Archive for August, 2013

Gaining Perspective on a Western Harem

August 31, 2013

In Scheherazade goes west, Fatema Mernissi has an interesting and enlightening argument about why the Western Harem and the Eastern Harem are on completely different spectrums. She brings to light a lot of history that tells of stories that prove why the west has such a different view than that of the East. The underlining title of the book, different cultures, different worlds, explains very well why the viewpoints of the western harem is different from the eastern, and that is because they grew up with completely different philosophers, religions, and cultural understandings.

While reading this book we are exposed to many different perspectives. When Fatema Mernissi is handed a book written by Immanuel Kant, she learns about the westerns philosophies and how some of them view women. “What a terrible choice Kant’s woman has to face, I thought-beauty or intelligence. It is as cruel a choice as the fundamentalists’ threat: veiled and safe, or unveiled and assaulted.” (Mernissi, 90). This is something that Mernissi took from reading only the first part of Kant’s book. She had one perspective on the way that western cultures viewed their women and it came from Kant. Reading this and understanding that those words are coming from some of the West’s biggest philosophical and cultural influencers, was a tragic realization that the way we view ourselves as women and the way other westernized men view us, is much different than that of the East, and in some ways very demeaning. In Kant’s Harem, ideally he would have women who would not be able to speak let alone think a profound thought. He would see their beauty as the only thing that could possibly attract him and other men and see intelligence as that of something completely unattractive. Although the way that Western men picture a beautiful woman and the way that the Eastern men picture a beautiful woman are very different, there are definite relations that Eastern women and Western women can feel towards one another by understanding the harsh reality that men are suppressing women in ways we did not even realize.

Reading Mernissi gives women an understanding as to why they feel the way they do by men and where that history came from in part, whether you are looking at women from the East or women from the West. Mernissi goes to show this by saying, “Isn’t it strange, I thought upon reading this, that in the medieval Orient, depots like Harun Ar-Rachid appreciated defiantly intelligent slave girls, while in enlightened eighteenth century Europe, philosophers like Kant dreamt of silent women!” (Mernissi, 94). We see the different hearts of men in the East and men in the West. What a rude awakening it is to find that our intelligence is being undermined and our beauty critiqued.

Understanding that beauty can mean two very different things if you just cross an ocean or two was mind blowing while reading this one and only book. It makes you question the actual substance of being a woman and having a mind that is powerful and useful yet, not necessarily knowing how to use it. Is this one of the major reasons that women in the West are that much different from women in the East? Do we really have such a diverse history and knowledge of each other that it makes us goes back to our early thinkers to try and understand where the thoughts originated? Because of all this diversity, is it harder for Western woman and Eastern women to relate to each other? There has to be a sense of misunderstanding as Mernissi has previously mentioned, not by saying those words but by the way that we view her opinion about the West and the way that we think. Mernissi makes a valid argument that the reason Western Harem’s are so different than Eastern Harems is because of the history behind both cultures, which goes all the way back to early philosophers such as Immanuel Kant. But is her research enough to change the minds of those that study it? Is it enough to make assumptions and pretend to understand the entanglement and the corrupt structure of how women are treated? Continuing to learn and study about these issues is something that many if not most women should be interested in.


Admitting the Veil

August 31, 2013

Reading Scheherazade Goes West this summer has been enormously eye opening and difficult for me. I say difficult because I have been taught to live under the Western “veil” for my entire life. I don’t know what life without these fortifications looks like.

The story of Scheherazade is simply heroic and stunning. When I read about the way Western writers and entertainers tweaked the story, making Scheherazade merely a sex object, a brainless belly dancer, I felt nauseated. I felt this way because Scheherazade is stripped of her glorious worth, bravery and brain, but also because I knew Mernissi was exactly right in saying that Western culture is solely interested in adventure and sex. I can think of probably a hundred movies where a man is on a dangerous adventure or quest and along the way gets to have sex with one or more attractive women. When Scheherazade goes west, she loses her status as a queen. She loses all of her power. In the west, she shuts her mouth and conforms to the brainless fantasies of Western men. Mernissi’s claims about Western culture are so arduous for me because I want to be like Scheherazade. I want so desperately to be valued for my character, my intellect and my creativity but I know that I have to still play by the rules of Western society in order to have value, or be taken seriously.

My friends and I are very youthful, thin, beautiful girls, but this summer we have all been dieting, tanning, whitening our teeth, coloring our hair, shopping, waking up early to go to the gym and engaging in countless other tedious tasks in order to—in order to what? I’ve been doing all of these things since I went through puberty, but I have never really questioned my motives, and I have never realized how oppressing it is to be a young woman in Western society.

At first while reading this book, I disagreed with most of Mernissi’s claims. Stubbornly, I refused to believe that I am oppressed by the men in my culture. I know that not all men are looking for a woman who is brainless and childlike, but if I look at what Western society values in a woman, it is beauty. We are told that men don’t notice you if you are not beautiful, and that it does not really matter if you have a brain or not. If you have a brain, it is considered as a slight bonus. Women go to extremes in order to be considered beautiful. I have friends who have suffered life threatening eating disorders, I have friends who have gotten boob jobs and nose jobs for their birthday, and for some reason this doesn’t shock me like it should. After reading the chapter “Size 6: The Western Women’s Harem,” all I could think about was my mother. My mother is Mernissi and the woman in the American department store’s age, mid-late 50’s. Mernissi observes that in order to be considered beautiful in Western culture you essentially need to look like a 14-year-old girl. This is condemning to older more mature women because they will always be fighting to get back to this ideal when men “freeze female beauty within an idealized childhood” (pg. 214). It makes sense why my beautiful mother struggles so much with trying to look young and is always trying to lose weight. She’s been doing it her whole life. This unending struggle is unintentionally passed on through generations of women. Perhaps this is why Western women don’t realize that they are being robbed, because they don’t know any better.

Reading Scheherazade Goes West has shifted my perspective on the way I view myself and the way I view the important women in my life. Through Fatema Mernissi we have an outsiders opinion on the lifestyle and culture Western women consider the norm—a norm that we didn’t create for ourselves. The more she explored the injustices in my daily life as an American woman, the more odd and skewed it all appeared. Even though our lifestyles and freedoms differ, we, as women, are all very much the same. Perhaps if we stopped pointing fingers and gawking at other cultures we would be able to see ourselves more clearly.


Us and Them: a Closer Look at What it Means to be in a Harem

August 31, 2013

Fatema Mernissi’s book Sheherazade Goes West addresses the misconceptions westerners have of the harem, defining it in a way that all cultures can identify with a form of a harem.  She presents this idea through her own stories and investigation—opening up herself to westerners, trying to understand the intrigue the harem has for the West.

Struggling to comprehend the West’s celebration of the harem through admiration and elevation, Mernissi shares the true meaning of the harem in her culture.  A friend of Mernissi’s describes a harem: “Only desperately fragile men who are convinced that women have wings could create such a drastic thing as the harem, a prison that presents itself as a palace” (8).  Thus, Mernissi describes a harem that is a prison, keeping in women because the men are afraid of not having power over them.  In this view the women are “active participants, while Westerners such as Matisse, Ingres, and Picasso show [women] as nude and passive” (15).  The harem was created because men were afraid of women’s power, not because the women were passive and willing to offer their bodies loosely to men.

Though these women are imprisoned, they are powerful, Mernissi argues.  Women of harems use skills and knowledge to get the attention of their harem master.  These women are reduced to slaves and it seems the only way up is through education and artistry.  The westerner’s view of an odalisque though is women using their bodies as a way of control.  “The Oriental Scheherazade is purely cerebral, and that is the essence of her sexual attraction” (39), Mernissi argues, uncovering a vast gap between the West and the East’s understanding of a harem.  “Even when Scheherazade chooses to speak in the register of pornography, she has a political message to convey” (64).  The true understanding of these women is not as sexual objects, but as politicians and advocates speaking in a way they will be heard.

As Mernissi’s understanding of the West’s view of the harem, she began to notice, “[western] men rely more on fashion to establish their distance from women, and more consciously emphasize their power through clothing” (106).  There is a façade of equality in the West, and “the image of beauty in the West can hurt and humiliate a woman as much as the veil does when enforced” (208).   Veils and the confines of a harem entrap some women, while others are suffocated by the ideal image of beauty—fitting into a size 6 as Mernissi points out.  Men dictate this ideal image causing women to fear ugliness and inadequacy.   Finally, Mernissi insightfully points out, “Being frozen into the passive position of an object whose very existence depends on the eye of its beholder turns the educated modern Western woman into a harem slave” (219).  The Western women are not openly slaves to men, but are defined by their image, evaluated or devaluated, causing them to become nothing more than an object for men to gaze upon.

The Divide Is NOT so Great

August 29, 2013

In the book Scheherazade Goes West by, Fatema Mernissi she writes of the many cultural differences between the East and the West specifically talking about her experience growing up in a harem and what a harem means to different cultures across the world. Through interviewing numerous groups of individuals from different parts of the world when the word “harem” was presented in the conversation she observed emotions such as guilt, shame, and even excitement with the laughter brought upon by men from the west. In the Muslim culture Mernissi sees the harem as a prison for females, trying to fight back and seek their freedom, with a sense of drive for independence of a Muslim woman living within a harem.  “The very origin of the Arabic word “haram,” from which the word “harem” is derived,, literally refers to sin, the dangerous frontier where sacred law and pleasure collide”. Westerners see harems as “a wonderful place where beautiful woman are sexually available”. Mernissi of course explains how it is not a wonderful place but yet a prison for the powerful uncontrollable Muslim woman whom the Muslim men are afraid of.

“The Westerners were interested in only two things: adventure and sex”. The West’s fascination of pornography alters their view of harems as being a fantasy for the male figure. Pornography takes away all emotion and feelings by placing complete sexual power and control in the male figure silencing the woman. When hearing the word harem, “immediate smiles of western, male journalist” disgusted Mernissi. The West has a false perception of harems and the woman within them. In the East woman rebel and go against sexual interaction as opposed to being free sex objects without a brain as the West views harems.

Mernissi through showing the cultural differences also shows the societal expectations amongst the different cultures and how the West has their own version of a harem. Mernissa tells of the time she was shopping in New York at a department store when the woman working informed her that they had nothing her size and the ideal size for a woman is a size 6. The woman goes on to tell her how some woman could loose their job if they gain weight and how she is always dieting. “To be beautiful, woman has to appear childish and brainless. When a woman looks mature and self-assertive, or allows her hips to expand, she is condemned as ugly. The Western ideal for a woman is to look like a teenager; this ideal body image forms a cultural harem amongst the woman by men. These women are trapped behind expectations of what are “beautiful” and the expectation to have a petite appealing body size. In Muslim harems Mernissi argues woman potentially have more freedom to seek independence because they are not expected to meet certain physical standards. Muslim woman imprisoned by harems have the ability to seek freedom as opposed to the woman in the West who are culturally expected to look a certain way to be accepted by all. “The Western man uses images and spotlights to freeze female beauty within an idealized childhood, and forces woman to perceive aging-that normal unfolding of the years-as a shameful devaluation”.

Free Within a Harem

August 24, 2013

In the book Scheherazade Goes West, author Fatema Mernissi examines many cultural differences between the Western World and the world of Islam in regards to harems. To those in Western culture, the harem is “a wonderful place where beautiful women are sexually available.” However, from a Muslim perspective, a harem is a prison for the female, prompting them to fight back and seek freedom from the harem. For a woman, the fierce independence that is fostered within the context of a harem creates a reality that is quite dissimilar from Western expectations. The crux of these differences rests in the fact that “Islam, both as a legal and a cultural system, is imbued with the idea that the feminine is an uncontrollable power—and therefore the unknowable ‘other’”.

Due to the fact that in actual harem culture women are expected to fight back against their circumstances, the entire context of the harem takes on new meaning. In rebelling, women become active contributors in their sexual interactions with men. In Western culture, in removing this struggle of the woman, the entire affair becomes a one-sided subjugation of the woman. This view is undoubtedly connected to the obsession of pornography in the Western world. Pornography reduces sexual interactions to mere conquests of a carnal nature, altogether negating the impact of choice on behalf of the female. This viewpoint is what likely impacted what Mernissi describes as the “immediate smiles of Western, male journalists upon hearing the word harem”. When one intentionally studies the role of harems in Islamic societies, the palace of sexual paradise for male enjoyment, instead becomes a source of empowerment for the women involved.

The disparities between cultural harems further stems from the varying societal expectations about the female body between Western and Islamic culture. Mernissi describes an experience shopping for clothes in which the saleswoman implied the ideal figure for a woman was a size 6, much smaller than Mernissi’s own size. The Western ideal of mature women having the figure of a teenager is something that Mernissi argues actually forms a cultural harem for Western women. Instead of having literal walls, these women are trapped behind expectations and the necessity of maintaining a small and appealing body size. In a Muslim harem, where walls might more physically restrict women, females are in actuality more free to seek independence, since they are not saddled with unfair bodily standards. In a society that is typically viewed as being oppressive to women by the Western world, Mernissi makes a compelling argument that a Muslim woman is essentially more liberated than a Western woman, due to the innate differences between societal harems. The physical harems of the Muslim world provide an opportunity for the emotional and personal emancipation of a woman, in a way that far exceeds the freedom experienced by a Western woman, burdened by cultural expectations.

Sept 1, 2013 Due Date for Scheherazade Goes West Blogs

August 23, 2013

Reminder: Blog entries for Mernissi’s book are due soon!