Isabelle Eberhardt, The Vagabond Who Defies Gender

Isabelle Eberhardt’s odyssey represents a vivid tapestry of such gender fluidity. Born in Geneva on February 17, 1877, Eberhardt emerged as a Swiss explorer and writer, renowned for her North African sojourns and deep immersion in Arab culture. Her life, punctuated by what some termed ‘extravagances,’ challenged the rigid gender constructs of her era.

Klara Buda
Isabelle Eberhardt at 18 Years Old
Paris, le 25 janvier, 2024.

Where Love Alternates with Death (Où l’amour alterne avec la mort), a collection of original, previously unpublished texts by Isabelle Eberhardt, accompanied by the author’s illustrations, has recently been published by ardemment Éditions.

Numerous women worldwide have adopted this way of living ‘as men’ through their initiative and imagination, without adhering to the codes, permissions, and obligations of the Burnesha (Sworn Virgins), women who become men in the Balkans.

The narrative of Isabelle Eberhardt, who frequently adopted masculine roles within the Muslim world—a choice some attribute to the ‘delicate courtesy of the Arabs,’ who respected her wish to live as a man—parallels the experiences of the Burnesha, or Sworn Virgins, in the Balkans. This comparison sheds light on the reluctance of Western society to accept gender fluidity at the onset of the 20th century, and, conversely, illustrates the similar acceptance of gender fluidity by their respective societies at the dawn of the same era.

Globally, numerous women have embarked on a journey of self-definition, transcending traditional gender boundaries by adopting lifestyles that are conventionally attributed to men. This phenomenon, however, diverges significantly from the practices of the Burnesha of the Balkans—women who assume male identities, bound by vows of chastity and societal obligations. These contrasting experiences underscore the fluidity and diversity of gender expressions across cultures.

Isabelle Eberhardt’s odyssey represents a vivid tapestry of such gender fluidity. Born in Geneva on February 17, 1877, Eberhardt emerged as a Swiss explorer and writer, renowned for her North African sojourns and deep immersion in Arab culture. Her life, punctuated by what some termed ‘extravagances,’ challenged the rigid gender constructs of her era.

Relocating to Algeria circa 1897, Eberhardt adopted a male guise, a strategic embodiment that afforded her mobility within the restrictive confines of Arab society for a European woman. Her literary oeuvre delves into the realms of freedom and identity, reflecting her defiance of prevailing societal norms.

Eberhardt’s Algerian chapter was notably shaped by her profound engagement with Sufism, an Islamic mystic tradition, symbolizing her quest for spiritual and existential liberation. Her defiance of colonial societal judgment, which critiqued her gender fluidity, illustrates the interplay between colonialism, gender, and identity. She oscillated between identities—Mahmoud Saadi, Madame Ehnni, Mademoiselle Eberhardt—each a facet of her complex persona.

In her book L’Autre féminin, Sylvie Sesé-Léger, an esteemed psychoanalyst, meticulously examines the intricate narratives of several unique individuals, notably Isabelle Eberhardt. Through an insightful and nuanced lens, Sesé-Léger explores the theme of gender fluidity and identity, particularly the concept of ‘reversibility between man and woman,’ as exemplified by the characters within her study

Isabelle Eberhardt’s journey of gender fluidity is adeptly illustrated by Sesé-Léger, highlighting Eberhardt’s use of both feminine and masculine pseudonyms such as Nicolas Podolinsky, Mahmoud Saâdi, and Isabelle Eberhardt herself. These pseudonyms are not mere literary devices but serve as a testament to Eberhardt’s complex engagement with her own identity. In an act that defied the societal norms of her time, Eberhardt donned male attire to traverse the Sahara and integrated into the Kadriyas, a community exclusively comprising men, thus assimilating as one of their own.

This pursuit was not merely a superficial adoption of the male persona but was deeply rooted in Eberhardt’s quest for knowledge and understanding of her being. In a bold defiance of the rigid gender constructs of colonial society, she reimagined her origin – or, as Sesé-Léger posits, her gender – crafting a new identity within the rich tapestry of Sufi mysticism. Sesé-Léger poignantly notes, “Isabelle forge-t-elle son origine en s’inventant une filiation dans le creuset de la mystique soufie. Je souligne que c’est un fils, Mahmoud, qui est adopté. La fille, Isabelle, demeure innommée, irrémédiablement non reconnue*.” (Thus, Isabelle forges her origin by inventing a lineage in the crucible of Sufi mysticism. I emphasize that it is a son, Mahmoud, who is adopted. The daughter, Isabelle, remains unnamed, irredeemably unrecognized.)**

Slimène, her husband, introduces her to his superiors, who are surprised.“ Voici Isabelle Eberhardt, ma femme, et Mahmoud Saadi mon compagnon [… ] (Here is Isabelle Eberhardt, my wife, and Mahmoud Saadi, my companion [… ])***.

This encapsulates the essence of Eberhardt’s transcendence beyond conventional gender roles in her relentless pursuit of self-discovery and existential authenticity.

Eberhardt’s lifestyle was marked by extremes, as a confidant noted: excessive drinking, kief consumption, and a nonconformist approach to sexuality that defied heteronormative expectations. This aspect of her life, among others, invites a nuanced understanding of her character within queer studies.

The Arab community’s response to Eberhardt’s lifestyle has been a focal point of biographical discourse. Some posit that their respectful acknowledgment of her male identity stemmed from a cultural ethos of delicate courtesy, illuminating the cultural interstices of gender identity and societal norms.

Thus, Isabelle Eberhardt’s narrative transcends mere personal adventure, offering a lens into the intricate socio-cultural dynamics of her epoch, interweaving gender, identity, and colonialism.

Eberhardt’s literary journey

According to the Paris Review of Books, Eberhardt’s literary journey began with Vagabond as a serialized story in Al-Akhbar in 1903, but she often filed installments late, or not at all. Her work appeared in book form only posthumously, with several collections of stories and reflections published to critical acclaim in the years after her death. Vagabond made its debut as a novel in France in 1922; in 1988 the Hogarth Press put out Kobak’s English translation, now out of print. Two anthologies, The Oblivion Seekers and In the Shadow of Islam, are currently available from the independent British press Peter Owen. These writings, which foreground the lives and experiences of North Africans, have established Eberhardt as a vital early critic of imperial rule. Her perspective, according to the Tunisian scholar Hédi A. Jaouad, “may have inaugurated the theme of decolonization in the Maghreb, for it expounded a theory of sociology and oppression whose theorists and critics would later include, among Francophone writers, the Martinican Frantz Fanon and the Tunisian Albert Memmi.”

*Born to an illegitimate father, she was marginalized by traditional Swiss society.

** Sesé-Léger, Sylvie , L’Autre féminin, Campagne Première, Paris, 2008, p. 138.

*** Sesé-Léger, Sylvie , L’Autre féminin, Campagne Première, Paris, 2008, p. 139.


  • Eberhardt, Isabelle. Où l’amour alterne avec la mort (Where Love Alternates with Death), Original and Unpublished Texts, ardemment Éditions, les ardentes Collection, Paris, 2024.
  • Sesé-Léger, Sylvie , L’Autre féminin, Campagne Première, Paris, 2008.

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