Gaining Perspective on a Western Harem


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.


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