not simply entailed a passive omission of indigenous peoples from dialogue and text. Rather, it has relied largely on a conscious and strategic construction of the pre-modern, deficient native inhabiting a fruitful land of unrealized potential.


Settler colonies, such as the US and Canada, conjure “fictions of entitlement” that are tied to the idea of “first discovery” (terra nullius) that maintain, and make logical, an unquestionable European entitlement to native land, necessitating Western concepts of property/land ownership that are based on the rule of “first possession”. European settlers managed to utilize this rule despite centuries of Indigenous presence by constructing the colonized land as “vacant”. Despite being inhabited for centuries, Western notions of land ownership that deemed native lands as “not governed by human control” because Indigenous peoples occupied, used and related to land/nature in ways that were unfamiliar to colonizers. Claiming “first possession” depended upon misrecognizing non-agrarian relationships to land which was “occupied – not owned—and therefore empty of people/societies that mattered” (Mackey, 2016, p. 48). The history of legitimizing possession in settler colonies is evident in the historical processes and narratives of acquiring legal ownership for resource extraction in Canada.

Adolphus Hart was a barrister at law of “lower Canada” and counsellor at law of the state of New York. In 1867, he wrote and published a book titled Practical Suggestions on Mining Rights and Privileges in Canada.

Hart 1867 cover

Legal authorities and officials described the text as “very useful (…) for persons engaged in Mining operations” when “legal operations come in their way” (Hart, 1867, p. 4). Hart produced this piece with the intention of clarifying ownership rights to discovered minerals in Canada, and whether they legitimately belong to the Crown, the “proprietor” of the land, or the discoverer of the minerals in said land. The complexity of the language used in this text yields a level of difficulty in discerning the exact suggestions he poses, particularly without the legal expertise required to sufficiently understand some of the legal terminology used. However, I was able to discern that he draws from ancient Roman, French and English legislative frameworks to explain certain ownership rights of discovered minerals in Canada: He writes:

“By the ancient Roman law, they (mines) belonged, without restriction, to the proprietor of the land wherein they were found; he might freely dispose of them like any other revenues or profits derived from his property, and he who made the discovery could have no pretensions to the treasure, unless the mines had been found in lands which had been deserted and abandoned” (Hart, 1867, p. 12).

The strong emphasis on the “proprietor” is evident throughout the text, specifically where he cites legislation that states “by the law of nature mines belong to the proprietor of the soil, and in the present enlightened era of legislation it may be presumed that all restrictive rights, whether by the Crown or its representatives, would be regulated, and in many aspects modified, by due regard to the interests of the owner or proprietor.” (Hart, 1867, p. 14). Even under official property of the crown in the 1900s, mineral resources were often handed over to mining companies as part of the government’s approach to economic development; no special rights to lands or resources based on Aboriginal rights of historical ownership existed (Keeling & Sandlos, 2015, p. 237).

            The significance of these excerpts lies in one troubling fact: throughout this entire book regarding ownership of discovered minerals in Canada, the question of indigenous presence and ownership is completely omitted; not once mentioned. Mackey’s explanation of “first discovery” and entitlement can explain the logical and expected omission of indigenous presence from this legal document regarding ownership of resources. Specifically, the concept of “proprietor” in itself is one riddled with European conceptions of property/ownership in relation to personhood—specifically European ideals of improvement, individualism, civilization and “productive elaboration” and their centrality to “civilizational identity”, which serves to determine what kind of person is deserving of land ownership/citizenship/sovereignty (Mackey, 2016).

            The role of “civilizational identity” in delegitimizing, and even problematizing, Native presence is evident in past writings on resource extraction. “Eighty Years Progress of British America” is a report published in 1865 outlining the “wonderful development of (Canada’s) natural resources”.

Capture d_écran 2018-06-12 à 15.48.18

The section on mining articulates, as one of the “principle difficulties to be contended with”, “the hostility of the native tribes of Indians, who, though at present apparently friendly, are treacherous and capricious” (Hind, et al., 1865, p. 367). Another text narrating an explorer’s journey in Klondike, which is a gold-rich region in present-day Yukon, describes the tribe inhabiting the region as one that “seems to conform to the unprolific and dreary aspect of the country which they inhabit. They are very wretched looking objects, in a combination of civilized and native clothes” (Stansbury, 1897, p. 15).


Klondikers carrying supplies ascending the Chilkoot Pass, 1898 (Source: Wikipedia)

The construction of the Native in both cited examples serves to erase indigenous presence on land by delivering a notion of passive inhabitancy that is contrasted by the explorer/miner’s active desire to develop and utilize the land’s potential in ways that the native simply cannot due to their primitive, non-individualistic, ways of being. Stripping the native of a “civilizational identity” has been a prominent instrument of colonial rhetoric—as demonstrated by Mitchell’s analysis regarding the construction of the Egyptian peasant as “plural” because he lives “always as a member of a group” in a “formless” village where “all is dust and disorder” (Mitchell, 2002, p. 7).


            In my search through the “mining” section of the Fraser Institute webpage, I can confidently assert that “uncertainty” was the most frequently occurring word in publications pertaining to Aboriginal peoples. At least six articles problematize land disputes and Indigenous protests regarding land rights and mining practices; particularly how the resulting “uncertainty” is detrimental for investor confidence, hereby costing Canada billions of dollars:

Canada has a serious problem with land-use certainty that may threaten future investment in the sector. Across the country, uncertainty surrounding disputed land claims remains a significant barrier to investment in the development of natural resources, particularly investment in the mining sector” (Bains & Jackson, 2018).

Mackey traces how concepts and practices ensuring “certainty of settled expectations” of entitlement serve to deny Indigenous sovereignty. She poses the puzzle of how it can be that Indigenous peoples have a recognized “inherent right to self-government” yet remain in constant confrontation with the contradiction that they only have these rights as long as they can be “reconciled with the Crown’s assertion of sovereignty over Canadian territory” (Mackey, 2016, p. 42). The sense of entitlement within the mining industry, which poses land disputes as direct disruptions to the economic prosperity of the nation, can be understood using Mackey’s theoretical framework. Laws, she explains, were established to recognize certain aspects of Indigenous rights and occupation of their territories, yet such rights remain partial, limited and secondary so long as the ultimate and higher sovereignty is always the property of the settler government (Mackey, 2016, p. 43).

Ultimately, what we are seeing in the rhetoric perpetuated by the Fraser Institute is a manifestation of the fantasy of entitlement clashing with, disrupted and challenged by indigenous sovereignty. The settler nation was initially built on the assumptions of a vacant, ungoverned land—an assumption that remains in constant battle with Indigenous sovereignty (Mackey, 2016). Dispossession makes possible the conditions of settler states as they are predicated upon the active ongoing dispossession of Indigenous peoples from land and life (Simpson, 2011, p. 168) This battle, then, absolutely necessitates the framing of indigenous land rights as an obstacle to the nation’s sovereignty as a White capitalist settlement, which is largely perpetuated through resource extraction. It is useful to conceptualize Canada’s mining industry as an example of colonial continuity that is infused with contradicting functions: while it serves to maintain a nationalist “certainty of settlement expectations”, it also extends the ambit of the state to marginalized indigenous communities, hereby paving avenues for indigenous expressions of sovereignty in the form of resistance against environmental degradation and exploitation.


            Erasing and problematizing the indigenous other is only one part of a twofold process, in which the latter part typically entails the strategic construction of a landscape in a manner that necessitates action for improvement and advancement. A historical example of this is the French colonial construction of the Algiers as potentially fruitful due to its natural topography, yet untended and neglected by its native inhabitants, hereby necessitating French intervention to advance the agricultural practices for the purpose of realizing the land’s potential (Davis, 2007). In the context of Canadian mining, however, the process of “making-technical” and constructing the miner as the intelligent expert can be understood as a discursive instrument that serves to de-politicize and legitimize mining practices on indigenous land.

            In Canada, past northern development visions and policies have been tightly linked to the exploitation of the region’s natural resources. Particularly post WWII, mining was promoted by politicians and bureaucrats as the key to assimilating northern people and territories into the national economy. This agenda entailed an effort to transition Aboriginal economies away from traditional land-based subsistence and trade economies, and towards wage economies and settlement life (Keeling & Sandlos, 2015, p. 7). Bell (2013) examines how the issue of rural poverty in Northern Canada is “rendered technical” in relation to natural resource projects. In Canada, the promotion of careers in mining for Aboriginal persons is part and parcel of national policy and public culture. Aboriginal participation in resource industries has increasingly been framed as “access to the good life”. The problematization of northern populations is intimately connected to the practices of identifying certain deficiencies—strategically to reduce a range of complex social and historical issues simply to a matter of “employment” (Bell, 2013, p. 120).

            Upon a searching through the “mining” section of the Fraser Institute’s webpage and the Mining Association of Canada (MAC), extremely evident is this process of de-politicization that functions by positioning resource extraction as the technical, expert solution to a supposed livelihood deficiency that is attached to indigeneity. Under the “Aboriginal Affairs” tab on the MAC webpage, the following paragraph is found:

“Across the industry, significant progress has been made in the realm of Aboriginal participation in the sector. More than 300 agreements, including Impact and Benefit Agreements, have been negotiated between mining companies and Aboriginal communities since 1974. These agreements have set out such commitments as education, training, jobs, business development and financial payments to help ensure mining projects bring long-lasting benefits to Aboriginal communities. In terms of employment, the mining sector has become, proportionally, the largest private sector employer of Aboriginal people in Canada. Given the proximity of many Aboriginal communities to current and potential mining operations, as well as the large number of Aboriginal youth, employment in well-paying, skilled mining jobs is poised to increase well into the future.” (Mining Association of Canada, 2018).

This apolitical narrative that constructs resource extraction as philanthropic work serving indigenous people in Northern Canada also exists with respect to Canada’s global mining practices. The Fraser Institute, in an article titled “Mining helps build prosperous communities. So why do governments embrace anti-mining policies?”, asserts that “developing nations and their people gain substantially from resource extraction.” (McMahon & Cervantes, 2018). Butler challenges this narrative throughout her entire book, in which her interviews with Canadian miners in African countries reveal that mining in Africa is attractive due to the “cheap labour” and their “unexplored rich deposits” (Butler, 2015, p. 107). Yet, the exploitive neocolonial nature of Canada’s unruly mining practices abroad is shielded by, 1) the process of “rendering technical” that justifies the logic of bringing employment opportunities and mining expertise to the untapped natural resources of developing nations and 2) the benevolent, philanthropic identity of the Canadian mining industry, which I explore as part of a national emblem in the following section.


            This post has thus far discussed the erasure of indigeneity, the problematization of indigenous sovereignty, and the construction of Canadian mining as a benevolent development project. I now want to unpack how these interconnected processes function intricately to position mining within a national identity that serves to maintain settler sovereignty and legitimize colonial extractions. Butler suggests that mining activity is romanticized as an adventure story in which Canada becomes a nation through the vision, risk-taking and grit of geologists and prospectors willing to venture into Canada’s unexplored frontier territories (Butler, 2015, p. 61). Engaging with and appreciating the value of understanding this problematic historical narrative, I draw also from other ethnographic literature that reveals indigenous perceptions of mining in an attempt to conceptualize their interplay with state narratives as a form of dialogic narrative.

In imagining the mining industry as a cornerstone of Canadian history, miners are widely described in texts as brave explorers:

(…) the tenacity of our early explorers and prospectors”, men who “reserved” with the happy result that “thousands of jobs” were created along with “new communities”, “extended transportation networks” and “commercial development throughout the nation, thus helping Canadians attain one of the highest standards of living in the world (Butler, 2015, p. 62) (cited from “Longo’s Historical Highlights of Canadian Mining”).

In addition to this discourse which places emphasis on the miner’s praise-worthy personality traits, Butler reveals how an element of cooperation and friendliness with indigenous populations permeates the writings of early Canadian miners. She brings forth an example in which a miner narrates his experience sharing a tent with an Algonquin man and his two sons, who taught him how to work efficiently in the woods and to survive. He had gained appreciation of First Nations as it was “one of the richest times of (his) life because of (their) warmth and generous spirit” (Butler, 2015, p. 83). The strategic telling of such a story, Butler explains, reproduces a normative imaginary an conceptual order required to legitimize continued colonialist relations of power, control and resource appropriation (Butler, 2015, p. 83).

            Butler sets the stage for my analysis on Canada’s mining industry as a perpetuator of colonial secrets and emblems. The romanticizing authoritative story-telling of Canada’s mining history, akin to Paz’ example of Israeli state secrets that effectively erase the atrocities associated with Zionist settlement (Paz, upcoming), can be understood as part of a discursive national construction. While in the Israeli context, the emblem remains imbued in Biblical claims to territory, the Canadian emblem can be considered one of reconciliation and cooperation with indigenous peoples; an effort to legitimize settler presence by feigning a sense of recognition that effectively situates indigenous sovereignty in the past. Spectacles, apologies and recognitions are used in settler societies because they continue to redirect emotions, histories and possibilities away from the means of societal and historical production—indigenous dispossession, disenfranchisement and containment (Simpson, 2011, p. 207).

            In this analysis, however, I face the risk of discarding indigenous resistance, sovereignty, and historical memory that continually exist in constant dialogic narration with the authoritative nationalist story of mining. The notion of dialogic narrative suggests that a story cannot be viewed in isolation, as a monologic static entity, but must be understood in a dialogic or interactive framework; all stories are constructed and interpreted in ways influenced by historical memory (Bruner, 2005, p. 172). Importantly, authoritative versions of stories are derived from the power of the state, and therefore, if challenged, carry the risk of disintegrating the nationalist narrative which is often the fabric of settler societies. Native northerners in Canada embrace the complexity of their mining histories, critiquing colonialism and environmental degradation that was invariably tied to mining—but also retain collective memories of taking advantage of wage labour opportunities when presented and adapting to mineral development through strategies that ranged from engaging in ad hoc labour to eventually applying political pressure for the establishment of indigenous mineral rights and/or royalty regimes through IBAs and comprehensive land claims processes (Keeling & Sandlos, 2015, p. 10). It is this recollection of history in relation to settlement, livelihood, dispossession and resistance, that represents the ever-surviving indigenous sovereignty, which must remain secret in nationalist Canadian rhetoric.


            In this post, I have sought to explore the narratives reproduced within the Canadian mining industry as a case study that exemplifies the crucial role of erasure in maintaining settler sovereignty. The mining industry is historically intertwined with colonial discovery and exploration—in intricate ways that cannot be separated so long as Canada remains a white settler colony. My intention has been to engage with anthropologists, such as Paz, Bruner and Simpson, who have offered incredibly insightful frameworks of national discourses and identities; particularly their role in serving settler colonial purposes. I had initially intended on utilizing a larger body of archival texts from early Canadian miners, which Butler so effectively achieves in her book. However, I found difficulty accessing this material publicly or within the university database and therefore decided to draw from her findings and insights in order to inform my discussion of national identity and erasure of indigenous sovereignty. The colonial imaginary that is perpetuated in Canada’s mining industry can be traced back to conceptions of land vacancy that legitimized colonial acquisition of land—a concept that the industry continues to grapple with as indigenous peoples mobilize for their rights in ways that threaten the capitalist accumulation of wealth that relies on the perpetual extraction of resources from stolen land.

Leilah Elmokadem just graduated from UTSC

note: This post was originally written as a term paper for the UTSC course “Constructing the Other: Orientalism through Time and Place” (Winter 2018). Students were free to pick any topic of their choice related to the course’s broader theme, and this essay was chosen among 40+ papers by a jury of 3 faculty (Katherine Blouin and Girish Daswani, who were the course instructors, as well as Maggie Cummings). Leilah wishes to thank Prof. Cummings, whose course “Anthropological Insights on Race and Racism” (Fall 2017) inspired the topic for this paper, for providing her with some insight on finding sources.


Bains, R., & Jackson, T. (2018). Saskatchewan attracts mining investment while land-claims disputes damage Ontario and B.C. Fraser Institute.

Bell, L. A. (2013). Diamonds as Development: Suffering for Opportunity in the Canadian North. Toronto.

Bickis, I. (2018, March 28). Barrick Gold founder Peter Munk, a man of lofty global ambitions, dies at age 90. Financial Post.

Bruner, E. (2005). Chapter 3- Slavery and the Return to the Black Diaspora: Tourism in Ghana. In E. Bruner, Culture on Tour: Ethnographies of Travel (p. 172). The University of Chicago Press.

Butler, P. (2015). Colonial Extractions: Race and Canadian Mining in Contemporary Africa. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Canadian Mining Journal. (2018, March 28). OBITUARY: Barrick Gold founder and chairman Peter Munk dies at 90. Canadian Mining Journal: Canada’s First Mining Publication.

Davis, D. (2007). Chapter 2: Nature, Empire, and Narrative Origins, 1830-48. In D. Davis, Resurrecting the Granary of Rome: Environmental History and French Colonial Expansion in North Africa. Ohio University Press.

Hart, A. (1867). Practical Suggestions on Mining Rights and Privileges in Canada. Montreal.

Hind, H., Keefer, T., Hodgins, J., Robb, C., Perley, M., & Murray, W. (1865). Eighty Years Progress of British America. Toronto: L. Nichols.

Keeling, A., & Sandlos, J. (2015). Mining and Communities in Northern Canada: History, Politics, and Memory. Calgary, Alberta: University of Calgary Press.

Mackey, E. (2016). Chapter 2: Fantasizing and Legitimizing Possession. In E. Mackey, Unsettled Expectations: Uncertainty, Land and Settler Decolonization. Fernwood Publishing .

McMahon, F., & Cervantes, M. (2018). Mining helps build prosperous communities. So why do governments embrace anti-mining policies? The Fraser Institute .

Mining Association of Canada. (2018). Aboriginal Affairs. Retrieved from Mining Association of Canada: http://www.mining.ca/our-focus/aboriginal-affairs

Mitchell, T. (2002). Chapter 5: The Invention and Reinvention of the Peasant. In T. Mitchell, Role of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity. University of California Press.

Paz, A. (upcoming). Settling History in Silwan: State Emblems and Public Secrets in Occupied East Jerusalem. 1-35.

Simpson, A. (2011). Settlement’s Secret. Cultural Anthrpology, 26(2), 205-217.

Stansbury, C. F. (1897). Klondike: The Land of Gold. New York: F. Tennyson Neely.

Judging a magazine by its cover or The social life of a thing, part I: The red veil

Judging a magazine by its cover or The social life of a thing, part I: The red veil

This post is the first of a summer series dedicated to Life‘s 1955 “Great Religions Part IV: The World of Islam” issue. The texts, images, and overall packaging of this collectible offer a fascinating window into post-WWII American representations of the peoples, cultures, and ancient-to-modern histories of North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia.

by Katherine Blouin

About two years ago, while browsing through one of the second hand/vintage stores that had recently opened in the fast-gentrifying Toronto East End, I found myself attracted to a particular issue of the American magazine Life whose title was “Great Religions Part IV: The World of Islam”. The cover was almost entirely red. It featured a smiling young woman wearing a Tikka headpiece, earrings, and the traditional red and golden South-Asian marital veil. The caption read “Moslem girl of Pakistan”. The issue was dated from May 9, 1955.

Life May 1955 Cover

The first owner of the magazine was “Mrs L. Hurwitz”, a subscriber who lived on Ava Road, in Cedervale, that is in one of Toronto’s wealthiest neighborhoods (funnily enough, the house, described by the real estate agent’s an “amazing 5-bedroom home sitting on a tree-filled lot” recently sold for a “modest” 2.3 million $). Cedervale was also already at the time home to an important Jewish community, which, based on her name, Mrs Hurwitz’s household might have belonged to. How long did Mrs Hurwitz hold on to her pile of magazines? Did she get rid of it herself or were they sold after she passed away? In what exact circumstances did the issue make its way from posh, post-WWII Cedervale to today’s fast-gentrifying East End of the Danforth? Clearly the shop owner had bought a bunch of vintage magazines somewhere in town. As for the rest, I had no clue. But there it was, a 1955 feminine, bridal, and veiled American take on Islam, reigning supreme on top of a pile of other old magazines, surrounded by country vinyls, clip earrings, hippy woolen ponchos, locally-made organic soaps, and old Fisher Price toys.

In 1955, the retail price of Life was 20¢. Mrs Hurwitz probably paid a bit less as a subscriber. The Danforth vintage shop was now asking 10$ for it. A hipsterish price, but not a shocking one. I couldn’t resist.

I brought the issue to my office, and it has been lying next to my desktop ever since, covered by a fluctuating pile of more urgent paperwork. Now that the school year is finally over, and that my schedule is allowing me to get back to more intensive research and writing, I thought the time was ripe to have myself a treat and turn this gem of a time capsule into a series of posts. Through them, I hope to explore how the texts, images, and overall packaging of this collectible offer us a fascinating window into post-WWII American representations of Islam, as well as of the peoples, cultures, and ancient-to-modern histories of North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. In other words, I will attempt to pull an Arjun Appadurai and reflect on the “social life” of this particular thing.

So let’s get started, shall we?

As the title reads, the issue is part IV of a series of five entitled to “The World’s Great Religions”. It was released after Part I Hinduism, Part II Buddhism, and Part III Religion in the Land of Confucius. Part V focused on Judaism.

Wait? Isn’t something missing, you might ask. Where’s the issue on Christianity?

Well, get ready for some exciting editorial twist: Life did indeed publish an issue on Christianity. But it did so later, that is just in time for Christmas 1955. In this case though, the issue is not linked to the previous series. Rather, it is said to a “Special issue” that corresponds to “Two issues in one” and, for that reason, was sold 35¢ instead of 20. What a deal! And what a treat!


Life’s “Great Religions of the World” series and the “Christianity” special issue (photo: ebay)

The overall set was published over a period of 8 months (April 4 to December 23, 1955). The order in which the issues were published is, in itself, telling. One can observe a “progression” from what stereotypically qualifies as polytheism (Hinduism) to eastern “philosophies” (Buddhism, Confucianism) to monotheism (Islam, Judaism, Christianity). Similarly, the issues move from so-called “Eastern” (Part I-IV) to “Western” (Part V and special issue) religions, this to the detriment of any chronological logic. The special status of the issue on Christianity – and the absence of text other than “LIFE” on the cover – also indicate that this last “religion” has, for the magazine’s editorial team and what they saw as their main audience at least, a “special” status.

In addition to this, the covers betray a gendered subtext. Three covers feature pictures of human beings. In all cases, the subject is a female one (a child/young teenager, a “girl” dressed as a bride, a “mother”). The cover captions respectively read “Vigil at Indian festival of light” (Part I, Hinduism), “Moslem girl of Pakistan” (Part IV, The World of Islam), and “Jewish mother blesses Sabbath light” (Part V, Judaism). All female subjects are portrayed in a ritual context (Diwali candle burning; wedding ceremony; Sabbath light blessing); their bodies, and especially their head and face, are adorned with accessories that would qualify as “exotic” or “traditional” among white, North American audiences in 1955: Head veils, Tikka headpieces, face painting, embroidered fabrics. In two cases, we see burning candles. The three remaining covers represent male gods: Buddha (statue), depictions of “Earth Gods” (painted festival boats), Jesus of Nazareth (crucifix). These covers thus represent the divine realm is a male dominion, whereas the female plays a central ritual role in the (re)production of the relationships between the human and the godly.

In the case of the cover picture of the issue on Islam, the identity of the generic “Moslem girl” (called “Pakistani Moslem” in the table of content) is actually specified in the caption to another picture that can be found inside the issue (p.81). Her name is “Raiza Khanum” (Khanum is actually a Persian title meaning ‘lady’ that is used as a polite way of referring to a woman in Pakistan/Afghanistan, so it is not a family name; for this reason, I’ll hereby refer to her as Raiza), and she was pictured, it is said, during a mock wedding “enacted by Pakistani girls”.

Raiza other pic

Raiza Khanum, the bride of a mocked wedding “enacted by Pakistani girls” (Life, May 9 1955, p.81)

Raiza, we learn in the caption to that latter picture, “wears a gay scarf used for festive events” (my italic). What the caption doesn’t say, however, is that red and golden saris and veils are traditionally worn by both South Asian Hindu and Muslim brides (red is the colour of the planet Mars, which is believed to oversee marriages; it is also associated with the rising sun, and thus symbolizes prosperity and fertility). They are absolutely not, in other words, a sign of a woman’s Muslim identity, but rather an indication that she is getting married and that her wedding includes a traditional, South Asian component. Thus Kim Kardashian’s recent – and controversial – red-themed photoshoot for Vogue India has, from a South Asian perspective, a clear bridal touch.


Kim Kardashian in Vogue India, March 2018

The Life cover picture is, therefore, a cliché. It is a cliché because, well, the eroticization (as well as fetishization, and stigmatization) of veiled, Muslim – and more generally “Oriental” – female bodies is an old Orientalist trope, about which a lot has been written, and which is still very much alive. From the theft of Tanit’s veil in Flaubert’s Salammbô (studied notably by Mary Orr) to the Enlightenment allegory of the Veil of Isis, to Orientalist painting, to public “de-veiling ceremonies” staged by French colonial authorities in Algeria, to recent public debates regarding the presence of “veils” or “headscarfs” (that is, let’s be real here, a metonymic way to refer to visibly muslim women) in “secular”, public spaces (a recent case of which involved a candidate of the French version of The Voice), the ability to access – and control – what exists behind a women’s veils has been an ongoing obsession in Europe, North America, and Oceania for a long time.

To the average reader of Life in 1955, Raiza’s veiled portrait must have been experienced as exotic. It must also, somewhat, have felt a bit familiar too. Why? Two words: Virgin. Mary.

Indeed, Jesus’ mom is commonly represented wearing a veil, and while the typical Catholic Mary wears blue and white, its Orthodox version is dressed – and veiled – in red and gold. In this case, the chromatic convention expresses the “royal”, divine status of Mary, who is said to belong to the House of David. For in the ancient Mediterranean, purple (also called “Tyrian red” for its redish colour) garnments – all the more so the ones embroidered with gold – were very expensive, and thus generally the prerogative of royal and religious élites (Sarah Bond has written a handy post on the topic).

The parallel between Raiza’s picture and Orthodox Mary struck me when I was cooking one night. The thing is, I have been accumulating a nice number of “Virginal” icons over the years, and these cover a nice geographical and denominational spectrum (I like to rationalize this particular taste of mine by the fact that the iconography and cult of Mary is, in many ways, a Christianized version of those of Isis, Artemis, and more broadly of several ancient mother goddesses). It is the case of a close-up, plasticised depiction of the Virgin I was blessed enough to buy several years ago on a small stand right next to the entrance of the Coptic quarter in Cairo (call it tacky as much as you want, I find it absolutely amazing a catch; and if ever you wonder, no, it is not a toilet seat cover). I also have an Armenian icon featuring the same veil, and the icon painter’s workshop I visited in Athens recently featured several similar depictions.

IMG_1174IMG_1175Life May 1955 Cover

Coptic (left) and Armenian (center) icons of the Virgin Mary; Life’s May 9, 1955 cover

In my next post, I’ll focus on the specific section to which the second picture of Raiza belongs. For now, I’ll end by pointing out that the person who took her picture is American photojournalist David Douglas Duncan (the authors of the text and captions of the section on Islam are not specified). According to a profile put online by Life on the occasion of Duncan’s 100th birthday (2016), the WWII soldier-turned-photographer is particularly famous for his pictures of the Korean and Vietnam Wars; he also covered the end of the British Raj.

When it comes to assessing the potential biases and subtexts of magazine photographs, we ought to assess what part of their perceived effect stems from the artists’ own work, and what part results from the overall journalistic product they are embedded in (that is the organization of pictures in a documentary whole, and, especially, their definition through captions, and relationship to the main text). Some of Duncan’s photographs feature in the University of Texas’ Harry Ransom Center’s aria windows. The online “From the Outside In: A Visitor’s Guide to the Windows“, provides some context to Duncan’s complicated relationship with LIFE’s editorial choices:

In 1946, just one month after discharge from the military, Duncan was hired by Life magazine to be its correspondent to the Middle East, a position he held until 1956. The magazine sent Duncan all over the world to cover important events, including the end of the British Raj in India, various cultures of Africa, Afghanistan, and Japan, and conflicts in both the Middle East and—most notably—Korea. His photographs and captions reflect the viewpoints of ordinary people as well as those in power. While working for Life, Duncan grew increasingly frustrated when his images were used to illustrate articles by writers with whom he strongly disagreed. So in 1951, he published This Is War!, his own photo-narrative of the Korean War. Since then he has published 25 photography books on a number of subjects.

The artistic quality of Duncan’s photojournalistic work cannot be doubted. Yet in the context of the issue that interests us here, his cover portrait of Raiza comes across as yet another iteration in a long-standing series of iconographical fantasies about the “Orient”. Thought relatively bare, the cover as a whole is faithful to Orientalist tropes according to which the “World of Islam” (for whatever it means) is an exotic, feminized, virginal, passive, and ancient, “frozen in time” space that sharply contrasts with the familiar, male, conquering, active, and forward-moving “West”.

In what context did Duncan take the picture of Raiza? How did he get access to what seems to have been an all-female “mock wedding”? Why was this picture chosen for the cover? And by whom? I wasn’t able to find any answer to these questions. I now pray that Duncan will somehow stumble upon this post, and feel generous enough to share some of the back story with us.

Orientalism, the Classics, and Egypt II workshop: Program and abstracts

Orientalism, the Classics, and Egypt II workshop: Program and abstracts

Image: The Griffith Institute

Please join us in Cairo on April 10 at the Cairo branch of the EES for what promises to be a fun and stimulating workshop. A description of the event’s theme can be found here and you can rsvp here. Should you have any question, feel free to email us.

Katherine Blouin, Usama Ali Gad, and Rachel Mairs


Morning session (chair: Rachel Mairs, University of Reading, UK)

9:30-10:00     Arrival and Welcome note by Essam Nagy, EES)

10:00 – 11:00 Myrto Malouta (Ionian University, Greece): The materiality of papyri and the decolonization of papyrology 

11:00 – 11:30 Coffee break

11:30 – 12:30 Heba Hesham Abdel Gawad (Durham University, UK): Even when the Dean spoke no one listened! The muted 19th century Egyptian reflections on current classical failures

12:30 – 14:00 Lunch

Afternoon session (Chair: Katherine Blouin, University of Toronto, Canada)

14:00 – 15:00 Usama Ali Gad (Ain Shams University, Egypt): Classics, colonialism and the digital age: A view from contemporary Egypt

15:00 – 15:30 Coffee break

15:30 – 16:30 Open discussion and concluding remarks


Myrto Malouta: The materiality of papyri and the decolonization of papyrology 

The archaeological practices of the late 19th and early 20th century that led the search for papyri and the formation of the great collections of Europe and North America were majorly abetted by the treatment of papyri primarily as texts, rather than material objects. This approach also allowed papyrology to remain outside the scope of ensuing criticism regarding the orientalist principles and colonial ideology driving those practices. Historically, the emphasis on textuality was the result of the fact that in the early days of papyrology the interest of scholars was focused almost exclusively on literary texts. Interest in the history of Greco-Roman and early Islamic Egypt and the late acceptance of documentary papyri as mainstream sources for Roman history has brought about a change in this mentality, while the obvious importance of the context in which these sources were created has restored to papyri their dual quality as texts and objects. Acceptance of this fact leads to three parallel necessities: first of all the need to deal with every fragment as part of the material culture in which it was created; secondly the designation of our obligations as historians or textual scholars in dealing with fragments of disputed provenance; and thirdly the inclusion of papyri and papyrology in the discussion pertaining to the decolonization of the study of antiquity.

Heba Hesham Abdel Gawad: Even when the Dean spoke no one listened! The muted 19th century Egyptian reflections on current classical failures

Since 1920s, Taha Hussein, the dean of Arabic literature, has been actively raising the very same concerns that brought us here today. He even then criticised the characteristic disengagement of scholarly approaches to Egypt’s history from wider theoretical advances. He also argued against the singularity of pharaonic Egypt and called for an end to the excessive reliance on ancient written texts at the expense of material culture in understanding Egypt’s past. Yet, for a whole century no one at home or abroad has been listening. In this paper, based on research for the Artefacts of Excavations project, I seek to amplify Hussein’s voice, increase his visibility, and cast light on the validity of his arguments for this present moment in the hope that this time someone is listening.


Usama Ali Gad: Classics, colonialism and the digital age: A view from contemporary Egypt

In this paper, I will argue that while the digital age gave us in the field of Classics the tool to reach out a global audience, we are challenged by the fact that many of our print publications are still addressed to a European/Western audience (in English, French, Italian and German). The digital age provides us however with an unprecedented chance of opining up Classics to population and societies beyond Europe and/or the West. The Arab population of my home country and of the whole Arab world deserves a particular attention in the present moment in history. They need to be included, not to be excluded from our audience. They too need to know their debts to the Greeks and Romans. From my point of view, to achieve this goal in an international level, classicists should recognize the modern Arabic scholarship in the field, the Arab classicists who made these contributions and the medium by which these contributions has been communicated to the audience in this region i.e. Arabic. Classics should go beyond the grand narrative of the classical heritage as being exclusively European or Western in order that the modern Arabic/Islamic societies recognize the classical art and architecture not as foreign or European but as part of their own cultural heritage and modern identity. This talk builds upon and further develops the ideas expressed in my talk in the conference „Altertumswissenschaft in a Digital Age: Egyptology, Papyrology” held on the 5th of November 2015 in Leipzig (Germany). In this conference, my talk, which was part of Research Area 4: How to Impact Society? Citizen Science and Public Engagement, was focused only on the textual heritage and the case of papyri and papyrology in Egypt.  A first draft of this paper is published digitally in the proceeding of the conference, edited by Berti, Monica and Franziska Naether, and to be consulted through this URL: http://nbn-resolving.de/urn:nbn:de:bsz:15-qucosa-201593 .


Teaching the Intersection Between Classics, Anthropology, and Colonialism

Teaching the Intersection Between Classics, Anthropology, and Colonialism

By Katherine Blouin and Girish Daswani

It is no scoop for anyone that many academic disciplines were born in Europe during the Age of Empires. It is certainly the case of Classics and other Antiquity-related specialities. It is, also, the case of Anthropology. While the degree to which these disciplines have decolonized themselves varies greatly, they sometimes do so in relative isolation from each other, and the critical examination of the colonial baggage they carry – a reality which has deep implications in the ways knowledge is constructed and academia (re)produces itself – is still very unevenly integrated within undergraduate and graduate curricula. How can we further such conversations better in the classroom? And how can we do so in a way that fosters a constructive degree of transdisciplinary learning and reflection?

It is with these questions in mind that we have created a co-taught undergraduate course entitled “Constructing the Other: Orientalism through Time and Place”. The course is offered at the University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC), where it is listed under three program codes: Anthropology (ANT), Classics (CLA), and History (HIS) and aimed for 3rd-year undergraduates. Enrollments are capped so that 50% of the group is from ANT, and the remaining 50% from CLA and HIS combined. It is a truly co-taught course, meaning that weekly readings include a balanced selection of CLA/HIS and ANT-related works, and that we actively prepare and teach each class together. We’re already halfway through term, and are enjoying our experience with our c.50 students tremendously. We hope to be able to reflect on the overall experience at the end of term, but in the meantime, online and offline conversations with colleagues and peers who share the same pedagogical preoccupations as us made us think that it would be a good idea to share our syllabus sooner than later (we’ve also included some extra readings we really like but weren’t able to include in this year’s version of the course). So feel free to browse through it, and to pump any of the readings we’ve put in there!

Course description

The concept of Orientalism was developed by the literary scholar Edward Said who, in his seminal work Orientalism (1978), defined it as “the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient – dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it: in short, Orientalism [is] a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient”. Starting from a careful reading of Said’s work and of the scholarly and popular responses it led to, this seminar will reflect on the many ways in which Orientalism has shaped the fields of Classical Studies and Anthropology.

Course objectives

At the end of the semester, each student should be able to:

  1. Define the concept of Orientalism
  2. Critically engage with Edward Said’s monograph Orientalism
  3. Summarize the role played by Orientalism and imperialism in the development of Classical Studies and Anthropology
  4. Identify the different types of historical and ethnographic evidence related to ancient and modern Orientalism
  5. Explain the potential and limits of these evidence
  6. Understand the issues related to the ethnocentric nature of Orientalist evidence
  7. Analyze historical documents and contemporary ethnographic evidence in a critical and problem-solving oriented way.
  8. Position oneself in a critical way with regard to Orientalist historiography and ethnography
  9. Demonstrate good writing skills
  10. Demonstrate good oral expression skills

Weekly calendar

Week 1 – Course presentation

Related imageWeek 2 – Edward Said’s Orientalism Part 1

– Said, E. 1978. Orientalism. Vintage, Part 1, p. 1-110.

Week 3 – Edward Said’s Orientalism Part 2

– Said, E. 1978. Orientalism. Vintage, p. 201- 328.

Week 4  – The Age of Empires: Understanding ‘Us’ and the ‘Other’

Image result for the Classics and Colonial India– Vasunia, P 2013. The Classics and Colonial India. Oxford University Press, ch. 5.

Image result for civilizing Women: British Crusades in Colonial Sudan– Boddy, J. 2007. Civilizing Women: British Crusades in Colonial Sudan. Princeton University Press, ch. 3.

– Fabian, J. 2014 [1983]. Time and The Other: How Anthropology Makes The Other. Columbia University Press, ch.1, p. 25-35.

– McDougall, J. 2018. “The History of Empire isn’t about Pride – or Guilt”. The Guardian. January 3rd.

– Saha, J. 2018. “Safe Space for Colonial Apologists“, Colonizing Animals Blog, January 4th

Week 5   – (Post)-Colonialism’s Durability

– Blouin, K. 2017. “Classical Studies Glass Ceiling is White“, Everyday Orientalism Blog.

– Daswani, G. 2018. “Same but not the Same: White Fantasies and (In-)Difference the Age of Trump“, Everyday Orientalism Blog.

Image result for Duress: Imperial Durabilities In Our TimesImage result for he Past is a Foreign Country– Lowenthal, D. 2015. The Past is a Foreign Country – Revisited. Cambridge University Press, ch.8.

– Stoler, A. L. 2016. Duress: Imperial Durabilities In Our Times. Duke University Press, ch. 1.



Week 6 – Lost in Translation: Tourists, Guides, and the Land in Between

Bruner, E. M. 2004. Culture on Tour: Ethnographies of Travel. Chicago University Press, ch. 3 and 6.Image result for Culture on Tour: Ethnographies of Travel

Image result for Archaeologists, Tourists, Interpreters. Exploring Egypt and the Near East in the Late 19th-Early 20th Centuries

– Mairs, R. and M. Muratov 2015. Archaeologists, Tourists, Interpreters. Exploring Egypt and the Near East in the Late 19th-Early 20th Centuries. Bloomsbury, ch.2 and 4.

Week 7 – Reading week – no class



Week 8 – The Politics of Heritage I: The Case of Jerusalem’s City of David

***Guest lecture by Prof. Alejandro Paz

– Abu El-Haj’s, N. 2001. Facts on the Ground. Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society. University of Chicago Press, ch. 2 and 4.

Image result for Facts on the Ground. Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society-Paz, A. unpublished. ” Settling History in Silwan: State Emblems and Public Secrets in Occupied East Jerusalem”.

-Robinson, E. and E. Smith 1841. Biblical Research in Palestine, Mount Sinai and Arabia Petrae. John Murray, preface.

Week 9  – The Politics of Heritage II: The Case of EgyptImage result for Colonising Egypt

– Mitchell, T. 1988. Colonising Egypt. University of California Press, ch.1.Image result for Rule of Experts. Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity

– Mitchell, T. 2002. Rule of Experts. Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity. University of California Press, ch.6.


Week 10 – Museum visit (see below, ‘Evaluations’)


Week 11 – Environmental Orientalism

– Davis, D. 2007. Resurrecting the Granary of Rome. Environmental History and French Colonial Expansion in North Africa. Ohio University Press, ch.2.

Image result for Resurrecting the Granary of Rome. Environmental History and French Colonial Expansion in North Africa

Image result for The Will to Improve: Governmentality, Development, and the Practice of Politics

– Li, T. 2007. The Will to Improve: Governmentality, Development, and the Practice of Politics. Duke University Press, ch.4.

– Sawyer, S. and A. Agrawal 2000. “Environmental Orientalisms”, Cultural Critique 45, 71-108.

Week 12 – The religious ‘Other’

– Kumar, D. 2012. Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire. Haymarket Books, ch.2 and 3.

Image result for Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire– Melchiorri, V. 2016. “Child Cremation Sanctuaries (“Tophets”) and Early Phoenician Colonisation: Markers of Identity?”, in G.-J. Burgers – L. Donnelan – V. Nizzo (eds.), Contextualising Early Colonisation, articolo 13.10.

– Quinn, J. P. Xella, V. Melchiorri and P. van Dommelen 2013, “Phoenician Bones of Contention“, Antiquity 2013, 1199-1207.

– Primary text: Polybius, History book I, 65-72.

– Novel: Flaubert’s Salammbô, ch.3 (‘Salammbo’).

Week 13 – Orientalizing the Native

– Mackey, E. 2016. Unsettled Expectations : Uncertainty, Land and Settler Decolonization. Fernwood Publishing, ch.2.Image result for Unsettled Expectations : Uncertainty, Land and Settler Decolonization

– Mitchell, T. 2002. Rule of Experts. Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity. University of California Press, ch.4.

Image result for Indigenous Visions: Rediscovering the World of Franz Boas– Simpson, A. forthcoming. “Why White People Love Franz Boas or, The Grammar of Indigenous Dispossession”, Ned B. and I. Wilner, eds. Indigenous Visions: Rediscovering the World of Franz Boas.   Yale University press.


Here are other books we like but couldn’t fit in this time around (we’ve also subsequently added titles by Todorov and Clifford that were suggested by readers of this post; many thanks to them!). This is by no means meant to be an exhaustive list, and we’ve decided to be funky and put the cover pics in no particular order:

Image result for Talal Asad anthropology colonialismImage result for classics and colonialism

Image result for hanink the greek debtImage result for their secret language goffImage result for imagining xerxes

Image result for crossroads in black aegeanImage result for Indian given racial geographiesImage result for Whose Pharaohs? Archaeology, Museums, and Egyptian National Identity from Napoleon to World War I.Related imageImage result for the intimacies of four continents

Image result for culture and imperialismImage result for Ivan Kalmar early orientalismImage result for classics and national culturesImage result for pierre briant alexandre le grand exégèseImage result for Cultural Responses to the Persian Wars: Antiquity to the Third MillenniumImage result for classics fascist italyImage result for edward said adel iskandarImage result for From Khartoum to Jerusalem: The Dragoman Solomon Negima and His Clients (1885–1933)Image result for Quirke hands petrie

Image result for silencing the pastImage result for writing cultureImage result for The Empire of Love

Image result for in an antique landImage result for frantz fanon masque blancImage result for phiroze vasunia

Image result for Classics on Screen. Ancient Greece and Rome on FilmImage result for victorian anthropology

Image result for todorov the conquest of AmericaImage result for todorov fear of barbariansImage result for the nation and its ruins

Image result for james clifford RoutesImage result for the creation of modern athens



1. Participation and attendance 15%

We will conduct the course as a weekly seminar. Everyone’s preparation and participation is expected. All students are required to have closely read the assigned texts before the respective sessions and to be prepared to engage in class discussion. Please remember that effective participation also requires good listening skills.

2. Discussant’s team presentation 15%

Each week, a group of students will have the opportunity to lead the seminar discussions. This presentation is not simply about summarizing the readings. You should (1) situate the assigned readings within the broader theme of the seminar, (2) comment on the different ways in which the author(s) of the weekly readings conceptualize their data or abstracts from them, (3) integrate some of your colleagues’ reading responses into your presentation and end by posting two or three questions for the seminar discussion. This presentation should take no more than 25 minutes.


Week 6 discussants’ questions

3. Reading responses 30 % (6 X5%)

Students are required to post 6 short, critical reflections on the readings on Blackboard. Your response may take the form of questions, reflections, or responses to other students’ postings. The postings should be no longer than one page, single-spaced. You are strongly encouraged to read your colleagues’ postings before class.

4. Exhibition critical review 15%

Students shall prepare and submit a critical review of their visit to one of the following three exhibitions:

1. Aga Khan Museum, “Listening to Art, Seeing Music

2 and 3. Royal Ontario Museum: Either the “Daphne Cockwell Gallery of Canada: First Peoples” (permanent exhibition on level 1, ) or “Vikings – The Exhibition“.

Students shall write a 5-to-6 page (double-spaced, excluding bibliography) critical review of the exhibition as a whole from the perspective of the courses’ discussions on Orientalism and colonialism. They should also provide a critical analysis of the representations, aims, and limits of such an exhibition, and refer to at least 2 of the class readings.

5. Term essay 25%

Each student shall write a coherent 12 to 15-page essay based on a close analysis of the chosen primary evidence as well as on a review of the relevant historiography/ethnography. In addition to the edition of the chosen sources, each student shall use a bibliography of relevant titles.

Civilization: What’s up with that?

Civilization: What’s up with that?

by Katherine Blouin

“Civilized values”. Between quotation marks. Mary Beard’s use of this expression in a now infamous tweet about the Oxfam Haiti scandal has led to a torrent of criticisms, which have been best articulated in a response by her Cambridge colleague Priyamvada Gopal.

Whether historians like it or not, the thing is, just like the “history is a plant” model, “civilization” – especially when paired with “ancient”, “Greek”, “Roman”, and “Western” – remains an enrollment-bait in education settings. I’ve already written about the use of this term in Ontario’s high school curriculum. The same trend persists in numerous post-secondary institutions, notably in ancient history. How many Antiquity-related undergraduate programs still offer courses whose titles contain the word “civilization”? How many use it in their program description? And how many recent textbooks still include it in their title?

Beard’s use of the word “civilized” – a very loaded one – is all the more puzzling that she is, precisely, a historian and a teacher (one whose BBC documentaries I have on more than one occasion gladly showcased in my classrooms). Or is it that puzzling? While the colonial undertone of this word is unmistakable for many – including Beard herself, as her use of quotation marks implies -, its appeal to wider audiences is far from dying. For “civilization”, whether singular or plural, western or clashing, sells, both within and beyond classrooms.

How many of us have played the 1991 computer and video game (Sid Meier’s) Civilization, which is now in its sixth version? Three years before the release of Civilization, a brand new museum was inaugurated in my native Québec city. The museum was designed by the famous Canadian architect Moshe Safdie (who also conceived, among many other buildings, Montréal’s Habitat 67, as well as Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial). Québec’s museum includes two monumental staircases overlooking the Fleuve Saint-Laurent (aka Saint Lawrence river), and is both symbolically and literally embedded in the old part of the city (previous buildings Banque de Paris and Maison Estèbe were integrated in the museum’s structure), which was once the capital of Nouvelle-France. Its name? The Musée de la Civilisation, which translates literally as Museum of the civilization.

Image result for musée de la civilisation québec

A similar “civilization” museum also existed at the national, Canadian level. Indeed, from 1986 to 2012, the year Stephen Harper’s government decided to give it the more nationalist-oriented name of Museum of Canadian History, Gatineau-Ottawa’s main museum was called the Canadian Museum of Civilization (singular too).

Closer to us, on March 1st, 2018, the BBC will air a new version of a landmark art series called, guess what? Civilization! The original series, which aired in 1969, drew criticisms for its Eurocentric content. Civilization, its detractors then claimed, was the prerogative of “the West”, a blanket term conveniently used to refer to formally colonial powers and European settler countries in North America and Oceania.

Image result for BBC civilization 1969

This time around, the BBC has teamed up with the American public broadcaster PBS. The series’ title has been pluralized (Civilizations instead of Civilization), and in place of Lord Kenneth Clarke, the original host, we will be guided by a more diversified trio, who will cover a broader chronological and geographical spectrum (6 continents) of human history: Simon Shama, David Olugosa, and…wait for it…Mary Beard!

That Beard is very much aware of the loaded nature of the word “civilization” is made clear in a quote found on the BBC website dedicated to the show:

It has been a really exciting (and, I confess, humbling) experience to work as part of the Civilisations team. I hope that people will be dazzled by the wonderful works of art we have been able to show; but even more I hope that the programmes will prompt all kinds of discussions and debates about what we now think ‘civilisation’ is… and our stake in the very idea of it.

So what’s “our” stake in the very idea of it, exactly?

When a word bugs me, I generally tend to look at its etymology and history. Which language does it originally come from? When, and in what context did it appear? Let’s see what the etymologies of “civilized” and “civilization” tell us. For words we use are a bit like people we have relationships with: They all come with some baggage.

First things first, while both terms are based on the Latin civilis (“civil”), from the noun civis (“citizen”), neither of them existed in Antiquity. They are, in fact, creations of 16th-to-18th-century France. Sans blague!

Part 1: Civilized men live in temperate places, eat bread, and drink wine

The earliest attestation of “civilisé” is found in the commentary portion of Loys Le Roy’s 1568 French translation of Aristotle’s The Politics. Loys Le Roy (1510-1577), who also went by the fancy Latin name Ludovicus Regius, was a historian, translator, and philosopher who, from 1572 on, was also Professor of ancient Greek at the Collège Royal in Paris (the ancestor of today’s prestigious Collège de France).

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Le Roy (1568), title page

Le Roy’s first use of the word “civilisé” is set in a commentary to a portion of book 1.8 dedicated to human ways of living:

The laziest are shepherds, who lead an idle life, and get their subsistence without trouble from tame animals; their flock having to wander from place to place in search of pasture, they are compelled to follow them, cultivating a sort of living farm. Others support themselves by hunting, which is of different kind. Some, for example, are brigands, others, who dwell near lakes or marshes or rivers or a sea in which there are fish, are fishermen, and others live by the pursuit of birds or wild beasts. The greater number obtain a living from the cultivated fruits of the soil. Such are the modes of subsistence which prevail among those whose industry springs up of itlsef, and whose food is not acquired by exchange and retail trade. (Politics 1.8, transl. from S. Everson 1996. Aristotle. The Politics and The Constitution of Athens. Cambridge, p.20-21)

After his translation of the passage, Le Roy provides a diet-based summary of the history of mankind that draws from Hippocrates’ theory of climate (that is, the idea whereby local climates determines human character):

Similarly there is a great difference between lives.

At the beginning, men were very rough and simple in all things, not so different from beasts. They lived in caves, or under leaves using the same meat and drinks as oxes and horses, as Hippocrates writes in the book of Ancient medicine. Then, as if stronger, they fed themselves with stronger food: Thus they were living longer. But becoming weaker, they could not digest and were dying incontinent: So much so that they were forced to gradually search ways to soften their way of life, by accommodating it to their complexion, virtue and health, as are now doing more tempered and civilized countries: [those] who produce all things necessary for life, like France, Italy, Greece and Anatolia. [note how the trio Italy, Greece and Anatolia=Asia Minor corresponds to the centre of the “Classical” world]

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Le Roy (1568), p.75

Cause the extremities of the world, excessive in cold and heat, always retain the first truth and roughness, eating raw flesh, and drinking only milk. The others, by high and long mountains, lived of acorn and beechnuts. The others in very maritime places only eat fish, either fresh or dried, with which they make flour, then water down or cook. (p.75)

Uncivilized men, it seems, had an unfortunate tendency to suffer from lethal diarrhea. This no doubt is a retrojection into the past of digestive hurdles experienced by “civilized” contemporaries of Le Roy forced out of their “civilized” diet habits (because of war, colonial settlements, or other circumstances). Reminds me of people who complain that eating legumes makes them fart too much: The main issue is not eating legumes per se, but the fact that their digestive system is not used to eating them regularly.

Le Roy goes on to explain how the “first and most practical nourishment” is grain, all varieties of which can be transformed into flour, then turned into bread. Follows a lengthy enumeration of food: Legumes, “salt and herbs, to give taste and flavour, butters and oils”, vegetables, fruits; meat (first that of human “themselves” , i.e. cannibalism, which was eventually abandoned “out of horror” for cooked animal flesh); and fermented drinks (wine, cider, beer, etc.).

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Le Roy (1568), p.76

The passage concludes with the following statement: Here is what regards the way of life in use in here, and more common between civilized men, given what it says about the difference from others.

The “civilized” men, thus, live in “temperate” climates. Such places are by nature suited for the practice of agricultural activities that are conducive to sedentary-based food production activities, and thereby to large settlements, from villages to cities. These are to be contrasted with more extreme climatic zones, where food is picked or hunted in the wild, and eaten raw or uncooked.

Le Roy’s embrace of Hippocrates’ environmental determinism exemplifies the wide impact the theory of climate had on both ancient (Hippocrates, but also Aristotle) and modern intellectuals, all of whom resorted to it as a legitimization of the “Greek”, then “European” rights to hegemonic power. For, quite conveniently for all these men, the most temperate regions on earth just happened to be located where they, themselves, lived (“France“, says Le Roy, as well as “Italy, Greece and Anatolia [i.e. Asia Minor]”). By contrast, “the extremities of the world, excessive in cold and heat” were deprived by the very nature of their climatic and environmental predicament, of any indigenously-born possibility of civilization.

Le Roy lived at a time when European empires were expanding. When his translation of Aristotle’s The Politics came out, Spain and Portugal had been the centres of large empires for a while now, and France was actively trying to get its share of the cake. The year before, it had lost its colony of “France Antarctique” (1555-1567), which was located in today’s Rio de Janeiro, to the Portuguese. This loss had taken place two years after the Spanish destroyed their Florida-based settlement of Fort Caroline (1564-1565). Seen in this broader geopolitical context, Le Roy’s interest for Aristotle’s The Politics, and his embrace of the theory of the climate, can be seen as a form of scholarly support to French imperial rule over the “wild” territories and “savage” peoples that lived beyond Europe, notably the “Americas”. The same goes for the later thinkers we are about to discuss. But before doing so, a little bit of law-inspired semantics is in order.

Part 2: Civilization as in to civilize a process, aka the meaning that doesn’t stick

In the late 16th century, the verb “civiliser” (“to civilize”) and its derivatives appear in legal contexts, to designate a trial that is brought in front of a civil court (by opposition to a criminal one). Similarly, the neologism “civilization” is a legal creation. The word is documented for the first time in 18th-century French jurisprudence texts, to designate an “act of justice, a judgment that makes a criminal trial a civil one”[1].

This meaning doesn’t stick for good though, for it appears to be outmoded by the end of the 18th century[2]. Yet the word itself did persist, just as its predecessor “civilized”. Boosted by the Age of Enlightenment’s quest for self-aggrandizing definition in the midst of imperial race, the semantic duo gained popularity among French writers, and soon, too, among other European intellectuals, English speakers included.

Part 3: Civilized is me, says the European white man

We owe the modern concept of civilization to French economist and philosopher Victor Riqueti, Comte de Mirabeau (1715-1789; not to be confused with his son, Honoré-Gabriel, who played an important role in the French Revolution). British historian Michael Sonenscher emphasizes how Riqueti articulated his thoughts on the matter in a very specific geopolitical context:

Mirabeau first made his name with a book entitled L’Ami des hommes, or “the friend  of mankind”, which he began to publish in 1756, shortly after  the beginning of the Seven  Years War between France and  Britain. The wartime context had a strong bearing on the initial meaning of the concept of civilization. As Mirabeau emphasised in a short essay entitled a Traité de la civilisation (or a treatise on civilization) that he drafted at the same time as he wrote the first two parts of L’Ami des hommes, there was  a big difference between civilization and civility. “If I was to ask most people of what civilization consists”, he began, “they would reply, the civilization of a people is a softening of its manners, an urbanity, politeness and a spreading of knowledge so that the observation of decencies takes the  place of laws of detail”. […] Mirabeau’s coinage referred to the way by which genuine morality might come to inform the otherwise shallow veneer of civility and politeness that, from  his perspective, was one of the hallmarks of modern life. (Sonenscher 2015, p.13)

The word civilization defined in this modern sense appears in the 1771 edition of the Jesuit Dictionnaire universel Trévoux (Universal Dictionary Trévoux).


Victor Riqueti, Comte de Mirabeau

Mirabeau also claimed that “religion is the mainspring (premier ressort) of civilization”. The idea is that just as not all men are equally – if at all – “civilized”, so are religions. This religious conception of civilization, whereby animism, totemism and polytheism are at the bottom of the civilization pyramid and Christianity at the top – endured, and many intellectuals of the Enlightenment period embedded it within their broader understanding of human history.

Very shortly after “civilization” was coined by Mirabeau, it appeared in the English language. The first English speaker who is known to have used it is the Scottish philosopher Adam Ferguson (1723-1816). Ferguson resorts to “civilization” and “civilized” several times in his An Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767). The first instance occurs in the following passage:

This progress in the case of man is continued to a greater extent than in that of any other animal. Not only the individual advances from infancy to manhood, but the species itself from rudeness to civilization. (p.2)


Adam Ferguson

Ferguson is also known as one of the thinkers who has articulated the theory according to which human societies can be grouped into four stadia of development:

  1. Savages (live off picking and hunting)
  2. Nomadic herdsmen
  3. Sedentarised farmers
  4. Industrial and commercial nations[3]

There is a clear lineage between these four stages and Aristotle’s passage of The Politics quoted earlier. For like most Enlightenment writers, Ferguson develops his argument by resorting regularly to Classical parallels that are infused with environmental determinism and Orientalist clichés. For instance:

For want of these advantages, rude nations in general, though they are patient of hardship and fatigue, though they are addicted to war, and are qualified by their stratagem and valour to throw terror into the armies of a more regular enemy; yet, in the course of a continued struggle, always yield to the superior arts, and the discipline of more civilized nations. Hence the Romans were able to over-run the provinces of Gaul, Germany, and Britain; and hence the Europeans have a growing ascendency over the nations of Africa and America. (p.139-140)

Anyone else spotted the word “terror” in there? How much have political discourses on the “Other” truly changed, I ask you?

To finish, let me bring us back to France. In his work The Ruins or Meditations on the Revolutions of Empires, French philosopher Constantin François de Chassebœuf, Comte de Volney (1757-1820) sets himself in the ruins of ancient Palmyra, where he meditates on the perishable faith of past empires. Contrary to the other men mentioned so far, Volney has actually spent a substantial amount of time abroad, including a trip to Egypt and Syria before Napoléon’s Expédition d’Égypte, and the United States.

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Illustration from Les ruines ou méditation sur les révolutions des empires (BnF)

In addition to his Classical training, he also qualifies as an “Orientalist”, one who learned Arabic not only in books, but also among native speakers, something which was not that common at the time (if ever at later periods). The Ruins, which was conceived during Volney’s trip to the USA, came out in 1791, that is, 2 years after the start of the French Revolution. Fun fact: Thomas Jefferson committed to translate it into English – a promise that was to be only partially fulfilled. This was partly due to a perceived clash between Volney’s religious stance and Jefferson’s Presidential campaign. For Volney was a strong critique of religious bigotry, and his Ruins are filled with a plea for religious tolerance, and the separation between Church and the State. Not the most selling platform for a wannabe American President at the time (as, some might say, today). In a passage that is not without reminding one of current world circumstances, the French intellectual dismantles nostalgic discourses that idealize the past:

He who is unhappy with the present imposes on the past has a lying perfection, which is nothing but the mask of his sorrow. He lauds the deaths by hating the living, and beats up the children with the bones of their fathers.

In order to show a so-called retrograde perfection, one would need to deny the testimonies of facts and reason; and should there remain anything equivocal to the fact of the past, one would need to deny the subsisting fact of human organization; one would need to prove that he is born with an enlighten use of his senses; that he knows, without experience, how to distinguish the poison from the food; that the child is wiser than the old man; the blind more confident in his walk than the clear-sighted; that the civilized man is more unhappy than the man-eater; in a word, that there is no progressive scale of experience and instruction.


Constantin François de Chassebœuf, Comte de Volney

Like Le Roy, Volney subscribes to the idea whereby cannibals both correspond to an earlier developmental stage of mankind, and are, therefore,  the opposite of “civilized”. Like him, too, and like Ferguson and most Enlightenment thinkers, he understands human history as a rocky, cyclical, teleological process that unfolds through space in an environmentally deterministic fashion. These conversations played a crucial role in forging how the French, and eventually other European colonial powers, conceived of their relationship with the territories and peoples that were part of their growing empires. To them, as to many people today still, civilization goes hand in hand with the notion of progress. There are, in other words, more civilized places, and times, than others, and modern Europe – which has now morphed into “the West” (or WENA, aka Western Europe and North America, as one witty Tweeter suggests) – stands, oh surprise, on the highest level of the civilizational staircase. That is to say, for those who believe(d) history is a plant, civilization – agrarian, then urban and industrial – is its blossoming flower.

One could easily dedicate a whole book to the study of the fluctuating nuances brought to the concept of civilization, and to the idea of being civilized, from the French Enlightenment to today. But this is not the time nor the place to do so, and I assume you get the general picture by now.

The truth is, despite some good-willed attempts to make “civilization” something universal, it was never stripped of its original, Eurocentric essence. On the contrary, it was very much at the forefront of Samuel B. Huntington’s 1996 Clash of Civilizations (which Edward Said, among many others, so vehemently criticized), and the same can be said of Niall Ferguson’s 2011 Civilization: The West and the Rest. And, though we should wait and see what BBC’s Civilizations has in store for us, the very idea of reviving this series, and its (pluralized) title, is a testimony to how enduring the attachment of “the West” to certain ideas it has of itself remains.

So, to paraphrase M.I.A.’s song Borders: Civilization, what’s up with that?

Well, just as history is definitely not a plant, so is civilization, be it in the singular or plural, not an actual thing. It is rather, a myth, nothing but the long-lasting fruit of long-dead white men’s imagination, a vintage mirror held to the face of the world by those who used to, and still want to, hold power.

A handy reading: Jean Starobinski 1983. “Le mot civilisation”, Le temps de la réflexion 1983. Paris, Gallimard, 13-22.

[1] Trévoux 1743 (Dictionnaire universel). See Starobinski 1983, 14.

[2] See Starobinski 1983, 14.

[3] Starobinski, p.17

Wonder how male & Eurocentric your Antiquity-related field is? Try the committee test!

Wonder how male & Eurocentric your Antiquity-related field is? Try the committee test!

On February 10, Lisa Lodwick posted the following thread on Twitter:

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As I write these lines, some scholars have already started to take action and write to the conference organizers and the Associazione Internazionale di Archeologica Classica to complain. It will be interesting to see if some of the scheduled keynote speakers will take on Josephine Quinn‘s suggestion to “pull out in protest”.

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While Lisa Lodwick and Josephine Quinn’s criticism highlights gender imbalances, it made me think of a different yet comparable experience I had a couple of years ago. When preparing a paper for the 2016 International Congress of Papyrologists, I compiled the data related to the country of origin and affiliation of all the committee members, Vice-Presidents, and Presidents the AIP had since its inception in 1930. To my surprise, the list did not include a single scholar who was not white. Thus, although the overwhelming majority of the papyri that have come to us were found in Egypt, although there are Egyptian papyrologists, and although Arabic papyrology is now a blossoming sub-field within the discipline, Egyptians have to this day been completely absent from the executive apparatus of the Association.

When it comes to gender balance and diversity, the field of Classics and the sub-fields that sprouted from it remain among the most conservative ones within the Humanities. The data provided in Lisa Lodwick’s tweet can no doubt be linked to broader issues surrounding gender inequalities among “Classical” archaeologists. Yet a quick look at the Congress of Classical Archaeology website also shows that just as all committee members/keynote speakers are male, so do they all “happen” to be of European descent and affiliated to ‘western’ institutions. More still, apart from Canada, all keynote speakers work in one of only five western European countries, all of which have a recent or ongoing colonial history – UK, Germany, France, Belgium, Netherlands. Can we just pause and appreciate how ironic it is that the list does not even include a Greek or an Italian scholar?

That made me wonder: How do things look among Classically-related international associations? And what about Egyptology and Coptic Studies, fields I am sometimes, depending on who I speak with, included in[1]? Are women better represented? And what about academics from non-western institutions, and notably those located in countries that were once part of the so-called ‘Classical’ world (especially considering that over half of that Classical world at large is actually located outside the boundaries of western Europe)? I’ll let the following table speak for itself. But before doing so, I’ll only say this: The usual (most often reductive, patronizing, and Orientalist) excuses thrown at those who lament the lack of diversity in the field are part of the problem. As those of us who took part in Aven McMaster and Mark Sundaram’s recent The Endless Knot podcasts repeatedly say, when it comes to dealing with their colonial legacies, Classics and its related sub-fields still have an awful lot of catching up to do in order to get a passing grade.


President Vice-President Committee members[2] Female committee members (%) Committee members not affiliated to a ‘western’[3] institution (%)
FIEC (Classical Studies Associations) M F 10 5 (50%) 0 (%)
AIAC (Classical Archaeology M F 18 8 (44%) 0 (0%)
AIP (Papyrology) F M 19 6 (32%) 0 (0%)
SIEGL (Greek and Latin Epigraphy) F M 19 6 (32%) 0 (0%)
IAE (Egyptology) M F 21 11 (52%) 4 (19%)[4]
IACS (coptic Studies)[5] M F (President elect) 10 5 (50%) 0 (0%)

Table: Gender and diversity in the current committees of Antiquity-related international associations

Katherine Blouin, @isisnaucratis

[1] For many colleagues specializing on Pharaonic Egypt, I am not an Egyptologist. Yet, for many Classicist colleagues, the fact that my research focuses on Egypt makes me an Egyptologist(ish).

[2] Includes President, Vice-President, Treasurer, etc. but excludes honorary members.

[3] That is not affiliated to a European, North American or Australasian institution.

[4] That is 3 from Egypt, 1 from Israel.

[5] I thank Malcolm Choat for this update. It corresponds to the latest board composition, which is not available yet on the IACS website.