Admitting the Veil

by

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.

 

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