The Divide Is NOT so Great

by

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”.

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