Coercion to Conversationa


Through reading Scheherazade Goes West, I have discovered that relationships are the most important form of education. The most vibrant and meaningful arena in human life is the relational arena: other people pervade our thoughts, help us make sense of our place in the world, and give our lives meaning. Our lives thrive or wither depending on the state of our relationship to God, to others, and to ourselves. Mernissi opens readers up to a deeper level of life by encouraging readers to stretch themselves beyond pursuing right relationships with those immediately around them to pursuing relationships with those who are usually considered “the other”. By unveiling a Muslim perspective of women, and a Muslim perspective of the Western perspective of women, Mernissi provides a strong case for pursuing dialogue across gender and culture boundaries.

In the first chapter of Mernissi’s book, she writes that “to learn from travel, one must train oneself to capture messages. ‘You must cultivate isti’dad, the stae of readiness'” (3). Mernissi is quickly compelled to cultivate readiness as she discovers differences between her own experience with harems and the Western perception of harems. She writes, “Westerners had their harem and I had mine, and the two had nothing in common” (14). As Mernissi struggles to learn how Westerners view the harem, she models the state of readiness and receiving. She listens to Western men and women with empathy and openness, even when their perspective is shocking to her. By traveling along this journey of understanding with her, I learned the insight that can come from such a state of openness.

As Mernissi better understands the Western harem, she sheds light on ways that my culture has demeaned women and shut out their perspective. As Mernissi watches a ballet of Scheherazade, she writes, “To my surpries, the ballet’s Scheherazade lacked the most powerful erotic weapon a woman has–her nutq, or capacity to think in words and penetrate a man’s brain by using carefully selected terms” (38). In sum, the Western Scheherazade is “skin-deep, cosmetic, and superficial” (74). Mernissi grows surprised at this skin-deep Western conception of sexuality, because it completely ignores an essential feminine feature: the intellect. Mernissi discovers that this conception of sexuality stems from one of the West’s most revered thinkers: Immanuel Kant. “Kant’s ideal woman was speechless.” She writes, “For not only does great knowledge wipe out a woman’s charm, according to Kant, but exhibiting such knowledge kills femininity altogether” (91). Basically, Mernissi discovers that men in Western society have stripped women of dignity for centuries, ignoring their intellect and reducing them to a body and face.

This perspective surprises Mernissi, because while certain Muslims throughout history certainly have repressed women, that repression stems from a recognition that women are a force to be reckoned with, not from a belief that women are mindless trophies. The Muslim description of Scheherazade sharply contrasts the Western view of her as a purely carnal seductress: “Scheherazade has to master three strategic skills:” Mernissi explains, “control over a vast store of information, the ability to clearly grasp the criminal’s mind, and the determination to act in cold blood” (47). In the East, Scheherazade is not only beautiful, but also clever. She’s a woman with a plan and the intellectual capacity to carry out the plan. Mernissi further unveils the Muslim view of women as powerful and intelligent human beings when she discusses Muslim miniatures. These miniatures often painted women in dialogue with men, showing that each sex was equal and capable of contributing in conversation. They also often portrayed women doing things Westerners perceive as masculine, such as hunting tigers. These miniatures reveal a high view of feminine capability in Islam.

Hearing Mernissi’s perspective on the harem, and in that way engaging in dialogue with someone of a different gender and culture, I’ve gained a better perspective on how I believe women should be treated. I believe that all people are made in the image of God, and that in Christ, all people become new creations, capable of new depths of love and creativity and God transforms them. Unfortunately, the church has often ignored women or people they considered as “other”. I believe this is the opposite perspective of Christ. God would have us listen and respect all people, realizing that as we learn from them, we learn about God, about others, and about ourselves. Mernissi’s book has further convinced me of the importance of conversation in discovering more about the world, and about how we can better live as divine children. Mernissi writes, “Civilization will flourish when men learn to have an intimate dialogue with those closest to them, the women who share their beds” (51). I agree with this statement fully, and would extend it. I believe we will flourish more as people the more we have intimate dialogue with those we share all spaces with, from work to school to neighborhoods. Conversation is often the key to flourishing.


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