Beauty is the Beast: Women in a Western Harem

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           In less than one week I will be in the air on my way to Spain and Morocco. I can not believe that this trip is finally about to happen. Though I have been to other parts of the world such as Norway, England, Mexico, Argentina, and Thailand, I feel as though this trip (especially the two weeks in Morocco) will be one of the biggest culture shocks that I will have ever encountered in my life (so far). I have been raised in a Western culture with only a few instances of seeing a different way of life. I am excited to submerge myself into a different culture but with this also comes many anxieties and fears. One way that I was able to understand the culture that I am about to go into is by reading Scheherazade Goes West by Fatema Mernissi. This book discussed the differences and misconceptions that the West had about the East and visa versa.

          Scheherazade Goes West primarily focuses on the true Eastern harem compared to the false views in which many Westerner’s see the harem. She looks at the history of the tales of Scheherazade in The One Thousand and One Nights as well as its flawed translations for the Western and Christian public. She also looks at other cultural influences in the West such as ballet, fashion, and artists which depicted the East and its harems as foreign and erotic lands where men imprisoned women for their own sexual pleasure and which are still stuck in the past. She looks at many paintings by French artists such as Turkish Bath by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres which depicts many nude odalisques (slave women in a harem) relaxing sensually in a bath. This is almost comical for Mernissi who knows that this sort of sensuality would never be found in a Muslim bath house. These women are frozen in this false Eastern Harem for all time. However, she makes an interesting observation in the last chapter of her book: Western women are frozen in their own, equally captive, harem.

             When Fatema is shopping for a skirt in New York City, she is humiliated when she is told that she is simply too big to find any clothes in the particular department store she was shopping at. She is used to making her own clothes back home in Morocco and confesses that she doesn’t even know what size she is. The clerk goes on to explain that sizes 4 and 6 are the norm and that she needed a 14 or 16. Mernissi then notices that the clerk is in her late 50’s (the same age as herself) but looks more like a teenager to due her thin physique, stylish clothes, and excessive amount of makeup. She then comes to the realization that men in the East use space to trap women whereas men in the West uses time to trap women. In the East, men exclude women from the public area to show their dominance whereas Western men create difficult standards of beauty to exclude women. The clerk, though she was in her upper fifties, looked like she was in her teens or twenties due to the fact that she was required to be a size 6 or lower to keep her job. When the ideal image of beauty is thin and young, it causes mature and heavy-set women to be cast out. She concludes that the youthful view of beauty in the West is similar to the extremist Muslim countries such as Iran, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia who force women to veil. Though both of these systems restrict women, she personally feels that telling women that being size 6 is the only way they will be seen as beautiful is more restrictive than forcing women to veil in public. One of her final thoughts is what it would be like if these extreme countries switched from forcing women to veil to forcing women to stay a size 6 or under and she thanks Allah for not letting her live in the “tyranny of the ‘size 6 harem'” (219).

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One Response to “Beauty is the Beast: Women in a Western Harem”

  1. shelbwest Says:

    “Beauty is the Beast”… I like it.

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