Conceptions of Victorian Masculinity within Britain’s Colonial Project in Egypt – Part II

Last week Claire introduced you to her first paper written during the MAAS program. See how she develops her theoretical framework in the excerpt below.


Theoretical Framework

Edward Said’s Orientalism has perhaps been the most influential text in expanding our understandings of colonialism and imperialism.[1] Said argues that the political and economic enterprise inaugurated by late eighteenth century European imperialism (which led to nineteenth century imperial/colonial endeavors) was accompanied by a massive project that reconstructed “knowledge” about the Orient for the exercise of imperial power. In Orientalism Said employees a Foucauldian notion of discourse as a means not simply of representing, but also of controlling and disciplining the “other” that lies outside of the West. This power-knowledge nexus that Said discusses is applicable to my work, since I am interested in looking at expressions of masculinity in the colonizers themselves. I intend to use Said’s theory of Orientalism to examine British colonizers’ manifestations of masculinity, specifically looking at Evelyn Baring’s (henceforth known as Lord Cromer) dual-volume historiography Modern Egypt (1908), and subsequently trying to ascertain how the masculine attitudes and behaviors the colonizers brought trickled down to Egyptian society.

Orientalism and its associated theory do provide some compelling explanations for Western actions and perceptions of the ‘Orient’. Orientalism is comprised of three features: it is understood as the product of unchanging racial and cultural essences; these essential characteristics are in each case the polar opposite of the West (passive rather than active, static rather than mobile, emotional rather than rational, chaotic rather than ordered); and the Oriental opposite or Other is, therefore, marked by a series of fundamental absences (of movement, reason, order, meaning, and so on). The tendency first to objectify and then to belittle the “other” or the foreign is a common failing. European thinkers imagined the non-European world in developmentalist terms, as representing an earlier stage of Europe, the childhood of Europe itself, which European colonialism would shepherd to adult maturity, thus duplicating if not replicating and reproducing Europe on a global scale, or as representing a radical otherness that can only be bridged, if at all, by a comprehensive overhauling of these “civilizations” by, or their utter subjugation to, European supremacy.[2] However it is important to note that pejorative views of the “other” were not just the product of European cultural or moral sense of superiority; deep divisions existed within their own societies, grounded, quite apart from religious and ethnic otherness, in wide differences in regional customs, language and dialect, and between social status groups.

Said explains that the British have had a long tradition of “Orientalism, a way of coming to terms with the Orient that is based on the Orient’s special place in European experience. The Orient is not only adjacent to Europe; it is also the place of Europe’s greatest and richest and oldest colonies, the source of its civilizations and languages, its cultural contestant”.[3] Negative or contesting representations of “Orientals” in the West function in helping produce and sustain imperialism and colonialism, and in the reiteration and recirculation of these representations in the East itself.[4] It is important to note that neither the term Orient nor the concept of the West has any ontological stability; each is made up of human effort, partly affirmation, partly (negative) definition against the “Other”. The categories of the colonizer and the colonized are not fixed or self-evident categories. Although these categories may appear to have represented “natural” differences of race or national origin, there was nothing natural or predetermined about them. There was a constant need, therefore, to define and redefine the colonizer and the colonized. Moreover, since the colonizer and the colonized were themselves historically constructed categories, the relations between the two were neither unchanging nor certain. Indeed, the relations between the colonizer and the colonized were constantly rearticulated in accordance with the continually changing political and economic imperatives of colonial rule.[5]

A particularly prevalent defining tool was Western-imposed manifestations of masculinity – the Egyptians were seen as savages without decorum that needed to be tamed. Lord Cromer exemplifies this with statements such as “the Oriental has a remarkable capacity for assimilating to himself the worst and rejecting the best parts of any European civilization with which he may be brought in contact”[6], thereby pointing out that Egyptian masculinity was directly opposed to British masculinity. Furthermore, these Western discourses about “Third World” masculinities produced and maintained representations that served to create, perpetuate, and reinforce First World norms of masculinity by way of the boundaries and contrasts provided by these “other” Third World masculinities.[7]

The relationship between the colonial metropole and the colonial periphery is important. The way that the Orient and the Occident interacted during this time period therefore informs not only the past, but present interactions, phenomenons and constructs of politics, culture, and society. Interestingly enough, Orientalism does not deal with the concept of gender (let alone gender constructions of masculinity) at all. Regardless, Orientalism has come to play an increasingly important role in an ever-expanding range of intellectual pursuits, including discussions of gender and of masculinity. Orientalism is characterized as a variant on “male gender dominance, or patriarchy, in metropolitan societies.” In other words, the West used Orientalism to feminize the East and then eroticized it.[8]


Next week, in Part III, Claire brings us her analysis of normative Victorian masculinity structures in Britain.


All views represented in this post are solely the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of any organization whether affiliated or unaffiliated with this blog.

[1] Frequently the domains of empire — the ‘imperial’ and the ‘colonial’ (and their respective ‘isms’) — are understood via a relationship in which the latter proceeds from the former. “Imperialism” refers to the practice, the theory, and the attitudes of a dominating metropolitan center ruling a distant territory, while “colonialism” (which is almost always a consequence of imperialism), is the implanting of settlements on distant territory.

[2]Joseph A. Massad, Desiring Arabs (USA: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 55.

[3] Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), 1.

[4] Derek Stanovsky, Postcolonial Masculinities, Preprint from International Encyclopedia of Men and Masculinities (ed. Michael Flood, Judith Kegan Gardiner, Bob Pease, and Keith Pingle. London: Routledge, 2007.) Accessed December 13, 2011.

[5][5]Mrinalini, Sinha, Colonial Masculinity: The “manly Englishman” and the “effeminate Bengali” in the late nineteenth century (Manchester, United Kingdom: Manchester University Press, 1995), 1.

[6] Evelyn Baring, Modern Egypt: Volume 2 (Macmillan and Co, Limited: 1908), accessed November 30, 2011,, 239.

[7] Stanovsky, Postcolonial Masculinities.

[8] Billie Melman, Women’s Orients: English Women and the Middle East, 1718-1918 (USA: University of Michigan Press: 1992), 4.

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