The Hammam


I once watched a film called The Wedding Song about a Jewish girl and Muslim girl who were best friends living in Tunisia during World War II. In one scene the girls are at a bath house for women, and at the time I saw the movie I thought the idea of a bath house was weird and uncomfortable and was glad we didn’t have that in the west. Of course, the first week of the trip our professor announces that we will be visiting a Hammam, which is a traditional bath house in Muslim cultures still readily used today.

One author that was introduced to us through the class is Fatema Mernissi, a Moroccan feminist writer who argues that Western women are trapped in time. The philosophy of German philosopher Immanuel Kant is one of segregated gender roles -men being reason and women emotion, and that women are supposed to be passive and beautiful (as opposed to the arabic word Wasat which means the balance between reason and emotion), thus beginning a an image of the ideal women as lacking intelligence and strength. This image of a youthful woman is what Mernissi means by being trapped in time. There is great anxiety about the way women look at themselves, because for women it is a constant struggle to always appear perfect and young, and the idea that beauty is outward and limited to a specific time and age is detrimental to self esteem.

There are Hammams in every neighborhood and district, and many go once or twice a week to this bathhouse. You enter one room to get your bucket and stow away your things, and in the next room is the washing area. It is like a sauna and there are faucets all around the room to fill the bucket up with water. Ladies sit around with scrubbers to scrub others down (I’ve never felt so clean in my life after that… they literally scrubbed the dirt off me). There was a new kind of freedom for me in the Hammam. Everybody was stripped of whatever was making up their outward beauty: makeup, clothing, hairstyle, etc. And even though we were all naked (yes, thats right), I wasn’t comparing myself or feeling the anxiety of my body and what I look like. I felt the chains of the oppression of Western beauty ideals melt away.



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