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Book review: Intelligent Souls? Feminist Orientalism in Eighteent-Century English Literature

Book Review

Sim Dan En Darienne

Nov 18, 2019 | Articles

Intelligent Souls? is a deep dive into the circumstances which led to the demonisation of Islam as a sexist belief system, in order for European women to gain a foothold in the fight for women’s rights, also known as ‘feminist orientalism’. With her specialisation in the intersection of gender and religion in the “long” eighteenth century, Samara Anne Cahill is well versed in the topics dealt with in Intelligent Souls?, and provides a detailed explanation of the histories and movements that led to this phenomenon.

Intelligent Souls? does not follow any single work or writer; rather, it offers a general survey of notable works of the period between 1660-1800, especially works written by prominent feminist writers. These works, such as Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote and Elizabeth Singer’s Poems on Several Occasions, are referenced to create a clear idea of how such a phenomenon grew in Europe, with special attention paid to Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication for the Rights of Women. Cahill maintains that her research did not begin with the intent to vilify such works and their impact. Intelligent Souls? simply seeks to substantiate that Wollstonecraft and her contemporaries of the day leveraged their belief in the Christian Trinity to build common ground with men, while, in the process, creating the idea that Islam taught of a lack of souls in women. By doing so, these women were then able to cement their own intelligence and need for equality.

The book begins with a demonstration of the long-lasting effects of the issues dealt with in Intelligent Souls?. Bringing forth an instance where American President Donald Trump showed a “professed concern for Muslim women” in order to “frame a discussion of national security” and diabolise Islam, Cahill illustrates the importance of her research in understanding how such mindsets took root.

Split into five sections, Intelligent Souls? breaks down the situation and circumstances which led to the formation of this belief. Intelligent Souls? lays out its argument in distinct parts, each uncovering a refreshing revelation. For instance, Cahill deals in detail with the association of Trinitarian with intelligence and Muslims with pleasure, as well as the creation of the ‘Platonic Lady’, both of which furthered the pervasive mindset that the teachings of Islam denied women their souls.

Although the notion of the racist implications of certain branches of feminism is not new, Intelligent Souls? breaks the subject down into digestible parts, and supplies some much-needed context for otherwise complex problems. Intelligent Souls? establishes itself as a highly readable text, even for newcomers to academic reading. It shines a greater light on a well-trodden path to deliver fascinating insight.