The Western Harem

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I found Fatema Mernissi’s book Scheherazade Goes West fascinating because I learned dozens of new things from her comparison of feminist beauty in the East and the West.  The most significant piece of information I took from her work was simply how little we really know about cultures outside our own until we take the time to study it and immerse ourselves in it. Scheherazade Goes West made me feel truly blessed to have the opportunity to travel to Morocco, especially because Mernissi placed such a strong emphasis on travel and learning from foreigners. Mernissi states “travel helps you to figure out who you are and how your own culture controls you” (91). I discovered numerous ways that my culture has controlled me, creating false truths about the East, simply from reading Scheherazade Goes West. Therefore, I cannot wait to discover the reality of Eastern culture through experiencing Morocco first hand.

Beyond realizing and accepting how very little I know about culture in the East, Mernissi’s book shed new light onto how Western women have also been forced into a sort of harem by men and “the male gaze.” Before examining the ideas and evidence in Scheherazade Goes West I believed that all men, regardless of their global location, objectified women for the same reasons. However, Mernissi points out that “the second distinctive feature of the Western harem: Intellectual exchange with women is an obstacle to erotic pleasure” (26). This concept is repeated through Western artwork as well, which display vulnerable and passive harem women. Jacques tells Mernissi, “In my harem, I prefer my women to be totally nude, just like Ingres’s Grande Odalisque…Nude and silent—these are the two key qualities of my harem women” (106).  Mernissi acknowledges that harem paintings in the East depict a much different type of women.

Similarly to their miniature paintings, the tales of famous Eastern women describe strong, active and intelligent women. In fact these women, such as Tawaddud, rely on their intelligence and are praised by men for it; unlike women in the West, where men seem to want a women “with a paralyzed brain” (95). Mernissi quotes Kant’s words on educated women, “Laborious learning, even if a woman should greatly succeed in it, destroys the merits that are proper to her sex, and because of their rarity they can make her an object of cold admiration; but at the same time they will weaken the charms with which she exercises her great power over the other sex” (90). Kant’s ideas, which reflects the views of the Western world about femininity force women to choose between being beautiful and intelligent.

Through her interaction with Western men and culture, Mernissi discovers that men in the East are attracted to an entirely different type of woman than men in the West (generally speaking). Men in the East trap women in harems because they realize that they are intelligent and potentially dangerous; these men are aware that the women are capable of disturbing the culture and economy. However, it seems that in the West men desire a women who is somewhat brainless. They have created a particular image of what makes a woman beautiful, and intelligence is not a part of that image. Mernissi concludes that men in both cultures, the East and the West, have trapped women in harems, so to speak, but in different ways and for different reason.

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I thoroughly enjoyed how Mernissi concluded her work by retelling her shopping experience in New York City. As a Western woman, I’m used to being told that to be beautiful is to be thin. But it never really occurred to me that physical beauty is of less importance in other parts of the world, because it is so essential in the world I’ve grown up in. Before going shopping in New York, Mernissi wasn’t aware that she wasn’t the ideal size, or that her weight could make her less attractive to people. She told the saleswomen, “I come from a country where there is no size for women’s clothes” (212). But here in the West, women are more than aware of their size and weight everyday. I thought to myself that it must be very freeing not to have to worry about what size of clothing you wear, not having to spend hundreds of dollars on make-up, and not feeling that it is necessary to spend most of the morning trying to make yourself look appealing. While I feel that our society has moved past Kant’s idea, that the idea women is silent and uneducated, I do see how Western women are still forced to subscribe to certain ideas of what makes them beautiful. Mernissi says it perfectly, “the threat [her words] implied was so cruel that I realized for the first time that maybe ‘size 6’ is a more violent restriction imposed on women than is the Muslim veil” (213). In some respects, women in the East are freer than women in the West because the male gaze has put Western women in an invisible harem, without physical barriers but nevertheless very oppressive.

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