The Tale of Scheherazade

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In Fatema Mernissi’s book Scheherazade Goes West, the author recounts an old tale of how a young woman saved her kingdom by marrying a King known to kill his wives the day after the wedding, the young woman (Scheherazade) keeping him in her grips through storytelling. “She has a scheme in mind that will prove to be successful: to weave spellbinding stories that will captivate the King, leaving him hungry to hear more-and save her life” (47). Mernissi’s perspective of a womans role in the battle of the sexes stems from the story of Scheherazade, but on a trip to promote her newest book, discovers that Westerners have a different view on the role that a woman has.

Along her journey, Mernissi meets a journalist named Jacques, who offers to show her his favorite paintings of harems. La Grand Odalisque painted by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres is one of Jacques’s favorites.  He explains his interest in this particular painting: “An idle creature of the harem whose feet have never been wrinkled or sullied by use, the odalisque is presumably displayed passively for our delectation” (103), and that is the problem that Mernissi has with the Western view of not only exotic women, but the female sex in general. The Western woman is taught to use her body as ways to manipulate and challenge men, and that essentially women are only supposed to be beautiful, while the tale of Scheherazade insists that a woman must have a brain. Mernissi explains the difference between her view of women and Western Civilizations:”Unlike the Scheherazade in the German book I’d seen earlier, who emphasizes her body, the Oriental Scheherazade is purely cerebral, and that is the essence of her sexual attraction” (39), and instead, “Scheherazade teaches that a woman can effectively rebel by developing her brain, acquiring knowledge, and helping men to shed their narcissistic need for simplified homogeneity” (52).

It is unfortunate for Western women to live in a society that places such high standards on beauty due to the belief that all that women have to offer is their bodies, while men are applauded for their academic achievements. Immense stress is placed upon American women to look beautiful all the time, and upon not succeeding this impossible task, a great unhappiness clouds the ability to look beyond the warped message being constantly delivered. This view also upsets the balance of the relationship between men and women. Mernissi argues that “Communication is vital for achieving pleasure” (40), which I agree with, but would go further to argue that communication between the sexes also leads to stability in the world. Scheherazade brought the King back to a place of reason and out of his prior violence using stories and knowledge, not her body, through which she communicated messages endorsing equality between men and women, a message the Western world should begin to listen to.

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