Different Cultures, Different Harems


In Chapter 7 of her book Sheherazade Goes West, Fatema Mernissi writes that “To veil on the Muslim side of the Mediterranean is to dress as the ruling Imam demands. To be considered beautiful on the European side of the Mediterranean is to dress as the market-Imam commands” [p. 114]. This comparison of the socio-cultural boundaries that 21st Century women are forced to live within is striking on many levels. Rarely would a Westerner consider popular culture’s obsession with physical beauty a restraint put upon them by an external force. It is common to hear Americans boast that they live in a “free country” where they are allowed to say what they want, wear what they want and do what they want. Yet when social constraints are lacking because of the absence of a tyrannical government, they are quickly replaced by constraints that a culture puts on itself.

Mernissi believes this constraint manifests itself in Western culture through Immanuel Kant’s idea of femininity as the beautiful and masculinity as the sublime. Kant believed that the “capacity to think [and] to rise higher than the animal and the physical world” [p. 91] was a strictly masculine phenomenon. While women in the West, unlike their Middle Eastern or Arabic counterparts, are not forced to abide by a dress code established by a political figure, they conform to their culture’s idea of what is beautiful and what is not or risk the loss of their femininity.

This passage begged the question of which harem was worse to live under: one in which constraints are set by the reigning political regime or one in which feminine identity is forever connected with outward appearance? From reading Sheherazade Goes West, there is a sense that women living in nations where a strict adherence to the state dress code is required understand and are conscious of the constraints put upon them. Because of its prevailing rhetoric of freedom and liberty, I am not sure if this same consciousness exists within Western culture.



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