Free Within a Harem

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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.

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