The first aspect that must be noted is that the ways in which the French soldiers being studied wrote about women were very different in both countries. The visual impact of women clad in the Burkha and the exposure to received versions of Islamic domestic practises; from female seclusion to the harems of the Mamelukes, not to mention the existence of eunuchs, all meant that their experience in Egypt was considerably more jarring and gave rise to a more thorough ‘othering’, than in Italy. A theme common to both was the perceived lack of sexual modesty in contrast to French women. This tendency to valorise French womanhood (in and on male terms), for its decorum, reserve, modesty and beauty, can be observed in many cultures as they seek to assert their superiority over an ‘other’. A not unexpected aspect of French soldiers’ gender imaginary was their self-characterisation as braver, more honourable and more courteous than the Italian or Egyptian men they encountered. While this took different forms in both countries it nonetheless constitutes a common theme.
Femininity: Foreign and French
While campaigning far from France the soldiers studied tended to idealise their fatherland, including French women. Their disillusionment was often stark when they returned home but the ways in which they wrote about foreign women can tell us a lot about how they envisaged the idealised française. A frequent invocation was their beauty and elegance compared to those of Italy and Egypt; sometimes expressed as disgust with the appearance of the locals. The anonymous dragoon described Egyptian women as ‘small, thin and hideous’, Rougelin called them disgusting, and the future general Pépin maintained that had he stayed 50 years in Egypt he would still detest the faces of local women. Bricard and Laval both noted the local predilection for dark mascara, which they ridiculed. Almost all of the soldiers commented on Egyptian women’s dress, some merely noted the veil, whereas others went into greater depth, usually to condemn and/or belittle local mores. Ladrix for instance noted the ‘importance they attach to covering their faces yet their robes allow the rest of their bodies to be seen’, Joseph Moiret and Pierre Millet agreed, which probably says more about soldiers’ prying eyes than local immodesty. Vaxelaire, Bricard and Millet all claimed that Muslim women’s dress, dance and sexuality were ‘indecent’, ‘filthy’ and ‘unspeakable’, from which we might surmise either a certain religiously informed prudishness or resentment at having been aroused by women they would rather have been adverse to. Moiret, Bricard, the militaire and the dragoon maintained that in the countryside women and children often went completely naked, a claim which would tend to valorise the implicitly more civilised French peasantry. Ladrix and Bricard also noted the much finer, even luxurious clothing of wealthier women but put it down to their being the slaves of their wealthy husbands who had them decoratively adorned for their own pleasure. Not all the French soldiers in Egypt were so repressed or so racist. Tales of officers taking Egyptian mistresses, and even wives abounded, while Moiret agonised over the whether the beauty of Zulima was worth converting to Islam. Thurman described the women of Rosetta as ‘gracious and animated’, and Laval noted their vigour and fertility.
Italian women fared somewhat better among our memoirists, Bricard praised them as ‘very likeable and yielding but also greedy and nonchalant, overall charming women in the bedroom but not for marriage’. Putigny, in Milan, described the ‘graceful movements of the easy-going, dark women’ who he referred to as the délices of Milan. Lecoq was also a fan of Milanese ladies, who he described as ‘youthful, beautiful and good’. Legrot encountered ‘quite a pretty girl, despite being dark, like all the women of the Piedmontese countryside’. This aesthetic preference for European women, more similar to those they were familiar with is maybe not surprising, and the yearning for familiarity is underlined by the allusion to the darker skin of Italian women, who were nonetheless still preferable to Egyptian. Reinforcing this point was Moiret’s praise for Zulima’s pale skin.
Throughout all of these discourses however is the underlying implication that French women were more beautiful, more modest, more civilised and were treated better than women they encountered in Egypt but also in Italy. This idealised image of French femininity, while complimentary in a sense, was constructed rather than real and served as much as a means of controlling French women as it did denigrating foreign. Perhaps the most honest in this regard was Vaxelaire who maintained that ‘dancing after church was practised everywhere in Europe and could lead to debauchery and perdition’, although he still claimed that ‘Muslim dance is so indecent that modesty prevented him from discussing it’.