Thursday, July 7, 2011

Eric R Dursteler's "Renegade Women"

Eric R Dursteler is a professor of history at Brigham Young University and the author of Venetians in Constantinople.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Renegade Women: Gender, Identity, and Boundaries in the Early Modern Mediterranean, and reported the following:
Although renegade seems like a retro motorcycle brand name, in the early modern Mediterranean it had a very precise meaning: it described an individual who renounced his or her religion through conversion. In Renegade Women I have expanded this definition to include Mediterranean women who transgressed religious, but also political, cultural, social, and geographical boundaries as a means to assert a degree of shaping power over their own lives in the face of often potent cultural, social, and political limitations.

Page 99 drops the reader into the middle of the story of a family of renegade women who have fled their home on the Ottoman-Greek island of Milos, and sought refuge on Venetian Corfu. The mother, Maria, was a Christian who had married a Muslim, thus her three daughters were born in that faith. Following their flight, however, they converted to Christianity, and the eldest, Aissè, wed a local Christian by whom she claimed to be pregnant, despite still being married to the chief Ottoman official on Milos, the kadi Mustafa Efendi. Not surprisingly, this created a thorny situation, and in this section of the book Venetian officials are struggling to ascertain the truth behind the women’s story, to establish their religious identity, and to resolve the political imbroglio they have precipitated.

An excerpt:
Another vital issue in the Venetian inquiry was the women’s religious status. Maria had remained a fervent Christian throughout her years in Milos, but her daughters’ situation was more ambiguous. All witnesses acknowledged the girls had been raised as Muslims. Maria claimed, however, and her daughters verified, that they had been baptized and had lived secretly as Christians. The question of whether the girls’ decision to abandon Islam had been voluntary was pivotal; if they had acted of their own free will, there was a broad consensus that “it was not in the interests of the Republic’s piety to return them.”
This incident hints at many of the larger themes of Renegade Women. On its simplest level, the book tries to recover the lives of Mediterranean women, about whom we know very little. Through the comparison of four microhistorical narratives of the lives of Christian and Muslim women from the Venetian and Ottoman empires, we find many similarities in their experiences with marriage, divorce, motherhood, childhood, patriarchy, honor, religious identity, conversion, and the manipulation of the region’s numerous borders. The common elements in their experiences suggest the need for a more nuanced understanding of the Mediterranean that transcends the stark boundaries that are often erected to divide it into antagonistic religious blocks. The tales also challenge assumptions about women’s religiosity and identity, and suggest some of the means that early modern Mediterranean women possessed to shape their own lives by traversing the region’s political and religious frontiers.
Read more about Renegade Women at The Johns Hopkins University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue